Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture


Catching up with Mother Dolores Hart as the Hollywood star-turned-Catholic nun reflects on her book tour, the possibility of a movie and Pope Francis

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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This is getting to be a habit. A good habit. I’m talking about my second conversation with Mother Dolores Hart on the occasion of her return to the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut following her recent book tour to promote her memoir Ear of the Heart. I visited the one-time movie star at the abbey where she hold holds position of prioress some months ago when her book first came out and was very happy to talk on the phone with her again late last week. Of all the many people I’ve interviewed for this blog, she’s right at the top among my list of favorites.

JWK: How was the book tour?

MOTHER DOLORES: We have come to the conclusion of the first big sweep of it which went from June, July, August and also September. Right now I’m glad to be home with my feet up.

JWK: How’d you enjoy your time on the road.

MOTHER DOLORES: I loved it. I really did. You know, once an actress always an actress. Just the joy of meeting so many people and the feeling of the response of everyone in relationship to the book was very rewarding. It’s something I never expected. I had no notion as to what a book tour would be and I certainly hope that it’s this joyful for everyone who takes it on.

JWK: Where did you go?

MOTHER DOLORES: We have been everywhere from California — San Francisco, Los Angeles — to Colorado. Those poor persons, I just pray that none of the people I met were affected (by the Colorado floods). We went to Graceland (in Memphis, Tennessee). They were so extraordinary and gave me a private tour…which allowed me to see the home of Mr. Presley (and its) very simple elegance. I was put greatly at peace to know that he rests in such solid remembrance…and then, of course, we went to the Eucharistic Congress in North Carolina. That was a first for me. The extravagant grandeur of the hall…They said there were at least three or four thousand people at the conference…That took me back to (my days on) Broadway where you just look out into this tremendous black space and you know it’s full of people.

JWK: Last time we spoke, you talked about your friendship with Priscilla Presley and your hope that you would catch up with her during your tour. Did you get to meet up?

MOTHER DOLORES: I wish I had. She was not available…but we have spoken on the telephone. I feel a genuine friendship with her.  I appreciate her very much. She’s very intelligent and a very wonderful woman.

JWK: What was the most surprising or interesting question you were asked while on the road?

MOTHER DOLORES: I was glad when (the questions about) kissing Elvis Presley wore down. That seemed to be the most predominant question but, from time to time, people would ask me (questions) that had great meaning for me — like what helps you to keep your faith? I mean a question like that really sends you into a truth.

JWK: How did you respond?

MOTHER DOLORES: I said the only thing that helps me keep faith is to stay in the truth of love because when you love someone — or many people — you believe in them and you believe in who they are and what they can do…then your belief has to go to an eternal presence because when you really care for someone you can’t bear the thought of never seeing them again. You want that mystery of eternity to be real. It’s not real because you want it to be. You want it because it’s real…The nature of faith, I think, is based so much on one’s capacity for hope for those whom you love.

JWK: How has Hollywood changed since you left?

MOTHER DOLORES: Well, you know, it’s amazing because suddenly I realized that the Golden Years that they talk about in terms of my time in Hollywood (and before)… those films were babies really in terms of filmmaking. (It was a time) when the nature of a film was important because of the different stars that were involved in it. I think that Hollywood has (now) transcended that…to another kind of draw that is the dynamic of the film — like Les Misérables, for example. Of course it had very (in-demand) and beautiful stars but it was very different (than say) a movie like Ben-Hur which called on Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd to be the drawing power. I think if they made Ben-Hur again it would be the…the story itself (that would be the bigger draw). (There’s been) a growth in Hollywood.

I could feel that I was in a much older city. I grew up in Beverly Hills — you know, about a block from the Wilshire Boulevard area and the big theater there. I used to play in the back of the theater and I remember when I was very little — I must have been seven years old — I saw Laura and I was so taken by the people in the picture. I said “I want to grow up and be Gene Tierney.” I would go walk around in the back of the theater and quote some of the lines. I was just a little tyke. And I did that because my father had taken to be an actor and I felt I could do that. But to go back to that same street 50 years later, you’re in a highrise section. I mean it’s not at all a place where where you could take your shoes off and walk around the corner.

