The Friars of Fenwick should cheer for her breath of fresh air as this year’s Oscar winners unfold on Sunday!
By John Paulett
“Lady Bird” won the Golden Globe for Best Film (Musical or Comedy) and is nominated as Best Film at Sunday’s 90th Academy Awards (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual “Oscar” event). The intimate and sweet film tells the story of Christine McPherson, a senior at Immaculate Heart High School in 2002 Sacramento, CA. Christine goes by what she calls her “given name:” Lady Bird. She explains to anyone who asks that it is her given name because she gave the name Lady Bird to herself. We feel in her self-naming that Lady Bird is someone special, a young woman who just hasn’t found a good way to fit in.
The film is unusual because it does not make fun of Catholic schools or demonize religious teachers. “Lady Bird” feels more like a love letter to a Catholic High School. Director Greta Gerwig, who attended a Catholic high school, seems to have understood the real character of Catholic education. Most films, songs and books about Catholic education focus on the oddities (“Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?”). Nuns often seem quaint characters or fierce tyrants. Catholic students are either beaten down or rebellious (Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young”). There is none of this in “Lady Bird.”
The priests might be a little eccentric, but they are passionate and caring. The director of the high school musical is a Jesuit who has an emotional breakdown when audiences just do not get his interpretation of “Merrily We Roll Along.” His distress is funny when considered in light of the original production’s New York audiences, who were bewildered by Hal Prince’s first staging of the play. After he falls apart, he is replaced as drama director for Shakespeare’s “Tempest” by a priest who is also the JV football coach. The good father is better at designing offensive football plays than he is at directing a play, so the staging is planned in diagrams of X’s and O’s. Still, the coach-priest brings the same commitment and excitement to iambic pentameter as he does to Friday-night lights.
The counselor (Sister Sarah-Joan, played to perfection by veteran actress Lois Smith) is warm, funny and understanding. She compliments Lady Bird on her drawings of Sacramento, saying that her art demonstrates a lot of love for the city. Lady Bird cannot accept the kind words and shrugs them off by saying she simply pays attention. The nun responds, “Don’t you think that might be the same thing? Love and attention?”
Grace = Love and Acceptance
Here is where the theology surfaces. Love and attention are the same thing in Catholic belief. Catholics believe that God is not impersonal. The world was not created by a Divine Watchmaker and set spinning. God is deeply and lovingly concerned with every person, every creature. God pays attention. It is what our theology refers to as “grace.”
Ultimately, “Lady Bird” is a film of grace and a film about grace. Lady Bird laments to her mother, “What if this is the best version [of myself]?” This is the question that teachers in Catholic schools attempt to help their students answer every day. Because of our deep commitment to the idea of creation imago dei (we are created in the image of God), we nurture in our students a deep faith that they are the people God created them to be.