The new Netflix take on Catholicism is a mixed bag

The new Netflix take on Catholicism is a mixed bag Hamish Linklater as Fr Paul in Midnight Mass.

It was a bizarre day to be tuned in – imaginary petrol shortages in the UK, the English Labour Party locked in a debate about what constituted a woman, feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg having one of her quotes re-imagined, with the removal of the term ‘woman’. I wondered what sort of alternative universe I had strayed into.


Then I was scouring Netflix (it needs cleaning up for sure) and noticed Midnight Mass. And it was only 1pm. So, it wasn’t a livestream, but a new ‘limited series’ drama with a Catholic background. The first episode was creepy and intriguing. A young man returns to Crockett Island on parole after serving a four-year sentence for the death by drunken driving of a young girl, who still haunts his dreams (or does she?). A new young priest who doesn’t seem to know his appropriate vestment colours arrives with a mysterious trunk, which may or may not contain the previous parish priest who is observed (or is he?) roaming the island in a storm.

The ex-prisoner has lost his faith in prison. A young pregnant teacher has returned to church and likes it. We see an ultrasound of her unborn baby. The ex-prisoner’s mother is very religious and welcoming, his father is very religious and wary. He insists on the adult son going to Mass, but says he shouldn’t go to Holy Communion as he hasn’t been to Confession (someone with splinters of a Catholic background must have written the script). Oddly the priest draws attention to this in front of others, suggesting that Jesus was most interested in sinners anyway. The sacristan-teacher is very religious and a fussy pious woman (or is she?), the sheriff-shopkeeper is a Muslim and he prays with his son, who smokes dope to fit in with the foul-mouthed altar boys. Oh boy.


After that first episode, it’s a mixed bag. There are some moving moments involving forgiveness and redemption, relatable characters searching for purpose in life, gorgeous hymns throughout, some surprisingly long theological discussions between people of faith and non-believers, a strong emphasis on the Eucharist…why didn’t they just develop these intriguing strands? Instead, like the witches adding ingredients to the cauldron in Macbeth, they threw in bits of Fr Jekyl and Mr Hyde, The Walking Dead, Sr Carrie, Angels and Demons, with nods to the X-Files.

All seven episodes are named after a book of the Bible and with each one the horror gets worse, as implausibility descends into absurdity. Ultimately religion doesn’t come well out of it and it’s more than distasteful to see aspects of faith we hold dear being exploited for schlock horror. Some scenes are quite disgusting. Yes, religious extremism is destructive, but the entertainment business too often seems happier dealing with psychotic religious people than with people of genuine faith.

Now, if you wanted to hear about people of genuine faith, you’d watch Poverty, Chastity and (Dis) obedience (RTÉ One, Thursday) a fine documentary about the extraordinary work of Irish missionaries in South Africa, especially during apartheid times – they were idealistic, energetic and practical. The emphasis in this film was primarily on their work of opposition to apartheid, for example Catholic schools taking in both black and white students and getting bomb threats as a result. One black activist paid tribute to the Irish priests that “made us proud to feel that we are full human beings”.

There were varying degrees of involvement in the struggle – some were very active, others, including prominent Church figures gave important public support, others worked away quietly supporting the poor regardless of race. One religious sister was so angered by the injustices that she said she could have been tempted to take up arms. But she didn’t. They spoke of having Church support and no interference from Church authorities. The ‘disobedience’ of the title was towards to South African government who regarded them as “the Roman danger”.


Finally, I’m grateful to TG4 for replaying, every weekday evening that much loved television series from the 1980’s The Wonder Years. I was afraid it would be dated, but I found it as fresh, witty, moving and reflective as ever. Some of the humour is mildly adult, but then it is about an adult looking back on his formative years in the 1960’s, a time of relative innocence and dramatic social change. And I love the 60’s music on the soundtrack – a bonus!


Pick of the week
Life and Times of Sr Faustina
EWTN Saturday October 9, 9.30pm, Sunday October 10, 4pm, and Thursday October 14, 9am

Re-enactment of Blessed Faustina’s life. Born in Poland in 1905 as Helena Kowalska, she is now known as St Faustina, ‘The Apostle of Divine Mercy’.

RTÉ One Sunday October 10, 11.00am

Fr Paul Kivlehan celebrates Mass in the RTÉ studios, Donnybrook, with a folk group from Ballaghadereen, Co. Roscommon. Musical directors: Anne Carmody and Anne O’Brien.

Barney Curley: The Man Who Broke The Bookies
RTÉ One Monday October 11, 9.35pm

The story of the racehorse owner Barney Curley – from his tough origins as a Catholic in Co. Fermanagh, through his betting coups and his decision to donate all of his winnings to charity and die penniless.