Interview: Father Leahy on “Benedict Men”

Posted on September 30, 2020 at 11:45 am

copyright quibi 2020
Athletic competition is endlessly fascinating, not just because of the talent and skill but because no one becomes a champion without character and values: determination, courage, and the kind of teamwork that requires respect and responsibility. And because we love stories about underdogs who never give up and come from behind. Basketball superstar Steph Curry understands that, and so he is the producer of a superb new documentary series on Quibi called “Benedict Men,” the story of a small Catholic high school in New Jersey run by Bendictine monks, most of the students Black and from families struggling financially, with a basketball team that is consistently the state champion.

I spoke to Father Edwin Leahy about the school, the basketball program, and the documentary.

What defines the Benedictines? What makes them different from the Jesuits and other Catholic orders that run schools?

The Jesuits were created by St. Ignatius to be at the disposal of the holy father, the pope, to go wherever they needed to be in the world to evangelize. We on the other hand are the oldest order in the church because St. Benedict existed/lived in 480 or 530 more or less 540. The fundamental difference is that we take a vow of stability so we are vowed to a place. We have other vows as well but that is the distinguishing mark, that we don’t get moved around. We live in the same place for our lives until they carry us out of the church as they say in Spanish in pajamas of wood, in a box. We’re here to stay and that’s our great strength, it’s also our great weakness because if we don’t get vocations to come to our house there’s a problem because there’s no place else you transfer people in from.

So you’ve been at St. Benedicts for a long time.

I went to school here as a high school boy. My father wanted me to go to an all-boys school so I applied here. I got rejected and my father was not to be put off, he talked to the pastor of our church and the pastor interceded and I got in provisionally. The joke turned out to be some of the people who rejected me wound up working for me.

When I got here I loved it; I could take you to the place in the building where I stood the first and second day I was here. I was a 13-year-old at the time and I knew I was home; I have no idea why but I knew I was home and I belonged here and here we are fifty something years later.

I entered the monastery community here in 1965, professed vows in ‘66, took solemn vows in ‘69, was ordained a priest in ‘72. I’ve been living here in Newark at the abbey at St. Benedict’s Prep since 1969.

The school closed in 1972 after 104 years because of racism and we lost 14 men from our monastery; they went to another place and we were stuck with trying to live a community life with no common work. So, we decided we would try to do something in education which is what we had always done and what the city desperately needed. I was dumb enough to say I would try to do it in 1972 and I’ve been doing it ever since. For 48 years I’ve been doing this and loving it.

Copyright QUIBI 2020

We learn in the film that your school motto is “What hurts my brother hurts me.” How does that apply in the competitive world of sports?

It applies in every level of our operations here. It is the ability to understand the other’s struggle and the other’s sufferings. It’s hard to create community and it’s hard to create teams if you can’t understand each other’s reality and each other’s sufferings.

You see in the series it gets rough at the end because of difficulties in giving up “what I want” for “what we need.” That’s the nature of community because if you live in community you’ve got to give up what you want for what the community needs; not easy to do and none of us can do it consistently.

We have a tendency that we do it and then we slip, then we do it; that’s basically our life. Our Father Albert describes the life in the monastery this way. When people ask him what do monks do, he says, “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up; we fall down and we get up,” and that’s life basically. So, the hope is there are more of us on our feet than there are on the ground at a given time, and then we can help people up. That’s it. That’s the secret and that’s what we try to do in this place in school all the time. That’s what you have to do on a team. If you can’t do that it’s hard to be a success.

I was surprised to see how many decisions at the school are made by the students. You give them a lot of leeway and a lot of power.

Our job here as adults is to prevent them from making decisions that will either physically hurt them or long-term hurt them. We’re not going to let kids make decisions because they can’t see 10 or 15 years from now that are going to damage them. So anything short of that, they decide it.

Remember, this place has to be re-created every year. In a company the CEO usually has the job for several years but here the CEO changes every year because there’s a senior year group leader who runs the place and he graduates and leaves. Well it’s early in the year one year and they decided that kids had worked really, really hard and they were going to have only half a day at school and at 12:30 they were going to be over. But we go from kindergarten to grade 12.

