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In spite of twenty-four years of experience, Father John P. McNamee (David Morse) still feels inadequate as a Catholic Priest serving in a troubled Philadelphia neighborhood. The talented seminary student passed up more prestigious opportunities to take on the job of "the lonely guy in the 'hood, doing the work no one else is willing to do." However, as the years pass, he isn't certain his faith and sacrifice have had any positive or lasting impact on the world around him.
Instead his days are a constant stream of collecting then distributing donations, trying to repair aging boiler systems, running a charitable school on few funds, and facing the unfixable problems of poverty and substance abuse. At the beck and call of both the devout and those only looking for a hand out, Father Mac (as he is called by his parishioners) is stressed out, sleep deprived, and spiritually weary. In an effort to find some meaning in his life's work, he decides to write down his thoughts in a journal.
As the narrator makes us privy to these ponderings, we discover it isn't his religious beliefs that are in question, but rather his ability to practice what he preaches. He is regularly confronted by his shortcomings, including late one evening after a lengthy stay in the Night Court lineup where he has come to testify on behalf of a wayward member of his flock. Accidentally leaving his overcoat in the waiting room, he returns to find one of the other defendants has claimed it during his absence. Although he is uncomfortable demanding its returned, the minister is sure his motive has more to do with Christian duty than true Christian love.
At this point, as in several of the other meditating moments in his story, the struggling priest is visited by one of the Saints whom he has long admired. Real or imagined, these visions allow Father Mac to discuss his deepest fears, and to find wisdom and insight from the sage ghosts of ages past.
Based on the book written by the real Father John P. McNamee, Dairy of a City Priest recounts snatches of inner city life without excessively harsh depictions. It also includes a few profanities (uttered by clergymen) and some rationalization of rather unorthodox uses for church funds.
The biggest deterrent for viewers is the movie's slow pace, scanty musical score and many technical glitches. Whether by design or just the result of a low budget, these contribute to the production's "bare bones" feel. But what it lacks in polish, the film makes up for in sincerity, thanks to an outstanding performance by David Morse.
Although Father Mac wonders if his journal writing has merely been "a lengthy personal confession useful to no one but me," his questions about the purpose of life are universal, regardless of vocation. And like poetry, the answers found within his musings may be more meaningful after a few days of thoughtful contemplation.
Diary of a City Priest is rated PG-13: for brief language
Cast: David Morse, Thomas Ryan