Catholic Upbringing & the Eerie Warmth of “Midnight Mass”

Catholic Upbringing & the Eerie Warmth of “Midnight Mass”

“There is no time. There is no death. Life is a dream. It’s a wish made again and again and again and again and again and again, on into eternity. And I am all of it. I am everything. I am all. I am that I am.”

– Kate Siegel (Erin Greene) from Midnight Mass

I commend Mike Flanagan, creator of The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, for creating, yet again, another Netflix show I cannot get out of my mind. I have, it seems, on countless occasions discussed his cinematic success. I am a huge fan; this is true. His shows regularly mix genres, and I am constantly surprised by the quality of his written stories. I will not make this a four-thousand-word diatribe on Flanagan, although I could. I recently discussed him in a post about my emotional relationship to cinema in the context of 9/11.

Now, I do not plan to cross any similar bridges today, but my watch/rewatch of Midnight Mass offers me the chance to explore the show with a more detailed perspective. It grants me the opportunity to include another part of my early life, my Catholic upbringing. The show is riddled, if not saturated, with religious discussions centered around, if not primarily concerning, Catholicism. Now, I am not a religious expert, nor do I confer judgment on any religion. I am, however, a human being who lived, for some time, religiously. While it never played a prominent role, it played a role, nonetheless.

The Religious Story of Me

“Look at us, back where we started. The one place we swore we’d never end up.”

– Kate Siegel (Erin Greene) from Midnight Mass

I might be more of an agnostic, but I refuse to label my beliefs into rigid confines. I have faith, but I inherently have trouble believing with any certainty. Religion is not, to any degree, a part of my life. I do not judge those who center their lives around it, but I ask for civility as I formulate questions in my pursuit of answers. I do, however, find religious belief fascinating. I have studied Christianity, been educated on the Five Pillars of Islam, and given great contemplation of Judaism and Buddhism. I found intrinsic beauty in them all, but I never discerned a place where I felt at home. I am who I am, and I continue seeking a healthy dialogue. It is interesting, as someone who spent my youth in the service of the Catholic Church, today I am as far away as I have ever been.

I grew up in a predominantly Catholic area of Massachusetts. Most of my friends were Catholic, with a few Protestant exceptions. I received the sacrament of Baptism, or so I have been told. Old photos provide evidence of such an experience. I remember, with flashes, my Holy Communion. Wearing a white suit, which I looked dapper in, I held a candle, strolled from the rectory to the church, climbed up the stone steps, and sat amongst dozens of other children all dressed in white. Each of us received the sacrament of Eucharist, bread & wine (body and blood of Christ) for the first time. We then had a party with all my extended family. It’s a big moment for Catholic families, and, as the third child in my family, it was a rite of religious passage.

In the second grade is when I experienced my Holy Communion. But, my religious upbringing only intensified as I continued Catechism or Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD), religious education, and sacramental preparation. I did so from that point until I was roughly fourteen years old. I started CCD in first grade, before my Holy Communion, which is required by the Holy See, under the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, who oversees the entire ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Catholic Church. This education ends with a Confirmation, which is one of seven sacraments. From the start of religious education until its terminus, I attended classes that educate children/adolescents about Jesus, the Catholic Church’s religious philosophy, and prepare us to receive sacraments, like Penance (Reconciliation or Confession), the Eucharist (Holy Communion), and Confirmation.

For all those years of religious education, today, I remember the journey far more than the subject matter. Religious education never motivated me, nor did I connect with it. Sure, aspects of the doctrine were appealing, such as charity and faith, but damning and exclusive characteristics of rigidness turned me away. So, I went through the motions. I attended Catechism every week for a couple of hours. I did so after school or baseball practice and often before dinner. I attended public school, but the Catholic Church had CCD classes at the diocese school. Sometimes, classes were on a Saturday, during an annual retreat at a campground owned by the Church where we performed tasks, learned skills, and instructed with religious concepts.

