By: Meredith Anness
Organized religion, I’ve always thought, is mostly good. It provides a motivation to be a better person, follow a moral compass, and remain a humble servant of something other than oneself. In particular, Christianity gives its followers the promise of an everlasting life in return for good deeds and faithful following of the omnipotent God. But what happens when one of the tenants of that religion goes against your own sense of right and wrong? This was the dilemma I faced watching Philomena, a 2013 movie adapted from the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, published by Pan Books in 2010. Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, it won accolades at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, and for good reason. This movie opened my eyes to a serious injustice that I believe should be recognized rather than swept under the rug. The suffering that the main character, Philomena, endured in the name of her religion and God is beyond my scope of understanding. But to me, it speaks volumes on the true devotion she had, as well as how her Irish upbringing may have affected the circumstances of her tale. In many ways, she is a typical Irish Catholic woman with an atypical story to tell.
Picture this (spoiler alert!): a young, unmarried Irish woman has a one-night fling and becomes pregnant. Due to their strict faith, her family disowns her and she is sent to a convent to have her baby. After her son is born, she is forced to work for four years doing laundry to repay the nuns for taking her in. Her child is adopted and sent away without her consent, her “penance” for her sin. She moves to England after her service is over, and heartbroken and ashamed, she keeps her past a secret for 50 years, knowing that her son has a better life than she can provide. Finally deciding to break her silence, a journalist helps her attempt to trace her past and locate her long lost son. The nuns back at the convent lie to her, telling her that they have no idea where he is, when in actuality he is buried there and spent the last years of his life looking for his mother. Philomena, in the end, forgives the nuns for what they had done to her and goes to see her son’s final resting place.
This isn’t some horrible movie drama conjured for the emotional response of the audience. No, this is what really happened to a woman named Philomena Lee and thousands of other Irish women in the mid-1900s. It seems the Catholic Church, rather than God, decided to punish these women for their wrongdoing. For them to continue to cling to their religion and remain faithful regardless of the way they were treated exemplifies the strong influence that Catholicism had on Ireland as a whole. It was much more than a way of life; it was life itself. The influence of the Catholic Church extended to every aspect of people’s lives, and in this case, the line between what was God’s work and what was the Church’s was removed, allowing the church to overstep and take advantage of people in their most vulnerable state. At the time, the Church’s power was political in addition to religious, which doesn’t justify but at least partially explains this horrible treatment of women. There is no doubt to me that this is an example of a power move; the Church capitalized on its power to ensure that it kept it. I don’t know how the nuns at these convents were able to validate the practice of taking babies away from their mothers. All I know is that two wrongs do not make a right.
However, it was Philomena’s capacity for forgiveness that struck me most in this film. After unjustly losing her child, being lied to at the convent (where, mind you, lying itself is a sin), and travelling the world looking for her son who was right there where her journey started, her ability to forgive when no one else could should be the true message of this story. For a religion that routinely forgives people for their sins, I found it ironic that the individual who faced pain and hardship as a result of her sin was the one that did the forgiving. Nevertheless, she was able to handle the most devastating, worse-case scenario with grace. Even though she had committed a sin, and a pretty bad one in the eyes of the Catholic Church, to me it was Philomena who best represented the faith.
This can be extended to a broader notion. Philomena portrays not only a good Catholic, but what a “good Irishwoman” was thought to be at the time. Emotional reserve and humility were considered virtues in Irish culture. Covering up her sadness and carrying on, eventually having a “legitimate” daughter after marriage, was simply what was expected of her, so that’s what she did. Copious guilt, as she was probably conditioned to feel through her religion and family teachings, may have prolonged her grieving process, exacerbating the shame she felt for her actions. All of this lead to her 50-year silence, an unwillingness to tell her story that if you look deeper, says a lot about societal expectations for women and Irish Catholics in general. However, there is another, perhaps stronger aspect of “Irishness” that may have ultimately prevailed for Philomena, and that is a sense of social obligation. She knew she had a story to tell and that keeping her secret would be allowing a massive injustice to go unnoticed and unchecked. Perhaps she broke her silence because she missed her son. However, a larger part of me thinks that she did this out of obligation to the other women she suffered with who weren’t able to tell their stories. In the end as she stands over her son’s grave, she tells Martin, the reporter following her on her journey, “I think you should publish it” after he had suggested not doing so if she so chose. Philomena’s inherent “Irishness” both held her to silence and compelled her to bring her story to light, weaving her tale into the greater web of Irish culture as a whole.
This movie was eye-opening. I had no idea that this had happened prior to watching the film, just as I’m sure the Catholic Church would like it. However, for all the good that organized religion brings, I feel that it is so important to make all of the ugliness of it known too. Sharing the stories of the not so great mixed with the great humbles everyone involved.