Best Movie Priests and Priests in Films: Models of Faith and Humanity

Best Movie Priests article by Sr. Rose Pacatte, St. Anthony Messenger, June 2010

Priests in Films: Models of Faith and Humanity

CINCINNATI—When Pope Benedict XVI announced the Year for Priests last June, he wanted it “to deepen the commitment of all priests to interior renewal for the sake of a stronger and more incisive witness to the Gospel in today’s world.” His announcement inspired lists of favorite priest films or priest characters posted on various blogs. An informal poll sent out via the Internet by Sister Rose Pacatte, F.S.P., film reviewer for St. Anthony Messenger, revealed that people have strong opinions about their favorite movie priests.

Sister Rose’s analysis of priests in films is the subject of an article entitled “The Best Movie Priests” for the June issue of St. Anthony Messenger. It is featured alongside two other articles—“Father Don Archambault: Uniting People for God,” by Marylynn G. Hewitt, S.F.O., and “Our Fathers: Reflections on Beloved Priests,” by Assistant Editor Christopher Heffron—for a special section commemorating the end of the Year for Priests. After May 20, Sister Rose’s article, which includes sidebars by Rev. Scott D. Young and Rev. Peter Malone, M.S.H., will be posted at:

Among those who responded to her poll, the representation of the priest they most admire is one who is realistic and down-to-earth, self-sacrificing and prayerful. The film that was named most often as a favorite priest film is 1981’s True Confessions, starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall, about loving but sparring brothers—one a detective and the other a priest.

On the Waterfront, a 1954 classic, is a favorite on almost every list of cinema priests. Maggie Hall, a free-lance writer from Florida, writes: “If I had to pick only one film priest who really impressed me, it would be Karl Malden’s Father Barry in On the Waterfront. His sermon in the hatch always moves me to tears. I’ve often wished I could attend Mass and hear a sermon from a Father Barry who was passionate about social justice.”

Sister Rose lists Saving Grace (1981) as a favorite. Tom Conti plays a youthful Pope Leo XIV who finds himself locked outside of the Vatican. Disguised by a beard, he takes a holiday in a remote village, where he helps the community build an aqueduct and stave off local crooks. “The pope’s commitment is tested,” Sister Rose writes, “but he perseveres in humility. The film is filled with Gospel analogies and metaphors where the pope and the people receive mutual saving grace.”

Another popular film is 1986’s The Mission, directed by Roland Joffé, about Jesuit missionaries who try and protect a band of Indians from enslavement and destruction. Paul Jarzembowski, of the Youth Ministry Office in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, says: “The most inspiring depiction of a priest in film is Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons). He is dedicated to peace and to the moral lesson that fighting back does not have to be the answer to conflict.”

Sister Rose feels that cinematic depictions of priests—from Edward Norton in Keeping the Faith to Gregory Peck in The Keys of the Kingdom to Ed Harris’ complex performance in The Third Miracle—can be galvanizing, faith-enriching experiences. “The gift of these cinema priests is for us to see how they are transformed and become agents of change for others,” she writes. “It is their ability to change in response to grace—or not—that creates a compelling story.

“For those of us watching, these are sacramental moments because the spiritual journey is acted out. As these characters encounter God in the narrative of sight and sound, we, too, are invited to encounter the divine in the darkness of the theater. We, too, emerge changed and graced. These movies and more can touch and change hearts through the love and mercy of Christ and make every year a Year for Priests.”


Permission is granted to reprint this release.

The other articles posted will be

Father Don Archambault: Uniting People for God”

by Marylynn G. Hewitt, S.F.O.

“Rivets, Flex and a Father’s Faith” by Jacob Frost.


Contact: Christopher Heffron

Top Ten Priest Movie List


Top Ten Priest Movies

This is a good starter list published by the National Catholic Register for the Year of the Priest –  though I think it leaves off some very good other films about priests. For some reason they are staying with U.S. films and it does not include films about bishops or popes. The list does bring in DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, directed by Robert Bresson.

The Bing Crosby films may be classics but I think they present a very romanticized vision of the priesthood. KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, the book and the film, predate Vatican II, as does DIARY, but both breathe the spirit of the council.

I would add:

Keeping the Faith , The Third Miracle, Becket (OK he became the Archbishop of Canterbury…). There are challenging films as well: True Confessions, John Sayles’ MEN WITH GUNS (one of the story lines is about a priest), El CRIMEN DE PADRE AMARO, Graham Greene’s THE POWER AND THE GLORY (1933; Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay); ROMERO (there was the archbishop as well as the priests who worked with him; now available on DVD).

Feel free to add your favorite film by commenting.