A Classic Movie with a Timeless Message

Greg Asimakoupoulos interviews Karolyn Grimes about her role in The Bishop’s Wife

Last month was Breast Cancer Awareness month. But for the last twenty-five years or so, October has also been observed as Pastor Appreciation Month. Churches throughout the country look for tangible ways to recognize pastors and priests for the contribution they make in our lives.

Needless-to-say, clergy serve on the frontlines of warring factors in our culture. They play a significant role in combatting injustice and self-destructive tendencies. Often, however, their efforts are overlooked. Their attempts at compassion are easily camouflaged. At the retirement community where I serve as chaplain, we recently invited area clergy to our campus and honored them with a special lunch and a small gift. They were grateful.

Having been in the ministry for more than four decades, I know firsthand the joys and challenges pastors face week in and week out year after year. Someone has aptly stated that the clergy person’s rewards are out of this world. But the struggles he or she faces are very much in the here-and-now.

One of those challenges common to the typical clergyman is taming the inner beast known as ego. What pastor or priest has not wanted to grow his congregation or parish? What person of the cloth has not looked for tangible ways to earn the respect and recognition of his or her peers? Who of them has not known the hunger for power and influence that becomes insatiable at times?

While that unhealthy hunger is hardly abnormal, it is also hardly new. The lust for power and recognition has cost too many celebrity pastors their reputation. The inner conflict that can destroy the gifted has been dramatized on the silver screen over the decades.

One of those films celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.  “The Bishop’s Wife” starring David Niven, Loretta Young and Cary Grant portrays the inner struggle of an ambition-driven cleric. Although this timeless picture was remade in 1996 as “The Preacher’s Wife” (with Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington), there is no replacing the original. I ought to know. “The Bishop’s Wife” is this chaplain’s wife’s favorite Christmas film. We watch it every year.

One of the actors in “The Bishop’s Wife” is a friend of mine. Karolyn Grimes, who played the part of Debby (the Bishop’s young daughter) is now eighty-two years old. Karolyn was also in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (my favorite Christmas movie) as George Bailey’s daughter Zuzu. Having spent time with Karolyn, I know that playing the role of the bishop’s daughter was a highlight of her young acting career.

Curiously, Karolyn once told me that David Niven (who portrayed the ego-motivated minister in “The Bishop’s Wife”) had his own struggles as an actor. He didn’t like children. Karolyn related much better to Cary Grant, whose angelic role on screen was replicated in real life.

As with Frank Capra’s “Wonderful” film about Mary Bailey’s husband George, “The Bishop’s Wife” deals with a dark plot. In both black-and-white classics, we see desperate men calling on God for guidance. In the underrated movie that exposes the over-ambitious clergyman, the film ends with a redemptive conclusion. The bishop discovers his identity is not tied to the construction of a new cathedral. Instead, he finds (with the help of an angel) that his life and ministry is most fulfilled by serving those most in need of his care. And those include his wife and daughter.

As one who has tasted the sweet (but forbidden) fruit of ambition, I understand the seductive nature of success. A bout with clinical depression thirty years ago proved to be the reality check I needed. An undisciplined ego demands a high cost. Examining my motives, I determined to invest my limited energy in those around me. As a result, this chaplain’s wife can attest to my contentment and hers.

And so, I commend to you “The Bishop’s Wife.” This movie celebrating a milestone anniversary offers a glimpse of the humanity of those clothed in holy garb. But it also reminds us that investing in people (and not brick-and-mortar) results in the most lasting value.

Greg’s book,
Wonderful Life
is listed on the
BOOKS menu
at $16.50
Lulu Books.

Greg’s book,
Finding God in
It’s a Wonderful Life
is listed on the
BOOKS menu
at $2.99-$14.99
Lulu Books.