JWK: So, physically, the place has changed a lot.

MOTHER DOLORES: Yes.

JWK: Are there any plans for a movie based on Ear of the Heart.

MOTHER DOLORES: There is opportunity. We have some people who have been asking about it. In fact, this very weekend we will be talking to our lawyer to ask him who has made offers so that we can look through the possibilities. (Note: I interviewed Mother Dolores last week, prior to her meeting with the lawyer.)

JWK: What criteria are you looking for in terms of who you want to tell your story on film?

MOTHER DOLORES: What I would be looking for would be someone that would be honest to the story and not go for high dramatic moments for the sake of selling the movie. I know we had someone who had talked to us about it and said “Oh, yes, we can’t really deal with your younger life because there’s too much there. It would be better if we started the film when you meet Mr. Presley.” And I said “I think that’s sort of is using the poor guy in a way that I don’t think is quite appropriate.”…I think what I want in a filmmaker is someone who will be honest to the story.

JWK: As we have this conversation, there’s a lot of attention being paid in the media to the interview Pope Francis gave to the Catholic magazine America.

MOTHER DOLORES:  Yes, I heard about that. I haven’t actually (seen) the full interview…Is there some aspect of that that you want to mention?

JWK: I’d like to go through some of the quotes attributed to him and ask for your reaction.  Talking about homosexuality, he said ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does He endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.” What are you thoughts on that?

MOTHER DOLORES:  Well, I think that’s very helpful (for) the Church to (be) open to the reality of the body. I think it’s so important to understand, if you can, (or), at least, to be open to the incarnational value of the persons you are dealing with because the Lord — I don’t where exactly in the Bible — says the promise is that we will have our body back as an eternal gift. I think that means that the body is precious and the body is always going to speak through its own capacity for communication and love. We have to understand that many places, many people, many countries, many nations have very different approaches and the gay world is something that we are looking at now in a way we would never have done 50 years ago. It would never even have occurred to us but it’s real and, if you deny it, you will never find the way of communication in truth.

JWK: On women, he said “The Church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the Church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the Church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.” What are your thoughts on what he said and, as a woman, the role of women in the Church? The Pope did seem to stop short of actually suggesting that we’ll be seeing women priests in the near future.

MOTHER DOLORES:  Forgive me if I am very blunt when I say this — but I have never understood how we would consider women as priests because I think the role of the priest is a role that is penetrating the life sacramentally of the body of the Church. Everything relates. How one is born. How one moves and reacts. I think the role of the priest is fatherly and I don’t think a woman — by putting on a robe — can be a father. I think a woman has to remain true to her call as a bride, a mother…I think there’s a female (quality) that has a role but I don’t think it’s a priestly role. I think it’s a role that has yet to be discovered and named.

JWK: So would you that the role of women in the Church is evolving?

MOTHER DOLORES:  I don’t think that the priesthood is something to be made the central thrust of finding the woman’s role because I don’t think women are called to be priests…You know when somebody has a charism for for something. I think that part of Church life belongs to the patriarch and the father. Now, the problem that I see is that a woman’s role has not been defined enough. It hasn’t been given a place. When you have 50 priests on the altar and not one woman visible you know there’s some imbalance. What does a woman bring to the Church? That’s got to be recognized, named and given a place so there’s a complement action between father and mother. At this point, there is no complement (or) place named and I do think that’s a problem.

JWK: Regarding issues such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage, Pope Francis  acknowledges that some in the Church have criticized him for not speaking more more forcefully on those issues but he says “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” He goes on to say “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.” He seems to be saying that the Church needs to align itself more with the virtue of compassion and to be seen less as a harsh judge.

