The United Federation of Teachers, Irish-American Committee, and the American Irish Teachers Association have announced that they will soon screen A Jesuit with the People, a documentary about Michael O’Sullivan SJ and his ‘Christian faith that does justice’. Film-maker Peter McDermott, based in New York, intends to use this work as part of a full-length documentary on Jesuit priest John Corridan (1911-1984) who was the inspiration for the character of ‘Father Barry’ in the classic 1954 film On the Waterfront which won eight Oscars.
In A Jesuit with the People, Fr O’Sullivan, known for his work for international human rights and social justice, recalls his time as a pastor in Chile in the 1980s. That country was then ruled by General Pinochet, whose military dictatorship had overthrown the constitutional government of Salvador Allende in 1973.
Peter McDermott’s Corridan Film Project focuses on Fr Corridan, a Jesuit of Irish descent, who took on corruption, organised crime, and murder on the docks of New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. Fr Corridan’s small band of supporters on the waterfront, in common with his other friends and allies, knew a forceful and articulate leader who helped make waterfront labour conditions a national issue. Afterwards he became a teacher of economics in Jesuit third-level colleges and finally worked as a hospital chaplain in Brooklyn.
The film-maker wants to explore the possible parallels between the lives of religious, in later decades, like Michael O’Sullivan, with those of Fr Corridan. Both advocated the preferential option for the poor, and worked for justice in often trying circumstances. Peter notes the turbulent rule of Pinochet’s Chile was often backed by murder. Those abusing power in Fr Corridan’s time were not averse to killing either.
“Without pre-empting a discussion about what it is that links Fr Corridan with later religious like Michael O’Sullivan,” says Peter, “we can see that Michael’s commitment to social justice is faith-based -part and parcel of giving expression to the Gospel.”
The final full-length documentary which Peter hopes to produce “is about someone going beyond his natural reserve and shyness to assume a leadership role in a community and finding his voice in the struggle for social justice. It’s also about the Jesuits. The hope is that by delineating threads and continuities, one can better throw into sharp relief a chapter in one man’s story from more than 60 years ago,” says Peter.
In the documentary, A Jesuit with the People, Michael speaks about his social justice work in Dublin and about his desire to be in solidarity with the people of Latin America. He was eventually sent on mission to Chile where he began to work with the people suffering oppression under General Pinochet’s violent regime. In speaking out according to his authentic self, he gave permission for others to do the same, all the time navigating the territory of danger, wanting to act for justice while not being “reckless”.
Michael experienced real threats on his life and he did his best to stay alive for the sake of the people. At the same time, he had a deep peace knowing that his work had meaning and that he was prepared to die if needed. It is worth noting that the Chilean people were also loyal to him, advising him on how to stay out of harm’s way, and consoling him in their shared commitment to defeat Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship through following the example of Christ.
The Society of Jesus withdrew Michael from Chile after 25 months and it took him another five years to integrate his experience. He took solace with the ousting of Pinochet some years later and the election of a female President. He spent time in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and he returned to Chile on two occasions. His new mission was to promote an integrated theology and spirituality that encompassed the whole person, leading to, for example, a ‘Christian faith that does justice’.
Today, Dr O’Sullivan passes on such a teaching to his students in Dublin and he writes broadly on authentic interiority, a universal dynamic process of consciousness towards ultimate values one perceives. He is the director of the Dublin-based Spirituality Institute for Research & Education (SpIRE) and works internationally in developing and spreading spirituality as an academic discipline.