Philip Seymour Hoffman preparing for his role in "Doubt" by learning to say a Mass, circa 1963, on the set at the College of Mt. St. Vincent in Riverdale, NY. Father Jim Martin, SJ, who supplied the photo, is at left.

Philip Seymour Hoffman preparing for his role in “Doubt” by learning to say a Mass, circa 1963, on the set at the College of Mt. St. Vincent in Riverdale, NY. Father Jim Martin, SJ, who supplied the photo, is at left. Photo courtesy of the Rev. James Martin, SJ

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.

NB: Father Jim Martin also led a candlelight vigil in front of the Public Theater, and this brief video of the responsorial prayers Martin led also reflects a Catholic liturgical sensibility.

David Gibson

31 Comments

  1. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The reason some people get confused about a Mass being said for someone they consider a major sinner is that since Vatican II many Catholic funeral Masses have turned into mini canonizations of the deceased.
    But Catholic Masses for the deceased are because the deceased need our prayers. In fact the “badder” (short of earning Hell) a person is the more they need our prayers and Masses. And since we do not know God’s judgment on an individual’s life (though we may condemn certain actions of his) –everyone should be prayed for.

    • Deacon,

      With all due respect, your comment implies that PSH was a bad person. Frankly, I don’t know what kind of a person he was and neither do you. We may both assume he had a weakness, but don’t we all have many? I agree that everyone should be prayed for but PSH is not “badder” by virtue of the little that you and I know about him.

      Pat

      • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

        Pat–My purpose was to refute people who say we shouldn’t pray for those some deem bad sinners. As I pointed out I believe only God can pass judgment on a person but Hoffman’s drug-taking is action that clearly should not be approved or condoned because it is so destructive, frequently ending in death, as here. But was Hoffman more sinner than sinned against in becoming so addicted ?????. Only God knows.

        • Then you were refuting something entirely unrelated to this article. Neither the author nor anyone quoted said anything about praying or not praying for “bad sinners”. You brought that here based on your own prejudices. We need to look inward before we look out friend.

          • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

            Pat–read the first paragraph of the story which talks of Hoffman’s heroin addiction. And across the internet ,many commenters and blogs are using that info to rant that saying a funeral Mass or praying for Hoffman is virtually a scandal. I’m saying pray for the guy–or any person who needs our prayers–and drug addicts need our prayers, need our Masses–in this life and the next (since their moral culpability only God can decide.) The only prejudice I have on this issue–if it can be called that–is that people who are self-destructing through drugs should be helped to overcome their addiction in this life and prayed for in this life and, if deceased and beyond help in this world, helped through prayer to help them in the next world.

    • Deacon Michael Doehrman

      Deacon John,
      I have been ordained a deacon since 1983, I really can not recall any Catholic Funeral Mass that I have been involved in or attended being turned into a mini canonization!
      I also am unclear on what is meant by major sinner. The love and compassion of Jesus for all people, even those who were considered by others to be “not our kind of people” is the gospel the church and all are called to live out. It is only when we begin to exclude others as unworthy or tainted that preach and live out our own gospel. Mike

      • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

        I’m really puzzled by the attitude of some people, apparently Catholic– that we shouldn’t pray for the dead or discuss why we should and why based on news accounts Mr. Hoffman–like every single one of us –needs after death prayers. Do these people think the are so free of sin themselves that no one need pray for them. I find it hard to believe that a Catholic deacon seems to have no concept of praying for the dead, and seems to consider talking of the need for praying for a deceased person as some sort of attack on the deceased.

        • Deacvon Mike

          Deacon John,
          I agree, I also finds it hard to believe that a Catholic deacon would consider talking of the need for praying for a deceased person as some sort of attack on the deceased. I would just add that I have never seen a Catholic funeral Masses have turned into mini canonizations of the deceased, especially if the person is a major sinner, as you put it!

  2. Marshall Waddell

    All things certainly may be possible, but it seems unlikely that Mr. Hoffman prepared for his role in the film “Doubt” in 1963. The film was set in 1964. Mr. Hoffman was born in 1967.

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