The Catholic Imagination of John Ford

The richness of any religion is that it is more than a set of doctrines, beliefs, and practices; it also provides a cultural framework by which we can view and make sense of the world.  How we make this sense manifests itself in a variety of ways, including through art.  In fact, the cultural influence of religion can remain even when one decides to leave its practice or reject its tenants.  Scholars refer to it as the religious imagination.  In American Catholic Arts and Fictions Paul Giles writes that this imagination serves “as a residual cultural determinant and one aspect of the social context within which various … artists … have been working” (1).  Thus, in the 1990s American film director John Sayles listed his religion as “Catholic atheist” in his entry in Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television.  By this he meant, “We were raised Catholic, which is definitely an influence.  We went to church every Sunday.  It’s a belief system, a mythology that you’re given. . . . I still think of myself as a Catholic, as an ethnicity” (Sayles on Sayles, 1).  In Sayles’ case, he is referring to what Fr. Andrew Greely called the Catholic imagination: the contention that Catholicism has provided identifiable culture patterns that have shaped artists and their works, sometimes in spite of their personal relationship to the faith.  

Among Catholicism’s several cultural legacies is an affinity for visual culture as a form of storytelling.  Thus, we can appreciate one of the many purposes of stained glass windows in cathedrals and churches.  They were the world’s first movie theaters.  It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the great American film directors are products of his theo-visual heritage: among them are Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcok, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, and one other very important figure.  In 1912, when the Sisters of Mercy founded Saint Joseph’s College in Portland, Maine, John Martin Feeney, the son of staunch Irish Catholic immigrants living in the working-class neighborhood of Munjoy Hill in Portland, was likely attending Mass at his home parish of Saint Dominic’s.  In 1914 young John left Portland for Southern California to seek a career in the movies.   We know him better as John Ford, arguably, America’s greatest filmmaker.   

Between 1917 and 1970 he directed over 130 films, and he won the academy award four times for best director: the most of any director in film history.  Yet, were we to survey his films for overt expressions of his Catholic upbringing (e.g., portrayals of priests, images of statues, etc.), we would be hard-pressed to find them (although 3 Godfathers is a fun Western retelling of the biblical magi story).  Rather, is it in their recurrent themes, regardless of genre, that we encounter his Irish Catholic imagination.   

The Irish immigrant experience in America was one of feeling in exile due to circumstances beyond one’s control (e.g., the potato famine).  Consequently, for Ford’s parents and his generation there was a strong longing of returning to or finding a sense of home and belonging.  For Irish American Catholics, the neighborhood parish provided that sense of home as well as protection from what they felt were hostile Protestant forces that viewed them with suspicion (fittingly, Ford’s own parish now houses the Maine Irish Heritage Center).  It is no surprise then that Ford’s films are filled with characters who restlessly wander seeking security and a place to settle.  This theme manifests itself in nearly every one of his Westerns.  Moreover, it is explicit in Ford’s most popular film, The Quiet Man, where an American son of Irish immigrants returns to his ancestral land to escape his past and forge connections with this heritage.  What he finds is a community willing to welcome him and provide him the peace he seeks if he is willing to accept their customs and relinquish his destructive self-reliance.

It is the theme of community that also betrays Ford’s Catholic imagination.  As Fr. Richard Blake writes in Afterimage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers, “The notion of belonging to a community is crucial to one’s salvation in Catholic thought.” Redemption “is not worked out through a solitary search for God, but in collaboration with others” (14).  The “Cavalry Trilogy” (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) illustrates this value well by presenting the military as more than a collection of soldiers.  It is also a family that provides larger purpose for its members, and those who find themselves apart from it and on their own lose direction and meaning.  As the American-born son of Catholic immigrants, Ford would certainly have been sensitive to the tensions between his religion’s focus on community and his country’s emphasis on individualism.  Few films in his oeuvre portray this existential struggle better than The Searchers.  In it Ethan Edwards’ (John Wayne) racist thirst for vengeance prevents him from ever fully joining the community he seeks to protect.  In the film’s famous final shot, Ethan stands alone with the dark frame of a doorway around him metaphorically (Catholics are also attracted to analogies) emphasizing his isolation from others and, therefore, his inability to be fully human.  He turns and walks away into the harsh landscape as the door closes and the scene fades to black.