They tell me this and I said, “That’s a bad idea,” and they said “No, no, no we’re going to do it, we want to do it, we think it’s a good idea.” I said “I think you’re making a bad mistake, here’s why. First of all, you can’t let the little kids out without parents’ permission.” They said, “They’re going to stay all day.” “Oh, okay so that’s fair the little kids are going to go all day with the older kids having a half day; how is that fair?” “Well, we’ll figure out another way to do something for them.”

So, I said, “If something goes wrong when the middle school kids get out, who’s going to explain it to the parents?” I thought I got them to back off but they sent an email saying that school was going to be over at 12:30. I had about 15 minutes to pull this thing back. They pulled it off. They got in touch with faculty members and called the whole thing off and then we found another day down the road when we could give them the whole day off and not half a day and inform parents and all that but it took hours of discussion.
If they’re going to make it without adult advice they had damn well better be right because no parent is going to go after the 18 year old senior group leader; they’re going to come after me.

The rule is: do not do for kids what kids can do for themselves. So, here’s another example. 152 years we’re an all-boys school, last year two Catholic schools announced they were closing. One was a girl’s academy, the other was a co-ed school.

The girls unbeknownst to me came over here and they had a meeting in the boardroom and they decided that they were going to have a girls division here at St. Benedicts. I’m standing at dismissal time outside my office, outside the trophy room which is where everybody walks by; it’s like Times Square, everybody goes by there to go out the door. So, I’m standing there and one of the leaders, one of the guys, comes out and he says, “You got to come to this meeting.” I said, “What meeting?” “Oh there’s a meeting in the boardroom.” “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about a meeting.” “Just come in.”

They grabbed me the arm and dragged me into the meeting, I sit down and it becomes obvious to me in about two seconds that the meeting is just about over. I wasn’t being called in to participate in any decisions; I was being called in to be told what was going to happen and that I had to have girls division. I said, “We can’t have a girls division. (1) we’ve never had girls and (2) we don’t have any space.” “Well, let’s figure it out.” I put every roadblock up in the world that I could think of and nothing; they ignored me, none, zero, none of them worked. I couldn’t stop them and to make a long story short, we now have a girl’s division here; created completely by the girls and our guys. I had very little to do with it; it’s amazing.

It’s been a great blessing to have the girls here. It was all created by the kids; they did the whole thing.

What do you want people to learn from watching this series?

I want them to better understand the struggles and the suffering of not just basketball players (these kids happen to be basketball players) but the struggles and sufferings of our brothers and sisters of color in urban America. To have to put all your energy, your effort, as a 16 or 17-year-old as our student C.J. Wilcher said, “to try to help my family,” is not right; it’s just not right.

To have people living in poverty and some living in misery in the midst of the first world is a disgrace to the country. So, I hope people get a sense of the sufferings of kids and the anxiety that some have to live with. Even some parents fall into this. They begin to treat their kids as assets instead of like their children and that’s a disaster. There are a million people in the world that could be their kid’s basketball coach or could be his agent, but there is only one person in the world that can be his mother and only one person in the world that

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I Still Believe

Posted on March 5, 2020 at 10:33 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Terminal illness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 13, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 4, 2020
Copyright Lionsgate 2020

If a movie is called “I Still Believe,” you can be pretty sure it is aimed at those who already believe. Based on the real-life love story of Christian musician Jeremy Camp, it is set in a world of believers and very much in the tradition of Christian testimony, where tragedy is overcome or at least understood through faith. It is also a sincere and tender love story with attractive stars, tuneful songs, and a score by John Debney.

Jeremy Camp is played by K.J. Apa, who plays Archie on “Riverdale” with dark, handsome features that look like a cross between 90s-era Josh Hartnett and Wes Bentley. He is the oldest son of a loving family. As he leaves home for college, we see that he is kind and patient with his developmentally disabled youngest brother, and honorable and generous. His father offers to let Camp take his own guitar to college, saying that “for me, music is a hobby. For you it is a gift.” But there is a surprise. His parents bought him a brand new guitar, a sacrifice that will mean no Christmas presents. They knew he would be too thoughtful to leave his father without music.

