Updated: May 10, 2013 6:16AM
In the end, the movies weren’t the important part.
Oh, being a film critic certainly made Roger Ebert a rich, famous, influential man.
But — and as with all good surprise endings, I didn’t see this coming — when his loved ones, his friends, colleagues, regular readers and admirers gathered at Holy Name Cathedral Monday to say goodbye to Roger on what started as a rainy, gray, chill Chicago morning and ended in warm, golden sunlight, the world of box-office numbers and star-fueled glamour and good reviews and bad reviews felt very, very far away.
What mattered was his noble soul, his quick mind, his big heart, his brave pen, his loyalty to his profession and his city. “We know he loved Chicago and Chicago loved Roger,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “He was the most American of American critics in the most American of American cities.”
Mass was officiated by a trio of priests — Monsignor Daniel Mayall, parish pastor of Holy Name, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, St. Sabina’s firebrand and the Rev. John F. Costello, special assistant to the president of Loyola University, who delivered a homily that showed off his Jesuit training by explaining — without ever drawing attention to the fact he was explaining — a question perhaps on the mind of many: how Chicago’s most famous agnostic and public doubter of all doctrines ended up being delivered up to heaven at the city’s preeminent Catholic cathedral.
The answer: He found God — well, a version of God, Costello said, “a new God, one of ironic compassion, of overpowering generosity, of racial love” — at the movie theater.
“I am convinced from our conversations that Roger found in darkened places, especially theaters, just such a God,” Costello said. “In that discovery in the darkness, Roger found a Jesus very different from the one he had been handed as a young Catholic child growing up in the Heartland of our great country. This Jesus was an ironic one with unquenchable love, even for — especially for — people who betrayed him.”
Costello cited the 1966 novel “Silence,” by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo. Its main character, Father Sebastian Rodrigues, is a 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priest who learns that his beloved former seminary teacher has been captured in Japan, tortured and forced to renounce Christ.
“Finding it impossible to believe that his mentor and teacher chose apostasy over ‘glorious martyrdom,’ ’’ Costello said, Rodrigues travels to Japan, where he finds himself in similar straits — captured by a Shogun warlord, who demands that he also condemn his faith — only there is a cruel twist this time. It is not Rodrigues who will be tortured, but three Christian peasants who will suffer in his place unless he renounces his belief by trampling upon an image of Jesus.
“In the dark night of the soul, Rodrigues choose to apostatize for the love and compassion of those suffering,” Costello said. “In praying to the heretofore silent Jesus, Rodrigues hears from the face of Christ that he is about to defile, ‘Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’ ’’
In other words: sometimes official doctrine has to be set aside in order to help people. Not a message the church is saturating the airwaves with. But then, that was Roger. He could bring out the best in anybody.
“Roger loved being part of the humanity he embraced all of his life,” Costello said. “He, like Rodrigues, felt the compassion and love he saw among the shadows in the celluloid darkness, for the people in the stories, the viewer in the theater, and the hearts which meekly yet unwavering seek their Author.”
Gov. Pat Quinn called Ebert “a great and humble man with a servant’s heart” who had “a passion for social justice, Catholic social justice.” If you’re wondering what reviewing movies has to do with social justice, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s middle son, Jonathan, explained how Ebert was a passionate advocate for African-American filmmakers.
“He took us seriously,” Jackson said, reading a note from director Spike Lee. “ ‘He saw young black children not as problems, but as people . . . Roger Ebert was a champion of my work and other black filmmakers at a critical time in American film history.”
The last speaker was Roger’s widow, Chaz Ebert, moved by her daughter’s words, she said, to spontaneously take the pulpit.
“He would have loved this, the whole thing,” she said. “Loved that you were all here. . . . He really was a soldier for social justice. He had the biggest heart I’ve ever seen. It didn’t matter your race, creed, color, level of ability, sexual orientation. He had a heart big enough to accept and love all.”
Funerals are for the living, and Roger Ebert’s not only made being alive seem more precious, but sent those attending into the day wondering how to do a better job of it.