Mark Wahlberg plays Stuart Long in Columbia Pictures’ ‘Father Stu’
I don’t know if you have seen the previews for Father Stu. Mark Wahlberg sent a letter to every pastor, I think, in the country and he signed it (probably printed). Father Paul received a letter, and I went to see the movie which is the story of this priest, his journey, and how he became a priest what I would like to focus on is how he endured suffering in different aspects of his life and how that suffering brought him closer to God. When he was finally able to take refuge in the Lord, to take refuge in the sacraments, he was able to experience absolute complete freedom.
Mark Wahlberg plays this young Stu growing up. He grows up while neither of his parents is faithful. They have no religious practice whatsoever and he grows up rough and tough. Drinks at a young age. He gets into all kinds of bad things and grows up as an adult but never grows up as an adult. At some point, he decides that he has to do something with his life. He has a coach in high school that invites him to try boxing. He did not have an interest in it but the coach said, “Why don’t you come and just give it a try and we will see how you do?” He loves boxing because it is something he can throw himself completely into. The difficult thing is he is not very good at boxing, so he gets beat up all along the way. He does end up winning the golden gloves for the state but along the whole way he is too old for the sport already and really, he just faces a beating every time he gets into the ring. That is what he wanted to make his life on and when that did not work his mother said, “Well you have a cute face, why don’t you go out to Hollywood?” He goes out to Hollywood to try to become an actor and failed miserably at that doing every grueling job that you can do. He gets a couple of really lame onscreen things as a kind of sidekick.
It is during this time that he meets this beautiful young girl who is Catholic. He does not even know what a Catholic is, but he likes her a lot, so he starts following her. He starts pursuing her. One of the church members warns him and says, “Be careful because she is as Catholic as you can get. She’s more Catholic than the cross,” he says to her. He is trying to warn him that this girl is not for him, but he keeps pursuing her. He keeps going after her. She keeps turning him down, keeps turning him down, and turning him down.
One day, he is riding his motorcycle and gets hit by a car and then knocked off his motorcycle. He rolls down the highway and gets run over by another car. This is a true story, by the way, I do not know if I told you that. At that moment, he has an out-of-body experience and he has this sense and feeling of God’s love and God’s presence in this moment of complete destitute and suffering. So, he feels God the Father’s love, and then he has a vision of Mary. Mary comes and takes him into her arms kind of like she did Jesus. Kind of like we hear the beloved disciple; she takes him into his arms.
He goes into a coma after this. He begins to wake up out of the coma and, of course, he is waking up and his whole body is broken and in pain. But he wakes up from this coma and he realizes that God saved his life and because God saved his life, he feels he has to give his life back to God. It is at that point that he thinks, “I am going to become a Catholic.” Again, he still does not know anything about the Catholic Church; he just wants to get with this one girl that is Catholic, but he decides he wants to become a Catholic.
He goes into the faith and goes through the process of initiation of RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation, which maybe some of our members are here. After he goes through this time of learning about the faith and growing in the faith and conversion, finally one day he is dating the girl and he says to her, “I am going to get baptized.” So, he decides to get baptized. As he is baptized, they do not show this in the movie, but it’s in the true story, he knows in that instant that God is calling him to be a priest. The movie reveals that later on that he is given this call to be a priest.
He goes home to tell his parents and he says to his mother, “I am supposed to be a priest.” She says, “For Halloween?” He goes, “No, a real priest.” Of course, it creates a division in this family because they are not faithful. They are not holy at all. They know nothing of religion. They do not believe in religion and now their son is going away to become a priest. It creates this tension. So, he experiences this suffering even if his family does not understand him.
As he is discerning to be a priest, he takes the girl out to dinner, and he is going to tell her the news that he is going to be a priest only she thinks he is taking her out to ask her to marry him and of course, he is not doing that. She is shocked and broken-hearted and disappointed. Here is another wound that he has in his life.
