I have a very hard time articulating why I’m (still) Catholic. It’s a question that other people ask me not infrequently – it’s a “do you mind if I ask you a question?” question, an inexplicable part of myself that does not seem to vibe with my weirdo androgynous socialist persona – but nowhere near as often as I ask myself. The Church has committed legions of crimes, and besides, preaches lots of things I don’t believe – that I find positively repugnant, particularly when it comes to teachings around gender and sexuality. Of course gay people should be allowed get married; of course trans people are the gender they say they are; of course women should be ordained as priests. Traditionalist Catholics and the non-religious alike are quick to write off my Catholicism as more or less bullshit: maybe it’s a lie I tell to please my parents, maybe it’s a lie I tell to please myself, a pathetic refusal to admit that all it amounts to is a cultural affiliation. But it’s not bullshit, I know it’s not. I’ve tried not being Catholic, but it’s something I can’t shake, something deep down in the bones of me.
The only answer to the question of why that feels like the full truth is a tautology: I’m Catholic because I am Catholic. My religious feelings – that seem to resonate right in my core, that seem as real as any part of me – are so hard to articulate, even to myself, that I don’t know how to even begin to express them to someone else. And so the best I can do is a kind of scrapbook religion, pointing to other people’s articulations in the hope that a collage of all of them will make me understood: Franny and Zooey and how everyone is Christ; Leo Tolstoy and the Christian imperative of nonviolence; how deeply, impossibly I believe that ‘Anarchy, My Dear’ by Say Anything is a hymn. Most of the best and brightest entries in my scrapbook, the ones that set my heart on fire, are Catholic – more or less. Liberation theology, St. Francis, St. Joan of Arc, St. Oscar Romero, The Exorcist and The Omen, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Brighton Rock, Gerard Way scrawling Catholic across his neck and his arm, Dogma, The Blues Brothers, stained glass windows and Gregorian chanting and what Stewart Lee once described as Catholicism’s love of inane seaside tat. Hitchcock for guilt, Ford for redemption, Rossellini for saints. That I think making fun of transubstantiation is hack when it is so much funnier to make fun of consubstantiation. My favourite director is Martin Scorsese, and a big reason is that no artist’s work has ever resonated quite so strongly with the religious part of my heart: felt Catholic in all the ways that I am Catholic, saturated in everything from The Last Temptation of Christ down to his most secular-seeming genre pictures.
Lady Bird is so many things that I love, like it’s a film made just for me. It follows Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) – who wants everyone to call her Lady Bird – in her senior year at a Catholic girls’ school in 2002-03, as she deals with her relationship with her well-meaning, burned-out mother, her unemployed, depressed dad, turbulent teenage friendships and two love interests. I love teen movies, and Lady Bird wears John Hughes’s influence on its sleeve – but unlike most modern teen movies, it doesn’t scrub away that class conflict that was so central to Hughes’s work. Lady Bird, like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, literally lives on the wrong side of the tracks. It’s got great dialogue, both extremely funny and always realistic, and wall-to-wall excellent performances, particularly Ronan as Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf as Marion, her mother. Greta Gerwig said she wanted the film to be really specific because that is how you get at the universal, and so it is that Lady Bird feels like a film about me even though our lives were radically different. I had bad acne and dyed red hair and had almost word-for-word the same arguments with my mam, sure, but mostly, I connect with the way Lady Bird talks about Sacramento – the hometown you hate so much and can’t wait to escape until it’s time to leave – with growing up in the shadow of the Iraq War – I’m a lot younger than Lady Bird, but it still feels like a defining thing for me, like I think it does for most millennials – and more than anything, with its Catholicism. The details are different, but it feels like what it felt like, to me, to grow up Catholic. Lady Bird slides so neatly into my scrapbook, into the small, ordinary gaps.
For a lot of people, the Catholicism in Lady Bird seems like a matter of setting: the Catholic school lends the film that minute specificity Gerwig was going for, allowing her to both make use of Catholic aesthetics, which are so distinctive and cinematic, and draw on her own experiences (although Gerwig is not Catholic and never has been, she did attend Catholic school). The specificity of the setting does give Lady Bird a charm and authenticity, both in contrast to teen movies where the school – the place its characters inevitably spend their days – lacks any kind of character, and in contrast to most portrayals of Catholic school, which tend to be hyper-dramatic horror stories or lame jokes. “In Lady Bird, I saw for the first time in film a Catholic girls’ school as I remember it—brimming with kindness, weirdness, friendship and rebellion,” Eloise Blondiau writes for America, the Jesuit magazine, “…Of course the wealthiest girl in the class had tailored the hem of her skirt to make it permanently shorter, rather than rolling it up like the rest of us. Of course the school was nicknamed Immaculate Fart.”
Using Catholic school imagery just for this kind of authentic charm would be more than enough, and Lady Bird would still be thematically rich. It’s brimming over with things to say about class, depression, the Bush administration, Sacramento, the trials of teenagehood and the many splendours of love: its portrayal of mother-daughter relationships alone is complex enough to sustain the film. But Catholicism, too, is baked into the film’s heart, into how it looks at its characters and its world.
Lady Bird is the first act of a saint picture. In interviews, Gerwig talked frequently about St. Ignatius, and the idea that whatever you have, God can use: how Ignatius in his younger years was ambitious, and so became ambitious in service of this higher thing. She has stated she read many lives of saints while writing Lady Bird, and took inspiration from how many of the saints were “just annoying teenagers” before finding their cause. In Lady Bird, Gerwig was “interested in taking something that just looks like an annoying teenage girl and then giving her the experience of what [she] think[s] of as grace… wholly unearned [and] in some ways… inexplicable.”
