‘Irreplaceable’: Must-see documentary on family to screen in theaters May 6

COLORADO SPRINGS. Next September, Pope Francis is going to make his first visit to the United States as pontiff, and the primary occasion of his visit is to attend the World Meeting of Families. Because the Church sees the family as a “domestic church” that is at the foundation of society, much attention will be paid to the many issues surrounding the ups and downs of family life that everyone—not just people of faith—experiences.

For decades, Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs has been an ally of the Catholic Church with its may outreaches to build stronger Christian families. Their latest effort, “The Family Project,” is their most ambitious yet and will include a dozen feature-length documentaries and study guides.

The opening documentary of this project, “Irreplaceable,” will screen across the country for one night only on May 6. “Irreplaceable” host Tim Sisarich travels the globe to answer the question: “What is Family?” The film explores the desire to belong that each person has and how that longing is fulfilled in the family.

Focus on the Family recently screened “Irreplaceable” for Bishop Michael Sheridan, Herald staff and the diocesan Office of Marriage and Family Life. Bishop Sheridan called the film “more than a documentary.”

“Does family matter? Does the life-long union of one man and one woman in marriage matter? Do children born and raised by a father and a mother matter? ‘Irreplaceable’ seeks and finds the answers to these questions — questions that are critical for the preservation of our culture and our society,” he said in an official endorsement. “‘Irreplaceable’ is a deeply moving look at marriage and family and the reasons why they must be preserved.”

Below is a conversation with Focus’ director for family formation studies Glenn Stanton, who is also a cowriter of “Irreplaceable” and a member of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Colorado Springs.

THE COLORADO CATHOLIC HERALD: How would you describe the state of the family now, and where does The Family Project engage this?

GLENN STANTON: Few would disagree with the fact that the family has undergone tremendous change in the past four or five decades, perhaps more than all the millennia prior. And only a few think these changes have been good save for those who believe anything that challenges the “mom-dad-and-the-kids” model is a positive development.

These folks are few, but unfortunately influential. Their fruit has spoiled; what we do know, indisputable from the social sciences, is that none of these changes with the form of family — divorce, cohabitation, fatherlessness, sexual expressiveness — have been able to provide personal or community well-being like the married mother/father model does and has. In fact, they each fall far short in dramatic and harmful ways. This is not acceptable for anyone who thinks the “love your neighbor” ethic of sociability is desirable.

So The Family Project, which Focus on the Family has been hard at work on for a few years now, is an effort to carefully and colorfully show what family is given God’s own personal nature as well as his design for humanity. It is captured in looking at God’s story from pre-creation to culmination. We start by examining the most basic needs for every human — intimacy and the need for a sense of significance — and how these are clues to understand both God and his gift of family. And we hope people will learn so much about God, themselves, their neighbors and families from there. We are excited about it.

The big intellectual push these days is that the traditional family is just one of many forms of family. “Irreplaceable” effectively lays out why this is not a healthy view. Why does the traditional family need to be fought for as the model in society?

Indeed, an a la carte approach to family rules the day — take whatever appeals to you, disregard what doesn’t. Nothing except personal desire matters — “to thine own heart be true.” Culturally, this view is absolutely novel and experimental. And “Irreplaceable” tells the story of how dramatic these changes with family have been and the troubling impact they are having on our collective human and social health. It is a film that offers both a stark and educated wake-up call, but also hope, which is further given in The Family Project small group curriculum which is the follow-up to “Irreplaceable.”

The messages given by both projects are essential because we need to know that the “irreplaceableness” of family is first a God-based reality and therefore a sociological and anthropological one. The current and long-term health of any nation, village or people is directly correlated to the health and robustness of its families. It is as sure a natural force as gravity and our recent history is just one bit of evidence among many proving the fact.

The film’s site says: “Each one of us has a desire for significance — a desire to belong. And the family is where those deepest longings are fulfilled.” Can you elaborate on that desire and those deepest longings?

This likeness is no coincidence. The teaching in this project is very influenced in the glorious picture of God and humanity presented to us in the deeply biblical “Theology of the Body.” It starts looking at universal human needs, not because man is the center of all things, but quite the opposite.