He finally gets into the seminary. It is a difficult thing to be accepted into the seminary because, as I said, he had a pretty bad past. He had a lot of DUIs and things like that so the monsignor that was accepting guys in the seminary said, “We cannot let you in the seminary. There is no way you are going to make it.” He begs and pleads that he can get into the seminary. About halfway through his seminary experience, he gets this pain in his leg. He falls over on the basketball court. He gets this pain and he goes into the hospital for the doctors to look at and they begin doing all the X-rays and MRIs. They discovered that this pain that he has is an untreatable form of degenerative muscle disease. The doctors say, “From this point forward you are going to lose just everything. What strength you have now is going to decline from this point forward. It is incurable. There is nothing we can do. It is very rare.”
He goes back to the seminary and as things start to progress, he begins to walk on crutches. He begins to experience pain and the monsignor tells him, “We cannot ordain you. You are not physically in good shape to be ordained.” So, they sent him home.
Now he is devastated. He is trying to follow this call from God. He is experiencing suffering, rejection, loneliness, isolation, and abandonment. He goes home and just goes back to his old ways. Until one day the monsignor calls him and says, “Your parish has petitioned Rome and Rome has granted a decision of yes, that you can be ordained.” They bring him back and they ordain him.
By the time he celebrates his first mass, he is practically in a wheelchair, wheel bound. After he celebrates his first mass, he is sent to a nursing home as a newly ordained priest and something miraculous happens. People are lining up outside the nursing home by the dozens just waiting to have their confessions heard. They are coming to him especially because he knows what it is like to be broken. He knows what it is like to live a rough life. He knows what it is like to be redeemed. And he knows what it is like to carry the cross of suffering. In his real life, he describes that he looks at his suffering as a gift and a grace because he had such a big ego that he believes that it took something like this really to humble him. He lived about five or six years in that nursing home and then he died as a young priest.
The reason I talk about this today is that suffering for us is not something that we escape because of Jesus’ death. When Jesus suffered, died, and rose on the cross, He redeemed us. He redeemed us from our sins, and he also invites us into that same Paschal Mystery. That when we experience suffering, we can unite it on the cross, that we can come to Him in that suffering.
Take refuge in the cross. Suffering is so difficult and the older we get, I am sure the older ones can testify, do not get old, right, because it is just more and more and more suffering. But take refuge in the cross. Let Jesus bear that suffering with you.
He said in the movie in his first homily as a priest, “All of our nature is passing away but our inner self, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” He would begin to preach and kind of drool as he spoke from his wheelchair. He said, “This life no matter how long it lasts is only a momentary affliction preparing us for eternal glory. We should not pray for an easy life. We should pray for glory.” He pointed to the cross, the crucifix in the church and he said, “That man right there, you just got to let him in. He will do the heavy lifting.”
I would just invite us now to think about the sufferings in our life that we are going through . . . physical, emotional, spiritually, but I also want to focus on the suffering that sin causes us. That when we sin, we are suffering for no good reason. There is nothing redemptive about sinful suffering. When we are trapped in sin, we are suffering on our own.
In the seminary we had a spiritual director, he was great, he had a lot of great one-liners. When you go into the seminary you have to give up a lot and sometimes when you give up a lot, God seems to be asking for more. I want you to give this up now. I want you to give this up. Some of the guys would say, ‘I feel like I am dying.” They would say this to the seminary professor and he would turn it back and go like this and he would say, “Good. Die.” Don’t just feel like you are dying but die to it. Let ourselves die to sin so that we no longer have to wrestle with it or fight with it or struggle with it. Die to it, let it go so we can completely experience the love of God.
At the end of the film when he becomes the priest and begins ministering to all these people, he realizes that all the suffering in his life led him to this. Even his final suffering, the degenerating muscles that would lead to his death, ultimately let him be the person that he was called to be. To be the priest of God. To be the sanctifier to all of those that were suffering.
As we prepare to venerate the cross, I just invite you to close your eyes for a couple of moments and think about the physical suffering that you have, the emotional, the spiritual suffering, and take refuge in the Lord’s cross. But also, if there is any sin that you are suffering with, if there is any sin that you have been unable to die to or let go of, ask Him for that grace that at this moment you can die to it. You can let go of it and take refuge in His cross.