Another important attribute of the Catholic imagination to appreciate in Ford’s films is what Fr. Blake calls sacramentality.  It is a distinctively Catholic worldview that sees the potential for a grace-filled encounter with God through the material world just as our liturgical sacraments are rooted in bread, wine, oil, and water.  As Fr. Andrew Greeley writes in The Catholic Imagination, “As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, the events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace” (1).  Indeed, in Catholic tradition both the book of scripture (liber scripturae) and the “great book” of nature (liber naturae) are sources of God’s self-revelation to humanity.  

This proclivity toward the sacramental manifests itself in the ways that Catholic directors place objects in the frame to signify “value and meaning beyond their immediate material surface” (Blake 13).  Thus, the stagecoach in Stagecoach comes to mean more to its occupants (and, thereby, to the viewer) than its convenience as a mode of transportation.  In a particular way, Ford’s sacramental Catholic imagination most clearly expresses itself in his use of landscapes.  They are shot with such careful and loving detail that they serve as characters in their own right.  In Maria Elena de las Carreras Kuntz captures the weight of the visual beauty of Ford’s landscapes, especially Monument Valley which he features in many of his Westerns.  She writes that “Ford conveys a unique sense of beauty and mystery, establishing a sacramental relationship between man and landscape. Ford turns it into a primordial space where the children of God are faced with the basic issues of life: family, community, justice, solidarity, repentance, forgiveness, and mercy.”

At public events Ford was fond of introducing himself in the following  manner, “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.”  It was his self-deprecating way of claiming that his work amounted to little more than entertainment, and his entire career was directing Hollywood studio films for popular consumption.  However, repeated viewings of his many and various movies reveals a body of work much deeper than what appears at first glance.  In their exploration of the themes of belonging, community, and sacramentality, Ford’s films reveal an artist indebted to his Irish Catholic imagination, and the world of cinema is richer for it.

Christopher Fuller, Ph.D., is the Vice President, Chief Sponsorship and Mission Integration Officer at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.  Prior to coming to Saint Joseph’s, he was an Associate Professor of Theology at Carroll College in Montana for fifteen years.  While there he taught courses in scripture, Catholic Social Teaching, and film, including “American Cinema and the Catholic Imagination.”

The Suffering Evangelist

The vocation of the baptized is to become holy – that is, to accept the invitation into the Trinitarian communion, to be conformed to Christ and to introduce others to the God who loves us all so deeply. This is a weighty task, and one that can seem overwhelming to us, and for which we can feel unqualified and out of our depth. Yet God doesn’t look at our “expertise” but at our faithfulness and trust in Him. If we surrender ourselves to Him and pray to know our purpose, our particular giftedness, we’ll become His witnesses to the world. Most of us won’t draw hundreds or thousands to conversion, but what is most significant is that we draw the one person, at one particular time, whom God sets before us. Following the example of St. Teresa of Calcutta, we are asked not to convert the many, but only to bring God’s love and His Gospel to one person at a time.

Since the papacy of Pope St. Paul VI, the concept of a new evangelization has permeated the Church and re-invigorated the laity in carrying out Her mission. Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict each wrote and preached forcefully about the necessity not only of introducing Christ to those who do not know Him, but to re-introduce Him to those among the baptized who have grown cold or complacent in their faith. It is an invitation to those who have become slaves to rules rather than followers of the God whose precepts deepen our relationship with Him, and shape us into the men and women He created us to be. This is our responsibility as Christians: to bring Christ to the world, and to continue to invite Him anew into our own hearts.

