The Gospel of Tony Soprano

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“Sopranos” star James Gandolfini visits with service members and civilians on Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, March 29, 2010 during a USO tour. (VPhoto Credit: U.S. Military/SSG Ian M. Terry)

 

by Father Edward L. Beck
CNN Faith and Religion Commentator

(CNN) — The only time I met James Gandolfini, we talked about God.

It was a chance meeting at the Broadway play “God of Carnage,” in which he was acting. I went backstage to see someone else but was introduced to James.

When he heard that I was a priest he laughed and said, “Gee, Father, I hope you didn’t think this was a play about God.”

“No, I didn’t,” I said, “but I was surprised to find out that it actually was.”

He looked perplexed by my answer, hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Well, we’ll have to talk about that sometime.”

Of course, we never did. It was the first and last time I saw him.

I had, however, seen him many times on television in one of my favorite shows, “The Sopranos.”

Perhaps it’s unwise for a Catholic priest to admit being a “Sopranos” fan, but I confess to having used it more than once as fodder for a Sunday homily. I happen to think it was one of the most spiritual shows on television. Had I told James that, he might have been as surprised as he was by my “God of Carnage” quip.

Tony Soprano was every man – and maybe every woman, too. That’s why we tuned in week after week– because we saw ourselves reflected, and we wanted to find out how we would turn out.

While most of us have never belonged to the mob or killed anybody, we’ve all done things about which we are not proud, things we hope nobody finds out about.

Yes, we are basically good people, but we have a darker side, too. We try to hide it or dress it up, but every once in a while it emerges, perhaps does some damage, and then recedes to the recesses of our lives until our next stumble. Kind of like Tony.

Despite his occasional murder or infidelity, most of us thought Tony was a pretty good guy. We thought he only roughed up the bad guys who chose to put themselves in harm’s way with their profession choice.

We believed he loved his wife, even though he cheated on her. We trusted he cared about his kids, even though it was sometimes with the back of his hand and punctuated with the “f” word.

Yes, Tony was a mass of contradictions, but that’s why we liked him. He made us feel better about our own contradictory lives because they seemed angelic in comparison to his.

There’s precedent for dubious heroes in the Scriptures, too. Many of the biblical boldface names led lives that were hardly free of moral ambiguity.

Abraham pretends his wife is his sister and proffers her for sex to powerful kings. Noah drank too much. Lot offers his virgin daughter to be gang-raped. David was an adulterer and murderer, Samson was a Lothario, too. And Moses was a murderer with a self-esteem problem.

Yet despite their glaring peccadilloes, they are heroes for us because God uses them despite their foibles, writes straight with crooked lines and all that.

There’s a scene in “The Sopranos” where Tony’s son A.J., quoting the German philosopher Nietzsche, solemnly proclaims that “God is dead.” As a result, A.J. tells Tony that he doesn’t want to get confirmed in the Catholic Church.

Tony, knowing that his churchgoing and priest-befriending wife, Carmela, would have none of that, says, “You go to Catholic school. And your mother wants it. … She knows that even if God is dead, you’re still going to kiss his ass.”

That’s our Tony, profane and to the point. We cheer for him all the more because, even though he messes up his own life, he tries his best to make sure his kids don’t mess up theirs. “Do as I say, not as I do.” How many of us have heard that sage advice from our doting parents?

Reports about the final day of James Gandolfini’s life seem to show a person who lived large, literally and figuratively.

If we are to believe The New York Post (and I don’t always), Gandolfini partook of a bacchanal feast of four shots of rum, two pina coladas, two beers, plus two orders of fried king prawns and a lot of foie gras.

But lest our final memory of him be marred by his seeming fall into the sin of gluttony, we are told that he had just come from touring the Vatican.

Sounds like something Tony would do.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Father Edward L. Beck.

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