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Roger Ebert Homily

Holy Name Cathedral
Chicago, Illinois

In our many wonderful conversations over the years, Chaz, Roger and I – often along with a step-star step-producer or step-child or two – pushed our inquiries and experiences into the corners of ambiguity to find those images, colors, and sounds where the understanding and commonalities would blend and come together in a Monet Vanilla Sky.

In our respective corners of the vineyard, both Roger’s viewers and my Loyola University students seem to become intensely preoccupied with the deceptively simple word: “redemption.” Or, as one perceptive young viewer said to his teacher, “I keep looking for a film ending that gives me some kind of definite answer; but every single one of these movies ends on an ambiguous note.”

As the student and viewer continue to wrestle with that conundrum one of our teachers introduces to his class, the film, “The Hours.” Though finding it hauntingly intriguing, the student scratches her head and says, “I can’t find anything redemptive in the movie.” Virginia Woolf (aka Nicole Kidman) leaves behind her earthly life by walking into a river for one last baptism; and a 2000-something Manhattanized (Meryl Streep) watches the poet that she has nursed through AIDS take his own life. The student remarks to her teacher, “I’m having trouble seeing where the redemption is when all these people are leaving their lives behind.” Can the viewer, the student possibly fathom how profoundly redemptive it might be to leave one’s life behind.... Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.

The teacher further explains that this film, “The Hours” has one last curve ball: the poet’s mother comes for the funeral. She had abandoned him as a child and as she walks through the door, one character whispers: “So there’s the monster.” But now, the monster, the wild beast, the jackal, the ostrich tells her story, the end line of which she says to Streep: It was death. I chose life. As the one of Jesus’ favorite poets, the artist Isaiah, said in our first reading: Wild beasts honor me, jackals and ostriches, for I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland.

Or, in the same film as we see the tender embrace begin and the scales fall from Meryl Streep’s eyes, the heart wrenching words of Virginia Woolf voice-over the turning off of the lights: To look life in the face, always to look life in the face, and to know what it is, to love it for what it is. At last to know it. To love it for what it is. And then to put it away. I solemnly assure you, unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.

In our prayers today in the soothing and reassuring Catholic Mass, we’ll say that for Roger, we believe that life for him has changed, it has not ended. And that claim is made bold because of the God revealed to those who let go, turn out the light, explore with confidence the dark, and aided there by the moving images of celluloid salvation, a new God, one of ironic compassion, of overpowering generosity, of radical love emerges to invite, embrace, and welcome with savage serenity this God of Silence.

I am convinced from our conversations that Roger found in darkened places, especially theatres, just such a God. It was in dark places that writers like Flannery O’ Connor, Shusako Endo, Graham Greene, Walker Percy, or Evelyn Waugh, all distinctively Catholic 20th-century voices, seem to go out of their way to paint human finitude as grotesquely as they can.

In that discovery in the darkness, Roger found a Jesus very different from the one he had been handed as a young Catholic child growing up in the Heartlands of our great country. This Jesus was an ironic one with unquenchable love, even for – especially for- people who betrayed him.

Just a month ago, Roger’s controversial and often misunderstood piece appeared in the Sun-Times. Let me cite just a quick paragraph which illustrates from his own iPad this discovery of Jesus I believe Roger made: That (Catholic grammar school education) led us toward the Theory of Evolution, which in its elegance and blinding obviousness became one of the pillars of my reasoning, explaining so many things in so many ways. It was an introduction not only to logic but to symbolism, thus opening a window into poetry, literature and the arts in general. All my life I have deplored those who interpret something only on its most simplistic level.

Let’s consider one of Japan’s best-loved writers who died in 1996, Shusaku Endo. In his powerful and as most students and viewers find upon first reading, disturbing novel called, Silence, the main character is Father Sebastian Rodriguez. It is the 17th century and Father Rodrigues is a Portuguese Jesuit priest who learns that one of his revered former seminary professors has been captured in Japan, tortured and has renounced Christ. Finding it impossible to believe that his mentor and teacher chose apostasy over “glorious martyrdom,” Rodrigues travels to Goa, India where he meets a Japanese fisherman who agrees to sneak Rodrigues and another priest onto shore near Nagasaki where the mentor was last seen.

For 300 pieces of silver, the fisherman betrays Rodrigues and there the heart of the story really begins. Rodriguez is confronted with an impossible moral choice: to formally renounce his faith or be responsible for the death of several native Christians. Father Rodrigues entered Japan proclaiming the Jesus of Easter; in his hardship and torture, he will discover the Jesus of Good Friday.

The story of ‘Silence’ with the harrowingly simple plot places the hero in the situation where he himself will not be tortured but substitutes 3 Christian peasants in his place, telling Rodrigues that they will undergo terrible suffering until he renounces the Christian faith for which he was willing to die. He is told he must signal his apostasy, his betrayal, by treading on the fumie, an icon or representation of the face of Christ, the face of glorious martyrdom he was handed, the image which haunted his thoughts and inspired his embrace of martyrdom.

The apparent silence of God in the face of such terrible suffering continues to haunt Rodrigues after his capture, but he remains convinced that he will not abandon the faith under even the cruelest torture. The Shogun of course knows our hero’s strength and in Judas-like fashion, offers him one of weakness: if he apostatizes, literally will trample his feet on the face of Christ, the peasants undergoing a terrible torture will go free.

In his dark night of the soul, Rodrigues chooses to apostatize for the love and compassion of those suffering. In praying to the heretofore silent Jesus, Rodrigues hears from the face of Christ that he is about to defile: “Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

In those same conversations with Roger, much of that same conundrum and coming to understand a God of Good Friday emerged. As Fr. Mike Pfleger says of Roger, he was a common man, he insisted on being a man among and of the people, and owning it, eschewed the alluring success promised him in California. Roger loved being part of the humanity he embraced all of his life. He, like Rodrigues, felt the compassion and love he saw among the shadows in the celluloid darkness, for the people in the stories, the viewers in the theatre and the hearts which meekly yet unwaveringly always seek its Author.

As the curtain falls and the balcony closes for our earthly dear Roger, maybe we can keep in mind the kind of God whose images and symbols continue to be introduced through the irony of seeing celluloid light in the darkened arenas of human foible. Seeing that God face to face, the Vanilla Sky opens again to welcome one its own home to a never-ending tenderness, to timeless embraces in an exploding glory amid the serenest of calm of one who finally knows for sure, yes, he was right all along.

Amen, Roger, amen. 

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