Jeremy arrives at a small Christian college where Kry, a Christian musical group he admires, is performing, and he sneaks backstage to meet the lead singer, Jean-Luc La Joie. He asks for advice about “making it.” La Joie says, “It’s not about making it. It’s about what the songs give to people. What do you want to give to people.” He tells Camp to write what he cares about. La Voie writes “love songs to God.” But lately, he’s been writing one to a girl. Jeremy will learn what that means when he sees the girl for himself and is immediately drawn to her.

Melissa (Britt Robertson), and like Jeremy her life is committed to faith and to music as a way to express and strengthen her faith. This is a movie where the usual falling-in-love montage includes not just walking on the beach but service to others as a way for the couple to connect. It is difficult for her to admit her feelings for Jeremy and that creates stress in their relationship. They are on something of a break and he is back home with his family when he gets a call — she’s in the hospital with cancer.

They face it together and get married, against the advice of his family. They are very young and this is a daunting challenge at any age. But as the title tells us, their faith endures.

Those who are not believers in this particular kind of Christianity may question the unquestioning faith of these characters. There are many faith traditions that would see these incidents differently, and the movie has a closed and circular perspective some audience members will find reductive and exclusionary. But Robertson and Apa make a sweet couple and their commitment to God and each other gives their story a tenderness that even those with different beliefs will find touching.

Parents should know that this movie includes a very sad terminal illness, with scenes of medical treatment and suffering and a tragic loss.

Family discussion: What do we learn about Jeremy when he turns down his father’s guitar and gives his brother his phone? Should Melissa have told John-Luck sooner? When you can’t decide what to do, what helps you?

If you like this, try: “A Walk to Remember” and “I Can Only Imagine” and the music of Jeremy Camp

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The Good Class: Television’s Best Show Takes Us to School, This Time Literally

Posted on November 22, 2019 at 8:04 am

“The Good Place” is my favorite show, and I love the way it grapples with the deepest questions of existence in a sophisticated and nuanced but remarkably accessible (and funny and endearing) way. What does it mean to be a good person? Why should we try to be good? What do we owe each other? I watch every week, then listen to the terrific podcast with Marc Evan Jackson (who plays Sean, the head demon), then watch the episode again to catch the details they discuss. The podcast features actors, behind-the-scenes people like writers, producers, special effects, set, and costume designers, and you might even hear a real expert on moral philosophy.

And so of course the has become a text, with “The Good Class” being taught at Notre Dame. I love the description of the answers they got to the application for admission and the comments from “Good Place” creator Mike Shur.

The Good Class, at least, provides one place where people convene every week to talk about what they just saw.

“ the idea of what it means to watch and debate television like this together. To use television as a vehicle. It’s hard to talk about ethical issues these days. It’s hard to have a common language that’s not hyper politicized or hyper reductive,” Sullivan says. “We need cultural questions like this to do some of the 2,400-year-old work on our souls.”

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Breakthrough

Posted on April 16, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content including peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, serious accident, critical medical condition
Diversity Issues: Theme of trans-racial adoption
Date Released to Theaters: April 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 15, 2019

Copyright 2019 20th Century Fox
Breakthrough,” a Christian faith-based story based on a teenager’s remarkable recovery after falling through the ice into a frozen river. It asks but does not pretend to try to answer the big question: If we believe that divine intervention saved this boy, then where is the divine intervention for so many tragedies? Why him? Why not little children and beloved family members? He was not especially good or devout. What does it mean?

The movie also makes it clear that a very large community contributed to the boy’s recovery. Whether they were divinely inspired or not, they played an essential role. Nevertheless, this movie, the last to be issued from the now-Disney-owned Fox division producing Christian faith-based films, is preaching to the choir. It is likely to deliver what they are looking for, but it is unlikely to reach a broader audience as entertainment or as testimony. Even with a strong cast and a dramatic rescue, this movie is not created for or intended for those who are not already on board with the idea of a very devout family experiencing a miracle. Those who are will find this a touching, inspiring story well told and well performed.

Joyce and Brian Smith (“This is Us” star Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas) live in a comfortable suburban home with their teenage son John (Marcel Ruiz), a student at the local Christian private school and star of the school’s basketball team. He is starting to have some teenage broodiness, beginning to deal with being adopted. He loves his parents but feels the loss of the people he never knew who gave him up. When his teacher assigns an oral report on family history, he does not even try.

