By FATHER MATTHEW STEHLING
We are used to seeing the Church portrayed in movies. Many aspects of the Church are so iconic that when a filmmaker needs a religious aspect, Catholic traditions are used. I can’t think of an exorcism horror movie that doesn’t have a Catholic priest as a main character. How many church wedding scenes in cinematic history are clearly taking place in a Catholic Church? But while many films may use Catholic practices, traditions or locations we must also recognize that the themes and scenarios don’t always reflect the Catholic Faith.
This is true of the 2010 film The Way, written and produced by Emilio Estevez, and starring Martin Sheen. The story takes place against the backdrop of the Camino de Santiago, (The Way of St. James) an ancient pilgrimage through northern Spain ending at the Shrine of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Martin Sheen plays Tom Avery, a lapsed Catholic who goes to France to collect the body of his son Daniel, played by Emilio Estevez, who is killed in a storm as he begins his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. After arriving in France, Tom decides to honor his son’s memory by walking the pilgrimage himself and carrying Daniel’s ashes with him.
While walking the 500 mile journey, Tom joins up with three other pilgrims. Joost, from Amsterdam, is walking the Camino in order to lose weight for his brother’s wedding. He also hopes a better physique will help reignite his relationship with his wife. Sarah is a Canadian pilgrim who claims to be doing the pilgrimage to “quit smoking” but as we later find out she’s trying to get away from an abusive husband. We also meet an Irish travel writer, James, suffering from writer’s block. As the companions cross the Spanish countryside they occasionally encounter other pilgrims, including an American priest Father Frank, walking the Camino looking for a miraculous healing.
The small group faces challenges along the way. Tom’s bag, containing the ashes of his son, is stolen by a young Romani. Learning what the bag contains, the thief’s father makes the boy return the backpack and invites the group to join his people for a street party. Throughout the movie Tom stops at different locations along the route and leaves small portions of the ashes.
After arriving in Compostela the group decides to continue to the coast, where Tom scatters the remainder of Daniel’s ashes.
The Way is a visually beautiful movie. Much of the film is comprised of sweeping shots of the Spanish countryside. And the idea of pilgrimage itself is portrayed as a positive. But its presented as more or less a self-help walk and there is very little talk of grace in the film.
Each of the characters discovers something about themselves and goes back to their old life a changed person. Grace is implicitly at work, but the source of that grace could just as easily be the beautiful setting as Jesus Christ. The Catholic nature of the Camino is really only seen in the iconic shots of the churches, or the giant thurible in the Cathedral.
Another problematic issue in the film is the treatment of the ashes. The dispersal of the ashes along the route and the eventual scattering of Daniel’s ashes at the end of the film, set in such a Catholic setting as the Camino, may cause confusion about what the Church teaches regarding cremation.
At the foundation of everything the Church holds and teaches is the person of Jesus Christ. God created man in His own image (Gen 1:27). He was created with a body and a soul. In Christ’s Incarnation, his becoming man, the human and divine natures are brought together in a mysterious way.
This union of Christ’s divinity to our humanity is the reason we show respect to the body. When Christ rose from the dead, he wasn’t merely a ghost or phantom, but possessed a true body. He ate and drank with his disciples and they touched his wounds. Our Lord took his resurrected body with him as he ascended into heaven. Heaven is not, therefore, a place where we will float around as spirits or become angels. It is a bodily, physical place.
When we die we are not just souls released from a bodily cage. The Church holds that at the Final Judgment we will be united again with our bodies. And so we take great care of those who have died. The deceased body is part of their person, and we show respect to the whole person by showing respect to their remains.
Cremation has been allowed for legitimate and cultural reasons in the Church from its founding, but in the late 19th Century the Church banned cremation because it was often done in direct opposition to the Church’s teaching on bodily resurrection. In 1963 the ban was lifted, and cremation was allowed, “provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.” CCC 2301.
It is allowable for a Catholic to be cremated. The funeral rites have specific prayers to be used when cremated remains are present. But the remains should then be interred in a cemetery or mausoleum, in accord with Catholic teaching. The act of burying the dead can also help families to gain closure after the loss of a loved one
Because the ashes are really the body of the deceased person, they should be treated with the same respect we would give to a corpse. We honor the dead by giving them a permanent resting place. We must do the same with cremated remains, giving the deceased a permanent resting place. The burial of the dead is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy.
If anyone in your own family has cremated remains sitting on a mantle in their house, I encourage you to talk to them about interring the remains, allowing the loved one a place of final rest.
So, despite the Catholic setting, I would not categorize The Way as a Catholic movie. The acting is good and the story is moving with beautiful cinematography, but I think this film falls into the “spiritual but not religious” category. Pilgrimages are good, but we undertake them to draw closer to Christ. This film misses that. Remembering the dead is good, but we also treat their remains with the utmost respect, and this movie definitely is definitely not the way to understand that. o
Father Stehling is administrator of St. Leo the Great parish in Centerville and priest-in-charge of St. Thomas More mission at Hilltop Lakes. He holds a Bachelor’s in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
Editor’s note: With the advent of Netflix and other movie streaming services and the plethora of cable classic movie channels, a movie doesn’t have to be in theaters anymore to be accessible to nearly everyone. ‘The Way’ was made in 2010 and deals with Catholic themes, so it’s up for review this month.