Faith, Film, and Hollywood: An Interview with Sister Rose Pacatte

By Scott Young

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Scott Young is co-founder and President of Culture Connection, a non-profit that generates program and provides support for thoughtful creativity, media experiences, urban adventures, and spiritual exploration. He previously served as a Campus Chaplain at several universities, including USC, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, and most recently as the Executive Director for the University Religious Conference at UCLA. Scott has also been an Adjunct Faculty at several colleges, including Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles Film Study Center, and Fuller Theological Seminary. Scott was a co-founder and Director of The City of Angels Film Festival. He has served as a juror on the Ecumenical Jury at the Berlin International Film Festival. He teaches the Film History and Analysis section for the Pauline Center for Media Studies certificate program in media literacy.

Sister Rose Pacatte is a Daughter of St. Paul, a media literacy education specialist, and the founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, where she teaches courses on media literacy for catechists and adults. She gives presentations and courses on media literacy around the globe. She is an award winning author and co-author of books on film and scripture and media literacy education. Her most recent book is Martin Sheen: Pilgrim on the Way (2015). Her newest book is Corita Kent: Gentle Revolutionary of the Heart (due May 2017). She has also served on Catholic and ecumenical juries at the Venice, Locarno, Berlin and Newport film festivals, as well as the Montreux television festival. Rose is also the film columnist for the National Catholic Reporter.

Scott Young: Thanks for joining me at JwJ.

Rose Pacatte: Thanks for inviting me, Scott. Always a pleasure to collaborate with you.

Tell us about your call to be a nun.

I was still in high school when I felt the call to give my life to God. I didn’t know it at the time, but as a junior in high school I was experiencing an existential crisis. I realized that nothing fleeting, having fun, being with my friends, would last. I realized that only God would be there always. I had actually first thought of being a sister when I was eleven and read a book written by mothers of nuns. I was very active at church and doing service with my Girl Scout troop. I told my Mom after a fun day at the Del Mar Fair in San Diego that I wanted to be a nun. She told the lady at the parish who ran our religious education program, and she connected me with the community of sisters I would enter a few weeks later, the Daughters of St. Paul.

And I suspect that many JwJ readers might not have heard of the Daughters of St. Paul. How would you describe your order of life, work, and community?

The Daughters of St. Paul was founded by Bl. James Alberione, an Italian priest, in 1915 (a year after he started a religious community for men, the Society of St. Paul). The work of the sisters was to use the press (or any means that progress would provide) to spread the Word of God. Fr. Alberione wanted the Bible to be in every home. He believed that good books would lead people back to church, to worship. Of course, World War I had erupted in 1914, so the first sisters opened a small book shop in Alba, Italy. Later, we acquired presses and grew into a full scale publishing house in Italy. Today we have convents, book stores, and publishing houses using all the latest media in 52 countries, and number about 2500 sisters. Our centers are about more than books of necessity, because so much distribution is online now, but a place for people to gather for retreats and cultural events developed around media such as music, film, and book clubs. We also carry out book fairs in Catholic schools and parishes that people like very much. Our Cinema Divina or Movie Bible Nights, as well as the National Film Retreat are popular activities.

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One more personal question before we turn to Hollywood — your traditional habit. How and why do you choose such a counter-cultural and symbolic garb? What does it mean?

How much time do you have?!

The habit started as traditional peasant wear. As groups of women dedicated to Christ unified into orders and congregations, a uniform look developed for each. As centuries went by, habits were modified somewhat and tended not to change as clothing styles did. Meaning was attributed to the habit as time went on. Peasant wear changed and the dress of nuns, cloistered and those involved in the active apostolate, stayed the same. From about the time of the French Revolution until the Second Vatican Council, habits didn’t change much. Each order or religious community had its own. The veil, of course, symbolizes dedication to Christ. The habit itself stands for modesty and a life of chosen material poverty. Pope Pius XII, in the 1950s, urged all sisters to update their habits for hygienic reasons (!), and elaborate head gear modified (remember the Flying Nun?) so that sisters could drive safely for one thing. Vatican II in the 1960s opened the door to experimentation with the habit, to make it more relevant and meaningful.

When we were founded, Fr. Alberione did not want us to wear a habit. He wanted us to be able to relate to people in this new apostolate of using the good press. But as he went through the stages of getting Vatican approval for our congregation, Vatican officials demanded that we wear a religious habit. They didn’t understand our founder very well. As for our habit, it was always simple. We ran machinery, so a work habit was designed (design is not exactly the word; more like, developed) for safety, and if ink spilled on it no one was too concerned. Our veil was never a problem for driving. When running a printing press, the sisters wore a cap. After Vatican II, with Vatican approval, each region of the congregation could decide if they would wear a veil or not, wear a habit or not, depending on their local circumstances. In the US, we decided to keep the habit, though if there is a valid reason for wearing regular clothes one can do that. When I serve on juries at film festivals, I wear regular clothes, because a festival should be about the films, not about a nun in a habit.