Technological advances like television opened up new opportunities for evangelization starting with Bishop Fulton Sheen’s unique mixture of humor and theology, conveyed joyfully in a way that appealed to people of all, or no, faith. This model of spreading the Gospel over the airwaves continued to great effect with Mother Angelica and her EWTN worldwide Catholic network, and with CatholicTV in the Archdiocese of Boston. The internet has opened still more possibilities to bring the Gospel to the world with the click of a mouse or an app on the smartphone. Whether it is from the Sunday pulpit, the television or computer, the Word of God and the witness to His love remains a deeply personal reality. The Faith is not summed up in theological concepts or commandments, but in a relationship with the God who is Love; who in His essence is relational. It is through personal witness – our stories – that the Gospel is most effectively communicated to those who have either abandoned God, or who have forgotten who He is and how much He loves them. This is the primary way each of us can evangelize: by sharing ourselves and our personal encounters with the Lord. Though it’s not high tech or even innovative, a particularly effective but often overlooked means of sharing Christ is through our personal experience of suffering.

In his 2000 address to catechists, then-Cardinal Ratzinger placed the heart of evangelization in the Cross, saying that, “Jesus did not redeem the world with beautiful words but with his suffering and his death. His Passion is the inexhaustible source of life for the world; the Passion gives power to his words.” Suffering is not what we’d like to associate with evangelization. We’d generally prefer ways of witness that are more comfortable, more attractive and less difficult. But Jesus, through the paradox of the Cross, demonstrates that death brings new life, suffering is way for God to work in and transform us, and that what seems to be our heaviest burdens are often the means by which we can love most completely. Each of us, carrying our unique burdens, are called to be “suffering evangelists,” infusing our personal stories with the hope and fruitfulness promised us by God to win hearts over to Him.

I have learned first hand the power inherent in our suffering when it is yoked to Christ’s. Almost two years ago I co-founded an apostolate dedicated to offering emotional and spiritual support and accompaniment to those struggling with infertility and loss. When my friend and fellow John Paul II Institute graduate Kimberly Henkel and I founded Springs in the Desert, we did so mostly for our own sakes. In our shared experience with infertility we found that friendship was a necessary companion to prayer as we struggled to make sense of a desire for motherhood that would ultimately not be fulfilled biologically for either of us. Grateful for our formation at the Institute, we were still left puzzled by how the “beautiful words” found in the Church’s teaching applied to us, who felt isolated, suffering – barren. As we worked through our grief, personally and through our friendship, we began to understand that because Jesus first suffered for us, and continues to suffer with us, there is power in the pain we endure and the burdens we carry. Jesus is not only with us in our suffering, but He brings new life, a unique fruitfulness through it, if we will recognize that He can do so.

Since we took those first steps together “in the desert,” we have reached hundreds of women and men through our blog, social media, and our recent Springs of Hope Virtual Retreat. In the process we assembled a team of individuals and couples with whom we share the experience of infertility, and together we accompany others who, like us, are searching for the unique fruitfulness for which God has created us and our marriages. In this time of “social distancing,” technology has been a gift allowing us to connect with and “virtually accompany” so many who feel isolated, alone and even rejected by God. In social media posts and comments, direct messages and emails to us, we have been privileged to hear stories of pain and to cry with and pray for those who reach out to us. We hear their witness to being transformed by the message that Jesus carried their personal suffering to the Cross and is transforming it into something beautiful and life-giving. Many people have shared with us a renewed closeness to Christ as they begin to re-frame the experience of infertility not as a suffering (read punishment) imposed on them, but an invitation to a different but no less worthy means of giving life in the world.

In describing the “method” by which the New Evangelization must occur, Cardinal Ratzinger tells us it requires an “expropriation of one’s person, offering it to Christ for the salvation of men….” This, he says, “is the fundamental condition of the true commitment for the Gospel.” In other words, if we unite ourselves with Christ and join our wounds with His, they will be transformed by His authority into a way of ministering to others in their pain, bringing His love and mercy to those who feel lost and abandoned. My infertility, and the suffering I still experience to some degree, is transforming me. In every encounter with another person on this desert way who carries this burden God is showing me that suffering is one of the most powerful ways to evangelize because it is an experience that connects us to each other. Each of us, in our own unique pain, can be a suffering evangelist, bringing others to Christ so that they will know He has not and will not abandon them.


Ann Koshute is co-founder of Springs in the Desert and teaches a variety of courses for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.