It has been said by great theologians — in one way or another — that to truly know yourself, you must first learn to know God.
The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “There is no self-understanding without God-understanding.”
God made us. He knows how everything fits together. And more importantly, He holds the key to our purpose in life. That is the underlying current of a new feature-length movie about three young seminarians, the closest of friends, as they set out on what the film says is “an extraordinary odyssey to answer the highest of calls.”
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In “Trinity’s Triumph,” two of the seminarians are composite characters — young men who represent the variations of personalities in seminary. But one is not.
Father Joe is the avatar of Father Stephen Fichter, pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Wyckoff, New Jersey.
He developed the story and wrote the screenplay based on his journey to his ordination.
The film could be the first movie about priests actually written by a priest.
Says Fichter, “I felt very strongly in my own vocation to the priesthood that God was calling more young people to serve him.”
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He said he wanted to “make a movie that would be attractive to the modern generation.”
“He said, ‘I see what you’re trying to do. I think it’s wonderful.'”
Film is certainly a good way to attract a younger generation, evidenced by the media attention given to the Catholic conversion of actor Shia LaBeouf.
But Fichter’s film was a 25-year journey that started while he was studying in Rome. He talked about the sojourn on a recent episode of “Lighthouse Faith” podcast.
“The original title was ‘Daring to Be Different,’ and it was the story of this one young man, and his journey … trying to respond to the call, trying to be generous to God and the sacrifice they had to make along the way.”
Along the journey, Fichter got some remarkable help. While in the eternal city, a friend of his was able to get the amateur screenplay in front of award-winning Italian director Franco Zeffirelli.
Fichter says, “I thought, you know, why not give it a try? Well, he loved it!”
Zeffirelli, said Fichter, “really thought I had a great idea. And he invited me to his villa on the outskirts of Rome, and we were there. It was a Sunday afternoon. And he was just absolutely delightful. He said, ‘I see what you’re trying to do. I think it’s wonderful.'”
Zeffirelli — who died in 2019 at age 96 — mentored Fichter and suggested a major change to the story.
Instead of one seminarian’s journey, he thought it would make a better movie if were about about three young men.
The next big-name contribution came while Fichter was serving as pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Haworth, New Jersey. A parishioner who wrote books asked him about a Scripture she was looking for to add to a story (this was before online search engines became the norm). He happily helped her.
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Turns out the parishioner was the bestselling author Mary Higgins Clark, the highest paid woman novelist.
Before her death in 2020, she wrote 51 books, each one a bestseller.
Said Fichter, “When I first met her, I had no idea who she was. She was at daily Mass during Lent … She was just another parishioner in the pews.”
Fichter was able to cross that hurdle of “Is this good enough?” and then had to deal with the difficulty of getting it produced.
Higgins Clark also helped shape the screenplay and gave it little more personality.
She and others also advised those working on it not to avoid the elephant in the room, which was the sexual abuse crisis burgeoning in Boston and what we now know as a worldwide issue.
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But Fichter was able to cross that hurdle of “Is this good enough?” and then had to deal with the difficulty of getting it produced.
He told “Lighthouse Faith,” “Once I felt like I had that affirmation and that approval and that support and encouragement from, you know, two really amazing storytellers in our world, I decided, How can I get this made?”
Hollywood is a strange animal. To get a good actor to play your lead, the potential artist usually wants to know who the director is. To get a good director, he or she wants to know who your lead actor is. To get financing, people want to know who the actor and director are.
This merry-go-round can be endless.
Luckily, Fichter had friends who were willing to invest. It was low budget, just half a million dollars — hardly the catering bill for a blockbuster film.
Then, through more connections, he was able to snag A-list actor Joe Morton (“Speed,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”) to play the lead character, Monsignor Heck, around whom the entire movie pretty much revolves.
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Heck is the veteran seminary professor who challenges each of his students to go beyond knowing about God and take the plunge to actually knowing God.
He challenges the seminarians in the exact area where they’re blind to their own weaknesses. One seminarian’s superior intellect and theological knowledge put him far above his other classmates. But his failings came as he ignored the longings of his heart, believing that knowledge about God would be a talisman against temptation. It was not.
It is Heck who must deal with the fallout of an abusive priest.
It is Heck who must deal with the fallout of an abusive priest.
It is Heck who must debate a young priest struggling to understand why the Catholic Church doesn’t allow them to marry and have children as in the Eastern rite or Orthodox churches permit.
It is Heck who, in the end, makes the audience feel honor and respect toward the priesthood; something that Hollywood hasn’t done since the days when Bing Crosby played Father O’Malley in 1945’s “The Bells of St. Mary.”
Says Fichter, “What we’re trying to show in the movie is the human side to the priesthood. Yes, it’s a calling from God. And it’s something that the church discerns as a community and then the individual discerns … and we try to show those sacrifices of not having a wife and a family and, you know, some of that loneliness that sets in.”
Each found that God’s grace, truth and mercy would always be their strength.
To know God is experiential. Sometimes it’s the weeping in the night, the falling to the knees from the weight of life’s struggles.
It is coming to the end of your human strength and only then knowing the only real thing you have in this life is the God who created you.
A priest is taught this. A good priest knows it and lives it out daily.
At the end of “Trinity’s Triumph,” each seminarian is on a different path. One drops out before being ordained. One leaves after taking his vows. And only one, Father Joe (Fichter), is a priest.
But all triumphed, though, because in their pursuit of this “highest of callings,” each found that God’s grace, truth and mercy would always be their strength.
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