While I was pursuing doctoral studies inRomein the late 1990s, my brother Philip wrote to me one day about a new hour-long drama that was airing on ABC on Thursday evenings. Set inSt. Thomas’ Parish, a fictional inner-city parish in an unnamed urban centre, the show focused on the ministry and relationships within the close-knit pastoral team. My brother videotaped a few episodes for me, which I enjoyed when I was home for Christmas that year, and I was disappointed to learn that by March, the show had been cancelled after only 15 episodes.
Apart from the regular culprit of low ratings, the show had also been hurt by advertising boycotts – which had already begun even before the first episode aired, based on “leaked” story-lines – which was led by the Catholic Civil Rights League. I was saddened, because even though the show was a little “over-the-top” in terms of trying to take on all the “hot-button” episodes in the Catholic Church within the first few weeks, the writing was excellent, the acting superb, and the stories deeply spiritual. The creator of the show, Jesuit Father Bill Cain, is an award-winning playwright, and the show received two of the most prestigious TV awards in the season it was aired: thePeabodyand the Humanitas prize.
The few episodes I managed to see endeared me to the rag-tag pastoral team, each of whom presented a unique face and expression of ministry in our church. Led by radical thirtysomething pastor Father Ray (Kevin Anderson), assisted by wise elder Father Leo (Brad Sullivan) and idealistic, newly-ordained Fr. Eric (Scott Michael Campbell), the real glue of the team – as in so many parishes still today – was the lay staff: director of religious education and pastoral associate Sister Maureen (Ann Dowd), youth minister Juan Alberto (Jose Zuniga), agnostic Jewish business manager Sidney (Bruce Altman), and secretary Rachel (Tamara Mello). Each character had his or her opportunity to shine – and they were characters, never caricatures – struggling with the challenge of remaining faithful in the midst of the challenges of running a busy, socially conscious inner-city parish.
For years, I have searched for other episodes besides the three or four my brother had managed to tape for me in 1997, and have always hit a dead end. Students who have taken my pastoral ministry course at Concordia or the Adult Faith Education seminars I lead at the Archdiocese have had to put up with a scratchy VHS tape intercut with bad TV Christmas commercials, but have always been so moved by the closing scene of the Christmas episode “Hodie Christus Natus Est”, in which a Salvadoran refugee couple seeks sanctuary at St. Thomas one Christmas Eve, that it was seen as a small price to pay.
This episode was one of the most brilliant things I have ever seen on TV, and communicated powerfully and beautifully a profoundly spiritual message not only about the meaning of Christmas, but of the Eucharist as well. (Besides, how can you not love a show set on Christmas Eve which begins with a phone ringing, the secretary answering “St. Thomas, Merry Christmas!”, her subdued voice saying “Midnight,” then hanging up and saying to the rest of the team, “What time do they think Midnight Mass is?” I knew right away: these people know what Catholic rectory life is like!”) I showed a couple of episodes to my priests’ support group this evening, and it led to some of the best and most honest conversations we have had in a long time.
So you can imagine what a surprise it was when, early in December, I typed “Nothing Sacred” into the YouTube search engine and found an episode I had never seen before! Over the next few weeks, new episodes continued to appear, and by Christmas, not only had all 15 broadcast episodes been made available, but also four other episodes that had already been recorded but were never shown because the show had already been cancelled. (At this writing, there is still one more episode I am waiting for impatiently, and then there will be no more!)
Although the typical hot-button issues of abortion, sexuality, women’s roles in the church, and polarization between the right and the left were certainly not shied away from, it was amazing how many shows dealt creatively and sensitively with everyday pastoral issues: counselling penitents, preaching homilies, keeping the soup kitchen open, reconciling a troubled adolescent with his parents, teaching confirmation classes, preparing an interfaith couple for marriage, helping a grieving and divided family work through the death of a loved one.
Also, as I have now had a chance to view pretty well the whole series and observe the story arcs, I can now see how artfully Nothing Sacred took its viewers on a tour through the liturgical year, all seven sacraments, many familiar Catholic hymns and prayers, and the joys and challenges presented by each of the traditional “states of life”: priesthood, religious life, marriage, and single life. That it managed to do this not in a pedantic or preachy way, but with believable characters, strong story-lines, and spiritual substance, was nothing short of brilliant. (In my humble opinion, that is!) There were many, no doubt, who objected to some of the theological and ecclesiological stances embraced by the show’s creators and writers – especially with respect to the role of women in the church and certain issues around sexuality. But I think that given the chance, viewing some of these episodes could be a great discussion starter for a real dialogue on some of these “hot-button” issues which, whether we like it or not, have not gone away and are unlikely to do so.
I devoutly hope that someone at ABC (I assume they still own the rights to the show, but I could be mistaken) will give permission one day for the 20 existing episodes of Nothing Sacred to be released on DVD. In the meantime, try to catch them on YouTube before they are taken down by some overzealous network types! If you click on the link below, this should take you to a playlist of all the episodes that have posted on line thus far, and if you start at the beginning, they should play in sequence. Hope you enjoy them – and let me know what you think! For the Christmas episode, click here
For the entire playlist, you can go to
Happy New Year to you all!!