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Streaming Catholicism: On “Midnight Mass”

Spoiler Warning: This essay discusses key plot points, including the ending, of Midnight Mass.

By Daniel Martins

One of the ongoing frustrations for people of faith is the way that religious practice is almost invariably portrayed in popular media. Catholicism is usually caricatured in a shallow way along the lines of Going My Way, Sister Act, Nunsense, or The Exorcist. Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H is a sympathetic character, the proverbial “good person,” but — let’s face it — kind of a nerd, and only superficially a priest. The most inoffensive portrayal of a non-Roman cleric is probably David Niven’s slightly pompous and self-involved character in The Bishop’s Wife, or perhaps the Reverend Eric Camden in the series Seventh Heaven. More frequently, the charlatan Elmer Gantry is the template for the way religious leaders are given screen life. What all these cinematic productions have in common is that, while they depict religious people in religions situations, they are virtually devoid of any actual religious content. Whatever little bit there may be is bound to be platitudinous, or just plain inaccurate.

So when a show comes along that bears an appearance of “getting it right,” it immediately attracts the attention of the religiously-serious observer. The Netflix limited series Midnight Mass (seven episodes) is such a production. The action takes place on fictional Crocket Island, 30 miles from some unspecified mainland. There are only 128 residents, but they are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and there is only one church — St. Patrick’s. As the story unfolds, an unfamiliar priest, Father Paul Hill, introduces himself to the sparse Sunday congregation as a short-term stand-in for their beloved pastor of several decades, Monsignor John Pruitt, who is regaining his health after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that was strenuous for the octogenarian.

The liturgy unfolds in a completely credible way for a small, isolated parish. We see the servers in the sacristy making preparations. The viewer learns that it is the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. At the church door following Mass, a parishioner remarks appreciatively that Fr. Paul used the “old” (pre-2011) translation of the Roman Missal, which the priest acknowledges with a self-deprecating laugh. He is then introduced to Riley Flynn, back on the island on parole after serving five years for a drunken driving incident that took the life of a young woman. The priest remarks that Riley stayed in the pews during the administration of communion. Riley explains along the lines of “I’m not exactly in a state of grace.” (Indeed, Riley is only in church out of regard for his devout parents, and his father instructed him to do exactly as he did with regard to the sacrament — “It wouldn’t be respectful.”) Fr. Paul doesn’t miss a pastoral beat: “Look, I think that’s great. Turns out I’m not much use to people who are in a state of grace. Jesus didn’t really have much interest for those kinds of people either. I can work with that.”

A little later, Bev Keane — the unofficial parish administrator, cantor, and extraordinary eucharistic minister — questions Fr. Paul about why he wore a gold chasuble, rather than a green one, on a Sunday in Ordinary Time (I had wondered the same thing!), and he explains that, having arrived late the previous night, he was unable to find the green one.

The plot unfolds during Lent — including a very homely scene of palms being burned to produce ashes for Ash Wednesday — and the heart of the action takes place during what appears to be a robust observance of the Paschal Triduum. We get to see the conclusion of the Passion Gospel on Good Friday, all in proper form, and the fact that the Great Vigil is the principal celebration of Easter is just taken excitedly for granted. In the meantime, we hear generous snippets of Fr. Paul’s Sunday and weekday homilies, and, until things begin to go off the rails on Good Friday, they are, well… not awful, which is to say, I’ve heard worse in real life. Overall, what’s not to like about all this? It makes my pastor’s heart leap for joy!

In the context of how Christian faith and practice are usually portrayed on film, this level of accuracy in detail is not only remarkable, but shocking. I instantly warmed up to the show just on that basis. Adding to the appeal is the sheer notion of an island village nearly united, at least nominally, in its religious observance. Sure, there are outliers like the skeptical Riley Flynn (but even he is in church every time the doors are open), the scientific materialist Sarah Gunning (the local physician), and Hassan, the devout Muslim sheriff, along with his teenage son, Ali. But these are the exceptions that highlight the norm of the sort of community that George Herbert had in mind when he penned The Country Parson. I find this irresistibly attractive, not only in spite of the fact that it exists nowhere in real life, but precisely for that very reason. It’s a powerful aspirational ideal.

There are certain expansions of plausibility that can be excused as artistic license and serve to reinforce the implied ideal. The presence of a resident priest in a community the size of Crockett Island is a fond dream in today’s reality of desperate clergy shortages. The level of catechesis and biblical literacy among the parishioners of St. Patrick’s is astonishing — from the advice of Ed Flynn to his son about communion discipline, to Erin Greene’s (another recent returnee to the island, and a childhood friend of Riley’s) ability to look at her (abusive and now deceased) mother’s stitched wall hanging of Lamentations 1:12 and make a snarky comment about her mother comparing her own life to the fall of Jerusalem, to Bev Keane’s ability, always in a context of unctuous condescension, to quote long passages from both the Old and New Testaments to serve her ultimately malevolent ends (Keane is portrayed with particular brilliance by Samantha Sloyan) — this is all compelling even though utterly unrealistic.

