Broadway marquees went dark for a minute Wednesday night in honor of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died this week at 46, apparently of a heroin overdose. At the same time, newspaper accounts have been exploring the dark side of drug addiction and its terrible toll on Hoffman, and on his longtime companion, Mimi O’Donnell, and their three children.
And flowers are piling up in front of the apartment in the West Village neighborhood where Hoffman was a regular, another New Yorker going about life.
But amid these expected secular reckonings with celebrity tragedy is an unusually traditional religious ritual — a Catholic funeral for Hoffman set for Friday at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Church sources say up to 300 people will attend the private Mass, many of them boldface names as well as friends and family and the many theater and film friends Hoffman made during his sterling career.
So why a Catholic service? And why there?
Yes, PSH was raised Catholic by his parents but rather indifferently, it seems. And church didn’t exactly light a fire:
“Those Masses really turned me off,” he told the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit friend. “Lots of rote repetition, pretty boring and sometimes really brutal.”
But Hoffman still described himself as a “believer,” and said he prayed from time to time — and he had a profound fascination with Christianity that was both personal and artistic. He defended Christians against the biases of Hollywood and political liberals (“It pisses me off that there is this knee-jerk reaction against them!”) and to hear him talk about the drama of the Gospels was to hear someone who was intensely engaged and moved.
At one point, in fact, one of his sisters became an evangelical Christian and Hoffman happily accompanied her when she invited him to meetings with her friends:
“There was something that was so heartfelt and emotional … Nothing about it felt crazy at all. And my sister was certainly the sanest person you could ever meet. It all felt very real, very guttural, even rebellious.”
Those were some of the qualities that Hoffman said he loved about Jesus, an “unwieldly” character who was always causing “havoc,” as he put it with admiration. For him to explore that dynamic through art was inevitable, and a decade ago Hoffman directed an Off-Broadway play, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” at the Public Theater.
That’s where he met Father Martin, who signed on as a “technical adviser” to the production. Father Jim, as everyone calls him, later wrote a book about that experience, “A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Behind the Scenes with Faith, Doubt, Forgiveness, and More.”
An excerpt from the book, which has some of Hoffman’s most extensive thoughts on faith, was published at the Busted Halo website.
Hoffman also brought Martin onto the set when he played the priest — who may, or may not, have abused a child — in the film adaptation of the riveting drama, “Doubt.” The photo above is of Father Jim, at left, teaching Hoffman how to say Mass, circa 1963.
The educational experience seems to have gone both ways. As Father Jim — who will be celebrating the funeral Mass today for his friend — wrote in a brief Facebook tribute to Hoffman:
Phil was so devoted to his work, took pains to get every aspect of his performance as a priest correct, and, as such, it was a real grace to watch him work. Seeing him act was a reminder of what it means to have a real vocation.
(I especially like Martin’s confession that Hoffman had ignored his advice on preaching to the back rows, because as he later realized, PSH knew he was preaching to a camera lens up close — and it worked. “My sister said, ‘That’s why he is the Oscar winner, and you’re the Jesuit.’ “)
Father Jim also has memorable stories of teaching a faux congregation of 300 extras on the set of “Doubt” how to make the Sign of the Cross — and he has continued that very Jesuitical tradition of engaging the culture (especially the arts) by becoming the Official Chaplain to The Colbert Report, where he regularly reminds Stephen Colbert about the precepts of the Gospel…Not that the REAL Colbert needs such reminding, given his own Catholic bona fides.
In short, when Philip Seymour Hoffman died and they needed a church and a funeral, this Jesuit parish and the Catholic rite fit. PSH was a baptized Catholic and at least of “una certa fede,” as the Italians delicately put it, of “a certain faith” — and he knew the Jesuits and even practiced Mass for his “Doubt” role at St. Ignatius.
And the Jesuits, as shown repeatedly by Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, stress welcome and mercy — of a kind that Hoffman’s friends and family need as much as the actor himself.
“Phil Hoffman was not only a baptized Catholic but also a person with a lovely soul, and so deserves a Catholic funeral,” Martin told Deacon Greg Kandra in a column for CNN. “And Pope Francis reminds that the sacraments aren’t for perfect people; they are for the rest of us.”
“Jesus, yes, Church, no.” That’s the viral response to religion, especially the Christian variety, in this Spiritual But Not Religious era. But in times of crisis, SBNR often can’t step in with the surefooted staging and grace of a seasoned pro. PSH would appreciate that.