The Shoes of the Fisherman, starring Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier, is a 1968 drama based on the 1963 novel of the same name written by Morris L. West. For those who have never seen the movie, it chronicles the life of Kiril Lakota (Quinn), a Soviet political prisoner and former archbishop of Ukraine. Lakota’s release by the Soviet premier (Olivier) to Vatican City sets in motion a series of events bringing Lakota front and center in a world on the brink of nuclear war.
Although the performances of the entire cast are worthy of several accolades, one scene of the film stands out as my favorite. Two elderly and senior members of the Roman Curia, Cardinal Rinaldi and Cardinal Leone, are discussing papabile candidates to succeed the recently deceased Holy Father. Perhaps knowing both of them are unlikely to be the new pope, they begin reflecting instead on their long and privileged lives.
Rinaldi: We are all too old. There are not more than half a dozen of us who can give the church what it needs at this moment.
Leone: Do you think you are one of them?
Rinaldi: One what?
Leone: One of the half dozen.
Rinaldi: I know I’m not.
Leone: Do you think I have a chance of election?
Rinaldi: (laughs) I hope not.
Leone: (also laughs) Don’t worry. I know I haven’t. You know, Valerio, I should have been a country priest, with just enough theology to hear confession and just enough Latin to get through Mass. I would sit in front of my church on summer evenings and talk about the crops. And what am I now? A walking encyclopedia of dogma. A theological dictionary on two legs.
Rinaldi: Each of us has his own cross….Do you know what mine is? My cross, I mean. To be rich and content and fulfilled and to know that I have deserved none of it and that when I’m called to judgment, I must depend entirely on the mercy of God.
As a religious brother, particularly as a mendicant, I feel a great appreciation to those who through their financial generosity support our mission. Keenly aware it is with other people’s money I am able to live the life I have, I sympathize with Cardinal Rinaldi’s words: “I have deserved none of it.”
How sad it is when we convince ourselves that what we own is really ours. “Call nothing your own,” Franciscans are told when they make vows. Our lack of ownership over any thing extends even to those intangibles in our lives. In my own life, I still do not know what I did to deserve two loving parents. What did I do to have the good fortune to be raised in a very safe time in a very safe country during a very prosperous decade? What have I done to deserve a comfortable bed on which to sleep with a roof over my head when just across the street, members of the homeless population die every day of drug overdose and violence?
During an 8-Day silent retreat with the Jesuits last summer, I first expressed these thoughts to a spiritual director. Instead of trying to comfort me or tell me I was wrong—that I had really had done something to deserve these things—to my surprise he completely agreed. “You’re right. You haven’t done anything to deserve those things.”
But since I have been the recipient of so many good gifts, what must I now do with them?
Cardinal Leone is at the heights of ecclesiastical power, yet, instead of appreciation, desires to have instead lived as a simple, country priest with “just enough theology to hear confession and just enough Latin to get through Mass.” I am reminded of a priest in my old diocese back home who lamented he could no longer celebrate Mass everyday because of his assigned duties as a church bureaucrat. On one hand, how incredibly sad that this man was denied the opportunity to perform the most solemn task of any priest. And yet, of all the priests I knew, he was the most qualified to accept the reality of his new situation. God was calling him to serve the church in a different way. His sharing in the sacrifice of Jesus would not take place during the Mass but would be in the days spent hunched over his computer, scribbling notes during meetings, and sifting through church budgets. All of this for the administration and running of the church—the Bride of Christ—which this priest so dearly loved.
We are always reliant on the mercy of God. We will take nothing as our own. What little we do have is only because of the overflowing generosity of God. Like Job in the Old Testament, we keep before us the knowledge that we came into this world with nothing and we shall return to God with nothing (Job 1:21). In his Earlier Rule of 1209, Saint Francis implored his brothers:
“With our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind..let us all love the Lord God Who has given and gives to each one of us our whole body, our whole soul and our whole life, Who has created, redeemed and will save us by His mercy alone, Who did and does everything good for us, miserable and wretched, rotten and foul, ungrateful and evil ones.”
“Miserable and wretched”. “Rotten and foul”. “Ungrateful and evil”. Not words we would like to hear from the mouth of dear St. Francis. But, insofar as we pass our days without recognizing, praising, or celebrating the wonderful and inestimable gifts bequeathed to us by God, we remain severely wretched. How terrible we are when we act as if it is by our word we brought forth our life’s spirit. How rotten are we when we presume as if by our command the sun rises and sets. How evil we are when we treat the earth and our common resources as merely another good to exploit and consume.
But as Christians, what immeasurable joy there is in knowing that even in the depths of our sinfulness, our wretchedness, our miserable and foul conduct, we still have hope. As Christians, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 38, 39; BCP, 862). Our assurance is this: Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall know the infinite depths of God’s love (Romans 10:13).
How awesome a joy it is to carry on our souls the indelible and undeserved title of Christian. What a beautiful cross to bear!
All-powerful, most holy, most high, supreme God:
all good, supreme good, totally good,
You Who alone are good,
may we give You all praise, all glory, all thanks, all honor, all blessing, and all good.
So be it! So be it! Amen.
Brother James Nathaniel, SSF can be reached at email@example.com