By Jim McDermott
July 20, 2023 — St. Ignatius Day is right around the corner. If you’re looking for an interesting way to celebrate, what about a book, movie or TV show about Jesuits? There’s actually more than few at this point, and in a whole bunch of genres.
“The Mission” – Even though it’s over 30 years old at this point, “The Mission” is by far the most famous fictional story of Jesuits. As the two Jesuits trying to evangelize and then save a community of Guarani people in the jungles of Paraguay, Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro are each incredibly powerful. The delicate, soul-searching score by Ennio Morricone has also become a standard at Jesuit events, especially ordinations.
But the thing that makes the story enduring is the way that it captures two main threads of Jesuit life that go all the way back to St. Ignatius himself. On the one hand, we’re trained to be mystics, men who open themselves to the movements of the Spirit in our lives and the world around us. Jeremy Irons’ character very much captures that spirit of trust and hopefulness.
Ignatius was first a soldier, though, and he would describe Jesuits as “soldiers for God.” And while some of that language doesn’t really work today, it also points to the very Jesuit belief that our vocations are lived out in action, particularly in standing with and fighting for those who are forgotten or the victims of injustice. We might not carry a weapon like Robert DeNiro’s character, but a warrior lives inside many of us.
If you’re interested in Jesuit missionary stories, the historically-based movies “Black Robe” and “Silence” are other interesting examples.
JESUITS IN SPACE
“The Sparrow”/“Children of God” – If “The Mission” is the most famous fictional tale of Jesuits, Maria Doria Russell’s sci-fi novel “The Sparrow” is many Jesuits’ favorite. The story, which involves a group of Jesuits and lay people who secretly travel to a distant planet as missionaries and scientists after the Vatican discovers signs of intelligent life there, is in some ways a spiritual sequel to “The Mission,” another tale of struggling Jesuit missionaries.
It’s also a much deeper dive into our personal relationships with one another and others. Even as “The Sparrow” centers on one Jesuit in particular (and of course the aliens), the book is very much an ensemble piece about an entire group of women and men, religious and non, living and working together. And those relationships, particularly between the Jesuits and some of the scientists on the mission, are just wonderfully apt.
As varied as we are as Jesuits, friendships with our colleagues and one another is so often what sustains us. In many ways “The Sparrow” is actually a novel about that.
Russell wrote a sequel as well. A number of attempts have been made to turn the two of them into a TV series, none successful so far. But we live in hope!
If you’re interested in Jesuits in science fiction, here’s a great article about other such stories.
JESUITS & DEMONS
“The Exorcist” – Is “The Exorcist” a Jesuit story? While the priests and seminarians involved are Jesuits, and the story is based on an exorcism undertaken by Jesuits in St. Louis, it’s not a story with a lot of Jesuit “stuff” in it.
For me, the thing about “The Exorcist” that feels most like our life is the character of Fr. Damien Karras, the trained psychologist having a crisis of faith to whom mother Chris MacNeil turns. Jesuits are not widely known for the tenderness of their hearts, and in truth it can be hard to keep our hearts exposed and vulnerable, particularly as we grow older. But at our best we really are kind men who allow ourselves to be hurt, to doubt and even to get lost along the way in our search for God and our desires to help others.
JESUITS IN PARISHES
“Nothing Sacred” – The short-lived “life in a parish” show “Nothing Sacred” is supposedly about an inner-city diocesan parish. But creator Bill Cain is a Jesuit, and the show is inspired by his own experiences with the Jesuit-run St. Francis Xavier parish in New York City. (The main character is in fact named Francis Xavier Reyneaux.) And there’s a lot about it that just “feels” Jesuit. Reyneaux lives with two other priests, one younger and one older, and his relationships with them and the relationships amongst the parish staff is very much akin to life in Jesuit parishes.
If you’re reading this and thinking, Wait, there was a show written by a Jesuit about parish life?!, you’re not alone. ABC commissioned the show in 1997, and it was almost immediately attacked upon the show’s debut by right-wing Catholic groups who didn’t like the openness with which the show considered topics like abortion, homosexuality or the role of women in the church. Unlike today, those groups had real power over advertisers, and through them the networks. If “Nothing Sacred” had aired on a cable network like HBO, it would have gone years and years. The writing and performances are tremendous. Instead ABC pulled it before it even got to air all of the episodes it had shot.
Thanks to the wonders of life in the 21st century, though, the series is available to watch on YouTube. And it’s well worth checking out. Even if it’s not “about” a Jesuit parish, it absolutely captures that Jesuit longing to communicate in ways that are relevant to people, respectful, funny and true.
JESUITS AND MURDERS
So let me come clean: I haven’t read any mysteries starring Jesuits, although I think the they’re a natural fit. Jesuits find ourselves in a million different jobs, we’re trained to explore and try to understand new things, and we have a weird combination of a lot of life experience in some ways and in others not so much at all, which makes Jesuits perfect protagonists for a good noir mystery.
A number of authors have found the same. Judith Rock has written four mysteries set in 17th century Paris centered around Jesuit Charles de Luc, a former soldier who has only just been assigned to teach rhetoric and direct dance at a Paris college, when the school’s star dancer disappears. There’s also F.H. Batacan’s “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” which tells the story of two Filipino Jesuits, a forensic anthropologist and a psychologist, dealing with a serial killer committing murders in the slums of Manila. Annamaria Alfieri has also written two separate mysteries with Jesuit protagonists, one set in 17th-century Bolivia and another in 19th-century Paraguay.
JESUITS & SHORT STORIES
Last but not least, I want to mention two former Jesuits who have gone on to write tremendous short stories. John L’Heureux, who left the Jesuits after eight years as a priest, having served as an editor at the Atlantic, spent his life writing books of poetry, novels and short stories, many published in the New Yorker. Shortly before his death in 2019 he released his last book, “The Heart is a Full-Wild Beast,” which is filled with strange, funny and moving stories of Jesuits, nuns and others struggling to navigate the challenges of life.
Then there’s “Say You’re One of Them,” Uwem Akpan’s powerful stories of life in Africa told from the point of view of children, which Oprah Winfrey chose for her book club in 2009. A former Nigerian Jesuit, Akpan is a professor of writing at the University of Florida. He has since published a novel called “New York, My Village,” and his work, too, frequently appears in the New Yorker.
And all of that really is just a taste of what’s out there. As we head into that final month of summer, why not take a few Jesuits with you to the beach?
(And hey, if you enjoy it, we’re also available for in person beachfront visits.)
Jim McDermott, SJ, is a screen and magazine writer.