Theology of Carla Tortelli

I was blessed to spend last week as one of the spiritual directors for the Pontifical North American College’s pre-ordination retreat. I was humbled and deeply impressed by the sincerity and generosity of the young men preparing for ordination to the diaconate next week. I thought I’d share the homily I gave on one of the weekdays during the retreat. The Gospel for the day was:

The mother of Jesus and his brothers came to him
but were unable to join him because of the crowd.
He was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside
and they wish to see you.”
He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers 
are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”

Luke 8:19-21

Many years ago, in the previous century, before streaming, when you could watch TV on one of three different channels–then four with Fox and maybe Channel 9 if you adjusted the antenna just right–there existed a neighborhood bar in Boston where everybody knew your name, and they were always glad you came because, well, troubles were all the same.

At that bar, Cheers, there worked a waitress, Carla Tortelli. Carla was a hardboiled Sicilian who didn’t take guff or prisoners. Carla was a Catholic, but she was not, let us say, in the running to be the mascot for the year of mercy.

Boston, 2014

On one episode of Cheers, Carla’s son decided to become a priest. Carla was thrilled because according to her belief, a priest’s mother automatically went to heaven. The rest of the episode, Carla behaves like a monster–spilling beer on the mailman Cliff Claven, being even more crass toward her customers than usual–because she can. She has a get-into-heaven-free card.

At the end of the episode, after a discernment that reached the right result after a less than ideal process, Carla’s son changes his mind. And the joke is on Carla, who suddenly becomes very, very contrite.

Now I doubt that that the creators of Cheers were trying to make a theological point. But if they had been, it would be roughly the same as that of the Gospel. There are no tricks, no coupons, no short cuts, no employee discounts, no secret code, no family coattails, no special line for frequent flyers, to get around the demands of discipleship.

Yet from the days of the Gospel to the days of Carla Tortelli, we have sought such shortcuts. Perhaps understandably. The path of discipleship is narrow, we are told, and the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

If there is no work-around, then, what is there? There is the psalm. Think about the verse we have just repeated: “Guide me, Lord, in the way of your commands.”

It is a prayer for help, a prayer for grace. God does not give us a work-around because he is on the path of the cross. So it is never a way we walk alone or without a guide, without a companion.

And if we can–if we must–ask for help on the way, so much the better. Because that is what companionship means. How much better a companion and a guide than a free ticket.

So we might say to the Carla Tortelli in ourselves: ask for help, ask for grace, ask for mercy–just ask. Teach me your commandments, Lord. Guide me in the way of your commands. Nudge me back onto the way when I start to slip or get lazy. Pick me up when I fall off completely and end up face-down in the ditch by the roadside.

Ask, and ask again.

Because the way is narrow, but every step of it is surrounded by mercy.

Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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