NEW YORK – When Mark Wahlberg dove into the story of Father Stuart Long, he said what stood out was the way a previously agnostic man and his family – resistant to God after the death of their brother and son – were transformed by the Catholic faith.
“It was all that they endured,” Wahlberg told Crux. “Having to deal with the loss of a child and their inability to cope, and then Stu kind of being left to his own devices and really being kind of angry at the world. Then, [it was] how they were all really able to come together and Stu orchestrating all of this through his relationship with God, and then when he committed to God I don’t think anybody has been more effective.”
Wahlberg portrays Long in his new film, “Father Stu,” which opens in theaters Wednesday, April 13. Based on a true story, the film follows Long’s rollercoaster journey from amateur boxer to Catholic priest.
After an injury ends Long’s amateur boxing career, he picks up and moves to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a movie star. Long worked as a supermarket clerk while waiting for his big break. At the market he meets Carmen [portrayed by Teresa Ruiz], a devout Catholic and Sunday school teacher who makes it clear she will only be with a baptized Catholic.
That reality leads Long to Sunday school himself, and eventually he is baptized and begins to come around to the faith. Everything then changes after Long survives a motorcycle accident, and he decides his second chance at life is a calling to the priesthood.
Despite skepticism from Carmen and his family, Long forges ahead with his newfound calling to the faith. While in seminary, though, Long faces another setback. He is diagnosed with a debilitating disease that leaves everyone, including church officials in the Diocese of Helena, wary of his ability to serve the diocese as a priest. Regardless, Long remains steadfast to his vocation, and becomes an inspiration to many along the way.
Among those who come around to the faith as a byproduct of Long’s journey are his estranged parents [portrayed by Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver], who, along with Long, had long resisted the faith for years after the unexpected death of their brother and son.
In a recent conversation with Crux, Wahlberg said he hopes the movie will inspire both people of faith and those, who like the Longs, may have drifted away from it.
“I think lots of people who have a strong, stable faith, it will just reaffirm that,” Wahlberg said of the film. “Other people who have been lapsed or lack in faith will now realize that the only way to really survive in this world and in this day and age is to have faith.”
“I was hoping that we would bring a lot of people to church through the making of this movie; bring a lot of people to the vocation of priesthood,” he continued. “[I hope] it reminds people of the importance of never giving up; that redemption is not beyond anybody. This really is a movie that has touched every single person who has seen the film, and I think it will continue to do so.”
Ruiz told Crux that she was drawn to the film because she saw it as a “beacon of hope,” noting the “dark” content often seen in film or in the news, and the hardship created by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years.
“[“Father Stu”] spoke about vocation and faith and love and grace and the capacity for the human to grow and I wanted to be a part of telling a story that could bring that light into the world and inspire those who see it,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz isn’t Catholic. However, she said her mother is very faithful, and being a part of “Father Stu” allowed her to better understand her mother’s perspective.
“She prayed for me every night, and now I spend my days traveling the world. I started working very young, even when I was 12 I’d go out and travel and do a play; she always prayed and she had this faith that nothing would happen to me because there was somebody watching over me,” Ruiz said.
“So that’s my faith,” she continued. “And doing ‘Father Stu’ just helped me to settle it in and know that it’s OK because everything out there is so dark and then having a lot of faith sometimes seems uncool. For me, playing Carmen and doing ‘Father Stu’ made me realize it’s OK; it’s cool to believe that we’re not alone and that we can move forward together.”
Long passed away on June 9, 2014, at the age of 50. Wahlberg said throughout the process of making the film he spent a lot of time with Long’s father, as well as other family, seminarians, priests, parishioners – “lots of folks that had very close and intimate relationships with Stu.”
“Everybody said the same thing: That when [Long] found God, nothing could take him off of that path. He was so committed to serving God it was remarkable,” Wahlberg said.
The Diocese of Helena issued a statement on the film acknowledging that Long’s “courageous witness left a special legacy in the diocese, adding that “viewers should be warned that the film contains objectionable language, violence, and adult content.”
“However, it’s our hope that the redemptive story of Fr. Stu’s conversion will invite viewers to faith and strengthen believers,” the statement continues. Bishop George Thomas, who ordained Father Stu to the priesthood and Bishop Austin Vetter, the current Bishop of Helena agreed: “Father Stu – raw and unfiltered, combative and grace-filled, witnesses to the truth that no one is ever beyond the reach of redemption.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg