San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, October 17, 2008
Simone Grudzen always knew her family was different. It wasn't every kid in San Jose who had a priest for a father and a nun for a mother.
"I never volunteered the information as a kid or later as a teenager," she says. "Because then I would have to explain. Also, I didn't quite understand the story myself." In 1966, Grudzen's father, Jerry, was ordained at Maryknoll Catholic Missionary Society in Ossining, N.Y. At Maryknoll, he met and fell in love with Grudzen's mother, Marita, a nun. At first the couple resisted a physical relationship, hoping to form a spiritual union. When that became impossible, they left the church and married.
In her film "Immaculate Confession," Grudzen explores the story that she knew only "in bits and pieces" as a child.
"It was hard to understand because it was such a mythic love story," Grudzen said in the Bernal Heights apartment she shares with her partner, Emily Drabant. "My sister and I didn't understand the gravity of it until our teens."
"Immaculate Confession," which Grudzen directed and also produced with her older sister, Corita, will premiere next Sunday in the United Nations Association Film Festival. Grudzen, 32, studied documentary filmmaking at New York University.
"I always saw myself working in documentary," she said. "And because this was a real story in my life and my parents' life, I felt that it was just a natural progression to do the film."
Instead of doing a social-issue documentary with a lot of statistics and a broad overview, Grudzen decided to tell three individual stories.
"I interviewed 100 priests before we shot, because we wanted to decide who we wanted to focus on," she said. "I think it's a really interesting subject - celibacy and the priesthood - but I felt like we would reach people better if we told a few intimate stories and got to know these characters a little better."
In addition to her parents, Grudzen chose John Dee, a Minneapolis ex-priest and musician who had recently been widowed, and Tom Durkin, a priest-turned-sex guru who moved to Hawaii and embraced Eastern spirituality and communal living.
"I didn't want to focus so much on the politics and history so much as I wanted to humanize these characters. You know, once you become a priest, you're sort of leaving your life behind - your family, your friends - so you really lose your identity in a way. And that's what the church wants. And I guess I wanted to film these people reclaiming their humanity and reclaiming their sexuality."
In her film, Grudzen refers briefly to the molestation scandals that unmoored the Catholic Church in recent years. She runs a title card at the beginning that says, "Priests who molested children many times are allowed to continue to administer the sacraments. Whereas, once a priest marries, he's immediately excommunicated."
"That's a really important point," Grudzen says, "that these priests who had integrity - who came out with their love - were immediately excommunicated upon marrying."
Apart from that, she doesn't address the molestation crisis.
"I felt that that's a whole other film," she said, "and I felt that would really overshadow these stories of integrity."
In one generation, the image of priests and the public's faith in them as spiritual guides has taken a devastating turn. In the '40s and '50s, Grudzen says, "to be a priest was really to be a rock star. If you were in the middle class or working class, that was the way to advance your education, the way to travel and the way to just sort of become exalted. You became someone everyone can look up to. And that's how my dad saw it as well."
Today, "American culture is definitely moving away from a young priesthood," Grudzen said. "There are more priests over 90 than under 30. One in four churches in the United States is without a parish priest." To offset the shortage, priests are imported to this country from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, the Philippines. Sri Lanka.
"Optional celibacy," Grudzen says, "is the direction the church should go."
At one time, the Catholic Church permitted marriages, but in 1139 established a mandatory celibacy doctrine to keep property within the church. In the mid-'60s, at the time of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (Vatican II), many priests were optimistic that the marriage ban would be lifted.
"Priests and nuns who had not left (the church) yet thought that it was right around the corner," Grudzen says. "So a lot of these priests and nuns were sort of informally pairing off, thinking, 'OK, just another year.' "
Grudzen's parents were part of that generation. When they fell in love, she said, "they were in a state of crisis, and I don't think either of them really knew how it was going to turn out. They were taking a leap of faith."
When her father was assigned to Bolivia for one year, her parents sent covert love letters to each other on reel-to-reel tapes. Her mother's fellow nuns collaborated in smuggling the tapes to avoid the suspicion of the mother superior.
It was her parents' example of "following their hearts" and weathering the rejection of family and church, Grudzen says, that made it easier for her to come out as a lesbian.
"They really inspired me to live my life as I want to live it - with conviction and a sense of inner truth," she said. "I got that from their story."
Grudzen has been in a relationship for one year with Drabant, a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University. She says her parents never had a problem with her sexuality. "They were and are awesome. They're really accepting, really progressive. I think I got really lucky."
Having grown up with a priest father, and having met so many priests in preparation for her film, Grudzen believes strongly in the value of religious service - particularly in the tradition of working with the undeserved and the poor.
"I think a lot of change has to happen," she said. "I don't feel included in the Catholic Church, given my sexuality. But I recognize that a lot of Catholics are really great people, and I have no issue with the community. My beef isn't with Catholics; it's with the Vatican hierarchy and the politics of the church."
To see a trailer for "Immaculate Confession," go to www.immaculateconfession.com.