The Power of Procession

Isabel Bishop

The church is a flawed entity. The message of Christ, while it is fully true and good, can be distorted by sin. Instead of being a joyous community, the church can discard its most vulnerable members. It is the responsibility of all Christians to renounce evil in the church and to pursue justice and righteousness. We hear this call in the convicting new Netflix documentary Procession.

Director Robert Greene collaborated with six men as they confronted the sexual abuse they experienced as children at the hands of priests in the Catholic church. The film is unique in that the subjects dramatically reenact aspects of the trauma they experienced. As is far too often the case with sexual-assault survivors, the men were re-traumatized when their stories were not believed by the church, despite mountains of corroborating evidence. Greene and the men work with a drama therapist, Monica Phinney, to imaginatively revisit their most painful memories, move past their trauma, and achieve some measure of catharsis and healing.

As Phinney explains, drama therapy is “the intentional use of role-play to achieve a therapeutic goal.” The six men—Mike Foreman, Joe Eldred, Ed Gavagan, Michael Sandridge, Tom Viviano, and Dan Laurine—work with Greene and Phinney to write, produce, and film scenes based on their past. At its core, Procession is about finding healing through community.

For many, the church is a place of solace, where people go to connect with each other and find support and love in community. Upon entering a church to film one of the scenes, Sandridge remarks, “Isn’t it beautiful? You could never think something bad might happen here.” But what happens when evil poisons that community? These boys trusted their priests to guide them along their spiritual journey. Their parents trusted that they would care for and look after their children as if they were their own. Knowing all of this, these priests chose to violate that trust, abuse that power, and blatantly disregard the teachings of Christ.

Procession is about finding healing through community.

Foreman’s recreated scene dramatizes the time his mother, after he had already told her about the first instance of abuse, drove her son back to the abuser’s home with a homemade cake, believing that the priest was “a man of God” who was just trying to help. Foreman remembers standing on the front porch with his abuser, watching his mother drive away.

The men in Procession are all at different stages of healing and at different levels of recognizing the depths of their trauma. Foreman will tell you in very colorful language of his (quite understandable) hatred of the Catholic church. He repeatedly asks, “What would God and Jesus Christ think about this?” Sandridge recognizes that it is the abusers and bystanders who are evil, not the church itself. He remains devoted to his Christian faith, just not the Catholic view of it.

In losing one community, the men find that they are united by their brokenness. In the process of helping each other to heal by making these short films, they find another community. Sandridge explains that “people do things for other people sometimes they don’t do for themselves.” The men place themselves in triggering situations to help one another, such as donning priestly robes to play the role of the abuser or returning to the churches, confessionals, homes, and lake houses where the abuse occurred to take back the power those places hold over them. They sacrifice their own comfort and well-being for the sake of aiding other survivors.

Their stories are heartbreaking. Gavagan recalls thinking, “Is he allowed to do this to me? Doesn’t seem right, and yet he’s kind of the definition of what’s right.” He hopes to move people beyond pity and “vanquish the forces of darkness” like Marvel superheroes. Eldred recalls being told he would be kicked out of the church and sent to hell if he ever told anyone about the abuse. He now suffers from dissociative episodes and hopes this therapeutic endeavor might alleviate his constant nightmares. Viviano, who is unable to write his own scene due to an ongoing legal case, hopes to help the others in any way he can.

Catholic mass usually begins with a procession toward the altar, from which the documentary gets its title. Philip Kosloski explains that the procession in Catholic mass “became a symbolic gesture that reminded the faithful of their procession or ‘pilgrimage’ to heaven.” Each mass, then, is a retelling of the story of Christ’s procession into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), sacrifice on the cross (Good Friday), and the resurrection (Easter Sunday). The whole movement is a procession, representing a Christian life as it moves through the earthly Jerusalem (like Christ) toward the heavenly Jerusalem.

For these men, the procession of their lives was disrupted by evil at a young age. We usually deal with trauma by burying it deep inside of us and never looking at it. When Laurine returns to the lake house where he was abused, he insists they are at the wrong place and that he has never been there. Then it dawns on him that he has blocked the memory of being at that house. He realizes that the only way to heal from past trauma is to confront it and move through it.

Even though these men were robbed of their childhoods by the church, the Holy Spirit is still working in their lives, fostering the positive, loving, and supportive community they find in each other. As the film progresses, we witness the men processing toward a new Jerusalem, the city of peace and wholeness. Their innocence had been destroyed by the vile actions of the priests; their reputations were sacrificed to protect the image of the church. Their healing is a miraculous process, a procession in communion with one another.

Topics: Movies