Calvary as a reflection on ‘post Catholic’ Ireland

I went to see John Michael McDonagh’s new film Calvary at the weekend. It’s a dark tale where Brendan Gleeson plays a rural parish priest. The title – Calvary – evoking the passion and death of Christ makes it clear that, while there are amusing moments, this is no comedy film.

The film is a powerful and compelling examination of what passes for ‘modern Ireland’. It’s almost 20 years now since Ruairi Quinn described the country as ‘post Catholic’. The phrase was as inadequate then as it is now. There is no doubt that the religious landscape has changed dramatically. But, Irish people remain largely Catholic. Where there has been the significant shift is in what being Catholic means to people. The word no longer – at least in the way many Irish people use it – refers to a cohesive community of believers. For a lot of people, it means being part of the Body of Christ, coming together each Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. For others, it means a vague connection to the Church and her traditions. Still others will come to the Catholic Church to celebrate the big rites of passage while living their lives as if God does not exist.

In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that many Irish people who describe themselves as Catholic live their lives as if God does not exist. They’ve heard the Gospel over-and-over again, but they haven’t been touched by it.


McDonagh’s film and Gleeson’s marvellous portrayal of Fr James Lavelle emerge as a stinging analysis of a cynical attitude towards the Church and matters of faith that has become almost de rigueur in Ireland now. It is a searing critique of a country and a people that has lost its moorings. The film skilfully avoids falling into the trap of anti-Clericalism while not shying away from the devastating consequences of the clerical abuse crisis.

Fr Lavelle cuts a lonely figure in a parish gripped by cynicism, smart-alecky and pettiness. Everyone is always equipped with a pointed comeback, a harsh word, or an offbeat theory about the Church that they want to share. They can always deflect whatever is said to them, and so they never have to engage with it.

While most of the characters are Massgoers, their lives are lived far from the Gospel. Instead, the thirst for meaning that for the believer is slaked by faith, is met by a constant and dizzying round of consumerism, scorn, drugs and sexual immorality. Fr Lavelle stands alone, almost consigned to be a relic of a long-past faith, while those who think of themselves as his betters live their pallid lives filled with empty and fleeting pleasures.

McDonagh paints a grim picture of a community that has lost its religious compass. What steps in to the breach is meaninglessness as Fr Lavelle struggles in vain to lift the village out of cynicism and the relentless pursuit of self-satisfaction.

It is a gripping tale that says a lot about what commentators call ‘post Catholic’ Ireland. It also speaks of the struggles against cynicism that many priests encounter in their parishes on a daily basis. They could probably do with a word of thanks and encouragement this Easter.