The Holy Game (2021)

Is ‘The Holy Game’ (2021) sportswashing

Director Brent Hodge did not intend to make a film about why men enter the Catholic priesthood. At the outset, he and co-director Chris Kelly thought their film would be a comedic pop culture documentary, a movie genre niche that is Hodge’s specialty. They envisioned fat friars sweating in the Vatican-sponsored football tournament known as The Clericus Cup.

The story

In the film, we get to know 4 seminarians who are in their final year of seminary school. They are attending one of the dozens of seminaries in Rome known as Pontifical Colleges. A college represents a specific country or can be multi-national. Grayson Heenan (Michigan) and Michael Zimmerman (Boston) attend the North American College, while Eric Atta Gyasi (Ghana) attends Collegio Urbano and Duarte Rosado attends the Portuguese College.

In 2007, the Vatican initiated the Clericus Cup, where soccer teams from each college compete in a 3-month tournament. As the 4 seminarians move towards graduation and ordination as priests, they also progress through the Clericus Cup.

The teams are not limited to students, but can include any cleric, such as a bishop or deacon. One of the spirited footballers is Father Oscar Turrión, a man in his late 40s who still plays and is also the rector of the College Maria Mater Ecclesiae. It’s like having the college president as a teammate. Father Oscar shares the elder statesman viewpoint on living a life under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The best part of the film is the insight we gain into the young men. The seminarians are in their late twenties and about to commit to a life of sacrifice and self-denial. They openly discuss the lives and choices they have left behind and the new choices they are making. I was reminded of the 1983 mini-series The Thorn Birds, where Richard Chamberlain’s character is torn between the Vatican and Rachel Ward. I wondered if these young men would stay dedicated to their vows.

Bad timing and scandal

The filmmakers did not have the best timing. They started production in 2016-2017 and were apparently unaware of the coincident development of the feature film comedy Holy Goalie. That film hews to their original idea of marginally athletic monks competing in the Vatican’s tournament.

More problematic was the scandal that broke out in Oct-2017, a few months after they finished filming. Rector Oscar Turrión admitted to fathering 2 children in a secret double life funded by friends. His college belonged to the Legionaries of Christ, which had had an earlier and much meatier scandal. You can read about the level of corruption and the decades of sexual abuse by the leaders of the Legionaires of Christ as reported in Nov-2017 by The Irish Times. The assets of the order were reported to be as much as  $1 billion.

After the scandal, it took the filmmakers several years to get in touch with Turrión. Then, over Zoom during the pandemic, they filmed his apparent adaptation into lay society. With that, they had an ending to their story.

Or did they? In Mar-2021, the Legionaries of Christ added Turrión’s name to their list of 33 ordained men who had been credibly accused or convicted of sexual abuse of minors. In the 1990s, Turrión admitted to sexually abusing a boy while serving as a seminarian at a boys school in New Hampshire. He was transferred and allowed to continue his path towards ordination. The Legionaries closed the school in 2015.

In conclusion

Of course, it is no fault of the filmmakers that Turrión is a liar who fooled them twice. But it brings us to the question of why the Vatican granted them permission to film. Perhaps the Clericus Cup and therefore any films about the tournament are really a form of sportswashing for the Roman Catholic Church. With any film, it is good to be aware of such possibilities and to use your own judgment.

One advantage of the film’s delay is that I was able to see where the seminarians were, 4 years after filming. Despite the pandemic, all 4 young men continue to serve as enthusiastic priests, bringing their unique perspectives and abilities to their calling.

As far as soccer in this film, except for the finals, the filmmakers only had 1 camera to shoot the game footage. So the football is very brief and you don’t get much feel for the games. The camera does capture a lot of enthusiastic fans at the Collegio Urbano games, where Ghanian Eric Atta Gyasi plays a large role. He’s been a seminarian for 13 years and had a lot of time to hone his game. I believe the film said he had won the Clericus Cup 4 times.

I might not be happy about the Turrión information I uncovered, but The Holy Game is an enjoyable film and educated me about what it takes to become a priest. But if you want laughs, watch Holy Goalie instead.

8 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8