There are, of course, plenteous other opportunities for suspension of disbelief. There’s a monstrous winged being, designated an angel by Fr. Paul but behaving more like a demon with vampire instincts. But before I turn in that direction, I need to flag two other “artistic license” moments that are uplifting, but also ominous. Annie Flynn — Ed’s wife, Riley and Warren’s mother — decides to round up the islanders for the Easter Vigil by going door to door and inviting them to join her in a candlelight procession singing a metrical Te Deum, and by the time they all file into St. Patrick’s, they’re singing boldly and beautifully in four-part harmony. I found it quite moving, despite its sheer implausibility. Later the same night, after everything has gone south, and they realize their own collective destruction is imminent as sunrise approaches, they do the same with Nearer, My God, to Thee — also begun by Annie and Ed.

Also worthy of note is the way music is deployed in the soundtrack. We hear the hymn Lead, Kindly Light in the background, often very slowly and subtly, at various times — only it’s not the tune associated with Newman’s text by most Americans who are familiar with it — Lux Benigna — but Sandion, the tune more commonly sung in England. Were You There? also figures prominently in the same way. And, on multiple occasions when the action takes an ominous turn, we hear an early 18th century Anglican Chant in G-minor by William Croft (S425 in Hymnal 1982).

Before delving into what Midnight Mass might “mean,” or whether it’s friendly or inimical to Christian religion, some plot essentials need to be recognized. The viewer eventually learns that Fr. Paul Hill is, in fact, Monsignor John Pruitt, “de-aged” by several decades. On his Holy Land pilgrimage, his own advancing dementia gets of the best of him, and he becomes lost in a desert sandstorm — literally on the road to Damascus. Taking refuge in a subterranean structure, he encounters the Dark Angel, who assaults him and sucks blood from his neck. But the “angel” then offers his victim blood from his own wounded hand, which Pruitt consumes with his own newly acquired voracious hunger for blood. When he emerges from the cave, he realizes that he has recovered his youthful appearance and vitality (at this point, the viewer sees “Fr. Paul”).

Eager to share this gift with his parishioners, the priest transports the monster home by concealing him in a trunk. Once there, he sets the creature loose on the island, where it flies around nocturnally (unable to abide daylight), seeking warm blood to devour. Meanwhile, Fr. Paul begins to surreptitiously adulterate the communion wine with blood from the Dark Angel, and wondrous things begin to happen: teenager Leeza Scarborough, who had been paralyzed by a gunshot wound inflicted by the town drunk, recovers her ability to walk. Later, she avails herself of the grace, even through still-present anger, in a touching scene, to forgive her shooter, Joe Collie. As a result, Joe commits himself to the hard path of recovery from his alcoholism. Ed Flynn, who suffered from chronic back pain, is relieved of that burden and invites Annie to dance with him with abandon. Annie, who relied on glasses for nearsightedness, now has 20/20 vision. Most dramatically, Mildred Gunning, Dr. Gunning’s mother, goes into remission from her dementia, becomes spryer every day, and eventually de-ages to match Pruitt, who is, in fact, her former lover, and the biological father of her daughter.

We eventually discover that Monsignor Pruitt’s end game is to introduce the Dark Angel to the gathered congregation at the Easter Vigil and to administer lethal poison to them, from which they’ll recover in a matter of minutes, due to the “angelic” blood they’d been consuming, and thereafter be immortal. But there is immediate rebellion in the ranks. Some refuse to buy into Pruitt’s vision. Violent chaos ensues. Firearms are discharged in the church. The bedlam extends to the churchyard and then to the entire island. Those who have taken the poison, or been killed in the chaos, after being resurrected from their ensuing death, engage in vampire-like behavior toward their neighbors. Homes are set on fire. The church and rectory are set on fire. This presents a problem, because everyone who has been ostensibly “saved by the blood” will not be able to survive the light of the sun, unless they find shelter from it, and dawn is fast approaching. Pruitt himself, who, with Mildred, is mourning the shooting death of their daughter Sarah (who is not resurrected, because she did not consume the blood), repents of his scheme, realizing his own foolishness. But Bev Keane remains steadfast, and decides that the parish hall will be the shelter for the elect — and, of course, she will be the one to determine who is worthy of salvation by being admitted.

But the parish hall, the last remaining structure on the island that can provide shelter from the sunrise, also burns. As a result, she and everyone else who had been transformed, in the midst of singing Nearer, My God, to Thee, combust in the light of the advancing dawn. The Dark Angel, with wings slashed by Erin Greene as he drained her blood, attempts to flee westward, but with no hope of making it the thirty miles to the mainland before being overtaken by the light.

