The new film “Father Stu” tells the true story of Stuart Long, a troubled man who, after a series of misfortunes and profound suffering in his life, was ordained a Catholic priest in 2007. Mark Wahlberg’s portrayal of Long depicts a man who must finally put down his fists to accept God’s grace and be received into the priesthood.
Early in his career, Stuart won the Golden Gloves award in boxing in Montana. We are treated to a series of bouts, illustrating that while some refer to boxing as “the sweet science,” the dull thud of the blows surely leaves their mark on the brain and the body.
Stuart involuntarily arrives at the end of his pugilist career when a doctor informs him that his body is no longer healing appropriately. But boxing for Stuart goes beyond the sport itself, it is the substance of his life, his way of encountering the world. We quickly learn why.
His younger brother, Steve, died at the age of five. Bill, his divorced father, Bill–played by Mel Gibson–is an alcoholic. He has not exactly been a source of love and encouragement to Stuart. Later in the film, Bill confesses at his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that he tore down everything his son loved, including himself as a father.
Consequently, Stuart’s fighting—in and out of the ring—became a logical response to these events. There is an honesty and a brutality in Stuart’s character. He wants to settle accounts with everyone, immediately. Lost and reeling after his boxing career ends, a drunk Stuart visits his brother’s grave. He has never come to terms with his brother’s death. Neither have his parents.
A statue of Christ overlooks the graveyard, with the Messiah pointing to his heart, a sign that the dead are not forgotten, nor those who mourn them. But Stuart stares at the statue in disbelief. He punches Christ’s heart, leaving his hand bloodied.
Stuart then arrives in Los Angeles, convinced that he should become an actor. He gives it everything, even making a commercial for “Marvelous Mops.” But his real break isn’t in acting. Instead, it happens in the grocery store. While working in the deli, Stuart spots Carmen, played by Teresa Ruiz, and quickly falls for her. He wants this account settled in his favor. She, however, finds him annoying, and walks away from his advances.
Carmen is Catholic and an evangelist. She leaves behind an invitation to her parish at the supermarket. Stuart, of course, finds himself in church for the first time.
He is wildly out of place inside the parish, struggling to understand what the people are doing at Mass. The source of his bemusement is that these people believe that God sees them, hears them, welcomes them. Stuart is sure of the opposite. Even so, he returns to the parish, in pursuit of Carmen and eventually God.
He promises her to become a baptized Catholic for the opportunity to date her. At his Rite of Initiation, he is asked what he seeks from the Catholic Church. He responds, “Something beyond my wildest dreams.” And that is what he receives. The turmoil with his father, unsteady work, and lack of self-control continues to roil his life. He drinks too much on too many occasions, and even gets a DUI. And then it happens.
Leaving the bar intoxicated, Stuart drives home on his motorbike and smashes into a car, which throws him, and then he’s run over by another car. He’s visited by an angel on the street in his near-death condition. She kisses his badly wounded head, and tells him, “He died for you, for Steve.”
Stuart goes into a coma and in somewhat miraculous fashion lives, even though physicians believed he would die. Carmen, now his deeply caring girlfriend, prays for him in the hospital.
Stuart’s physical and spiritual healing from this disaster pushes him to profound conversion. At the bar on the night of the accident, a hard-drinking Stuart had been greeted unawares by another angel, who told him, “You’ll have many reasons to be angry, but you only need one to be grateful.”
His friend, Ham, during this period, offers fitting words: “God saw something in you worth saving, what do you have to offer?” So it comes to pass that a fighting, loud-mouthed, angry man with something of a drinking problem decides to become a priest.
So far, the film portrays Stuart as the rather low and tragic figure who can’t do much of anything right. Carmen, at this point in love with him, takes the news of his supposed vocation to the priesthood rather hard. She mocks him, but it’s understandable because she thought he was about to propose to her. Their relationship having become carnal, a certain anger flashes from her, “I disgraced myself before God, so you could have another flight of fancy.”
Some have criticized the film for playing too loose with the facts. How are we to believe that a bruiser like Stuart would be granted admission to seminary? The real Stuart had a college degree, taught Catholic high school, and had worked in management in a museum. But our Stu struggles to put together complete sentences without an F-word laden patois.
Of course, this is where the film’s redemptive narrative blooms. The rector, played by Malcolm McDowell, initially denies him admission stating, “You are a pugilist with a criminal record.” Stuart says, “What the church needs is someone who will fight for God.” Stuart’s zeal and strength are undeniable, so the rector gambles on his success.
The prodigal son in seminary also meets another seminarian, Jacob, played by Cody Fern, who is aloof from the other men. He tells Stu, “No one wants to hear the Gospel from the mouth of a gangster.” Stuart’s early spiritual reflections are basic, but offered by one who knows what it means to be forgiven. His words have the power to heal, they are sword-like in delivery.
His formation is cut short by the onset of a degenerative muscle disease that will slowly kill him. In real life, Father Stu died seven years after diagnosis. Stuart screams at God in the church, “You love me, but do you want me?” The proud fighter, full of muscle and strength, begins to fall apart. And the film then passionately demonstrates one of the best answers to the perennial question, why does evil exist?
Suffering brings us closer to God and to one another, it becomes the occasion for love. The seminarians begin aiding Stuart around campus, the cafeteria, and Mass. Jacob seems unable to offer empathy. He almost embarrasses himself in prison ministry as he is unable to sympathize with their plight. In a room full of convicts, many of them Latino and black, he notes their “dark sin.”
Stuart tells them the truth: “You get one phone call. Who you gonna call? Your old lady is probably with another man. Your kid would get more sympathy if you were dead. But you don’t need a phone to talk to God. And God isn’t giving up on you.”
Stuart’s father finally returns to him, as Bill undergoes his own conversion. He tells Stuart that he has gone straight to God for forgiveness and healing. Stuart’s mother, played by Jacki Weaver, has uttered embittered lines at God and Mary throughout the film. She, too, softens towards the inexplicable, accepting Stuart’s counsel about the meaning of suffering.
Stuart received God’s grace on terms he did not choose, much like Christ’s counsel to Peter upon his conversion after denying Christ, “When you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.”
Ham’s question to Stuart, “What do you have to offer?” gets answered by Stuart after he is ordained. In the film’s end, Stuart receives many in the confessional, as the line for him to hear their confession stretches from his hospice room to the sidewalk. Jacob returns to Father Stuart, and we learn what has driven him to his condition: His own father forced the priesthood on him, and he never had the strength to say no. Yet, he says to Father Stu, they tried to take it from you, and you wouldn’t let them. He found that incredible. The seminarian leaves it at that.
I think Father Stu’s example may have persuaded the young priest about why the priesthood was worth it after all. The film may leave another lesson for the Church regarding young men and holy orders. The Catholic Church finds itself in stasis or decline throughout the modern West. Many of its problems are self-imposed, including a deadening complacency in much of the hierarchy. There are pockets of revival and resurgence, though. The issue needs to be raised before young Catholic men.
The priesthood is a noble crusade that demands the full devotion of your manhood joined to faith. We should call it the Father Stu way. And might the seminaries be full, again.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal