‘Father Stu’: Mark Wahlberg and Rosalind Ross on Stuart Long’s hobbling but heroic holiness

Unlikely Christian, boxer-turned-aspiring-actor Stuart Long (producer Mark Wahlberg), turns Catholic for the wrong reason: to cozy up to devout girlfriend Carmen (Teresa Ruiz). Then, despite a debilitating accident, this trainwreck of a man turns priest for the right reason: to cozy up to God.

But God, apparently, has plans. Instead of a fulfilling life of ministry, Stu faces down an incurable, degenerative disease that cripples him, muscle by muscle, limb by limb. His mother, Kathleen (Australian actress Jacki Weaver) and estranged father (Mel Gibson), having lost Stu’s brother when he was but a child, helplessly look on as the strapping Stu crumbles before their eyes.

Other writers dwell on the plot, Wahlberg’s riveting performance and his spectacular transformation for the role. They critique debutant screenwriter-director Rosalind Ross’s pacing, her veering from the real Stu story and fault how her attempt to avoid being preachy, in a largely syrupy faith-based genre, ends up celebrating rather than clarifying Stu’s irreverence.

So, as we approach Stu’s 60th birth anniversary, it may help to aim off a bit and look closer at this unlikeliest of Hollywood parables about priests, priestly vocations and, yes, God

Divine calling

To Stu’s non-believer parents, religion is like citizenship; a passport with pluses and minuses, but one that can be swiftly surrendered in a sulk. Their grouse is against God who stole one son from them prematurely and threatens to steal the other. Their religion is disciplinarian: their faith rewards God when he’s “good” to them, their faithlessness punishes God when he’s “mean” to them.

Carmen warms to Stu’s ham-handed courtship, is ready to marry and have children by him, but only if he shares her faith. In a break from her otherwise empathetic character — horrified that her suitor is set on clergy life, not just conversion — Carmen chastises Kathleen: “Had you been awake enough to dignify his place in this world, in spite of the loss of your other son, he wouldn’t be so desperate to find himself.”

Everyone thinks Stu is fleeing failed or faltering ambitions (boxing, acting, marriage, family), seeking solace in a seminary. His gloveless verbal sparring with Monsignor Kelly (Malcolm McDowell) says otherwise; he isn’t running away from life, but toward God.

Self-centred Stu is like millions who’re certain that life begins and ends with the body. Conversion upends where he thinks his power lies. It isn’t in his six-pack athleticism, his ride-with-me looks, his fists, his hyperactive mind. Instead, it’s in an elusive something, closer to his heart, his will, his soul. And it sets him above lesser seminarians, separates his new self from his old. 

Spiritual battle

Critics fret that the film centres Stu’s journey to priesthood, not his journey as a priest. That’s missing the point. Ross and Wahlberg humanise Stu, make (and keep) him as fun, funny, and as flesh-and-blood as possible, with or without his cassock. To them, the most “consequential” moments occur during his wisecracking, swagger on his way to church, not amid his vows once inside. Even inside, his combativeness in the aisle matters more than his conviction at the altar, his striving down in the pew is more vital than his sermon up in the pulpit. 

Stu’s staying a priest is less fraught than his battle becoming one, especially when everyone’s competing to keep him collarless. That Stu changed others is a foregone conclusion. It’s how God changed him that fascinates; this film’s about Damascus, not Jerusalem. Stu’s clumsy tripping over the trainer-wheels of Catholicism (baptism, confession, penance) may resonate even with non-Catholics, but it challenges Catholics to interrogate their apathy toward what ought to be powerhouses of grace. 

Stu’s exchanges with fellow seminarians wrestling with their vocation, and his exchanges with God (as he wrestles with his infuriating disease) ought to be mandatory viewing for all young men and women, pious or not. Heartbreakingly, his family tries to tempt him away from God; how easy it is to be unfaithful to oneself, to family, to God. Isn’t that why we must stay true? Nothing great or good, comes easy.


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Initially, Stu is every bit the Rice Christian; blind to anything but closeness to Carmen, deaf to seminarians sneering at the impurity of his intent. Later, he realises that the poor (in spirit) save him as much as he saves them.

Pharisee and penitent

Seminarian Jacob (Australian actor Cody Fern), who calls Stu “a fraud”, can’t find one reason why Stu would want to be a priest, but reels off several reasons why he shouldn’t, or won’t, be one. Zealots dwell on their zeal (a reflection of themselves), believers, on God. The bigot hankers after perfection, annoyed by stains around him; he’s more excited by wounds than by healing.

The believer knows that imperfection reminds him of his need for God; he stares at stains too, but what he’s watching for are traces of God’s cleansing hand. Jacob’s tortured mind indicts priests who are inimical to Catholicism, including those who feel coerced into, rather than convinced about celibacy and the priestly life; to Stu celibacy isn’t loss, but exchange; swapping one passion for another.

Stu figured his pre-bout push-ups made him a better fighter, while looking down on those slower, smaller, less muscular than he was. Jacob thought his spiritual push-ups (reciting of prayers, reading of the Bible and tenure in church) made him a better priest, while looking down on others to feel better about himself. 

Jacob’s character is a wake-up call. Never mind “the crisis” in vocations, God’s call is a mystery, not a fitness test. Parents can’t — shouldn’t — psych children into becoming priests or nuns, but live God’s values so that their children imbibe them, better prepared to answer God’s call when it comes. Evangelisation isn’t forcing God on people, but living in a way that helps them be true to themselves and others. 

Much of new Hollywood embraces identity like a religion: you can’t write about women unless you’re a woman, you can’t speak about Blacks unless you’re Black. Why not another pointless precept: you can’t make a film on priests unless you’re a priest! 

Written and directed by a woman, this film rebukes the inanity of identity-speak by shining a sensible and sensitive feminine light on masculinity. And, in a movie about men, Ross salutes the dignity of women through playful and painful scenes that Carmen and Kathleen share with their men. That many women are degraded repeatedly by many men and that some degrade themselves, doesn’t mean that their sex or their sexuality is less than sacred; a crucifix doesn’t become profane because you spit on it any more than a Bible becomes worthless because you burn it.

In an age that stigmatises discomfort, Stuart Long’s call to sanctify suffering is sobering. Freedom, he discovers, doesn’t always lie in independence, sometimes it’s in the right kind of dependence; what counts is who you’re counting on. God isn’t always a pillar of fire or a burning bush, sometimes he’s just feeding you, wiping food leaking from your mouth, helping you to the bathroom. Or he’s simply holding your hand, reminding you that you’re not alone.


Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on culture and society. Find him on Twitter @RudolphFernandz

 Image Credit: Sony Pictures

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