"Philomena" Film Contains Lessons on Justice & Forgiveness for Catholics Hurt by Church

Pope Francis meeting Philomena Lee

“Philomena” is nominated for four Oscars at tonight’s Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and  has already been celebrated for its artistic accomplishments. The film, based upon a book published in 2009, details the true story of a young girl forced to give up her child to Irish nuns in the 1950s. Touching upon the abuse scandals of the Irish Church and the problems of mid-20th century Catholicism, the movie also comments on LGBT matters.

Jamie Manson wrote a review last fall for the National Catholic Reporter viewed from the lens of a progressive Catholic, and highlighted lessons the film might offer to the Church today. She writes:

“What appears from the ads as a middlebrow, sentimental comedy about a quirky Irish lady and a slightly exasperated English writer on a road trip is in fact a study in the gift of fortitude, an exploration of a dark chapter in the history of the Catholic church in Ireland and, in the end, a meditation on power of mercy in the face of an unconscionable abuse of power.”

Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench) was sent to one of Ireland’s infamous ‘Magdalene Laundry’ establishments after becoming pregnant at 18. The Catholic nuns administering the laundry forced her to allow her son, Anthony, to be adopted by an American couple and it was not until 2004 that Philomena broke her silence about this child. The film details her search to find Anthony, aided by Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), her daughter, and, Martin (Steve Coogan), a journalist who have a far more critical view of the Church than Philomena. They learn that Anthony, who was gay, has died of AIDS before Philomena was able reconnect with him, but the story doesn’t end there.

The film’s producers had hoped Pope Francis would view it and offer a nuanced perspective against those who had deemed it as ‘anti-Catholic.’ Speaking to both the issues of corruption and abuse, as well as the LGBT component, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick, and executive director, Francis DeBernardo, spoke to The Huffington Post:

” [Sr. Gramick:] ‘I think ‘Philomena’ is a sensitive portrayal of a woman whose deep love for her son impels her to search for him across the ocean to another continent…As a woman religious, I was ashamed of the behavior of the nuns in charge of the Catholic institution in which she was placed. Not only did they snatch her child and put him up for adoption, but they also refused to help her trace him years later. [Lee’s] lack of bitterness and pardon toward those who wronged her is an example of the kind of forgiveness Jesus spoke of in the Gospel. I think Pope Francis would like this film because it shows how Christians should, and should not, act.’…

“[DeBernardo:] ‘I found the depiction of Philomena Lee’s Catholicism to be very accurate…Philomena reminded me of many of the Catholic parents of LGBT people I have met over the years who have both a deep love for their faith and for their children. And they find no contradiction in these two loves. Their strong faith even allows them to love the institutional church which has often been so negative and harmful towards them and their children.’ “

Lee, like many parents and Catholics, transformed her pain into constructive action and co-founded The Philomena Project, which attempts to make public information about the more 60,000 women separated from their children by the Church and the Irish government. And though he did not view the film, Pope Francis met Lee on February 5th during a private audience. Her wisdom reported by Religion News Service is relevant for all Catholics, especially those harmed by the Church, to pause and reflect upon:

“Asked if she felt resentment against the church, Lee said, ‘You can’t go through life being so unyielding; you’ve got to forgive.’…

” ‘I have always put great faith in the church and the goodwill to put the wrongs of the past right…I hope and believe that his Holiness Pope Francis joins me in the fight to help the thousands of mothers and children who need closure on their own stories.’ “

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

0 replies
  1. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    I loved Philomena. What a masterful performance by Judi Dench. She so reminded me of my mother and mother-in-law. Both of my relatives were religious in the true sense of the word. Some would say their faith was naive or simple-minded, but in reality, their ability to forgive even the most heinous human failing within the institutional church was the most powerful show of Christ’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit that I have ever witnessed.
    My mother-in-law fell in love with a many who had gotten married two days before going to war WWII). When he came home, his “war bride” had disappeared, never to be seen again. My mother-in-law and he tried for EIGHT YEARS to get an annulment so they could be married in the church, and were never successful! Meanwhile, as she said so many times, celebrities like Frank Sinatra received multiple annulments so he could marry and re-marry. She ended up marrying “outside the church.” When my husband was nine, his dad died of a blood clot. For the rest of her life, my mother-in-law thought that maybe she was to “blame,” as she had married outside of the church. Instead of being there in her time of need, the church perpetuated her pain and suffering.
    My mother, who graduated at the top of her high school class, married at 18. By the time she was 23, she had five kids. My father was an assistant professor, making very little money. My mother truly believed that birth control was a sin. What a hard time they had raising us! My mother was crushed by overwhelming responsibility. Her life was worse because of her faith. Yet she always taught us that the church was not any individual priest, bishop or nun. They were human beings with the failings of human beings. She truly believed, as did my mother-in-law, that they were required to forgive and to love as Christ did.
    These two women were not atypical of that generation. Almost every family has a story of how the institutional church has failed them.
    Philomena reminds us of the power of true faith and forgiveness, and that true Catholicism is in the Body of Christ, revealed through the Holy Spirit. My relatives lived on the basis of faith and conscience.
    Today, the Holy Spirit is alive and well, and working in the hearts and minds of Catholics. Most of us know that to turn away from our LGBT brothers and sisters is wrong, plain and simple. Years from now everyone will agree as we do in the movie Philomena, that the unloving behavior of priests, bishops, and other “religious” is a heinous crime and betrayal of Christ, who calls us to love and support one another. Individual Catholics (the real church) are doing this now. We are waiting for the institutional church to catch up. We hope and pray that it is soon.
    Selfishly, I would love to see the church right these wrongs in my lifetime. I would love to see the church ‘do the right thing.’ If it doesn’t, that will not change the love and redemption of Jesus Christ. We must carry on. We will never stop, even if some of the priests and bishops have closed hearts.

  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    I haven’t seen the film, but I’ll share an interesting sidelight. Back in the 1950s, our family had an LP record album by a group called “The Little Gaelic Singers Of County Derry”. They were a group of about 20 young girls, plus a few boys — officially described as “orphans” — who lived at Nazareth House in Derry. Their LP is still available as a used item, and a lot of information about them is available here:


    It’s now obvious to us that many (if not most) of these “singing orphans” were not “orphans” at all — but children born to unwed mothers who were not socially permitted to keep their own kids, due to the shame and guilt involved in being an unwed mother in Ireland at the time. All of this horror traces back to the extremely repressive — I’d say “Jansenist” — regime of Irish Catholic social rules, which persisted until well into the 20th Century, and which were enforced by a stern and unforgiving “clergy class” who lorded it over the common people. It’s actually one of the greatest tributes to the Irish people that finally, in the late 20th Century, they overthrew this regime of harsh clerical oppression, and begin to live as proud Europeans in a continental environment.

    Just thought this information was worth passing along. The LP album itself, by the way, is quite hauntingly beautiful, and well worth acquiring, if you can find a copy.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Thanks for this link, Mickey! It’s a very articulate (albeit deeply disturbing) analysis of “what went horribly wrong” in traditional Irish Catholicism. I urge all of our readers to check it out.


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