City of Saints: a Review

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This has not been a great year for film so far – not from my point of view at least. I enjoy watching movies and reviewing them for TCT, but my inclination is not to review films unless they have some clear connection to the interests of Catholic readers.

I could argue the point another way: Catholics may be as interested in, say, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2. ($145-million in its opening weekend), as in any hypothetical Catholic film. And after all, I did review what I guess we can now call Vol. 1. in 2014, although that was mostly to charge at one of my personal windmills: the lack of religion in futuristic films (see “Godless Space”). Don’t get me started on Hollywood’s “future without Christ,” and don’t even mention “The Force.”

Of course, film is not just major motion pictures. Lately, I’ve had the privilege and the pleasure of watching a series of short videos produced by the Norbertine canons of St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. The series is titled City of Saints, and it offers glimpses into the lives of the Norbertines themselves and those to whom they minister. The Marines at Camp Pendleton, about an hour south of the Abbey, couldn’t have produced a better recruitment video.

But I pause for a disclaimer of sorts. I’ve mentioned before here that I’m on the board of Aid to the Church in Need U.S.A., and among others who also serve are the abbot of St. Michael’s, Rt. Rev. Eugene Hayes, and the interim prior, V. Rev. Gabriel Stack. They’re naturals for the board, because the founder of Aid to the Church in Need was a Norbertine, Father Werenfried van Straaten. Father Werenfried was, in the words of his 2003 Telegraph obituary, “a fearless defender of Catholic values behind the old Iron Curtain.”

Well, the men of the St. Michael’s community today are fearless defenders of the faith in Southern California, which may be a harder task than when Father Werenfried faced off with communists in Poland and Czechoslovakia at the height of the Cold War.

I pause again: Werenfried was not the founder of the Norbertines. The Premonstratensians (or the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré) were founded by St. Norbert of Xanten on Christmas Day in 1120 in France in the region known as Picardy – in what’s now the modern département of Somme. Thank heavens for Norbert! From him, we get the more familiar name for the White Canons (so-called for the color of their habits). You don’t even want to try pronouncing Premonstratensians.

Norbert was a friend of the greatest of all monks (St. Benedict of Nursia excepted), Bernard of Clairvaux, and the rule Norbert established for the White Canons is a mixture of the principles that governed the Augustinian order and Bernard’s Cistercians.

And a canon, as opposed to a monk, is a priest, living in a community, who – however much he may engage in prayer and contemplation – is not a contemplative per se. The canons’ ministry is public. In the 11th century, the great Pope Urban II, he of the First Crusade, contrasted the difference between monks and canons by using the example of the sisters of Lazarus: monks are like Mary and canons like Martha.

In the seven-part City of Saints, each segment of which runs between four and seven minutes, we meet a Norbertine father ministering in some way to people in Orange County. At the end of each episode, there is a profile, in text form, of the priest as well as of a saint whose intercession is part of the vignette.

St. Michael’s Abbey . . . to be

There are stories of a lost gang member, Alex, (“The Good Thief,” profiles: Fr. Norbert and St. Dismas); of a Vietnamese immigrant (“The Refugee,” Fr. Pascal and St. Pascal); of a surfer blinded in an accident (“The Blind Prayer,” Fr. Claude and St. Norbert); of a young mother, pregnant out of wedlock, abandoned by the father, who is told her baby will likely die (“The Unexpected Gift,” Fr. Norbert again and St. John Paul II; and of a boy, Humberto, bullied by classmates (“The Courageous Son,” Fr. Charbel and Our Lady of Guadalupe). There is another episode I’ll mention just below and a final one coming on May 25th.

What’s remarkable about these vignettes is how much emotional power, intellectual clarity, spiritual lucidity, and visual beauty they manage to achieve in such short segments. The message is clear: God’s grace is everywhere, and if we have eyes and ears to see and hear it, we will be witnesses. The tagline of the series is from Oscar Wilde, who wasn’t a saint but who made a good, Catholic end: “Every saint has a past. Every sinner has a future.”

St. Michael’s Abbey currently has nearly fifty priests and thirty seminarians. Their ministries include a prep school and outreach to prisons, and they have released several albums of Gregorian chant, available from Amazon and iTunes and, I assume, from other sources with which I’m unfamiliar. You can hear a bit of the Norbertines’ music in the penultimate episode of City of Saints, “The Language of Heaven,” featuring Fr. Chrysostrom, the abbey’s head cantor. His saint is Cecilia, who “sang in her heart to the Lord.”

The Norbertines of St. Michael’s are currently engaged in constructing a new abbey. The old one is insufficient to sustain the order’s growth and the breadth of its ministries.

Watching these short films, I thought of the famous “novel in six words” attributed to Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Maybe he wrote it, maybe not, but it’s proof anyway that concision can have power. Watch City of Saints and see what I mean.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.