Everyone knows about Marian apparitions. Even in the minds of non-Catholics and nonbelievers, the names of Lourdes, Fátima, and Guadalupe are virtually synonymous with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Cotignac, in southeastern France, is a name that might not be recognized by even pious Catholics with a special devotion to St. Joseph. There’s a shrine in Cotignac and a spring of water reportedly revealed to a shepherd named Gaspard Ricard on a hot day in 1660 by a mysterious stranger who called himself Joseph and vanished before the shepherd could thank him. Cotignac is no Lourdes, but perhaps 100,000 pilgrims per year come to the shrine to pray and drink the water from the spring. Miraculous cures from cancer and other ailments are reported; according to Frère Hubert-Marie, rector of Cotignac’s Sanctuary of Our Lady of Grace, among the most common blessings reported are “Cotignac babies” born to previously infertile couples. Such couples, he says, often write to thank St. Joseph after their pilgrimage — “normally nine months after,” he adds with a smile.
Cotignac is the first destination visited in A Father’s Heart: The Miracles of St. Joseph Today, a faith-based documentary directed by Spanish filmmaker Andrés Garrigó (Fatima: The Ultimate Mystery) for Madrid-based Goya Productions. Part spiritual travelogue, part anecdotal inspiration, A Father’s Heart visits shrines and other holy sites in countries including France, Spain, Italy, Canada, Georgia, and the Holy Land, interviewing theologians, priests and religious, lay volunteers, and ordinary people. Along the way it offers historical perspective on devotion to St. Joseph, crediting Teresa of Avila and El Greco with the shift in devotional imagery of St. Joseph from an elderly man to the younger figure exclusively represented in this film and highlighting increasing emphasis on St. Joseph in the popes from Pius IX onward. Brief, wordless dramatic segments depict the Holy Family in Nazareth and Bethlehem, with St. Joseph apprenticing young Jesus in his workshop or instructing him while an ever-smiling Virgin Mary brings them drinks or just watches approvingly.
Miracles and favors ascribed to St. Joseph abound: Religious orders and families find new homes; cancers and other deadly conditions clear up; a divorced couple rebuild their marriage. The most memorable stories to me are those of visual artists commissioned to create works of sacred art, leading to interior conversion. By far the best-known such story is that of Antoni Gaudí, the renowned Catalan Modernist architect whose still-unfinished Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona is among the most iconic churches in the world. The testimony I found most moving is that of a Spanish sculptor named Elena Pilar who was commissioned to create a statue of Saint Joseph to be displayed in Nazareth near the Church of St. Joseph. In interview segments Pilar explains how her initially secular interest in the commission was challenged when she joined a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and witnessed the devotion of other pilgrims. Offering an agnostic prayer to St. Joseph and asking for help knowing how to shape the work, she felt a prompting that led to confession and Communion — and, as she worked on the statue, relief from anorexia and rheumatoid arthritis as well.
Despite the long litany of granted prayers and testimonials of St. Joseph’s reliability in granting prayers and wishes, the spirituality of A Father’s Heart is not all inward-facing. In Barcelona we meet sisters of the Congregation of the Mothers of the Abandoned and Saint Joseph on the Mountain, founded by Blessed Ana Petra Pérez Florido (also known as Petra of Saint Joseph), whose mission was shaped by an appearance from the saint. Blessed Petra’s order runs homes for the orphaned and the elderly, schools, and missions in Spain, Italy, and Latin America. Also in Barcelona we meet Marcos Vera, founder of the St. Joseph’s Youth apostolate, which brings food to the poor on the streets at night. Reflecting on handing out snacks and hot chocolate to the poor on Christmas Day and singing carols by guitar in the street, a young woman volunteering with St. Joseph’s Youth says, “It was one of the first Christmases that I spent with Jesus.” Some volunteers were once homeless themselves; one, a former male sex worker, describes a life-changing encounter with a man talking on the street about the word of God.
Even so, as a smiling man in Barcelona explains the tradition of dropping off letters to St. Joseph in an urn at Saint Joseph on the Mountain — adding that the wishes of all three of his letters were granted — I think about all the pilgrims and petitioners not featured in productions like this. The cancer patients, the struggling families seeking work or housing, the couples in failing marriages, who made pilgrimages, prayed novenas, went on retreats, but never got their miracle. What is the message of devotion to St. Joseph for these people? What is the responsibility of the filmmaker regarding these experiences, especially to viewers struggling with these issues who are inspired to take actions featured in the movie but don’t get the hoped-for results? Such questions are not contemplated in A Father’s Heart.
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Accompanying A Father’s Heart in its Fathom release is Our Liberator: St. Joseph and the Priests of Dachau, a 30-minute documentary short written and directed by David Naglieri for the Knights of Columbus. Though one-third the length of the main feature, its impact is at least equal or greater.
Well-crafted from a typical blend of talking-head interviews, modern-day location shooting, archival video and still images, and wordless dramatic recreations, Our Liberator recounts the horrific story of the Nazi campaign of terror against Polish Catholicism, including the murder of roughly one-fifth of Polish Catholic priests, or half of all the priests arrested and interned by the Nazis. It also tells the story of the courage and faith of the clergy interned at the “priest block” in Dachau — and of the fateful novena they prayed to St. Joseph, patron of Poland, in the last days of the European war, faced with the threat of last-minute extermination by the retreating Nazis. Unknown to the priests, the very day they began their novena, Heinrich Himmler himself signed an order that no prisoners were to be left alive in the camps. Despite this, their prayers were spectacularly answered on April 29th, 1945, days after their novena ended, when the camp was liberated scant hours before the Nazis were scheduled to destroy it all.
Interview subjects include various Polish clergy and authorities including Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, archbishop emeritus of Krakow, and Polish historian Dr. Dr Anna Jagodzińska; Knights of Columbus director Szymon Czyszek, a grandson of a Dachau survivor; and Fr. Donald Calloway, MIC, author of Consecration to St. Joseph (also interviewed for A Father’s Heart). Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, I was impressed to see commentary from Fr. Kevin Spicer, whose book Hitler’s Priests: Catholic Clergy and National Socialism depicts a very different side of Catholic–Nazi interaction; as a graduate of Seton Hall University’s Immaculate Conception Seminary, I was also glad for the contributions of one of my diaconal class’s professors, Dr. Dianne Traflet.
Among other strengths, I appreciate Our Liberator’s use of subtitles, preserving the intonations and emotions of its Polish interview subjects — never more critically than in archival video of Fr. Leon Michałowski, a priest survivor of Dachau, relating the tortures to which inmates were subjected. It makes the use of overdubbing in A Father’s Heart all the more regrettable, especially when interviewees are sharing personal experiences of grace and spiritual illumination.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.