‘Tag’: The Real ‘Tag Bro’ Priest on Family, Friendship and Sacrifice

Tag premiere — Father Sean Raftis (6th from the left)

Father Sean Raftis is an ordinary parish priest in Columbia Falls, Montana, but an extraordinary group of friends he’s maintained since grade school — and their decades-long game of tag — recently inspired a Hollywood movie.

Released on June 15, “Tag” is very loosely based on the real-life story, outlined in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article (which, to this day, is behind the WSJ’s paywall). What stays the same between reality and fiction is men well into midlife who still designate a period of time during each year, as outlined in a Tag Participation Agreement, to see who’s It.

What’s changed is that the 10 Tag Brothers are now five, and the tag time is in May instead of February. Also, while the Tag Brothers did do some wacky things to tag each other (as you can see in clips at the end of the film), the movie takes it to an extreme level, as four pals (Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson) try to tag the one who’s never been It (Jeremy Renner).

“Tag: is “40 to 50 percent more profane than it needs to be…”

As to the movie, here’s what I said in my Pax Culturati blog at Patheos (which also includes an account of going to the premiere with Father Raftis):

Frankly, the movie is 40 to 50 percent more profane than it needs to be; there’s a miscarriage gag that’s in seriously poor taste (not sure, though, how a miscarriage gag could ever be in anything but poor taste); and the breaking of a (not Catholic) church stained-glass window seemed both unnecessary and a lost opportunity for a laugh and a realization that maybe some things are still sacred. Oh, well.

But, it was funny (and I’m a hard sell on comedy), and the underlying sweetness of a story about male friendship enduring into adulthood somehow survived.

Needless to say, none of the pals in “Tag” is a priest or likely to become one, but Father Raftis was a bit of a hit at the premiere, especially with young viewers who wanted photos with him.

The priest as “every man,” and a nod to Father Peyton …

But, he hasn’t gotten a big head.

“I like the idea of the priest being every man,” he says. “I grew up on the north side of Spokane, as a regular kid, an ordinary kid, wasn’t that great in athletics. I had health issues, but I was still able to make great friends through grade school.”

Father Raftis also gives credit to the love and self-sacrifice of his parents, who sent him to Catholic school and to Gonzaga University (named after Jesuit St. Aloysius Gonzaga, whose feast day is today, June 21).

He even tosses in a reference to Family Theater Productions’ founder, Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., noting that his siblings also serve others: his brother, as a police officer, and his sister, as a caregiver.

“Therein lies the domestic church of Father Peyton,” he says. “The family that prays together, stays together.

“Having that domestic church and living that out made all the difference in my life, and I’m so grateful to God for everything. I wrote to [my friend, screenwriter Karen Hall], before I went to the premiere, and I said, ‘Any counseling you can give?’ Her counsel was exactly right. She said, ‘Soak it in and give all the glory to God, from whom all good things come.’

“That was an opportunity to try, as an ordinary guy. It’s kind of funny, because the monks saved Western civilization by preserving the great works of philosophy and Scripture. Here I am — I played a game of tag.

“Christ blesses that ordinary aspect, and that’s something that’s necessary for us priests. It was a great privilege and a blessing and a humbling lesson to be there as a priest. I’m not Cardinal Avery Dulles; I’m not Father Richard John Neuhaus; and I’m certainly not Karol Wojtyla, but being a Tag Brother, or a Tag Priest, is pretty cool.

“I’m trying to reach out to people who might not otherwise have had contact with a priest, because a lot of people don’t.”

Finding God in everything …

I watched Father Raftis take pictures with the young people, greet the actors, greet a couple of young police officers outside the premiere, shake hands with any number of folks who probably never see a priest except on TV.

The movie wasn’t especially holy, and certainly not for the whole family, but it did introduce a lot of people to Father Raftis and his friends.

“We’re to find God in everything,” he says, “especially in the small things. It’s like that tiny, whispering sound. I didn’t find God in the earthquake; I didn’t find God in the great noises; it was in that tiny, whispering sound.

“That’s something we need to reconnect with, and part of that is our association with our friends in Christ, our friends at the work place, where we’re called to witness to Christ.”

But don’t fear, Father Raftis has not gone Hollywood.

“I’m not a star, and that and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee. Fame is fleeting; time is fleeting. What matters is how we follow Christ. That’s the one thing I have to be very cautious about and very cognizant of, is my calling to be a priest. I’m not called to be a Hollywood star.

“That comes with its own set of talents, and its own set of disciplines. I have enough of a challenge being a priest and trying to be a good one.”

After his Hollywood adventure, Father Raftis returned to St. Richard Church in Columbia Falls.

“I had Mass on Sunday [after the premiere]. I did the Extraordinary Form only, and I did a homily, and I did an apologia [about the movie], saying, ‘Look, it’s R-rated.’ One of the guys came up — he’s a highly decorated retired Marine — and he said, ‘Father, look, the movie is going to do what it does. We know who you are. There are going to be good things happening because of this.’

“That’s my only hope, that something good happens for God out of it. … People yearn, they starve for brotherly or sisterly affection. When we yearn for friendship, we yearn for the Divine.”

Does the game go on?

“Yeah,” he says, “it goes on indefinitely, until one of us is standing.”

Images: Courtesy Kate O’Hare, Warner Bros., Father Sean Raftis

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