Monday, February 12, 2007

Just imagine...

I encountered this story about Alec Guinness a few years ago in some magazine, and then lost track of it. Found it again yesterday at

The late actor Sir Alec Guiness once related that, before his conversion to the Catholic Faith, he had been very anti-clerical: “I would shudder if I passed a priest or nun”, he said. But the day was to come in the 1950’s when he would go to a Catholic priest and ask him if he might be received into the Church. One incident in particular had helped him overcome his anti-clerical sentiments, he later recalled. The actor had been working on a film based on one of G.K. Chesterton’s famous Father Brown mysteries; he was playing the title role.

One night after a day’s shooting on a location about a mile outside the village where he was staying, he had walked home without changing his clerical costume for lay attire. “It was absolutely dark”, he related. Suddenly I heard some little footsteps running after me. My hand was taken by a small boy who walked with me all the way to the village. He chattered all the way, but I didn’t utter a word, for fear of frightening him. Eventually he said farewell and disappeared. Afterwards, I thought how marvellous it was that a child in a dark lane would run and take your hand just because he thought you were a priest. It totally changed my attitude.”

Turns out this experience was one of many that apparently influenced Guinness to convert to Catholicism. What a wonderful little vignette! A memento of a day we won't soon see again, when most of the world saw the priesthood as a trusted and revered calling. It was a reputation earned by generation upon generation of good, faithful priests whose names we'll never know. Ironically, we now know only too well the names of the priests and bishops who threw it all away.

Yes, most priests still deserve that trust and reverence, but now they all have to struggle with suspicion and derision, because a few bad ones weren't stopped when the problems first began coming to light. I suppose some might argue that this unjust mental and emotional suffering mirrors the sufferings of Christ and is somehow good for priests, and would quote from this Sunday's Gospel reading ("woe to you when men speak well of you..."), but you won't convince me. There are plenty of instances when priests have to suffer unjustly, without piling this on them, too.

Remember that the event Guinness related happened back in the 1950's, when the Church was just so woefully out of date that it had to be fixed. Everyone back then would have seen that tiny episode of parish life as an example of childhood innocence placing its trust exactly where that trust had been very richly deserved. Today, many people would see that same episode with... well, another reaction entirely.