Going Whose Way?
The 1944 musical, Going My Way, is considered a classic. Many Catholics view the movie as indicative of the way the Church used to be back in the good old days. A more careful look at this film seems to reveal this movie as propaganda for the idea that it is better for Catholics in the United States to be Americans first and Catholics second, a mindset that heavily influenced my upbringing.
The movie features two priests. Father Fitzgibbon, an old, Irish priest, is pastor of St. Dominic Church in New York City. Father Fitzgibbon has lost touch with the times and control of the parish, especially its finances. While presented as very kindly and lovable like any doddering old relative might be, he his steadfast in his faith and the practice thereof. He believes that a priest should act with decorum and in a way that doesn't bring scandal or disrepute and behaves accordingly. Father Fitzgibbon has relied for years on prayer to get his parish the funds it needs for even basic repairs, but in vain. The movie seems to portray the traditional reliance on prayer and faith as passé. The character of Father Fitzgibbon seems to represent the old church of the immigrants, a church that is aged and dulled with the traditions and practices of an ancient Europe which has long since passed and no longer has any relevance to the present nor to the Catholics in the United States. The almost complete destruction of St. Dominic Church by fire seems to be a warning of what will happen to the Catholic Church in the United States, if it remains traditional, immigrant, and European. The character of Father Fitzgibbon is revealed in the first act of the movie by being placed in direct opposition to the personality of Father Chuck O'Malley.
Father O'Malley is of Irish stock, but he is clearly as American as they come. He has no brogue, was almost married, plays golf, and loves baseball. He does not wear his clerics all of the time and opts for the coat and slacks, when he does, rather than the cassock Father Fitzgibbon wears. Father O'Malley is current with the times and in control of every situation, including the mischievous boys of the parish, whom Father Fitzgibbon has never quite been able to turn around. He whistles pop tunes along side the standard hymns and is not nearly as formal and stodgy as Father Fitzgibbon. Everyone loves Father O'Malley and is quickly and easily swayed to his point of view. Even the avaricious contractor and the foolish young couple are no match for his utilitarian arguments.
The financial troubles of the parish, especially after the fire, are presented as of the utmost importance, as demonstrated by the bishop's appointment of Father O'Malley as pastor of St. Dominic. The moral issues of the mischievous boys or the young couple living together are easily handled with utilitarian logic and a couple of memorable ditties. Clearly, it's the money that matters. The best way to get the money, of course, is by being more American than apple pie and what is more American than apple pie? Pop Music. So, Father O'Malley rallies his boys choir to record a Top Ten Hit, a feat which brings in all of the money needed to rebuild St. Dominic. Even William Frawley's character states that the old hymns just don't resonate with audiences anymore. If a doddering, old pastor, a burned down church, and a mountain of debt didn't convince audiences that the old ways needed to go, the wild success of pop music in saving the church must have. In the end, it is the American and not the Catholic, who saves St. Dominic. In fact, the Catholic, Father Fitzgibbon, is sent back to Ireland for retirement with his mother. Once Father Fitzgibbon is gone, the congregation breaks out into a pop celebration of their victory.
Today, we have a very American Church, a Church that struggles to be all things to all Americans without offending anyone. The clergy is called to be pastoral and the laity are called to be inclusive. Only a few are calling anyone to be Catholic and they are relegated to the fringes. To be good Americans, we must be great Catholics, since, after all, we will be spending eternity in Heaven rather than in Independence Hall.