In some ways, Lady Bird reminds me of Mean Streets, Scorsese’s breakout film about New York gangsters, as much as Pretty in Pink: displaced from each other by time, gender and geography, both are stories about being young and Catholic or Catholic-adjacent, about being uncomfortable in your own skin and blinkered by your own perspective. About far-away wars that are psychologically close at hand – Mean Streets, like every film from the 1970s, is about Vietnam, even just as an ever-present backdrop to American life, but Lady Bird’s treatment of Iraq feels more significant because it’s so much rarer. There are films about the Iraq War, but, like The Hurt Locker or American Sniper, they’re literally set at war: Lady Bird is one of the few films – along with 2006’s Half-Nelson and 2016’s Little Sister – that try to portray how it felt to watch the war on your TV screen. The weird Bush revisionism that the Trump presidency has induced makes it easy to watch Lady Bird as a pleasant nostalgia trip, but the film is in part a rejection of that revisionist nostalgia: “It doesn’t show us a moment when things were better,” Lindsay Turner writes for Arcade, “If anything, it’s a moment at which some of us first noticed that things were wrong.”
Lady Bird and Mean Streets both end with moments of grace and transformation. In Mean Streets, God’s grace comes in blood and bullet wounds: after a shootout, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) has wounds on his hands, like stigmata, and as he kneels on the ground, he has a stunned look on his face. But in Lady Bird, something smaller and quieter happens. Lady Bird has moved to New York to start college in the autumn, and hasn’t spoken to her mother since the start of summer. She gets drunk at her first college party – she defends her music collection’s number of greatest hits compilations by saying “they’re the greatest”, and bristles when a boy laughs and dismisses her question about if he believes in God – and wakes up in hospital, make-up smudged down her face. She wanders the city streets, then ends up at an old Catholic church, listening to the choir sing some hymn in Latin. The camera holds on Lady Bird’s face where we would expect shots of the choir: on the page, it would seem like the scene is “about” the choir – they’re the point of action – but we dwell instead on Lady Bird’s expression, because the real action in the scene in happening inside her.
She calls her parents’ house, and leaves a voicemail for her mother. “It’s me, Christine. It’s the name you gave me. It’s a good one,” she says to introduce herself. She talks about how emotional she was the first time she drove through Sacramento earlier this summer – looking at the places she’s known her whole life, the bends in the road, the shops – and how she wanted to tell her mother but they weren’t speaking. Her voiceover plays over a montage of sunsets over trees out car windows and shop signs and bridges, photographed so lovingly that they seem intensely beautiful. (A nun asks Lady Bird earlier in the film if love and attention aren’t the same thing, and the film’s camerawork certainly agrees.) We cut between Lady Bird and her mother in the same position in the car in corresponding shots. “I wanted to tell you – I love you. Thank you,” Lady Bird says, back in the original shot where she started the phone call, “I’m – Thank you.” She snaps the flip phone shut, looks into the distance. Snap to black.
There’s so much going on in these scenes, even as they feel so small and commonplace. Lady Bird finds herself returning to the church when she had shown no real interest in it when she was surrounded by it. She calls herself by her birth name after spending so long rejecting it, and it doesn’t seem at all coincidental that her name is Christine – follower of Christ. She talks about driving through Sacramento – a city whose name is “sacrament” in Spanish – and how these places she’s seen thousands of times seemed new, somehow, in a way she struggles to describe, and it evokes, for me, the particularly Catholic idea of the sacramental universe – that everything on earth can and does reveal the divine.
But what I love the most about the ending of Lady Bird is where it diverges from its saintly influences. For many saints, their moment of transformative grace is a moment where they choose to reject their family, to take on a new identity – and perhaps a new name – of their own. St. Francis stripped naked in the court, handing his clothes over so he would no longer have anything of his father’s. St. Clare cutting all her hair off to make herself unsuitable for marriage. St. Benedict, so sick of his friends’ constant partying that he left Rome without telling anyone and lived in a cave for three years. But whatever it is that Lady Bird experiences listening to the choir – Greta Gerwig calls it grace, and I would too – it draws her towards her family, not away. It pushes her to call herself Christine, to reconcile with her mother, to say the hard and honest things – “I love you” and “thank you” – that feel almost like a prayer.
Modern secular societies tend to imagine religion as over there in the corner, a separate and self-contained aspect of life with no reason to ever bleed outside its wheelhouse – like golf. But, as Elizabeth Bruenig writes, religion is expansive and all-encompassing – so much so that there isn’t an agreed definition of what religion even is – and so it’s impossible to fully disentangle religion from politics, because “people incorporate the symbols and ethics of religion into their reasoning and interior lives whether or not they articulate especially religious reasons for the political choices they come to.” I have a hard time articulating why I’m Catholic, and it’s in part because I feel like I never stop articulating it. Almost everything I believe, almost everything I am, feels like an expression of my faith – so how do I make that intelligible to others when it seems like it should be so obvious?
Lady Bird has this moment of transcendence, and it’s small and quiet and real. And of course it makes her want to call her mother. In a sacramental universe, everything is holy, everything reveals God. Every person is Christ himself. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar,” John tells us, “for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” God is love – not full of love, not like love, just is love. Of course telling your mother you love her is a prayer.