by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
During the Advent or Christmas seasons, I enjoy watching the movie classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore.
Though at the time of its release in 1946 it was not a box office smash hit, today it is considered one of the great American movies.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, heaven is besieged with prayers for the hero, George Bailey, who is on the verge of committing suicide on Christmas Eve. An idiosyncratic angel, Clarence, is shown flashbacks of highlights of George’s life to prepare him for a rescue mission to save the despairing hero.
George has convinced himself that his family and community would be better off if he had never been born. The angel Clarence devises a strategy to show George Bailey what his family and community would have been like without him.
The angelology of the film is clever and amusing, but theologically very deficient. Nevertheless, the themes of the movie are very Christian. The movie makes clear that every life is precious in God’s eyes, and oftentimes the full impact of our actions is hidden from us.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” also paints a compelling portrait of the importance of marriage, family, friendship and service to others. The film makes clear that true human wealth is not recorded in bank accounts or stock portfolios, but is found in the depth of our relationships with family, friends and members of our local community.
Central to the film’s plot, despite his many natural virtues, was George Bailey’s internal struggle between selfishness and service to others. Of course, this is the same struggle than runs through every human heart.
Throughout the film, George Bailey desires to leave town in order to travel the world, experience new things and enjoy exotic places. Eventually, he wants to achieve wealth and fame by designing and building magnificent structures. These are not bad ambitions but, for the Christian, they neglect the most important question: What is God’s desire for my life?
Throughout the film, we see the competing claims on George’s heart: to fulfill his dreams to encounter the bigger world beyond Bedford Falls or, for the good of family and community, to remain in his hometown managing the family business — The Bailey Brothers Building and Loan.
Several times, George is on the verge of leaving Bedford Falls and, each time, a crisis emerges where he must choose between chasing his dreams or remaining home for the good of family and friends.
For several years, George has been smitten by the enchantingly beautiful Mary Hatch (played by Donna Reed), but he is resisting the thought of marriage because it will be another obstacle to his dreams for adventure, freedom and fame.
After Mary has returned from college, one of the most beautifully acted scenes depicts George begrudgingly paying a visit to her home. George is rude and insulting to Mary as he contends with this familiar internal conflict surfaced by the realization of what he must relinquish if he allows himself to become involved romantically. In the end, fortunately, love wins out.
The character of George Bailey and his concern for the welfare of the working class is contrasted with the villainous and greedy Mr. Potter, who schemes either to close or gain control of the Building and Loan so that he has a monopoly on housing options for the town’s ordinary citizens.
George Bailey is the only obstacle to Potter realizing his goal of gaining complete financial control of the town.
The crisis that leads to George’s suicidal thoughts is the misplacement of a significant amount of cash by his lovable but hapless Uncle Billy. The Building and Loan is facing insolvency and George is facing criminal charges for malfeasance.
In the depth of his crisis, while acknowledging he is not a praying man, George Bailey offers a desperate prayer to God for assistance. Initially, George thinks that God has turned a deaf ear to his petition. George is unaware that there is a small and growing army who are praying for him and rallying to his aid.
I am not sure why “It’s A Wonderful Life” was not as popular in 1946 as it has become subsequently. Its appeal today is somewhat of an anomaly, because the underlying themes are much more countercultural than they were in post-World War II America. In a sense, its continued attraction is a testimony to the innate desirability of virtue and nobility.
Our prevailing culture tends to encourage young people to pursue their career dreams and goals before considering marriage and family. Though not in a manner as crude as the villain in “It’s Wonderful Life,” our culture promotes material things, creature comforts and entertainment as more essential for our happiness than our relationship with God or a life of service to others.
With today’s dominant hookup culture, the modern-day George Bailey need not worry about commitment obstructing freedom.
If perchance, you have never watched “It’s A Wonderful Life,” I hope I piqued your interest to do so. Even if you have viewed it several times, I encourage parents, especially, to watch the film with older children. Though compared to modern films, it is very family-friendly, still, it deals with suicidal thoughts, and George Bailey’s personal crisis could be emotionally upsetting to young children.
The themes in the film lend themselves to rich family conversations about vocation, worthy goals for life, the importance of marriage and family, the power of prayer, devotion to our guardian angels, the sanctity of each human life and healthy ways to cope with feeling overwhelmed by life’s inevitable challenges and crises.
You may want to read the catechism’s teaching on angels (paragraphs 328-336), to be able to answer questions about what we as Catholics actually believe about these spiritual messengers and servants of God.
Christmas reminds us that God responded to the pride and rebellion of our first parents by an act of the most profound humility. God’s response to our sin was to draw us closer to him — not by coercion or force but, rather, by immersing himself fully into our humanity. The commemoration of the birth of Jesus also makes clear the worth and dignity God has placed upon every human life.
The choice of God to be born into a family affirms the absolute necessity of this most important and fundamental human community. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In other words, God chose to embrace the poverty of our humanity so that we might share in the richness of his divinity. Does that sound more like George Bailey’s or Mr. Potter’s worldview?