Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The Faith of Father O'Malley

Raymond J. Keating

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On the Church and Society
October 22, 2006

Do you ever wonder if the actors who portray religious figures on television, in the theater and on film, or the singers who occasionally belt out a Christian song, particularly around Christmas, actually are counted among the faithful?

Do playing those parts or singing those tunes have an effect?

Bing Crosby, of course, was a mega-star in his day, conquering popular music, radio, television, movies, as well as sports. Consider that on film, he was a top 10 box office draw in at least 15 years (including five years in a row at number one), and was nominated for the best actor Academy Award three times, winning once.

Though Bing was not from my generation, this great entertainer captured me as a fan many years after his death in 1977. I recall watching his annual Christmas television specials growing up. Today, I enjoy his madcap "Road" movies with Bob Hope, and have come to appreciate much of his music, especially the more upbeat jazz and big band numbers. As a golfer, I appreciate his smooth swing and the fact that he started the pro-am tournament format, and as a baseball fan, admire his part ownership in the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bing seemed to have it all, and made it all look so easy.

But my earliest memory of Crosby was as Father Chuck O'Malley in "The Bells of St. Mary's." That was the sequel to "Going My Way" (for which he won that Oscar).

In his role as Father O'Malley, Crosby had an impact by helping Roman Catholics gain wider acceptance in Protestant America. But he did even more. At a three-day conference "Bing! Crosby and American Culture" -- at Hoffstra University in November 2002, one panelist, David White, a philosophy professor at St. John Fisher College, observed that the Father O'Malley films "inspired young men to become Catholic priests."

In his 1953 autobiography, Call Me Lucky (co-written with Pete Martin), Crosby wrote about Father O'Malley: "There were unexpected repercussions to that role. Not everyone approved of the fashion in which the young priest was humanized. I'd gone to a Jesuit school and I'd always found priests very human and not unlike the boys they taught, but in some South American and Latin countries movie-goers objected to the priest I portrayed wearing a sweat shirt and playing baseball. I got a sizeable amount of critical mail from those countries, reproving me for my 'undignified conception of the role of a priest.' However, His Holiness, Pope Pius XII, saw the picture several times and wrote a letter in which he described his enjoyment of the film, and said he thought it good to have the priesthood so humanized."

So, here was a guy who not only played a priest, but got a thumbs up from the pope. Today, it's hard to think of a portrayal of a priest in movies or television that does not deserve condemnation, never mind a papal letter of praise.

It should also be kept in mind that, in addition to the traditional singing of "White Christmas," Bing's Christmas shows featured a variety of Christian hymns for the season. I also have a wonderful CD of Christian hymns sung by Crosby aptly titled "Bing Crosby: My Favorite Hymns."

Finally, I had the opportunity to ask his widow, Kathryn Crosby, about Bing's faith after her touching "My Life with Bing" stage show presented at Hofstra on October15. What part did his faith play in his life?

Mrs. Crosby noted that he went to Mass every Sunday morning, and that his religion was "very important." She simply and genuinely declared: "He believed." In an amusing addition, she added that Bing, however, was not quite as good as Dolores Hope (Bob's wife), who, Mrs. Crosby observed, could tell the pope how to run things.

Responding to a question a bit later about parenthood, Kathryn Crosby noted about one's responsibilities to your children: "You have to keep them close to God."

So, it turns out, Bing did have it all.

Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, is the editor and publisher of the "On the Church & Society Report."

This column is from the latest issue of the "On the Church & Society Report," which also includes articles on the Pope and Islam; President Bush and the Crusades, and Christianity heading South. To receive a free four-issue trial of "On the Church & Society Report," send an e-mail request to ChurchandSociety@aol.com.

Posted: 22-Oct-06

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