I have divine memories of visiting The National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette, located in Attleboro, Mass, and observing the Christmas light display. Yet, that’s when I had a clear perspective regarding my religious education during Christmas and Easter holidays. That is when my family went to church regularly, but with greater zeal. Even so, I would go to church with my mom and sister Becky, most Sundays, usually at 8 am, then go out for breakfast or at 11 am, followed by lunch at the Shawmut Diner in New Bedford. It helped that for years, I was an altar server for our church, and my sister was also. I remember it well. The robe, the fact I was barely awake or knew any of the traditions, and I was always selected to ring the bells, “three times as the priest” elevated the blessed “Host and then the Chalice.”

While serving as an altar boy, I participated, in that role, for my brother’s Confirmation. It was unique, serving a Monsignor who made the process engaging. It was splendid to watch Jeff receive the sacrament of Confirmation from the church side altar and under the watchful eye of vital church clergy who gifted me with a rosary blessed by a Bishop. On another occasion, I served the same Monsignor and Bishop Seán Patrick O’Malley, who performed the sacrament of Holy Orders for a church brother to be ordained a priest. During this rite, held during a typical Sunday mass, “a prayer and blessing are offered as a bishop lays his hands on the head of the man being ordained.” Today, Cardinal O’Malley is one of the highest-ranking clergy in the United States, working closely with Pope Francis. Still, when I held his “miter and crozier,” he was the Bishop of Fall River, Mass.

Those were probably the two most exciting moments of my time as an altar boy. I gained a lot of church insight and respected the process, but after I went through Confirmation and Penance, I did not continue with my church membership. Since high school, I have not been a member of a specific church or congregation, nor have I set foot in a church for services other than for a funeral, wedding, or supporting the Baptism, Holy Communion, or Confirmation of a loved one. So many years spent sitting in a church pew, attending church classes, feeling pressure to attain several sacraments successfully, and today I rarely think about any of it.

I do not doubt that some of the most important messages from the church, goodness, charity, love, acceptance, were nurtured during those years. Still, I am troubled by the hypocrisy oozing from those ideas. It’s funny; when asked about my religion, no matter how rare that is, I inherently say, “Catholic.” I guess, for me, going through all the religious training, those Sundays spent in church, those hours wearing a robe, the sacraments I received, will always make me a Catholic, whether, in reality, I am. This truth is probably why when I watched Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass, not only did it make sense on some organic level, it made me relive my religious past. Neither good nor bad, it motivated me to recall those spiritual waters I frequently swam in. Midnight Mass didn’t make me want to sit in a pew, but that isn’t the point. Be warned, there are ⚠️ Spoilers ⚠️ ahead!

Overview of Midnight Mass

“Can you think of a miracle more amazing than that? I mean, cure blindness, sure. Or part the seas, all right. But a second chance? That’s a real miracle.”

– Hamish Linklater (Paul Hill) from Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan once again created a show I cannot get out of my head. He establishes incredible cinematic sequences that make you appreciate life for all its imperfections and promise. I remember the first movie of Flanagan’s I watched. It was his 2011 film, Absentia. It’s a good movie, not great. Still, it is haunting. I have followed his career closely and am blown away by his cinematic creations – all pushing the boundaries of the horror genre. As a horror genre fan, I feel such appeal is often misunderstood and even brushed aside. His shows are not about monsters, or jump scares, or violence, although they might, and often do, appear. The true evil, or horror, is aligned with reality, showing that greed and selfishness is far worse than things that go bump in the night.

That is, at least for me, the power of Flanagan’s work. I have rarely watched shows that make me feel such a wide range of emotions, as his shows do. Combining a long history of Catholic instruction with a scripted show, created by Flanagan, infused with Catholic and other religious, understandings you get a unique viewing experience. Shows like Lost, The Leftovers, Dead Like Me, and other non-Flanagan shows have hit me in similar ways. But Flanagan’s use of horror, as its connective thread, does so in ways that make me ponder and interpret. It is a genuinely emotional experience, watching a Flanagan show. Midnight Mass is tantalizingly slow, as is The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor. Such a pace allows for precision character development, the buildup of haunting score/musical track, and the mind wanders in search of conclusions to unanswered questions.

