In a sea of negativity about the Catholic faith in entertainment, “Father Brown” is a welcome bright spot, but he doesn’t stand alone in TV history.
Father Brown — A Pastor With a Nose for Crime
The British series currently airs in America mostly on PBS stations (and independent ones, like Los Angeles’ KCET), but it’s also available on Netflix. Loosely based on the character created by Catholic British writer G.K. Chesterton, it stars Mark Williams as Father Brown, a mild-mannered but quick-witted British Catholic priest in the 1950s.
Helped by his parish secretary, Irish Mrs. McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack) and various local police inspectors and sergeants, Father Brown runs into a startling number of murders in the fictional town of Kembleford in Cotswold, where he’s the pastor of St. Mary’s Church.
It’s also worth noting how many of those involved in the crimes — whether victims, perpetrators or witnesses — are Catholic (unusual in heavily Protestant England, but apparently common in Kembleford). But, this does give Father Brown the opportunity to discuss theology and offer sacraments, especially Confession.
Perhaps because this is the cozy-mystery genre, “Father Brown” gets away with a lot more positive Catholic content than most shows, and no one in the audience seems to mind — since it’s been airing on BBC One since January 2013.
Always, as much as solving mysteries, Father Brown is focused on helping people and saving souls — which is just as it should be.
Father Dowling Mysteries — A Priest and a Nun Form a Crimesolving Team
The good Father Brown follows in the footsteps of “Father Dowling Mysteries,” based on the book series by Ralph McInerny. Starring Tom Bosley as Chicago priest Father Dowling, and Tracy Nelson as his sidekick, streetwise Sister Stephanie “Steve” Oskowski, it launched as a TV movie in November 1987. As a series, it spent one year on NBC and two more on ABC, lasting from January 1989 to May 1991.
And if you’re interested, you can check out the novels the series is based on. Author McInerny was a scholar of the Faith who taught at the University of Notre Dame (run by the Holy Cross Order, under whose auspices also sits Family Theater Productions).
From the New York Times‘ obit for him in Feb. 2010:
Mr. McInerny, who taught philosophy and medieval studies at Notre Dame, was an expert on Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Catholic theologian and philosopher; much of his published scholarship included biographical and exegetical texts on Aquinas, and he edited a volume of Aquinas translations for Penguin Classics. He also wrote on the sixth-century philosopher Boethius, the 12th-century Spanish Arabic scholar Averroes and later thinkers and theologians, including Cardinal Newman, Kierkegaard, Pascal and Descartes.
He was far better known, however, as a novelist, and especially as the creator of Roger Dowling, a former canon lawyer whose career was derailed by drink and who has become, in his rehabilitation, a parish priest in a Midwestern town called Fox River, where he runs across an inordinate number of murders and shows an unusual gift for solving them.
Known for their clever plotting, the clarity of their writing and Father Dowling’s perspicacity and moral rigor, the series grew to more than two dozen books after the character was introduced in “Her Death of Cold” in 1977. Transposed to Chicago, and with Father Dowling’s first name changed to Frank, the books became the basis for a television series, “The Father Dowling Mysteries,” starring Tom Bosley, which ran from 1989 to 1991. The Father Dowling books also had a religious subtext, with the main character serving as a messenger for the author’s traditional view of Catholicism. “Dowling is idealized for more than liturgical purity,” Anita Gandolfo wrote in the 1992 book “Testing the Faith: The New Catholic Fiction in America.” “Father Dowling embodies a medieval worldview with its unambiguous moral order and universally accepted recognition of the truth of that order.”
Cadfael — A Crusader Turns Monk and Detective
In between Father Brown and Father Dowling was “Cadfael,” based on “The Cadfael Chronicles,” a series of historical murder mysteries written between 1977 and 1994 by linguist-scholar Edith Pargeter, writing under the pen name of Ellis Peters.
Between 1994 and 1998, British network ITV aired the TV adaptation, “Cadfael,” starring Derek Jacobi as the 12th-century Crusader-turned-Benedictine-monk, who lived at an abbey in Shrewsbury, England. Brother Cadfael used his knowledge of the world and human nature, along with a extensive familiarity with herbal medicine (learned in the Holy Land), to solve crimes.
The series aired on PBS as part of its former “Mystery!” anthology series.
Brother Cadfael’s violent past sometimes intrudes on his contemplative present, as he is called upon to be a medical examiner, detective, doctor and diplomat. “Cadfael” is not as gentle as either of the previous two series, and its theme of a soldier trying to move beyond the terrible things he saw in battle is both challenging and very contemporary.
But, Cadfael is a true man of faith.
Image: Courtesy BBC One