I have recently had the pleasure of binge-watching a French 2012-2015 TV series with English sub-titles through the media service Netflix. Entitled “The Churchmen” in English (“Ainsi soient-ils” [“So may they be”], a reference to an “Amen” formula in French) the episodes trace the fortunes of five 20-30 something seminaries who study for ordination to the Catholic priesthood in the “Seminary of the Capuchins” in Paris. In addition, the series explores the lives of their formators as well as various authorities overseeing the Church in France and in the Vatican. Not a documentary, but a work of realistic fiction, the 24 episodes of “The Churchmen” depict adjusting to seminary life, the challenges arising from closing the seminary, and the first years of their ministry in various settings. In a way the series reminded me of the 1997-1998 American series shown on ABC, “Nothing Sacred,” but with greater complexity and depth of characterization and plot
The principal players include: Yann LeMegueur, a scout leader and guitarist from Brittany who is the very embodiment of personal virtue and naivete; his passionate desire to follow God’s call is tempered as he gains life experience; Emmanuel Charrier, a black student of archeology who comes to believe that he is called by God to priesthood in the midst of a neurotic episode; Guillaume Morvan, the elder son of a working-class mother afflicted by severe depression and brother to a 17-year-old sexually active sister; Raphael Chanseulme, the pampered younger son of a very wealthy aristocratic French family; he is disgusted by their bourgeois values yet attracted to social advancement in both secular and ecclesial settings; and Jose Del Sarte, a denizen of the rough streets of a Paris suburb whom we first meet as he is released from a prison in Toulouse for murdering a Russian thug. In addition to the seminarians, we are also introduced to their formators: Fr. Fromenger, a passionate supporter of the Second Vatican Council; Fr. Bosco, a faithful disciple of Fromenger who comes to learn that his hero is not without faults; and Sr. Antonietta, Fromenger’s young assistant. Various other ecclesiastical figures round out the cast, from Monsignor Roman, the calculating and pompous president of the French Bishops’ Conference, through Roman curial officials divided into “progressives” and “conservatives”, to “Pope Gregory” himself (a truly bizarre figure, perhaps blending the end-of-life illness of John Paul II with the personal asceticism of Benedict XVI and the strong influence of Mother Pascalina Lehnert on the last years of Pius XII).
I think readers of Pray Tell will be especially intrigued with the glimpses of liturgical life both in the Capuchin seminary and in various parish settings around France over the course of the series. Just as there are minor lapses in terminology and questionable actions on the part of individuals in the series, so there are questionable depictions of some worship practices (e.g., the seminarians’ ability to sing fairly complex polyphony without reference to scores). It was also somewhat painful to have the vain and conflicted, model-handsome Fr. Adam presented as the liturgical formator, more concerned about the theatricality of the rites (or as he articulates it, their “beauty”) than their spirituality.
The questions posed by Fr. Fromenger in the very first episode as he addresses the new seminarians haunt the entire series: “Who are you, truly?”, “What do you seek at the Capuchin Seminary?”, and “Are you really ready to become a disciple of Jesus?” (While I understand how these three questions embody the core dramatic issues, I would associate “becoming a disciple of Jesus” with Baptism and Confirmation and “becoming an ordained minister in service to the Church” with Ordination.) Over the course of the series it becomes profoundly clear that each of the characters is deeply flawed, yet capable of surprising acts of kindness and generosity, all-too-often haunted by egotism and blind to their own motivations, yet sincerely seeking mercy and forgiveness. In spite of a certain bias against conservative prelates and their mindsets, the series tries to portray Catholicism as an ancient religious tradition bearing and burdened with great wisdom as it attempts to evangelize and transform post-Vatican II contemporary French society. If I had my way, every seminarian and seminary formator in the USA, as well as every bishop, priest, deacon and pastoral minister, would watch this series, discuss its insights with others sharing a common interest in ministry, and ponder how its insights might help us as we seek to serve God and God’s People.