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'Corpus Christi': The Real Joy of a Fake Priest

February 28, 2020 | By
Corpus Christi, written by Mateusz Pacewicz and directed by Jan Komasa, in the Polish language with English subtitles. Nominated for Best International Film Academy Award. Content warning: drug use, violence, sexuality and profanity. Opens in the United States Feb. 28, in limited release.

The Oscar-nominated Corpus Christi (official site here) takes its source from a recent trend of men in Poland posing as Catholic priests. It happens, too, in my own country of the United States. I vividly remember, while on seminary placement, a man dressed in clerics claiming to be a priest on vacation, waiting at the collection safe. Fortunately, shrewd parishioners caught on to his scheme and sent him on his way. The Polish occurrences appear less malicious.

What is Corpus Christi About?

Catholic ministry is valued and respected in Poland, and a few men turned away from seminary formation nevertheless take up the ruse in hopes of sincerely serving God’s people.

Juvenile inmate Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) serves Masses at the prison chapel and comes under the tutelage of chaplain Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat). Inspired by his mentor's dynamic impact, Daniel wants to enter seminary, but the priest deflates any such plans, citing the young man’s criminal history, which precludes him from priesthood formation.

When Daniel visits the nearby village adjacent to his work-release assignment, villagers mistake him in his black track suit for a newly ordained priest. When the pastor (not overly concerned with obtaining credentials) requires a specialized medical exam, he leaves the parish in his “associate’s” care. What follows is the most realistic and (surprisingly) fawning depiction of the life of a priest, even though its central character lacks the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

The film exceeds the efforts of any of this year’s Oscar-nominated films, even overall Best Picture winner Parasite. The filmmakers precisely adapted the theme of something being slightly “off,” yet paradoxically feeling more realistic.

How Does Corpus Christi Relate to Saved by the Bell?

The adaptive process reminded me of pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman analyzing the fourth season of teen sitcom Saved by the Bell. NBC planned for a shortened fourth and final season. They switched scheduling mid-filming, extrapolating out to a full season. Two actresses, not contractually bound to the extra episodes, refuse to film said episodes.

Enter the character Tori Scott, both a composite and replacement for characters Kelly Kapowski and Jessie Spano. Thus, by an error in how things are typically done in production, the gaffe permitted more realistic storytelling — rarely do high-school students spend all of their free time with the same half-dozen friends for all four years. Social circles are more fluid in high school, and the mildly “off” series-ending episodes reveal this paradox.

How a Fake Priest Can Bring Real Joy

Although the “sacraments” offered by “Father” Daniel are invalid, his inexperienced, wild-eyed approach to his ministry ironically better captures the point of each sacrament.

His presiding of Mass leaves him awestruck, as he slowly and meditatively moves through the Roman Missal.

A baptism scene leads him to joy, exhibited by dousing a young family with an amount of holy water to rival a water-park ride.

His first time in the confessional necessitates him to look up the order of the rite on his smartphone. The penitent wouldn’t recognize the callow style of the priest, so he precisely diagnoses the root of her sin and provides the counsel to overcome it. Daniel’s approach allows her to treat the sacrament as a means for her internal conversion and less a spiritual ATM machine.

Daniel possesses a natural gift for ministry, heightened by the absence of formal theological training. We see Daniel approach each interpersonal encounter fully and viscerally. Looming ominously, of course, is the potential of being outed, but this drives Daniel to minister even more intensely, knowing his time with the village is limited.

His dogged pursuit to reconcile some villagers at opposing sides of a tragedy, I feel, would not have been resolved by the actual priest, who might have the luxury of remaining with the same parish his entire life.

Daniel lapses back to some grave sins by story’s end. After all, he didn’t receive the human formation so essential to seminary training. The filmmakers then, earn the title of the movie, Corpus Christi.

God mediates his grace to us through humans and even through the necessity of human institutions. Fittingly reminded of this reality while driving back to my parish, I couldn’t help but want to remain a little longer in this Polish story as did the characters in the film. They were appreciative of Daniel’s ministry. And for however “off” it might have been, it led them into and not away from the mystery of God.

Image: Film Movement

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