Thanks to Mark Wahlberg’s new movie Father Stu, the world outside of Helena, Mon., is being introduced to an extraordinary story of an ordinary man to whom God, contrary to worldly and ecclesial logic, gave the vocation to the priesthood and through whom God was able to meet, strengthen and sanctify many over his six-plus years of priestly labor. And through the interest Father Stu is generating as a result of Wahlberg’s perseverance, personal investment, financial risk and faith, God is able to reach and inspire millions more.
It’s a very positive sign that a movie like Father Stu would be made. In recent decades, the types of priests Hollywood has been interested in depicting have stereotypically been those who are corrupt and hypocritical, who are trying to “reform” the Church to align with the “times,” or who at best are more morally frail than faithful under trial.
In Father Stuart Long, we have a convert whose life was a commentary on Jesus’ words “repent and believe,” who resolutely promoted the Church’s teachings on abortion, sexual morality, and euthanasia, and who despite being ordained a priest with a crippling rare disease, continued to fight the good fight, finish the race in a wheelchair, and keep the faith by zealously passing it on long past the time when self-pity and simple human weakness might have stopped most others (2 Tim 4:7).
I would encourage those who do not yet know his story to consult his detailed 2014 obituary, a superb biographical sketch by Michelle LaRosa for The Pillar, a powerful video interview with him before he died, or the new movie (which takes liberty with various details).
In brief, however, after growing up in Helena, winning a Golden Gloves amateur boxing title, graduating with degrees in English literature and writing, moving to Hollywood in search of movie stardom, and working as a bartender, bouncer and security guard, this fun-loving, strong, self-confident, kind but worldly 30-year-old had his life upended in a life-threatening motorcycle accident. When he recovered, he was convinced that his life had been saved for a reason. He started to search for that reason.
A desire to wed his live-in girlfriend, Cindy, who would only marry in the Catholic Church, led him to enroll in classes to become a Catholic. As he was being baptized at the Easter Vigil in 1994, he felt God calling him to become a priest. To test that call, he taught at a Catholic school for a few years, then gave away all he had and joined the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York, discerned a call to diocesan priesthood, was accepted as a seminarian for the Diocese of Helena and was sent to Mount Angel Seminary in Portland, Ore.
Around the time he was ordained a transitional deacon in December 2006 and made his lifetime promises of celibacy, prayer and obedience, he started to experience various physical difficulties, which were eventually diagnosed as inclusion body myositis. Because of Church law that requires candidates to ordination to be physically and psychologically healthy to fulfill their priestly duties (canon 1051), the seminary recommended that he not be advanced to priestly ordination. He made a pilgrimage to Lourdes in search of a physical miracle, but the grace he received was spiritual: a peaceful conviction that God was with him, and a desire to suffer with Christ whatever Christ willed.
Upon returning, he also received another gift: Bishop George Thomas of Helena told him that he had decided to overrule the seminary’s recommendation, convinced in prayer that the Lord wanted Stu to be an icon of Christ, the Suffering Servant, and show the redemptive power of Christian suffering. At the end of his Dec. 14, 2007 ordination, during which he needed crutches, Father Stu matter-of-factly preached, “I stand before you as a broken man. Barring a miracle, I’m going to die from this disease, but I carry it for the cross of Christ, and we can all carry our crosses.”
I would like to focus on a few lessons from his uplifting life.
The first is vocation. When Stu got the somewhat shocking sense that God was calling him to be a priest, he pursued it, and persevered in faithfully following that call no matter what serious obstacles arose. Likewise, we must praise Bishop Thomas for not taking the easy or cowardly way out, but to pray about Stu’s situation and follow the Lord’s guidance.
Church history is littered by the stories of future saints who were rejected by dioceses and religious orders because the aspirants were born of unmarried parents, were not of the right race or social class, were deemed too dumb, too poor, too frail, too old, were not virgins, or various other reasons. Saints John Vianney, Faustina, Frances Cabrini, Benedict Joseph Labre, Louise de Marillac, Margaret of Castello, Rose of Viterbo are among a long litany of those rejected because those testing vocations on behalf of the Church were thinking “not as God thinks but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23). It was not part of their discernment to ask whether God might be calling someone who was sick, older than 35, bad at Latin, or a widow.
Thankfully, both Bishop Thomas and Father Stu listened to the God who chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Cor 1:26-29) and obeyed his voice. And God was able to do so much with the five loaves and two fish of health Father Stu still had.
The second lesson is about divine mercy. Father Stu’s unlikely calling manifests the power of God’s mercy — an element in Father Stu’s story that Wahlberg’s movie powerfully depicts. In his initial interview for the seminary, Father Stu mentions God’s calling Saints Paul, Augustine and Francis of Assisi to prove that sometimes God’s most effective ambassadors of mercy are those whose being and history exude it. He preaches three times in the movie, in prison, as a seminarian, and at his ordination, and each time describes God’s mercy. And after he enters the nursing home, we see how his principal ministry was anointing the sick and hearing the Confessions of his fellow residents, staff and people from all over greater Helena, who, at 8:30 each morning, would start to form a line stretching even outside the front door. They found in Father Stu someone whom they knew could understand their moral failings as well as someone who could give encouragement, advice and surgical penances to overcome them in cooperation with God’s grace.
The third lesson is about redemptive suffering, the summons to make up what is lacking in our flesh of Christ’s sufferings for the sake of the Church (Col 1:24). Father Stu heroically embraced the Cross Christ had given him and his life became increasingly an image of Christ the Suffering Servant. When he had lost control over his hands, he would have his dad or a friend come with him to dip his finger in the Oil of the Sick and trace it over the person’s forehead and hands as he said the prayers of the Anointing. Likewise trained servers would vest him, place the bread and chalice into his the words of consecration at Mass, and lift Christ’s body and blood for him to consume. Several of those present for these Sacraments have said it was like watching a crucified man celebrate them. Father Stu had indeed been crucified with Christ and the life he was now living was by faith in the Son of God who loved him and gave his life to redeem him (Gal 2:19-20).
There’s much more to say about the priest and about the movie. But I’d urge you to take advantage of the various means available to get to know this affable, lionhearted man and spiritual father better. Through him God has powerful lessons for our time about divine mercy, redemptive suffering, the life of faith, sacred calling, the gift of the priesthood and so many other blessings our age and Church need.
Father Roger Landry is interim executive editor of The Anchor.