Even the most demanding movie critics consider It’s a Wonderful Life one of the best stories expressed in motion pictures that have ever been realized. For example, the famous Roger Ebert says about it, “it’s one of those ageless movies,” which “can be viewed an indefinite number of times.”
Without any hesitation, I can place this film – as well as the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, which served as the basis for its screenplay – alongside Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A film that not only warms our hearts but also helps us rethink the profound meanings of life. And this is true even – or especially – when we feel discouraged, lost, confused, hopeless, in a word, defeated. The story is so good that I can already announce that I won’t dedicate just one article to it but at least a dozen. For now, however, I will unveil one crucial aspect. An aspect that would make Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori happy.
Who among us did not feel, before last Christmas, a document like the Fiducia Supplicans hitting us like a terrible punch in the face?
The great power of prayer
Like the Book of Job, the film begins with a prologue in heaven. However, this comes only after we first hear the voices of several people praying. Both members of the protagonist’s family, George Bailey, and his acquaintances, raise their voices to Heaven for the much-needed help that the unfortunate George requires. Because he, put to the test by the collapse of the family business, “Bailey Brothers Building and Loan,” is ready to follow in the footsteps of Judas. Gripped by black despair, he contemplates suicide. The abyss of hell is ready to swallow him. Yet, someone prays... truly prays.
The prayer is presented absolutely brilliantly: precisely when needed and exactly as much as needed. We can easily assume that, although as a film director, producer, and screenwriter Frank Capra had what could be called a “successful life,” he had tough periods when he learned the invaluable value of prayer. Because he knows how to present not only fruitful prayer, the one that achieves its purpose, but also that terrible prayer which, instead of bringing deliverance, seems to attract the wrath of Heaven. The courage with which this disturbing aspect is exposed cannot be overlooked.
The scene is tough. Desperate because he cannot find the lost $8,000, after frantic searches, George is on the edge of the abyss. With cynicism, the powerful Henry Potter tells him straight up that he is worth more dead than alive – by cashing in on his life insurance, the lost money could have been replaced. Caught in the straits of a situation from which he sees no way out, George prays, prays in a way that you can only pray when your soul has become a cry for help:
“God... God... Dear Father in Heaven,
I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God.”
A good friend told me how, back when he wasn’t a believer, he found himself in a desperate situation, a situation comparable to that of George Bailey. Despite his lack of faith, driven by necessity and defeated by his own inability to get out of the impasse, he prayed in an incredible way:
“God, I don’t believe you exist, but if you exist, please help me!”
What I am telling you is not fiction; it is the testimony of a close acquaintance who is now Catholic. I mention this to illustrate that the things presented in the movie happen in our lives as well. I believe this is one of the reasons why we love this film so much.
Souls that fall into hell like ash flakes have this fate because “there are none to sacrifice themselves and to pray for them.”
So, in such a state of mind, convinced that all is lost, George Bailey prays. And then the most terrible thing imaginable happens: a man throws a vicious punch at him. The scene is constructed so well that the impression that Heaven responded to George with a punch in the face is inescapable. How many times in recent years have we all had the same impression watching how things go from bad to worse in the Church? Who among us did not feel, before last Christmas, a document like the Fiducia Supplicans hitting us like a terrible punch in the face? We all, in one way or another, are like George Bailey, struck down. And this, despite the fact that we are praying!
Humanly speaking, George is terminated. What else can he do? Nothing. Nothing that would save his business, his life, his family. The terrible conclusion seems to impose itself. Arriving above the frozen water, he looks down on what, in despair, seems to be the only solution: suicide. Of course, he is not fully aware that what he is looking at is not just the tumultuous river but the very gate of hell. What he doesn’t know is that Heaven was also ready to intervene through the angel named Clarence.
Fatima, the vision of hell and the essential lesson
During the fourth apparition at Fatina, on August 19, 1917, the Blessed Virgin Mary concluded by saying the following words to the three shepherds, Jacinta, Francesco and Lucia:
“Pray, pray very much, and make sacrifices for sinners; for many souls go to hell, because there are none to sacrifice themselves and to pray for them.”[i]
In addition to establishing the holy Communions of reparation on the five consecutive Saturdays, made in atonement for the sins of the world, these conclusive words during the fourth appearance contain the most important lesson: the absolute necessity of prayer for the salvation of souls. This supreme axiom of spiritual life is reinforced by the revelation of the consequences of the absence of prayer. Souls that fell into hell like ash flakes had this fate because “there are none to sacrifice themselves and to pray for them.”
All sufferings are allowed by God for one purpose: to pray with all our hearts, acknowledging with humility that without Him, we are lost. Without Him, we can do nothing.
Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori is the Saint and Doctor who insisted extraordinarily on the absolute importance of prayer. His axiom is radical: those who do not pray will not be saved. The explanations he provides, based on Saint Augustine and the Council of Trent, are crystal clear:
“It is true, says St. Augustine, that man, in consequence of his weakness, is unable to fulfill some of God’s commands with his present strength and the ordinary grace given to all men; but he can easily, by prayer, obtain such further aid as he requires for his salvation: ‘God commands not impossibilities, but by commanding he suggests to you to do what you can, to ask for what is beyond your strength; and he helps you, that you may be able.’ This is a celebrated text, which was afterwards adopted and made a doctrine of faith by the Council of Trent. The holy Doctor immediately adds, ‘Let us see whence?’ (i.e., how man is enabled to do that which he cannot). ‘By medicine he can do that which his natural weakness renders impossible to him.’ That is, by prayer we may obtain a remedy for our weakness; for when we pray, God gives us strength to do that which we cannot do of ourselves.”[ii]
If we are convinced that prayer is absolutely essential for our salvation, Saint Alphonsus – a true servant of the Holy Virgin Mary – shows how important prayer is for sinners by mentioning a mystical vision of Saint Maria Magdalena de Pazzi in which the Savior himself revealed the invaluable value of prayer:
“It is quite certain that the prayers of others are of great use to sinners, and are very pleasing to God; and God complains of His servants who do not recommend sinners to Him, as he once complained to St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi, to whom He said one day: ‘See, my daughter, how the Christians are in the devil’s hands; if my elect did not deliver them by their prayers they would be devoured’.”
Therefore, we see that the teachings of a saintly doctor like Alphonsus are in perfect harmony with what the Holy Virgin Mary stated at Fatima and with what Christ the Savior himself conveyed through Saint Maria Magdalena de Pazzi. Let’s now return to our movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.
After a new form of idolatry – “papolatry” – developed in recent centuries, we are now reminded that it is not the pope who saves us. God is the only and exclusive one who saves us. And the most challenging test of fidelity is when, after praying for so long, we receive a new blow: Fiducia Supplicans.
Why does God permit all of this?
Suspended from the bridge, George Bailey dangles above the infernal abyss. Unlike the souls that floated like flakes of ash to hell, he does not yet fall. Unseen strings support him. These are the graces obtained by those who pray for him, starting with his wife, Mary, and his children, Pete, Janie, Tommy, and Zuzu. They are joined by all those who have benefited from George’s help. And yet, why did God allow things to reach this point? Why did He not immediately heed George Bailey’s prayer but allowed him to be struck immediately after invoking heavenly help? We can apply the same question to our current situation: why does God allow heretical hierarchs and documents like Fiducia Supplicans? We already intuit the answer that Saints Augustine and Alphonsus Maria de Liguori would give us.
George Bailey embodies the fragility and weakness of fallen human beings. It is beyond his power to replace the lost money. He cannot redeem himself; he can do nothing. He is like the paralytic lying motionless in his bed. In the current situation of the struggling Church, we can say that each of us is George. Like him, we see and recognize our helplessness without being able to do anything. The situation we find ourselves in is beyond our abilities. We see nothing significant we can do to overcome the most terrible crisis in the entire history of Christianity. Similarly, we can find ourselves personally in situations comparable to George’s. In any case, all these are allowed by God for one purpose: to pray with all our hearts, acknowledging with humility that without Him, we are lost. Without Him, we can do nothing. Indeed, Jesus Christ himself told us directly:
“Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
After a new form of idolatry – “papolatry” – developed in recent centuries, we are now reminded that it is not the pope who saves us. God is the only and exclusive one who saves us. And the most challenging test of fidelity is when, after praying for so long, we receive a new blow: Fiducia Supplicans. And who knows what will come next? Despite these things, we must not despair. Instead, let us remember what the supreme means of salvation is: prayer. But let us not just remember it externally; let us become what, unfortunately, George Bailey admitted he was not: “I’m not a praying man.” Is it not because of this that God allowed him to be struck before providing decisive help?
Although I have not yet found any interviews (or other sources) in which Frank Capra talks about the Fatima apparition, it seems quite likely that he was aware of it. In any case, I am sure that during the terrible period when he had to work in the most difficult conditions to support his family, he prayed in situations bordering on despair. His film perfectly illustrates this teaching conveyed by the Queen of Heaven and Earth, the Holy Virgin Mary, in the fourth Fatima apparition. So, in addition to its intrinsic artistic qualities, the moral beauty of the story makes It’s a Wonderful Life a film worth watching not only during the Christmas season but whenever we feel discouraged, abandoned, and devoid of hope. And then, in our prayers for all those we know above the abyss, just as George Bailey was on the bridge, let us add at a Pater Noster and an Ave Maria for the souls of Frank Capra and those who created a masterpiece that still warms and consoles our hearts today.
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[i] I quote the text from the official website of the Shrine of Fatima: https://www.fatima.pt/en/pages/narrative-of-the-apparitions- [Accessed: 24 January 2024]
[ii] Saint Alphonsus de Liguori, The Great Means of Salvation and of Perfection, New York – Cincinnati – Saint Louis: Benzinger Brothers, 1886, p. 30.