A school teacher who is a brother at St. Stephen’s School asks his class if anyone knows what a saint is. A girl replies that saints are ‘individuals who display and act out of exceptional holiness’. The brother replies – ‘that’s pretty perfect’. Indeed, as a perfectionist definition. Did his reply mean she was absolutely right, or ‘too right’ to be right? The term ‘saint’ is sometimes used in Buddhism too, to describe noble ones like Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Arhats especially – those who have substantial attainments of virtues. In this sense, the Buddhist definition of saints is definitely stringent. Comparatively, definitely more clearly defined than the way the word ‘saint’ is used in Catholic culture. Anyway, doctrinally, no Catholic saint can be as godly as ‘God’, while Buddhas transcend all humans and gods in spiritual and physical greatness. (Note that Buddhists do not believe a perfect creator God exists due to prevalent suffering and such.)
The teacher asked the class to name some classic saints they knew (e.g. St. Jude), and if anyone knows any modern-day saints. Mother Teresa was of course brought up (though her character and deeds are still subject to much controversy, as can be seen in Christopher Hitchen’s book ‘The Missionary Position’ and the documentary ‘Hell’s Angel’). The teacher shares his definition – ‘a saint is a human being we celebrate for their commitment and dedication to other human beings, for the sacrifices that they make, for their hard work in making the world a better place, for those around us and for those who will follow them.’ Seems pretty non-religious? That has to be the point for the story in the film to proceed. (What about dedicating to other non-human beings like animals too?)
As IMDB put it in a one-liner to describe the film – ‘A young boy whose parents have just divorced finds an unlikely friend and mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic war veteran who lives next door.’ Of course, the movie is a lot more than that. Oliver the boy thus got to hang out with Vincent. They go through misadventures as Vincent tries to ready him for the rough world. They even had some conflicts due to his unruly devil-may-care ways. However, Oliver saw the innate goodness in him, eventually writing and delivering a speech in school to fulfill the class assignment of sharing about someone deemed ‘saintly’. Vincent was depicted to be on the verge of breaking most of the Five Precepts. Yet, he did exude some good and potential for more, as we can read in Oliver’s moving speech (which can also be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6pvNP_RRMA)
‘On the surface, one might think my saint is the least likely candidate for sainthood. He’s not a happy person. He doesn’t like people, and not many people like him. He’s grumpy, angry, mad at the world, and I’m sure full of regrets. He drinks too much, smokes. He gambles, curses, lies and cheats. And he spends a lot of time with a lady of the night. If you dig deeper, you’ll see a man beyond his flaws. Mr. Vincent MacKenna was born in 1946 in Sheepshead Bay, the son of first-generation Irish immigrants. Growing up poor on the streets of Brooklyn, Vincent learned all the things that kids shouldn’t need to know: fighting, cursing and gambling. In 1965, as a member of the United States Army’s Fifth Regiment, Vincent was among the 450 soldiers dropped into the La Drang Valley and immediately ambushed by 2,000 enemy troops. There he heroically saved the lives of two wounded officers pinned down by enemy fire and carried them to safety. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his bravery.
I imagine the best way I can tell you who Mr. Vincent MacKenna is, is to tell you what he’s done for me. When me and my Mom first moved here, we knew no one, and Mr. MacKenna took me in when he didn’t have to, and most likely didn’t want to. But he did it anyhow, ’cause that’s what saints do. We visited his wife, Sandy, of 40 years, who recently passed away. Vin’s done her laundry every week for the past eight years, long after she no longer recognised him [due to sickness]. Because saints never give up. He taught me how to fight, how to stand my ground and be brave, how to speak up and be bold. Because saints fight for themselves and others, so that they might be heard. He taught me how to gamble, horse-racing, Keno, the over and under, which is a big reason why I’m grounded till I’m 18. But in that, I learned how to take risks and go for broke. Because in life, the odds can be stacked against you. This is Vin’s cat, Felix, who eats gourmet cat food while Vin eats sardines. ‘Cause saints make sacrifices. [Ideally, Vin and Felix go vegan!]
Yes, Mr. Vincent MacKenna is flawed, seriously flawed, but just like all the other saints we studied. Because after all, saints are human beings, very human beings. Courage, sacrifice, compassion, humanity. These are the markings of a saint, and what makes Mr. Vincent MacKenna not so far removed from Saint William of Rochester. And with that, I’d like to present my friend and babysitter, Mr. Vincent MacKenna, for sainthood, and hereby proclaim him St. Vincent of Sheepshead Bay. Thank you, sir.’ Greatly moved, as did the audience, Vincent steps us the stage, bows and replies, ‘Thank you, kid.’
Vincent was no total saint, but he was not ‘just Vincent’ either. Like the rest of us spiritually, he is a work in progress. In real life, he will not be beatified as a saint by the Catholic church. Of course, in the context of the movie, there has to be much leeway given to ‘justify’ seeing Vincent as saint-like, despite him being habitually unhappy, ill-tempered, intoxicated… But that is what made his kindness remarkable. The story touches us, when we see a struggling man trying to outdo himself, to teach a kid the worldly ways of the world. We see an imperfect man who was nonetheless once heroic, who tries to sacrifice in small ways to help others, who is still capable of love despite lust. ‘St. Vincent’ invites us to empathise, to celebrate the inner goodness and great spiritual potential (Buddha-nature) of people around us, who are often jaded with being misunderstood. ‘Saints’ or ‘sinners’, we are what we make of ourselves and others. And we must do better!
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