And then one day he and two of his friends decide to play tag on a frozen river. The ice cracks, and they fall through. Agonizing minutes tick by as rescue workers try to grab John, who has sunk unto the water. Tommy Shine (Mike Colter of “Girls Trip” and “Luke Cage”) hears someone say, “Go back.” Later, no one who was present will say that he said or even heard those words.

John is trapped for 15 minutes and, once he is at the hospital, has no pulse for nearly half an hour. All the medical indicators are that he is past hope. But his mother insists he will come back, and she prays “boldly” — something she had just recently said she was not sure she understood in a Bible study group.

Joyce has some lessons to learn. She has been prideful and judgmental. She has not been careful about her own health and that makes it harder for her to help her family. But Jason (Topher Grace), the new preacher she dismissed as too secular (he brings in a Christian rock band and wears jeans on the pulpit when he uses “The Bachelor” as a kind of parable) turns out to be a true minister. He tells her he cannot change the outcome, but he can walk there with her.

We may not agree on why John recovers. This cast makes us glad and relieved that he does, even if the story veers into smugness that undermines its message.

Parents should know that the story concerns a very serious accident involving teenagers and critical medical conditions.

Family discussion: Why didn’t John want to do the report about his family? Why was it hard for Joyce to trust Jason, and how did that change?

If you like this, try: “Miracles from Heaven”

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Pope Francis — A Man of His Word

Posted on May 18, 2018 at 7:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material including images of suffering
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Images of tragic circumstances including illness and oppression
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 18, 2018
Date Released to DVD: December 3, 2018
Copyright 2018 Focus Features

Wim Wenders’ unabashedly admiring documentary about Pope Francis is an intriguing and inspiring look at the man who is breaking a number of precedents in the Holy See. He is the first pope from South America after 265 predecessors, mostly from Italy. He is the first Jesuit, an order known for scholarship who “seek to find God in all things.” And he was the first to choose the name Francis, after the 16th century saint who was devoted to animals and nature.

He is unaffected, explaining that he wants to live very simply. He speaks to audiences and to us via the camera with candor and sincerity on topics ranging from the environment to interfaith understanding to the “three T’s” he says should be the foundations of our lives: in English, they are work (for dignity and contribution to the community — “to imitate God with your hands by creating”), land (to support sustainable resources), and roof (home, family).

Wenders interweaves a re-enactment of moments in the life of St. Francis to show parallels with his namesake. But the heart of the movie is seeing His Holiness interact with the crowds of people who are palpably moved by him. Visiting an American prison, he reminds the inmates that the very first man to become a saint was a prisoner like them. And then, in an act of infinite tenderness, he washes and kisses prisoners’ feet. A girl asks him why he has renounced wealth. He tells her that poverty around the world is a scandal, and “we must all become a little bit poorer…poverty is central to the gospel.” We can see the lugubrious faces of some of the Vatican priests and cardinals, looking as though this is not a welcome interpretation. Later, visiting his home country of Argentina, the crowd almost ecstatic with pride, he reminds them of a local expression: “You can always add water to the beans.”

One of the most striking scenes in the film has images of environmental damage projected onto the outside of St. Peter’s Basilica. “The poorest of the poor is Mother Earth. We have plundered her.” And he reminds us that it is the poorest of the poor who suffer first and most from environmental degradation.

His Holiness appears before the United States Congress and goes to Jerusalem to meet with rabbis and imams. He sits alone in a cell at the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem. He speaks movingly to groups and to us about the importance of listening. He misses the connection of taking confession. He says smiles are “the flower of the heart” and speaks of the importance of of having a sense of humor. He tells us the prayer of St. Thomas More he says every morning that always makes him smile.

“An artist is an apostle of beauty,” he tells us. Wenders has taken that to heart and created a film that gives us a rare chance to hear directly from a man whose devotion and compassion will inspire anyone.

Parents should know that this film includes some footage of suffering, including illness, poverty, and abuse.

Family discussion: How do the “three T’s” appear in your life? Why is listening especially important to Pope Francis?

If you like this, try: “The Letters” and “Nuns on the Bus”

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