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The movie has teenage sex, drugs and profanity, but Catholics still love it

We know “Lady Bird" is a "love letter to Sacramento" created by writer-director Greta Gerwig, the St. Francis High School graduate whose coming-of-age film features her native city – our city – as a central character.

We know the movie is an Oscar hopeful and a feminist triumph in which the protagonist survives her senior year in high school and finds her place in the world without the requisite validation of a male love interest.

But what might be lesser known is that "Lady Bird" – despite its profanity and portrayals of drug use and teenage sex – is almost universally loved by Catholics, who have responded to its sympathetic and realistic depictions of faith and religion.

Whether or not “Lady Bird” on Sunday wins any of the five Oscars for which it is nominated, its legacy will include being the rare modern Hollywood movie that humanizes Catholic nuns and priests instead of vilifying them.

“I think 'Lady Bird' is a love letter to Catholic schools, a much needed one,” said Monsignor James Murphy, a retired leader of the Sacramento Diocese who has seen the movie twice. “It was wonderful to see nuns and priests presented in a positive light after all the church has been through in the last 10 to 15 years.”


Following the sex-abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in the early 2000s, Hollywood has tended to portray priests as predatory creeps and nuns as mean-spirited caricatures.

By contrast, "Lady Bird" features everyday nuns and priests working tirelessly to better the lives of young people. Gerwig shares those stories with an affection many of us have felt toward clergy members in our own lives.

And the term “many of us” also applies to non-Catholics, such as Gerwig herself.

MaryAnne Kelly, director of advancement at St. Francis High School, said about 30 percent of their students self-identify as non-Catholics on their application forms. The rest identify as Catholic.

All St. Francis students are exposed to curriculum that instills the importance of service to others, Kelly said. Students participate in yearly retreats where they spend time with other kids and teachers they might not know. The goal is to nurture faith in one another and break down the walls that divide. Students are reminded daily that everyone has worth and something to contribute.

“We see our work as planting seeds,” said St. Francis principal Theresa Rogers. “You never know what that seed is going to sprout.”

When "Lady Bird" won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy in January, it was clear how Gerwig’s seed had sprouted. She had created an inspirational film by paying homage to the experiences of faith and community that had molded her.

Accepting her award on that night, she thanked her parents “and the people of Sacramento who gave me roots and wings and helped get me where I am today.”

Throughout the semi-autobiographical movie, Gerwig’s character Christine – played by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan – is guided by her experiences with ordained servants of the church and lay people.

Christine, who gives herself the nickname Lady Bird, is stunned when her high school drama instructor, an elderly priest, cries tenderly during an acting exercise. The self-absorbed teenager suddenly is exposed to a person who is not just a priest in a collar, but a man with feelings and vulnerabilities.

Then there are the women whom Lady Bird rebels against, including her mother – the authority figure responsible for her presence at an all-girls school like St. Francis – and the school administrator in a nun’s uniform, Sister Sarah Joan.

In the film, Lady Bird plays a mean prank on the nun, who responds with good humor that disarms the defiant student. She tells Lady Bird that she is a wonderful writer who, in a school essay, described Sacramento “so affectionately and with such care.”

“Sure, I guess I pay attention,” Lady Bird replies tartly.

"Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?" Sister Sarah Joan says.

In that moment, Lady Bird realizes the nun she dislikes actually is paying attention to her, caring about her, trying to help her.

Father Steve Avella, a Sacramento-born priest who is a history professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said he has had many similar encounters with students.

“I always tell my students that I will be praying for them every day for the rest of my life and I do,” said Avella, author of several books on Sacramento history.

Avella said he often will say hello to a former student he sees on campus and will hear nothing in return. “They look at me like I have two heads,” he said. “When I’m not their professor anymore, it's like they don’t need me.”

But with the passage of time, something special happens, Avella said. “I can’t tell you how many times I have had a student come back and say, 'Are you still praying for me, Father?' "

At the end of "Lady Bird," after the protagonist has moved to New York, stayed out too late, drank too much and felt lonely, she retreats to a place that makes her feel safe: a church.

The ornate surroundings, the music, the distance from Sacramento inspires her to call home. In a moving tribute to her mom, left on her voicemail, Lady Bird reaches an epiphany of self-discovery by speaking two simple words: thank you.

On the day I saw "Lady Bird" at the Tower Theatre, I noticed quite a few people who had been moved by what they had experienced. I was moved too.

It was not unlike going to church.

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