MOTHER DOLORES:  My take on that would be that the problems that come into the Church that arrest our life…the problem of abortion and (such)…all of those things come from the poverty in the Church (and) the poverty of the people that forces people to make decisions because they don’t have the wherewithal to do anything but make a certain decision…I look at my own community. We had to make very serious decisions in the way that we worked because we lived in a barn for 50 years and then by asking for help we had an enormous gift because we were down to the wire with the fire department…(Our) electrical units, everything, was under code and what we were faced with was a four-million dollar problem…I guess they put a certain limitation on you if you don’t change (to meet) their recommendations. So, we really were under stress but the first year we had an amazing turnout of faith — of friends and people and grants — so that we were able to take care of the first quarter of this bill and make changes in the abbey that were incredible in such a way that we had four new postulates come. Because we had room, we had a place for them to stay. We would not have had that life in the community if we had been where we were two years ago because we had no room. We had no place for them to eat. I’m using that as an analogy because I think if you have an upgrade in your living conditions you can make different decisions.

JWK: So dealing with poverty might help decrease the number of abortions.

MOTHER DOLORES:  Well, I think if people were not living in poverty they might make decisions  (based on)  their desire and need and want for a family. Because if people don’t have money, they don’t have a way to feed the baby (and) they don’t have a way to take care of children. They (feel) forced to a decision they might not make (otherwise).

JWK: The Pope also seems to be saying that maybe the Church has over emphasized issue like contraception and gay marriage.

MOTHER DOLORES:  Well, again, fundamentally I think that there is a law of life…that comes to the fore and teaches people how to live. I know that my decision to enter the monastery — to live a life that is celibate, to live in a place of stability — for some people they’ll think I’m crazy. They wouldn’t understand at all that there would be any fulfillment for a woman to simply give up the opportunity for sexual intercourse, to give up the opportunity to marry freely. And, particularly in my own case, I did have a tremendous opportunity to do what I wanted to do…When I entered here, I cannot begin to tell you the letters that I got from people I worked with. My agent called and said “I think you swallowed razorblades.” They just thought I had lost my mind. I think that I counted very much on those friends of mine who trusted me — in love as a friend — to do what my heart told me I had to do. I believe that in the long run we have to be very (cautious) about implying guilt on people because that’s very deep, very long. We’re talking about a life that is, in my opinion, given for an eternal destiny. Every life, I think, has that potential because I believe each life is a gift of God…because God is love…If somebody makes a choice we can’t understand (we should not judge)…I think we have to be very, very strong in following the truth that we know in our being — in our work, in our study, our growth…I think the direction for improvement has to start at home and not too easily be directed outward into a life that maybe we don’t really understand.

JWK: So, it sounds like your saying that we should refrain from judging others whose shoes we have not walked in.

MOTHER DOLORES:  Yes.

JWK: In the interview, the Pope also says “The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.” While he says it’s important to recognize that sin exists, he seems to suggest that the Church can be strong by not being rigid. He says “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.” From this and my previous conversation with you, I’m guessing that you would agree with that.

MOTHER DOLORES:  I think that the whole Family of Man has gone through development…The whole Family of Man is growing and going through what ever phases it has to go through to come to the freedom that Christ outlined for us. You can look now. We carry a telephone with us and we can call anyone in the world in five minutes and talk to them. That would be impossible when I was a child…So, our communication is growing. Our capacity to know one another has (grown) between Twitter and Fritter and every kind of thing where people go on to find friends. When you talk to somebody you say I’ve just had a conversation with 50 people on whatever you call that thing. That is showing the growth and the development of the Human Family.

JWK: The Pope also seems to be saying that it’s important that the Church begin breaking through its own bureaucracy and communicate more directly with its people who are most in need.

MOTHER DOLORES: (laughs) And, of course, when we do that, we’re gonna be told we didn’t do something else.

JWK: By the way, I keep hearing your parrot in the background. What’s his name again?

MOTHER DOLORES: Toby…I put a covering on his floor and he’s now tearing it up into shreds. I used to be annoyed by it but I have a friend who’s a vet and she comes frequently to (check on my various birds). She told that that the…(male parrot) usually tears everything up in order to make a nest. He’s doing his work so I give him things now which I don’t have to put through the machine to shred…He’s my own little shredder.

JWK: Thank you for your time. I appreciate it.

MOTHER DOLORES: Well, it’s been very interesting and, I think, a time for me to be praying with you about many things. Because I do believe (that) talking in depth with someone can be a prayer. I feel that’s what this was for so many subjects that we (talked about).

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11



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