Rated 7.7 on IMDb, 89% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, Midnight Mass is a deep retrospective on faith, responsibility, loss, and second chances. Flooded with brilliantly written monologues, stellar acting performances, and sharp cinematography, Flanagan’s newest Netflix show might be his best, or at the very least, his most honest. Here is a brief IMDb summary, “The tale of a small, isolated island community whose existing divisions are amplified by the return of a disgraced young man and the arrival of a charismatic priest. When Father Paul’s appearance on Crockett Island coincides with unexplained and seemingly miraculous events, a renewed religious fervor takes hold of the community.” Split into seven episodes, Midnight Mass is a thrilling horror mystery, if not simply an exchange about death and the admission that there is no wickedness without beauty, no compassion without mayhem.

Midnight Mass is a story with a flawed protagonist, Riley Flynn, played by Zach Gilford, and a charismatic and mysterious antagonist, Father Paul, Hamish Linklater. Strangely, by the end of the show, neither is at the heart of events on Crockett Island but instead pass the baton to Erin, played by Kate Siegel and Bev Keane, played brilliantly by Samantha Sloyan. Together they serve as good, Erin, versus evil, Bev. Unlike many shows I watch on television, Midnight Mass, like all of Flanagan’s work, has multi-dimensional, imperfect, and wonderfully complicated characters. It does help that Flanagan employs actors from previous shows to round out his ensemble. It is exciting to see these actors bring to life, once more, Flanagan’s work. Kate Siegel, Zach Gilford, Kristin Lehman, Samantha Sloyan, Annabeth Gish, Rahul Kohli, Alex Essoe, Henry Thomas, and Hamish Linklater turned in outstanding performances.

Now pregnant, Erin, portrayed by Siegel, seeks a better life than her abusive mother or manipulative ex-husband offered. Riley, Gilford, displays the tragic manner of a man who committed a terrible crime, served four years in prison, and is haunted by visions of the young woman whose death he caused. Rahul Kohli, as Sheriff Hassan, a single father mourning his late wife while seeking peace for his family on an island, far away from bigotry and inherent skepticism of him as a result of his faith, where people should affirm religious freedom. Still, in the close-knit community of Crockett Island, he suffers micro-aggressions, not to mention overt racism by those pushing him to “fit in.” Of course, Annarah Cymone, as Leeza, a young girl in a wheelchair who experiences a miracle and in “Book III: Proverbs,” forgives her assailant – these characters offer immeasurable depth.

Linklater, as Father Paul/Monsignor Pruitt, exudes a performance I found mesmerizing. Sure, he is the villain, somewhat so, but not the mysterious entity, nor the sinister human. Those positions are more closely and reserved for the Angel/Demon and Bev Keane. Instead, he is a severely flawed man, one who seeks immortality and a second chance. No matter how intended, his actions open Pandora’s box of mayhem and destruction that he will be unable to close. Sure, his actions, bathed in religious conviction, come from a place of incorrectly attributed religious views and a selfish desire to relive his past and bring out, from the haunting darkness of dementia, Mildred Gunning, played by Alex Essoe. Still, Father Paul, a man once old who lost his memory and self, now reborn, sees his actions as aligned with his beliefs, thus justified.

Linklater shined throughout Midnight Mass, which requires a priest/preacher to straddle the line of a zealot and a compassionate listener. He wants to offer salvation, no matter the cost, but that offer is born in a conviction to do good, unlike Bev Keane. Grace and humility illustrated Linklater’s character monologues, religious eagerness, and performance as an older man in a young body. Like a “fire and brimstone preacher” of America’s Great Awakening, Father Paul is enchanting. Linklater manifests a passion that makes his character’s agenda both attractive and diabolical. His “Book III: Proverbs” monologue/confessional, aided by the score, was haunting, more so since the character is confessing the truth about himself. I was mesmerized by his journey to the Holy Land and how it weaves throughout the episode. His terminus occupies the “Stations of the Cross.” 

