The sacred art of this world is not eternal, but it calls us to what is. This is never clearer than when art invites us to contemplate the “last things” in Christian hope. In relation to our end in God, all of life is a pilgrimage that begins in the fount of baptism.
At its best, art puts us in contact with what is true, good, and beautiful in a new and creative way. Art can reveal what was hidden, remind us of what we have forgotten, and usher us towards what we might otherwise avoid.
Art can also, easily, do the opposite of all these things: it can numb us, distract us, saturate us, and move us away from what is true, good, and beautiful.
Perhaps no form of art is as regularly immersive as filmmaking, and thus as potentially powerful either for good or ill. Film surrounds us with both images and sound, with movement and development, with the appearance of what is real and the invitation for reconsidering reality. Therefore, when one person describes a certain film as “a kind of moving icon” and another says it is “a sermon for our age,” it is hard not to take notice. But this is precisely what Outcasts from Grassroots Film is: it is a startling, challenging, necessary, and inspiring look into the light of Christ shining—vibrantly shining—right in the midst of the darkest parts of the world in which we live.
Outcasts portrays the Franciscans Friars of the Renewal who live and work among the poor of New York, England, Ireland, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal are a branch of the Capuchins founded in the Marian year of 1987. These friars seek out situations of desperation, violence, and great suffering in order to slowly and diligently build peace and the conditions for the possibility of redemption. Outcasts shows them doing nothing less than letting the light shine in the darkness.
A 37-year-old woman in Bradford, England, who is addicted to heroin and caught in a cycle of prostitution, says that it “seems like I’m going in a circle that I can’t get out of.” All she hopes for is “to be safe; to be warm.” She is overcome with loneliness, with a deep sense of loss that includes her estrangement from her daughter. Every day is more of the same and every night is filled with everything she wants to leave behind, and yet each sunrise and sunset brings about the same story, over and over again. The friars go to England for her.
In 2012, a fire ripped through a massively overcrowded prison in Comayagua, Honduras, killing 359 inmates. The inferno consumed those whose wide-spread violence across Honduras had been jammed into the close quarters of horrendous conditions within cement walls. Inside those walls, violent language and violent urges, mixed with violent actions and violent customs created a living hell in which communion was impossible and survival was an urgent daily concern. The fire was just one more horrific destruction of humanity within a place where peace was impossible. And because peace was impossible, the friars rushed to this place to bring what only Christ could bring: life out of death. They went to help start a new life in the ashes of ruined lives, and to introduce a new way of being in a place where the only rhythm to daily existence was violence. As one friar simply confesses: “I’m there because Christ wants be to be there.”
Even without the concrete walls and mandatory sentences, communities can be undone when the conditions of hatred become systemic, passing from parents to children, and perpetuated by warring factions unbreakably bent toward destroying each other. Moyross, Ireland, is one such failed community, from which the only news that ever makes its way to the rest of the country was only ever the news of more murders, more arsons, more degradations, more hatred. But Moyross is not the first city possessed of demons who turn neighbors into adversaries. The Tuscan city of Arezzo was every bit as hopeless—if not even worse—during the 13th Century. Arezzo is the city to which Saint Francis sent his brother Sylvester to drive the demons out, while Francis prayed for its liberation. As modern day brothers of that most humble saint, the friars entered the city of Moyross to teach their children, to live among the neighbors, and to introduce a new way in the midst of the old, habitual ways of enmity and suspicion. They willed to suffer in the midst of a suffering city so as to plant a seed of joy where nothing good ever grows. In response to Francis’s instruction to them—passed down over the centuries—they invited Moyross into 40 days of penance, dedicated to a simple prayer: “Free us O Lord from hatred, from addiction, from abuse. Free us, O Lord.”
Outcasts continually draws into the frame of our vision what is otherwise hidden, forgotten, or avoided. We see the darkness of addiction, of exploitation, of violence and neglect. We see how the chains that bind one generation become the very chains that bind the next one—we see how suffering absorbed becomes suffering inflicted on others. We see the cycles of desperation in which no other way is ever made possible, in which nothing but more of the same and much worse is all that one can ever see. We see what it looks like when we abandon each other and fail to love.
And in that very same frame—as difficult as it is to gaze upon—we see something else: the will to love; the commitment to suffer with, to suffer for, and to wait in hope with those who have none. We see works of mercy that heal weary bodies and enkindle darkened spirits. We see the light of Christ, given in the spirit of Saint Francis, in the love of joyful men in gray habits.
Outcasts is a piece of art at its best. It helps us to discover the truth, beauty, and goodness that would be invisible to us otherwise. Through this film, we see the rays of that eternal act of love that took flesh and dwelt among us—among us as we are, not as we wish to be. Outcasts is an icon, it is a sermon.
The one thing that Outcasts does not do is tell us, exactly, who the “outcasts” are. The outcasts may be those “cast out” of civil society, who slip out of view, who bear the weight of becoming un-useful, disgraceful, addicted, alone. The outcasts may certainly be the friars, who leave behind all wealth and possession in imitation of Saint Francis, who read the Gospel and believed it, plain and simple. Or, the outcasts may be those of us who find ourselves hiding within our own comforts and blindnesses and failures to love. Maybe we are all outcasts, in different ways. But what is common to us all is the paradoxical way in which we become more human together, in the way that Christ is fully human, in the way that Francis craved that fullness, and in the way that these friars offer a witness in the modern age. On their behalf, Outcasts says this:
Run toward poverty.
Run toward suffering.
Run toward loneliness.
“Rise and do not be afraid” (Matt 17:7).
For more on Outcasts, visit: www.outcaststhemovie.com/. Outcasts was screened on April 3, 2017 under the auspices of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.