|The beautiful Bowland Fells, where this week's Catholics|
was filmed. Screen shot from the BBC programme
The programme's director, the award-winning documentary film-maker Richard Alwyn, spent from the beginning of Lent into the summer of 2011 based at St Mary's RC Primary School in the village of Chipping, Lancashire. Whilst there, he gently observed the lives of the school's children, teachers and parents, as well as the life and ministry of the local parish priest, Father Anthony Grimshaw. As a result, we were given an unique insight into a rural Catholic community based around the Bowland Fells - a stunningly beautiful area, which also has a rich Catholic history. We were offered dramatic shots of the Lancashire countryside during spring-time, which complimented the programme's light, naturally humorous and yet quietly profound human interactions.
Children say the funniest things!
One of the documentary's funniest and most endearing moments happened early on, during the school's French lesson. A teacher was seen asking the children, in French, how they were feeling. A couple of boys answered in impeccable French, and then the teacher went on to ask a little girl, "Ça va, Victoria?" She answered in a way that only seven year-old girls can: "I've got a spot on ma 'ed!" No time to translate that urgent message into French!
Needless to say, there were several other instances of unintentional humour throughout the programme. At one point, during a lesson on the Stations of the Cross, a teacher asked the children why they thought Jesus hadn't just run away from his executioners. One little girl, looking at the image of Our Lord laying down to be nailed to the Cross, piped up: "Maybe he was tired?" In another scene, the pupils at St Mary's school were offering some intercessory prayers. One boy asked God to: "please help get the telly fixed". He went on, adding: "I like watching telly and I want to watch the Simpsons. Amen." Another child, whilst reading the Gospel account of the Temptation of Christ in the Desert, told her classmates that Jesus had commanded, "Be off, Stan!" - instead of the more recognisable: "Be off, Satan!"
The children weren't the only ones to bring a smile to my face. The parish priest, Father Anthony, possessed a naturally relaxed sense of humour, too. He was often filmed darting about the village on his mobility scooter, whilst also holding rather eccentric conversations with passers by! At one point, as he was reading Winnie the Pooh to a class of enthralled youngsters, the priest's phone went off. Embarrassed, he stopped the story to answer his phone, only to discover that it was merely a reminder to keep an appointment with his dentist! In another scene, during a discussion with the children on the reality of Hell and the Devil, one child asked Father Anthony what would happen if someone decided to stop believing in God and believed in Satan instead. After some thoughts, the priest went on in a wonderfully down to earth way to say that: "it's not recommended for anyone to go into that area!"
A time to be serious: exploring controversies and the realities of life
Having dwelled on the more humorous aspects of this evening's BBC4 documentary, it's also important to note that there were some serious moments. It was reassuring, for example, to see how earnest some mothers were in preparing the children for their First Holy Communion. I also felt very privileged to share in some intimate moments as Father Anthony took communion to the sick and housebound - who were filmed reverently received the Body of Christ.
The children, too, were obviously fascinated by the Chrstian faith and the person of Jesus. In one scene, we heard a movingly stark poem about Christ's Crowing with Thorns, composed by one of the little girls. Her words were truly profound - Our Lord's phrase immediately came to mind: "Out of the mouths of children and of babes you have perfected praise" (cf Mt 21:16).
The cameras were present during the various important liturgical celebrations at the parish - beginning with Mass for Ash Wednesday and ending with the First Holy Communion Mass. At one point, I was impressed to note that Father Anthony Grimshaw used the more traditional formula during the imposition of the ashes on Ash Wednesday: "Remember you are dust and unto dust you will return." He even placed some ashes on the cameraman's head, after preaching what seemed to be good Lenten sermon.
The priest and people: Eucharist as source and summit of our ecclesial lives
|Father Anthony Grimshaw discusses the priesthood|
during this evening's Catholic programme on BBC4.
Screen shot taken during the broadcast.
The issue of clerical child abuse came up briefly. Father Grimshaw was as flabbergasted about the whole thing as the rest of us - he just couldn't understand how a priest could have done such things. But it was obvious that the recent priestly scandals haven't affected the relationship between the parents and children of Chipping with their parish priest. In fact, Anthony Grimshaw came across as a fatherly (or grand-fatherly) presence in the lives of his flock. At one point, he himself even suggested that he saw himself as a stand-in dad to many of his flock, saying: "Many kids don't have fathers", and adding, "it's nice to be called that title, and we honour it."
I am sure that it was no coincidence that Richard Alwyn moved to a shot of sheep grazing straight after a scene in which Father Anthony had been offering pastoral care to his people. Like some of the farmers in the village, Anthony Grimshaw came across very much as a shepherd to his spiritual flock.
In the past, I have often criticised the BBC, especially for its sometimes biased religious programming. But this latest BBC4 series, examining the lives of Britain's Catholics, really is something deserving of praise. As a film-maker, Richard Alwyn allows his subjects to speak for themselves - without trying to comment or impose his own views on the matter. There was no agenda, here, or so it seemed. And for that, we can be truly grateful.
Having said that, I couldn't help but think throughout this evening's programme whether Catholicism would have seemed even more attractive or awe-inspiring had Alwyn filmed this programme in a traditionalist parish (even if Chipping seemed far more rooted in its Catholic faith and traditions than many another parish in England and Wales)? Who knows? But I did think that tonight's episode on "Children" was far more engaging, humorous, and gladdening to the spirit than last week's one on "Priests". One wonders what the final programme will be like? Called "Women", it is being billed as the most controversial in the series. We shall have to wait and see...
For more information on Richard Alwyn's series, Catholics, or to watch the first two episodes on iPlayer, please visit the BBC4 website.