These stations, depicted as wood carvings, mimic Christ through an angelic lens. The monologue is explained in biblical terminology, supporting “his” truth that the creature is an Angel since the alternative is unconscionable. Linklater was a delight to watch. I often sat on the edge of my seat as he offered up his homily/sermon. As a Catholic, I thought Flanagan nailed the immensity of the church proceedings. He added intensity by offering a realistic understanding of Mass and allowing Linklater to exude that process with a righteous religious determination. The orchestrated dance of Catholic Mass, the robes, the music, and the homily/sermon, made those scenes scattered throughout the series beautiful.

The original music and songs helped achieve this goal, and those chosen were dazzling. They refocused and expanded the cinematic moment. To do so, Flanagan, again, retained The Newton Brothers’ services. He collaborated with them on multiple projects including, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Doctor Sleep, The Haunting of Hill House, and Hush. Andy Grush and Taylor Newton Stewart, known collectively as The Newton Brothers, who apprenticed for Hans Zimmer, are incredible “film score composers, producers, conductors, and multi-instrumentalists.” As I wrote in my post, “Nobody Does It All Alone”, I often therapeutically listen to their musical compositions.

A show filled with religious liturgical music, I was pessimistic about the original score upon pressing play. That gloom was, of course, unfounded and blatantly a knee-jerk reaction. The score for Midnight Mass was hauntingly beautiful, both the instrumental and those hymns recreated and reimagined by The Newton Brothers. I was mesmerized by their instrumental creation for “Nearer My God to Thee” and “Were You There.” The film was composed perfectly. As someone who enjoys a montage, I liked “Book III: Proverbs,” as church membership grows, people feel happy, and “Holly Holy” by Neil Diamond plays, illustrating faith in an uplifting way. The soundtrack for Midnight Mass might be one of my favorite cinematic instrumental music accompaniments.

Profound Moments from Midnight Mass

“That’s what we mean when we say Heaven. No mansions, no rivers of diamonds, or fluffy clouds or angel wings. You are loved. And you aren’t alone. That is God. That is Heaven.”

– Kate Siegel (Erin Greene) from Midnight Mass

It would be ineffective to discuss all of my favorite moments from Midnight Mass. It would be easier to explain which moments I liked the least, of which there are none, well maybe one, and it involves Joe, Bev, and a dog…enough said. Instead, let’s explore some profoundly moving moments, broad instances or themes, that served as an emotionally satisfying cinematic display. It makes sense that some of the most captivating scenes involved a conversation about death, an AA meeting where a priest and former altar boy discuss inherent truths, and the burning of an island as residents sing. Midnight Mass starts with the flickering police lights reflecting off an ichthys, or known colloquially as a “Jesus fish,” after a car accident and ends with ashes, all emitting a mesmerizing message.

Most of this may make little sense to those who didn’t watch the show. So, watch and then revisit this post. But I continue. As someone who grew up by the water, I felt at ease with the story’s delightful setting and radiating imagery. The series opens by effectively centering the story, at this point, around Riley, which is a perfect way to concentrate the story around grief and sadness. Those moments with Riley and his mother Annie, played by Kristin Lehman, are touching and tragic, and Gilford emanates the emotional characteristics of someone damaged. Riley is unsure of his place, has moved away from his Catholic beginnings, and is incapable of forgiving himself for what he did, but whose mother still loves him and accepts him.

