Over the weekend, a new feature film, "The Miracle Club," hit theaters. The star-studded movie, featuring Maggie Smith, Kathy Bates and Laura Linney, takes place in 1960s Ireland and follows the story of several generations of women as they take a pilgrimage to Lourdes in search of healing at the site where Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous.
Most of the women go on the pilgrimage in search of physical healing, allegedly found in the baths at Lourdes, which are filled with miraculous spring water. However, Bates’ character discovers only after stepping into the freezing cold healing baths, that only 62 medical miracles have occurred at the site since Our Lady first appeared in 1858. (The number is now 70, and millions of pilgrims visit the site every year). While this moment of reckoning briefly shakes her faith as her idea of people stepping up out of wheelchairs and throwing crutches aside is crushed, it’s ultimately the miracles unseen and the seeds planted from the visit for emotional and spiritual healing that make the story hopeful.
Films with Catholic themes have been hitting theaters more frequently, it seems — Shia LaBeouf played Padre Pio in the titular film last year; "The Chosen" has become extremely popular among Christians and non-Christians alike; and "Father Stu" featured Catholic actor Mark Wahlberg. Not since the midcentury have Catholic films been so in the mainstream, when Bing Crosby crooned as a priest on film and Jennifer Jones played an earnest, wide-eyed Bernadette in the 1943 movie, "The Song of Bernadette."
In my memory, the Catholic films of my youth were overdone and overacted — my schoolmates and I would make fun of them, and it’s unlikely that a non-Catholic crowd would have been drawn into the theater, enticed by what often were low-budget films with unknown actors.
While the motives for these films were good — they often employed Catholic and Christian actors and were funded by Catholic companies — looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine that the target demographic for these movies was anyone but a born and raised, Sunday-church-going Catholic like myself.
It is hard to watch faith play out on screen and in real life as a melodrama, so when a refreshingly normal, mainstream film tackles Catholicism, it’s a given that I will recommend it to everyone I know, Catholic or not.
“The Miracle Club” is a genuine opportunity for evangelization: the story will resonate with those of us who grew up with the simple, straightforward faith of our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents. (While mostly Italian, I saw my Irish family elders in the women of "The Miracle Club"). But more so than the storyline itself, the use of a star-studded cast, the high production quality and the use of nostalgia, humor and simple faith (not to mention the draw of a movie that clocks in at only an hour and a half), are evangelistic themselves.
In 2016, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, addressed the need for the Gospel to permeate every aspect of culture and for the lay faithful to be the ones to carry this message:
"The special calling and privilege of the lay faithful is to bring Christ into the secular world. 'Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ.' Their role is to transform every aspect of the culture through the Gospel — family life, education, government, business, the media, entertainment, sports, science, the arts. They do so both by 'engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God' and by 'revealing Christ by word to those around them.'”
The document calls for a bolder unleashing of the Gospel in a world where the majority of people identify as “religiously unaffiliated.” Ireland, where "The Miracle Club" takes place, was considered 94.9% Catholic and has since dropped to 45.7% percent.
While troubles have always existed in the Church, it can feel like there are more than ever before, and it can be easy to want to double down, put up walls and reinforce faith and belief in the safety of our Church among our fellow Catholics.
However, a Catholic permeation into all aspects of culture isn’t for those of us who are already sitting in the pews — it is for the people who are questioning, searching, who may have left and are tentatively considering a return, which is why films like "The Miracle Club," staging those ladies from "Downton Abbey," "Ozark," and "Misery," are so worth putting our weight behind.
Good media that actually reaches a wide audience of people has the ability to unleash the Gospel, especially in a society where so many people are starving for a message of hope.
Gabriella Patti is a staff reporter for Detroit Catholic.