On Vito Corleone, complexity, and holiness
Updated: Oct 10
Earlier this year – although it seems like a lifetime ago now – I was part of a panel of four priests talking about various aspects of vocation. We were all given a particular focus to talk about: the other three got Scripture, Liturgy, Spirituality, and I got the rather ambiguous “Lifestyle.” One of the other priests jokingly said that they were the Sunday Times and I was the Sunday Times Supplement. My remit was to tell the kinds of stories I tend to tell and give the aspirants an idea of what the everyday life of a priest is like (or at least the everyday life of this priest).
It went pretty well, I think, but when things were opened up for questions, a divide between the arguably weightier topics and mine became painfully evident, as my colleagues got asked things about the nature of Christ, moral theology, and the development of doctrine, and I got asked questions about Italian cooking. I suppose I ought not to have been offended; I was the “human interest” element and they just asked things they found interesting. At one point one of the other priests was asked a rather complicated question about an ontological understanding of Holy Orders; right afterwards I got the question, “Would you consider yourself a dog or a cat person?” I felt a little better when the ontology question received a “Thank you,” in response and my question received a slew of follow ups which ended in me passing around my phone so they could see photos of my dog Linus.
As I had spoken about seeing God not only in our own stories but also in the arts, someone asked me to name my top-five favourite films. I love the cinema – one of my first grownup jobs was to write film reviews – but the question of favourites is complicated, because I have different favourites depending on the criteria. But I knew I didn't have time to really get into it, so I went with the five that I thought were best in terms of overall storytelling and character development: Citizen Kane, 8 1/2, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Goodfellas.
This response ended up taking up the lion's share of the rest of the question and answer period. A few people nodded quietly, but there was a little group of four – the four youngest, by the way, and I would hazard to guess coming from a different theological outlook than I – who seemed outraged. How could I, a priest, choose films that glorified violence so gratuitously? Their disgust was palpable.
I tried joking – big mistake, as they seemed to be quite without a sense of humour – and said that, yes, the films were violent but I had seen them all about a hundred times each and thus far had neither kneecapped, knifed, beaten up, nor shot anyone. “Thus far,” I said with a devilish yet charming smile. They remained resolutely un-charmed.
The moderator moved the conversation onto something less controversial – like transubstantiation – and I didn't really have a chance to defend myself. But I stand by my choices. What I find so fascinating by the men who pepper gangster movies (and Citizen Kane as well – just because the lead wasn't a notorious killer doesn't mean he wasn't a nasty piece of work) is that they speak to the complexities of the human condition far better than say, Song of Bernadette. In The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone was indeed a murderer, but there are moments when we see a tender side of him – like when he's mugging fo his grandson in the garden – that forces us to look beyond his deplorable actions to something deeper. Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane was ruthless, selfish, and avaricious, but – spoiler alert – the last word on his lips was the name of a sled he had as boy, hearkening back to the last time he was happy. Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas was obviously a murderous psychopath, but the moments when he is with his mother (played deliciously by director Martin Scorsese's mother Catherine) show a tenderness that would not be out of place in Bambi.
I like all of these complexities because we live complex lives in a complex world, and holiness – if it is to survive at all – will only do so immersed in such complexity. Although I would wager to say that most of us are not homicidal mobsters, without a doubt we are all quite complicated, all have the capability to be dark. Holiness happens, not in spite of that darkness, but in the midst of it. Holiness transforms the darkness and does so by working with all the complicated elements of who we are.
I think that's why I am drawn to, let's say, colourful saints. I find traditional hagiography in which saints were already o-so-saint-like from the very beginning less compelling than someone whose holiness in manifest in imperfect ways. (Probably because if there's any hope for me becoming a saint, holiness is going to have to make itself manifest in imperfect ways.)
Take Pope Saint Adrian III. By all accounts he was less Snow White and more the Evil Queen. He had George of the Aventine (“Georgie Aventino” could be a good mobster name) blinded. He had a widow of an opposing aristocratic family whipped, stripped naked, and marched through the streets of Rome. But when he died – on the way to the Diet of Worms having been summoned by an emperor with an already gangster-worthy name (Charles the Fat) – Adrian was genuinely mourned, as in the complex times of the 9th Century, he did what he could to help the poor who were locked in the grips of a famine.
Does helping people not to starve make up for blinding poor Georgie Aventino or whipping and humiliating that nameless aristocratic moll? Probably not. But does the complexity of that story make his improbable holiness seem all the more extraordinary? I think it does. Holiness would not be pushed out by anyone or anything; God's complex grace made its way to Adrian's sometimes-hard heart.
Maybe the real sign of Adrian's holiness is that he let it in.