What can we say, then, about Midnight Mass’s stance toward Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular? Creator Mike Flanagan, whose reputation is built on his mastery of the horror genre, had, by his own account, a “healthy Catholic upbringing.” This is certainly evident in the ingrained and organic way Catholic liturgical and devotional practices are integrated into his work. At the same time, Flanagan also professes more affinity now for scientific rationalism than for his earlier religious formation. He lets this orientation emerge through a long and deep conversation between Erin and Riley. They talk about what happens to a person after death. Riley enunciates a vision of materialistic nihilism, preceded, however, by a grand moment of Gestalt-on-steroids in which the dying person can comprehend the breadth and meaning of his or her whole life before succumbing to nothingness. Erin, still grieving the loss of a pregnancy, offers an account of her little one’s experience of death that maps pretty closely to the dominant (mostly secular but sometimes with a Christian veneer) narrative of a “place” called “Heaven” where she will be greeted by her grandparents and taught all about the mother she never got to meet and then grow into a beautiful (permanently) young woman who will eventually greet her mother in the same place when the time comes.

Not much Christianity in either vision, right?

Surprisingly, when no longer talking about her lost daughter, but instead facing her own death, Erin sees things more like Riley. It’s a pretty “traditional” pantheistic concept. “It’s like a drop of water falling back into the ocean, of which it’s always been a part … more galaxies in the universe than grains of sand on the beach, and that’s what we’re talking about when we say ‘God.'”

I would suggest that, in the Riley-Erin dialogue, Flanagan is offering us his own view of the fundamental existential questions they are discussing. This just raises another question, though: Is Flanagan suggesting such a perception is essentially consonant with the generally orthodox Catholicism practiced by both the sincerely devout Annie Flynn and the other islanders (and, actually, by Monsignor Pruitt, with an asterisk, as it were), even by, in her malevolent way, Beverly Keane? After all, he treats Christian faith and practice with both authenticity and tenderness, to the point of rankling some of his critics. Or is he using Riley and Erin to critique traditional Christianity, holding up Bev as the sort of evil to which it can lead? Both Erin and Riley, after all, resisted the master plan hatched by Pruitt, and both at the cost of their lives. Are they profiles in agnostic or atheistic courage? If the former, he has no essential grasp on the faith in which he was raised. If the latter, one simply wants to respond, “That’s the best you’ve got?”

But there is an alternative. I won’t even go so far as to hint that this might be Flanagan’s intention. But if I were the creator of Midnight Mass, and it came out just as it is, it would be my intention. The work can stand as a powerful critique of the notion of realized eschatology — the notion that the fruition of God’s saving activity, the complete realization of the Kingdom of God, is available to us now, virtually for the taking. We see this in the 19th century social gospel movement, whose proponents taught that it is not only within the reach of the Church, but is veritably the vocation of the Church, to usher in the kingdom, to build “Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land” (amid the “dark satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution, pace William Blake). The enormities of World War I put a damper on such optimism, and one would have thought that the even greater enormities of the succeeding world war would have put it to rest permanently, but, like the Terminator, it keeps on keeping on, and is arguably behind the Christian wing of “woke” progressivism.

If the social gospel is the liberal Protestant version of realized eschatology, Joel Osteen and his companions of the “prosperity gospel” persuasion represent the Evangelical version. Why wait for Jesus to return in his own good time to set things right when we can confect the blessings of the eschaton right now?

Could it be that John Pruitt represents a Catholic/sacramental instantiation of realized eschatology? His own personal Damascus Road experience resulted in the recovery of his youth, and an ability to perceive the wonders of the created order more vividly than he ever would have imagined possible. He literally boxes this experience up and brings it back to Crocket Island with him. As he prepares his people for the big “reveal” at the Easter Vigil, he hits some very orthodox Paschal mystery-sounding notes: repentance, rebirth, resurrection, eternal life. It’s all organically connected to the vocabulary and praxis of Catholic Christianity, and, for good measure, packaged in generous amounts of scriptural bubble wrap. One could accuse the monsignor of sacramental greed. He wants the full glory of the eschaton for his beloved flock on economically ravaged Crockett Island, and has no patience for the kairos of God. His passion to share what he has found blinds him to the identity and provenance of the monster whom he considers an angel of God. His heart is in the right place, but he allows himself to be deceived. Jesus himself predicted as much: “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24). As he is himself deceived, he manages to deceive enough of his trusting parishioners that they are all led to their destruction.

As Leeza Scarborough and Warren Flynn watch the conflagration of Crockett Island from a rowboat offshore (neither of them having been transformed, and so not vulnerable to the sunrise), the last words of dialogue in the show come from Leeza: “I can’t feel my legs anymore.” She has returned to the crippled condition she was in before the deception was unleashed on the islanders. These are heartbreaking words to hear, for Leeza’s sake, but they signify that the Dark Angel is gone, and the deception is over. We walk as yet by faith, not by sight.


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