At the end of the day, the religious habit is a sign that is to reflect evangelical poverty, chastity, and obedience; a sign of consecration to Christ for the good of humanity. Whether or not a community wears a habit, each congregation wears a symbol, a medallion or pin that is a statement of belonging and purpose. Ours is a book (Bible) in the shape of a cross with a communications tower etched in the background. On the back is St. Paul and the words “According to my Gospel.”

What, exactly, is media literacy?

Media literacy is a life skill of inquiry that encompasses the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and produce media in a variety of forms. Media literacy is critical thinking applied to media messages and stories. Media mindfulness, what we call media literacy in faith formation, means to add the lens of faith to the filter. This includes, for Catholic Christians, the principles of Catholic social teaching such as human dignity, the common good, solidarity, care for the earth, life, family, and community. Neither media literacy education nor media mindfulness are prescriptive because both are aimed at a search for meaning, while not telling people what to think.

Why is media literacy so important?

Media literacy, according to Elizabeth Thoman, a pioneer in the field, is an educational imperative for the 21st century. Media messages are all around us; the media go through great pains to study us, so it behooves us to study them. Like fish in the ocean who don’t notice the water in which they swim, so it can be for us. We swim in an ocean, we breathe an atmosphere permeated by messages that someone else constructed for us, from songs, to film, advertisements, to video games. Most are trying to sell us something, from ideology to lifestyle to products and services, and they are deft at creating needs out of wants.

Why is theologically informed film criticism important in today’s media saturated environment?

In this noisy sight and sound world, theology as “faith seeking understanding” can assist us to “find God in the dark.” Film allows us to do theology as well as to give us an opening into making meaning from the film. I am speaking here of mainstream films, not films that are purposefully Christian because these, with some few exceptions (like the upcoming The Shack, Hacksaw Ridge, and Silence), are canned sermons that leave the audience little space to make meaning. I believe that films that tell stories that are truly human are truly of the Gospel. We need to trust people’s ability to make meaning and avoid hitting people over the head with the Gospel. Films are good if they afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. At the same time.

Tell us about your role in establishing the Pauline Center for Media Studies, and what you’re trying to do there.

At a certain point in my life as a Daughter of St. Paul (aka Pauline sister), I was involved in leadership, production and distribution, but I wanted to know more about the culture that the media create and what people, especially youth, do with the media they consume. I asked to study for a degree in this subject of media literacy that I had encountered around 1990. I obtained an advanced diploma in education and an MEd in Media Studies from the University of London, and a certificate in pastoral communication from the University of Dayton. As I was preparing to return from the UK in 1995, I had already received invitations to speak on this subject, and so I asked if I could form a center that could train parents and teachers in media literacy and become a base from which I and my co-sisters could do training and write about the topic. We started in Boston in 1995, but they have winter there and people could not come to us easily. So, in 2002, we moved to our facility in Culver City, CA. A few months ago a new director was appointed, Sr. Nancy Usslemann. This assures continuity of the work. We now have a team of five sisters working full or part-time in this part of our mission.

What motivates you to view and comment on films? How and why did you get started in such an unusual calling?

I became a film critic totally by accident — a happy accident. I have always loved movies, and once I had tools for criticism at my disposal, it became, shall I say, fun, to break open film to discover meaning. In 2003, St. Anthony Messenger hired me as their film columnist, and in 2009, the National Catholic Reporter invited me to contribute. I also started a blog around 2004, and then migrated it to Patheos in 2011.

As far as motivation, there’s usually so much to talk about when it comes to film! Of course, there are exceptions. Someone asked me once what the film Contagion was about. With random undeveloped characters, all I could say was, “Wash your hands.”

Is it possible to generalize about the history of the Catholic Church’s involvement in Hollywood?

No. It’s been rocky, but in latter years Cardinal John P. Foley, who headed the Pontifical Council for Social Communication for almost 30 years before his death, said he regretted that they had spent so much time complaining about films and other media that did not reflect human and Gospel values, instead of praising the ones that did this. However, since 1937, the Church has taught that the media are gifts of God — and accompanied this with a warning. It should be noted that in 1995, the 100th anniversary of cinema, the Vatican published a list of 45 “important films.” That they were all directed by men and mostly about men, well, let’s hope the next list is more inclusive. It was a good start.

Besides your own organization, what are the other Catholic organizations that are active in the ministry in the entertainment business?

Sure. The Christophers: “Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Paulist Productions is actively involved in television and film (though they have taken some time to reorganize and reboot). Loyola Productions and Family Theater in Hollywood produces media. There are many Catholic publishers in the US and other countries as well. All of these are backed by religious orders. SIGNIS is the Vatican-approved world Catholic association for communication and is active in film festivals around the world, as well as promoting film and television production, radio, and the internet and media literacy (signis.net). The Jesuits have media production houses in Munich and Taiwan as well. In June there will be an international meeting of these groups under the SIGNIS banner in Quebec.

