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Mark Wahlberg’s new film “Father Stu” is a true-story parable on suffering and faith

April 14, 2022 - Dr. Ryan Denison

FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2017 file photo, Mark Wahlberg arrives at the world premiere of "All the Money in the World" at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2017 file photo, Mark Wahlberg arrives at the world premiere of "All the Money in the World" at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

Father Stu is an enjoyable and challenging film based on the life of Father Stuart Long, a Catholic priest whose struggles and unconventional journey to faith came to define a profoundly impactful, albeit tragically short, ministry.

While the profanity throughout certainly justifies its “R” rating, the language also imbues the story with a sense of authenticity that more than makes up for any discomfort it might elicit from those expecting a more traditional Christian movie.

The story of Father Stu

The film stars Mark Wahlberg, who spent the better part of six years trying to make the film after first hearing Father Stu’s story. After several studios rejected the project, Wahlberg followed Mel Gibson’s path—who also appears in the movie as Stu’s father, Bill—and financed the bulk of the film himself.

As Wahlberg describes it, he felt it was important to be faithful to Stu’s story. The script alters aspects of that story, but those who knew Stu best feel like the end product does just that.

If you want to go into the film without knowing much about the story, skip to the next section. Spoilers are about to commence.

The movie follows Stu as he goes from a successful but small-time boxer in Montana to an aspiring actor in California. While looking for his big break, his interest in dating a Catholic woman he meets eventually leads him to get baptized.

At that point in the story, it still seems like he is more interested in a relationship with the young woman than with God. That changes, however, after a horrific motorcycle accident, in which he was thrown from his bike and then run over by another car, forcing Stu to reevaluate his relationship with the Lord.

Through that experience, he decides that God wants him to become a priest.

While at seminary, Stu is diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, which is similar in many ways to ALS. The film does a remarkable job of depicting the physical and spiritual struggles that ensue in a way that is both honest and challenging. Despite his condition—and opposition from those in the diocese who were concerned about the limitations and financial obligations that condition would place on the church—Stu was eventually ordained and would go on to serve in his hometown until his death at the age of fifty.

As Bishop George Thomas described it, Stu’s “priesthood was about six years altogether, and he was stunningly effective in those years.” Father Sean Raftis, who still serves the Diocese of Helena and would often go to Stu for confession, described him as “very Christlike. It was great, because he was a great priest, but he was like an old shoe, in a way. He could talk to anybody . . . And it was very interesting, because the time he drew so many people to him is when he was suffering the most.”

“My suffering is a gift from God”

That idea of God using suffering to draw people to himself is a constant theme throughout the film because it was the lens through which Stu came to see the various hardships in his life.

As he states at his ordination in the film, “My suffering is a gift from God. In this life, no matter how long it lasts, it’s a momentary affliction preparing us for eternal glory . . . We shouldn’t pray for an easy life, but the strength to endure a difficult one.”

At the same time, the film also emphasizes that Stu’s path to reaching that conclusion was far from easy, and the journey he takes to get there is a crucial element in understanding the truth behind his statement.

Answers vs. acceptance

While our suffering can be used and redeemed by God in remarkable ways, telling someone who is hurting that they should see their affliction as a divine gift is seldom a great way to start that conversation.

There are times when the trials we face and the suffering that results from them are gifts from the Lord meant to draw us closer to him. However, there are many other times that we suffer in ways that run counter to his will, yet his goodness and grace are such that he can bring redemption and purpose from our pain.

In the moment, though, it doesn’t really matter—and therein lies the wisdom of Father Stu’s perspective.

Far too often, we allow the pain or hardships we’re facing to drive us to seek understanding when our focus needs to be on simply accepting the reality of our present situation and then looking to God for the strength to endure it in a way he can use to grant it purpose and meaning.

That’s not to say we’re wrong to ask those questions.

But, most of the time, even if God gave us the answer, it wouldn’t really change much.

How God transforms suffering

When I had cancer, I spent a lot of nights asking God why. It wasn’t until years later that I gained enough perspective on it to realize that even if he’d answered that question in a way I could understand, it wouldn’t have changed anything about the treatments I had to endure or the sense of isolation that comes from suffering in a way that no one else can really understand—after all, such suffering is most often a unique experience, even if it’s shared by others.

I now look back on that experience and wonder how many opportunities I missed to share the gospel or help someone else who was hurting because I was more focused on my own situation than on what God wanted to do through it. Father Stu reminded me of that basic truth and challenged me not to let it happen again.

I don’t know what trials you’ve experienced or in what ways you might be suffering now. But God does, and he has a plan to redeem that pain in a way that gives it purpose and meaning beyond yourself.

That doesn’t mean the pain or suffering will go away, and it doesn’t mean that wishing it would is a sin. But accepting the reality of our suffering for what it is and asking God to shift our focus to how he plans to use it can give us the strength to endure it well.

At the end of the film, that’s the lesson I took from Father Stu, and I’m grateful for it.

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