Riley is a tragically flawed and complex character, and Gilford nailed it with his eyes and boyish mannerisms. He is a lost soul, incapable of imagining a future, yet frozen in his traumatic past. In one scene, when Riley chats with Joe Collie, played emotionally by Robert Longstreet, he finds in Joe, a man just as broken as him, seeking some redemption. In a wonderfully captured long shot scene, Riley puts forth an honest attempt to understand Joe, who offers a tragic backstory about regret, the result of addiction, and lack of effort. In the end, they shake hands in a quest to become “different people” while acknowledging that time is fleeting, and as the world around them changes, they must strive, against the tide, to change with it.

Each episode of Midnight Mass is set up with an emotional gravity that feels unnerving, even if profound. The characters are smartly written and effectively developed. Those who are on the side of good and those who are not is illustrated effectively throughout the show. Flanagan showcases these character undercurrents with incredible cinematography and vibrant colors to offer a haunting realism. The first church mass depicted when Father Paul, Linklater, makes his initial appearance to the congregation is well crafted and choreographed. In “Book I: Genesis,” I especially enjoyed the short conversation with Father Paul, Riley, and Annie, outside the church, after mass, when they discuss, awkwardly, his “state of grace.” It perfectly summed up Father Paul’s goal and the Christian message of serving those downtrodden.

I admire Flanagan’s use of a long continuous long shot, used perfectly as Riley and Erin walked down the street on Crockett Island. I was fascinated by Riley lamenting, to Erin, of his simple “existing,” and the musical score that followed their walk and talk maintained a religious tone. Midnight Mass is well-paced. I enjoyed those grand central moments, as well as side scenes, including dialogue between Erin and Riley, two former high school sweethearts, reunited after loss and trauma. Their conversations were often humorous and captivating as they explored the unanswerable question of death or “pitched” debate topics as they reiterated their fundamental compassion for the other. Still, my cinematic appetite constantly sought out the series star Linklater as Father Paul. His Ash Wednesday, beginning of Lent, homily/monologue in “Book II: Psalms,” where he spoke of open gates, full fishing nets, and faith restored, was moving.

“Remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall remain.” Such a haunting part of the Ash Wednesday Mass, but added with eerie foreboding. Those moments were impressive. Soft, dialogue-based, slight brevity, but emotionally impactful. No jump scares, nor ultra-violent or bloody. That is why I had a positive response to the first episode and knew I would love this series. Slow-moving, gentle to the touch, but at any moment, you have scenes like Farther Paul/Pruitt, yelling at Riley about honesty or the serenity prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I enjoyed those moments, an AA meeting with Riley and Father Paul, the most. I could listen to them discuss science, religion, and “monsters” all day long.

They appear as two chess competitors. This conflict is all the more authentic as they sat on the bench at the “Crockett Crock Pot,” or in their second AA meeting conversing about the recent “miracle,” or in their first AA meeting, although awkward, where Riley offered honest feedback on the “cause of suffering.” Riley takes issues with the idea that pain leads to progress, but Father Paul says, “suffering can be a gift.” Their debate is unsettling, but Riley’s discussion of his “saboteur,” the beast he fed, and personal responsibility is enlightening. Riley stands in opposition to tolerating terrible things and suffering in the cloak of a “higher power.” Father Paul’s response is not in opposition or support, but solely within his faithful devotion to finding good, even in trauma, not to negate tragedy.

In “Book IV: Lamentations,” I enjoyed Riley and Erin’s conversation about death. After Erin’s tragic loss, she seeks comfort in a very complex topic; what happens when we die? It’s profound with an accompanying score that had me on the edge of my seat. I was moved by the conversation, shaken by its authenticity. Erin and Riley provide a more faith-based approach or use what we “know” as a logical guide. Both Siegel and Gilford shine in this scene, as they do in the boat scene, just before Riley’s shocking death in “Book V: Gospel.” His sacrifice is instantly met by Erin’s professed vision of death, as he, as if encountering Virgil from Dante’s Divine Comedy, is greeted with open arms the woman he killed, finding the forgiveness in death, that he refused to grant himself in life. Those conversations are the heart of this series. Each monologue is wonderfully uttered, paced by a superb composition, and aided by philosophical and religious questions.