We start by looking at what is common to all people through all times because it’s these that point to whose image we are created in. Any human being can be lavishly cared for with the finest foods, drink, clothes and housing, but if they don’t have access to intimacy and closeness with another human being or a sense of significance in their life and work, they will either actually die or actually go insane.

Think about what prisons do as a last resort to unruly inmates. Think about the Romanian orphans who were never held or talked to. Concentration camps, to break people down, keep them isolated and either don’t give them any work to do or give them meaningless work; move this pile of rocks to over there and then back, day after day. It is absolute torture and has nothing to do with the physicality of the work. People need to know their lives are contributing to something that is helpful to others. And consider that it is in family where every human being starts to receive and learn how to do both of these things. No other social institute can provide them like family does. And this is because God’s fundamental essence is relational as Trinity. And the Trinity dwells in significance eternally. As His image-bearers, we are made in an earthly, physical and spiritual sense for these things.

Who is this film for? Is it mostly for Protestants or a wider group?

That’s an important question. It is both for the believers and those who are interested in learning why our hearts are like they are and why loneliness and a sense of futility hurt so badly. We have created it for Christians to gain a deeper and fuller understanding of their God, His story, and our common faith. But it is also carefully written and created to speak meaningfully to those who have no experience with church, Scripture or Christianity. This initial appeal to universal human needs is so important. It speaks to everyone at their deepest core and starts from there. And we also make great use of classical and modern art in telling the story. Beauty is a powerful and universal language that speaks to each of us in very personal ways.

In what ways can the local diocese embrace this project?

We hope that it will serve as a strong and helpful resource in local catechesis and evangelization which is the work of each diocese, parish and individual Christian. We pray this will be a unique tool in the hands of clergy and laity alike in doing this work in this unique and challenging age. Toward that end, it intentionally features leading Catholic, evangelical, Orthodox and Jewish thinkers and practitioners as experts.

A few years ago, the citizens of Colorado passed an amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Yet they were legislated around by civil union supporters the last couple of years. What words of encouragement do you have for folks who are disheartened by the political attacks to redefine the family?

Goodness, it seems as if any real word of encouragement pales in the face of the absolute steamrolling we’re seeing and experiencing in this radical redefinition of the family today. In fact, the changes we’ve seen in the last few months have been astounding in terms of speed and scope. We have tough days ahead and that should not be missed or dismissed, particularly regarding our convictional and religious freedom as citizens. But two things are sure and I think are related.

One, God is sovereign and His hands are very much on the wheel. We must never forget that all seemed drastically lost on Good Friday, but Sunday came in power. Such is the foundation of Christianity. But second, it is also Satan’s MO to over-reach. His self-absorption cannot prevent it. And we see an extreme over-reaching in the movement to overthrow God’s design for marriage. It boldly denies that the gendered-distinct nature of humanity and family matters in any way. It says that the freedom to disagree with their proposal cannot and should not exist in our democracy.

Proclaim your support for man-woman marriage and you get your business slimmed and attacked just like Chick-Fil-A and hundreds of smaller businesses. Support marriage protection efforts with your time or money and lose your position in the company you started as this recent Mozilla incident (where the CEO resigned over his opposition to same-sex marriage). The belief that children have a right to a mother and father and any speech or action in support of that conviction is viciously branded as “hate-speech.” I think such incivility and extremism will show itself for what it is.

What did you learn in the making of this film and curriculum that changed how you see your own family?

Well, it has been an incredibly rich process and experience for all of us who have worked on the project. Beyond increasing my conviction on how much family matters and why, it gave me a needed kick-in-the-pants to fight for my family and those around me.

And in a very encouraging sense, I learned that the best kinds of families are those who live honestly with their warts, bruises and struggles. This is where God does most of his greatest works in our lives. The worst kinds are those who pretend and want you to believe they have it all together. They are not only living a myth, but a deception. “Perfect Christian families” are oxymoronic. They have no need of Jesus because they have no need for redemption, the very business that Jesus is in.

God’s heart is not for perfect families, but for those limping — if not being carried — along the path of redemption, forgiveness, hope and grace. Who doesn’t need that good news today?

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”