You’ll be doing what Daniel Berrigan did in ‘The Mission.’” That is how the director Roland Joffé described my job as a consultant on “There Be Dragons,” a film he wrote and directed that features as one of its central characters St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei (see Am. 5/16/11).
Mr. Joffé asked me to the set to help the cast and crew bring to life a distinctively Catholic milieu—Escrivá’s world from 1908 to 1937. In the summer of 2009, I headed to Argentina to spend four months working amid cameras, cranes, artists, electricians and actors. Almost no one on the set was a practicing Catholic, and the movie was not intended for a Christian audience. For me, it was a chance to see a saint through the secular eyes of modern nonbelievers.
When people hear about the movie, they are often surprised. How, they ask, could a thrice-married, former-Trotskyite, British agnostic produce a sympathetic portrayal of a Catholic saint? What does an agnostic see in someone like St. Josemaría?
But the phenomenon should not come as a surprise: Catholic saints have been attracting the admiring attention of nonbelieving and non-Catholic writers for centuries.
The father of this peculiar literary genre may well be the 18th-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who once described himself as “not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly non-Christian.” Though he had little use for Christianity, Goethe nevertheless took Philip Neri as his “patron saint” during his sojourns in Italy in the late 1700s and wrote a lengthy, appreciative essay about St. Philip entitled “The Humorous Saint.”
It was a Jewish playwright from Prague, Franz Werfel, who gave the world the 1942 novel The Song of Bernadette (later made into a popular film) about St. Bernadette Soubirous, to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in 1858 in Lourdes. At the beginning of World War II, before escaping from France through the Pyrenees, Werfel and his wife had spent time as refugees, hidden by families in Lourdes, who told him the tale of Bernadette. After settling in the United States, he wrote his novel as a token of gratitude.
And it was the novelist Willa Cather, an Episcopalian, who in 1927, inspired by the quietly heroic story of the French missionary Jean-Baptiste Lamy and his efforts to establish a diocese in the territory of New Mexico, wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop, one of the great works of American fiction.
Oddly enough, two other noteworthy examples of non-Catholics writing about saints involve the same saint, Joan of Arc, and authors quite hostile to Catholicism. Joan is not only the heroine of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Saint Joan,” but also of Mark Twain’s book Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which he claimed was his finest work: “I like Joan of Arc best of all my books,” he said. “And it is the best.” More than a century after the book was published, it remains something of a shock that, in Twain’s usually jaundiced eyes, a medieval female saint was “easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”
In the 1960s, the English playwright Robert Bolt, an agnostic, made St. Thomas More into a quasi-existentialist hero of authenticity in both the stage and screen versions of “A Man for All Seasons.” It seems fitting that Bolt should introduce his play with a quotation from Jonathan Swift (the Mark Twain, one might say, of England, if Twain could have donned 18th-century Church-of-Ireland clerical attire). In language Twain might well have known, Swift called Thomas More “the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced.”
What we see in each case is a non-Catholic or nonbelieving author who discovers some distinctive human virtue that stands out in the God-directed life of a Catholic saint: the joy of Philip Neri, the steadfastness of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the astonishing courage of Joan of Arc, the integrity of Thomas More.
In this broader context, Joffé’s decision to write about Escrivá seems less exceptional. Ironically, the seed of his screenplay was itself a film. His interest was piqued by video footage from the 1970s in which Escrivá responds to a Jewish girl in Chile who says that she wants to convert to Catholicism but her parents won’t let her. Escrivá’s response—about the love we owe our parents and his own love for Jews—took Joffé so much by surprise that he dedicated the next three years to a film inspired by that moment.
Beyond the precedents, there seems to be a deeper Catholic logic at work. The notion that sanctity should be attractive to those who do not see with the eyes of faith is implicit in the Christian message. There is a profound link between human and divine beauty. We can hear it in the famous words of St. Irenaeus of Lyons: “The glory of God is man alive.”
Theologically, it makes sense to say that the more of a saint you are, the more of a human being you are. The holiness of someone like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta did not make her less of a woman. Quite the contrary. Sanctity does not erase personality. What a colorful collection of characters we meet in the liturgical calendar: Joan of Arc and Thomas More; Augustine and Benedict; Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi; Cardinal Newman and Ignatius of Loyola; Teresa of ávila and Thérèse of Lisieux.
The personal stories of writers like Goethe, Shaw, Twain and Bolt may attract our attention largely because they do not involve a religious conversion. But if we are looking for evidence of the natural value of Christian holiness, it would be a mistake to look only to the experiences of nonconverts. The same dynamic—a recognition not of the error of one’s nonbelieving ways but of their fundamental correctness—is at work in conversions that represent a confirmation of one’s natural inclinations.
Not all conversion stories are dramatic interior revolutions like those of, say, Walker Percy and Thomas Merton. In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton compares his situation to that of a sailor who discovers a “new” island only to realize that it is, in fact, his old home: he discovered in Christianity precisely the things that he had always loved. About her own conversion, Muriel Spark remarked, “There was no blinding revelation in my case.” On another occasion she said, “The reason I became a Catholic was because it explained me.” In short, there may be much more support for the theological principle than the few famous “anomalous” cases I mentioned would suggest.
Writing and directing “There Be Dragons” did not make a Christian out of Roland Joffé, who still describes himself as a “wobbly agnostic.” But in an interview before the film’s premiere in Madrid, Joffé told a reporter what he had taken away from his encounter with a modern-day saint: “It’s wrong to imagine a saint as a kind of Superman, a sort of ‘Super-Christian,’ who flies around in his cloak and makes everything come right! In fact, a saint is a human being....a saint is someone who is really human.”