Beauty is far more the core of this story than darkness, although darkness shares a meaningful part. I could go on about Bev Keane, the perfect villain. Or, as Erin says, “a particular brand of self-righteousness that is exclusive to a certain breed of religious,” which she can’t tolerate. One who thinks God only loves them, as Annie Flynn, played exceptionally by Kristin Lehman, says to Bev in concluding moments. Bev ridicules Annie’s son Riley, who she calls a “drunk and a murderer,” which she sees as “evidence of the quality of his parenting.” Brutal, but Annie responds by saying, “He was. Every part of him. God loves him just as much as he loves you, Bev. Why does that upset you so much?” Beautiful, clearly Annie is the “religious” ideal, while Bev is no true believer.

Most of the reactions between Bev and Sheriff Hassan were uncomfortable as her not-so-subtle racism bounced off his reserved, stoic silence and sometimes forceful repudiation. Bev’s intolerance of his religion is evident in the school scene where the community discussed allowing religious education in a public school. I felt here, Kohli gave a solid performance. I cheered him on and yelled in support of his worldly judgment. His emotional conversation with his son about religion, the horror on his face as he observed the tragic events during the midnight Mass in “Book VI: Acts of the Apostles,” and his fight to save his son was an evocative human moment. That scene on the beach as Hassan dies and his son leads him in “Fajr” or dawn prayer, juxtaposed to Bev’s graphic death, are potent, poetically scripted reminders of faith, albeit true conviction versus superficial belief.

The last episode, “Book VII: Revelation,” is heavenly. I enjoyed the symbolic destruction, even if I wept at the death of our main characters, even Father Paul/Pruitt, who by the end is not so much the villain as a selfish man who, while he brought in this destruction, did not intend for it to go as it did. He was given a second chance and took it. But it is the silence that wins the final episode. Crockett Island burns, the mortally infected residents sing, “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” a 19th-century Christian hymn. The lyrics and piano beautifully move the imagery to new heights. As the sun rises, and one by one, the residents burn, some in quiet prayer, Bev in abject pain, other Crockett Island residents continue to sing, and then, silence before the song concludes. The camera ascends, offering a bird’s eye view of the burning island. There is no escape. The sun shines, the music becomes an echo, the ash lifts, and terror has ended. It is a magnificent end.

“Ite, Missa Est” (“Go You are Dismissed”)

“All of it. Every god, every goddess, every religion, every holy war. All of it. Started right up there. Just wondering who the hell could’ve lit those campfires in the sky.”

– Zach Gilford (Riley Flynn) from Midnight Mass

Midnight Mass is a monster show, where the monster is not the ultimate evil, simply a nightmarish device humans use in a nefarious way. As the series alludes to, the real tragedy lies with human guilt, addiction, and intolerance. Yes, it’s a show with a vampire, yet no such name is pronounced. Yes, it’s a show with jump scares and mayhem, yet, the terror is with those who blindly saw good in the eyes of a demon and used bible verses, holier-than-thou claims, and superiority to make it an Angel. No heaven without hell, as Stephen King has always clearly illustrates. Flanagan achieved that feat in Midnight Mass and did it in a Catholic vessel, among a failing fishing community on a small island, and in the frame of flawed and profound characters.

Watching the show transported me back to my early Catholic days. The show allowed me to explore the choreography of religious mass with an outsider’s gaze but with an insider’s understanding. I appreciated the unique perspective. I have watched the horror genre mixed with godly traits previously and rarely enjoyed the storyline. I often perceive religion in films as a caricature rather than a muse. Midnight Mass is different. It shows belief at its finest and most unpleasant. Linklater’s ability to radiate this zeal as Father Paul/Pruitt was remarkable and Flanagan’s backstory helped the story make sense, even if infused with vampire lore. Midnight Mass is a fine example of originality and one hell of a fantastic show. 

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