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Nothing Sacred - Resurrecting lost episodes


As a TV series, "Nothing Sacred" never had a large following. But for many viewers, it represented a genuine portrayal of the Catholic church today. Its cancellation by ABC over a year and a half ago still arouses passion.

“It was stealth Catholicism at its best,” said Mary Rose Dallal, one of more than 200 people who attended a two-night showing in New York of four episodes that never aired. “It was better than any preaching anyone could do, and they killed it. It was one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen on TV.”

Dallal said she wrote to ABC to say it was a “travesty” to cancel the series, which aired in the 1997-’98 season.

Margaret Hagen said she thinks the networks and print media mistake conservative groups, such as the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which vigorously opposed “Nothing Sacred,” as speaking for the whole church. “The show was about what’s really going on in the church,” she said. “Why develop a show at that level and then abandon it while promoting every silly sitcom?”

The reason the series seemed real to many people may be because it was created by a Catholic priest, Jesuit Fr. Bill Cain, based on his experience of parish life at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York, where the “lost episodes” were shown last May as a fundraiser for two local social service agencies.

Cain lives in Los Angeles, where he is writing a movie for Columbia Tri-Star about gangs in East Los Angeles and is developing a pilot for NBC called “Belts,” about America’s expanding prison system as seen through the eyes of a parole officer. A St. Francis Xavier parishioner donated frequent flier miles so that Cain could attend the “Nothing Sacred” showings.

“This is a homecoming,” Cain told the crowd. “ ‘Nothing Sacred’ came out of this room. For a show that was not enormously popular to fill a church with people wanting to see it is gratifying.”

Cain shared his behind-the-scenes experiences of struggle and the unrelenting criticism the show provoked. He said they received hate mail, much of it of an anti-Semitic nature because the show had Jewish writers and producers. One particularly disturbing piece came on letterhead that said, “The only good Jew is a dead Jew.”

“I was shocked,” Cain said. “I didn’t know that level of anti-Semitism still existed.”

But Cain also shared his joy at being able to do the series. “It was a deep and moving experience of reflecting on issues that were terribly important to us.”

Of the four episodes shown at St. Francis Xavier, Cain said “Felix Culpa,” the Easter episode, has a special place in his heart. It was written at the time when Cain and the cast members were sure the series would be canceled. “We knew we were done,” he said. “It’s hard to go forward with an effort when you know you’re a failure. We were being attacked; we had low ratings. There was a kind of darkness in all of us.”

Cain looked for ways to end the show. “Would the characters be better off just to walk off?” he had wondered.

In that dark time he thought of what he would say to each of them. To Ray, the pastor who struggled with celibacy and church authority, he considered saying, “Ray, you don’t have to be a priest.” To Mo, the nun who wanted to be a Catholic priest, he wanted to say, “Mo, they’ve treated you awfully, walk away.” To Eric, in his first year of priesthood, “There’s no future in the church. Walk away.”

But realizing “darkness is part of the religious experience as much as light,” he created a show in which the characters come through darkness into resurrection. To do this, he decided to burn down the $250,000 church set “to reduce the church to its people, like Christ and the disciples on the side of the road.”

Several plots worked toward this transformation. Ray is tormented by doubts about whether he believes in the Resurrection. He has horrible nightmares, such as being buried alive and seeing the by-the-books co-pastor the archdiocese has sent to possibly close the parish reveal himself as the anti-Christ. Mo, questioning her vocation more than ever, says that after giving the Christmas homily it is hard to go back to being “the one who just sets up.”

Ray comes in one night before Easter to find the church ablaze. Cain said the actors worked 16-hour days, including Ann Dowd (Mo), who was 7-months pregnant. In the fire scene, Sydney, the parish’s atheist accountant, risks his life to save the Blessed Sacrament and Mo, saying she hears someone, tries to get through the flames and finds a bloody sheet, which looks eerily like a shroud.

In the next scene, only a shell of the church is left. The staff is in shock, but says it can’t be God’s way of telling them the parish should be closed. They quote Elijah that God isn’t found in the fire, but in the still, small voice.

By the next day, however, Ray and Mo become so depressed they plan to walk away. Ray goes outside to throw a burned sculpture in the dumpster and hears a sound. He jumps into the dumpster, begins digging and finds a newborn baby. He and Mo take it to the hospital and realize they have found their small voice. They decide to hold Easter vigil in the burned-out church.

During that service, an older woman who had never found time for God but who has been in preparation for baptism, gets her wish. She had told Ray she wanted to be baptized with lots of water. When the time comes, he pours a little on her head, but she says, “More, more.” He then slowly pours the whole pitcher over her as she raises her arms, smiling and looking heavenward.

In the final scene, Ray sleeps peacefully, dreaming of a dolphin, leaping into the air out of the ocean. In this Christ symbol, he has found his Resurrection.

A resurrection of sorts also could be found in the episode “HIV Priest: Film at Eleven.” Cain drew on the memory of a priest who, when he learned he had AIDS, went off on his own to die. In the “Nothing Sacred” episode, Jesse, a priest who has just learned he has AIDS, must decide whether to go away or stay and continue his work. Ray convinces him to stay. In the final scene, they break bread together at the kitchen table, as Ray talks about a young man in his early 30s who knew he was going to die. He asks Jesse if he remembers that young man’s words. Jesse looks him in the eye and says: “Remember me,” and they each eat a piece of bread. Cain created the positive ending for his friend as “a way to welcome him back to the table.”

In “Holy Words,” Cain deals with the complicated issues that can arise in an interfaith marriage, in this case between a Catholic woman and a Jewish man, with relatives on both sides opposed.

“If you tell a story, Christ will always arise, and healing sets in,” Cain said. A healing of sorts comes about with the wedding, performed by Ray and a woman rabbi, although family members from both side stay away.

The episode “Sleeping Dogs,” dealing with pedophilia in the church, suggests how the series got the title “Nothing Sacred,” Cain said. “Nothing would be off topic.”

Leo, the older priest, is accused of sex abuse in an incident that is alleged to have happened many years before. He can’t remember the young man making the charge, but because it was at a time when he was drinking heavily, he really doesn’t know what to think. Ray keeps saying Leo is innocent and pressing him to say so, but Leo remains silent, waiting for God to reveal the answer to him. It turns out that the priest involved was a friend of Leo’s who had told the boy his name was Leo. A big issue is the archdiocese trying to hush things up, and the young man wanting an admission of guilt and an apology.

Cain said he keeps in touch with cast members. He recently visited Dowd and her baby daughter in California and saw Kevin Anderson (Ray) in his role as Biff in “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway. “I was so overwhelmed I could barely speak,” Cain said. Critics have hailed Anderson’s interpretation of Willy Loman’s older son, and his efforts earned him a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play.

For his sharing of anecdotes and episodes, Cain was awarded a standing ovation. With his voice cracking, he thanked the audience for its support. “You make me feel our work was not wasted.”

Retta Blaney, an arts and religion writer, is editor of the anthology Journalism: Stories from the Real World.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999