What movies are on your “must see” list?

Silence
The Lives of Others
Of Gods and Men
The Searchers
The Way
The Innocents
Big Night
Mostly Martha
Diary of a Country Priest
Blue (Kieslowski)
Henry Poole was Here
Lars and the Real Girl
Ordet
The Shawshank Redemption
Eat, Drink, Man, Woman
Children of Heaven

… And on and on!

One of the most talked about films right now with specific religious content is Silence by Martin Scorsese. You have seen it multiple times and reviewed it. What is the lure? Why is it so loved by a number of reviewers but by-passed by the Academy except for the work of the cinematographer Rodrigo Pietro?

Remember, Silence wasn’t finished until Thanksgiving. There wasn’t a lot of time to make submission deadlines — from what I know. It is a difficult film but so layered in meaning, whether from a man’s personal faith, the faith of others, the collaboration in colonization by missionaries, or the inability to adapt the Gospel to new cultures. This film afflicts the comfortable in their faith. People are not easy with ambiguity or grey areas — especially the American culture. We are so black and white and life isn’t like that. Scorsese captures this well in Silence. Also, from what I know, Scorsese is okay with whatever happens with the film. He made it, and this is my interpretation, as an act of love for Christ and the Catholic church.

Recently, you and I collaborated on a 25 year anniversary screening of Thelma & Louise, directed by Ridley Scott. In our wide ranging discussion, you spoke convincingly about many of the issues related to women raised by the film. Tell us about some of your convictions.

This film is driven, literally, by the theme of rape. Women are isolated in a man’s world. Thelma and Louise did not turn themselves in because they thought no one would believe what happened. Only one man listened to them. At that final scene before they drove off the cliff, not one female police officer was there to reach out to them. Just one man, a kind of Christ-figure (think of the woman caught in adultery).

What would you say to those who make a dichotomy between sacred faith and secular Hollywood?

I don’t see it. What I see is consumerism and capitalism in a dynamic tension where the person (audience) is objectified by spread sheets and profit (box office bombs not withstanding.) This is not to say that someone won’t find some good even in the most superficial (and sometimes offensive to some) films. A secular film — think about Terminator II: Judgment Day, there wasn’t anything religious in it, but it was about the same thing that the film Witness was about. Violence and war are the real threats to human life.

Is Hollywood as badly secular as the popular stereotype? Or maybe no more so than society in general?

Hollywood is a business with commercial interests! The race to maximize profits steps all over people and often objectifies them in the making of the film and television and in the stories told. People of all races and creeds (or none) are part of “Hollywood,” but I don’t assign blame to individuals as much as to our profit-driven consumer culture.

I’m sure you must know a number of faithful believers in media, both closeted and out!

I do. And I think it is up to them to make this known. The thing is, sometimes you can just tell. I recall when I saw Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington at Sundance. Tim made two documentaries with Sebastian Junger. From the film, I just knew Tim had to have been a Catholic, even though this is not even mentioned in the film. Director Sebastian Junger was there, and he had known Tim so well. So I asked, “Was Tim religious?” Junger looked at the producer and said motto voce (we could all hear), “Why do people always ask that?” Then he replied, “He never spoke of it, but he was Catholic.” Afterwards I spoke with Tim’s father who was in from the UK, and he told me that Tim had gone to all Jesuit schools. It sure showed.

Daniel Berrigan wrote that for a while he stopped watching the (bad) news on television, and re-dedicated his focus on the Good News. What about those who might choose to watch no media at all, as impossible as that might seem, as a way to make their own statement and preserve their own souls and sanity?

Right now I am not watching the news; it’s inflammatory and I don’t think it’s doing its job. But I get news from other sources. As for entertainment media, well, people who forgo film and television and maybe popular music miss out on some of the greatest stories ever that lead to prayer and that make life so interesting. We need stories. This is why Jesus told stories. He knew and knows how we are. People need to recall that an R rating does not mean bad, it means for mature audiences. People brag to me that they have never seen an R rated movie, as if it is a virtue. Kill me now.

Have you watched the British series Black Mirror? “If technology is a drug,” explains the creator Charlie Brooker, “and it does feel like a drug — then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area — between delight and discomfort — is where Black Mirror is set. The ‘black mirror’ is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”

It’s on my list! I just finished watching “Stranger Things” that just won a SAG award it’s set BCP — before cell phones. If only they had had cell phones! It would be a totally different series!!

What are a few resources you recommend for people and congregations that would want to learn more about media literacy?

The website of the Center for Media Literacy, http://medialit.org, and our own website, BeMediaMindful.org. We also teach a week long certificate course every summer, recognized by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Information is on the website.

Thanks again, to Scott Young and Sister Rose Pacatte!

Rose Pacatte, FSP
RosePacatte@mail.com
Sister Rose Movies Blog
Facebook: SisterRoseGoesToTheMovies
Twitter: SisterRoseMovies

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