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Mark Wahlberg says 'Father Stu' reflects own path to faith, healing: 'Every sinner has a future'

Father Stu
Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson star in "Father Stu." |

Mark Wahlberg is on a mission to share one important truth with the world: Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.

It was this mentality that compelled him to produce, star in — and even fund — “Father Stu,” a film based on the true story of Stuart Long, a bad-boy boxer-turned-priest who lived out God’s calling on his life despite tremendous obstacles, including opposition from his family, the Catholic Church, and even his own health. 

In an interview with The Christian Post, the 50-year-old actor said that in his own life, he’s seen how God uses the broken and battered to share His message of redemption and hope. 

“[God is] looking for the people who have real experience and can appreciate being touched and given another chance,” Wahlberg reflected. “That's why Stu is so effective. He had an authenticity and credibility when he spoke to people; they knew that he had been in their shoes at one time or another. It's one thing to be book smart, another thing to have real street smarts and real-life experience. I've always found that invaluable when playing roles and trying to be as authentic as possible in my portrayal of parts that I've played.”

Not coincidentally, "Father Stu" opened in theaters on Wednesday during Holy Week, ending on Easter Sunday. Rated R, the film also stars Jacki Weaver and Mel Gibson as Stu's estranged parents.

Wahlberg sees Stu's life as paralleling his own. The actor is the first to say he understands firsthand the power of redemption. 

Before becoming one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actors, husband and devoted father-of-four, Wahlberg was a troubled teen who served 45 days in jail for assaulting two Asian men in an attempted robbery turned hate crime. The Boston native struggled with an addiction to cocaine and was, in his own words, “an absolute trainwreck.”

The Academy Award-nominated actor, who today runs a foundation that helps troubled youth, is quick to credit his faith — he’s a devout Catholic — with helping him turn his life around.

“All the real-life things that I have been through, I want to share, and I want to let people know that you know what, it's OK. Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. So we're trying to encourage people and let them know that we’re not giving up on them. Nobody's beyond redemption.”

Despite its heavy religious overtones, “Father Stu” is not a faith-based movie; it’s rated R for language due to a heavy sprinkling of “F” bombs and other crude language. But its approach to suffering — Stu is diagnosed with a debilitating illness, survives a devastating car accident and endures verbal abuse from his father — reflects Romans 12:12 in a way few overtly faith-based films do. 

After years of opposition from the Catholic Church and his family, Stu was finally ordained. However, he was only a priest for four years before dying at an assisted-living facility in Montana in 2014 at 50.

“We shouldn't pray for an easy life, but for strength to endure a difficult one,” Stu poignantly says at one point in the film. 

Wahlberg, who suffered the loss of his mother who died during the pandemic and when “Father Stu” was being filmed, said it was important for him to highlight the kind of sanctification that can only come through suffering. 

“If you’re lucky enough to get old, [suffering is] pretty inevitable,” he said. “There are difficulties, even if it's not something you're feeling physically, you're suffering a loss around you. I've suffered so much loss in a very short amount of time with my mom and my sister and many friends, especially during the pandemic and COVID. But it gives me hope that there is a better place. All of those things just give me comfort, and to see Stu handle all the things that he had faced with such dignity and grace is really inspiring.”

For Wahlberg, “Father Stu” was a passion project. He learned of Stu’s story seven years ago while having dinner with two priests. The project took six years to develop, and eventually, the actor decided to partially finance the film out of his own pocket to help get it off the ground. 

Though making the film was personally transformative, Wahlberg is the first to admit it was anything but easy. 

“God works in mysterious ways,” he said. “[My faith was] was tested many times throughout the process because we were in the middle of COVID in a pandemic; I had never missed church for well over a decade and I couldn't go to church anymore. I was just dealing with things that I had never dealt with.”

“But,” he continued, “once I got that opportunity to make the movie ... it just kind of reaffirmed what I should be doing and how I should be doing it. People always ask me why I’m so disciplined and I keep this routine, and is it really necessary? It is necessary for me, it's necessary for me to stay on point and be focused on what I need to do both personally and professionally.”

Teresa Ruiz stars in the film as Stu's love interest, Carmen. Stu is initially drawn to church after meeting Carmen, a beautiful Sunday School teacher. It's her witness that in part inspires Stu to convert to Catholicism and become a priest. 

Ruiz, herself a devout Catholic, echoed Wahlberg’s sentiment that even after his death, Stu’s life and testimony continue to impact those that encounter it. 

“We started from a basic human experience that every woman can relate to. And then from there, went to all of the spiritual meanings and all of the larger themes of vocation and faith,” she said. “It made me feel more rooted after doing ‘Father Stu,’ because I felt like it was a movie that … sometimes you questioned [your faith] a little bit because it might be uncool, or the world out there preaches a lot of other stuff. And for me, doing ‘Father Stu,’ having that community really helped me feel at peace with what I believe.” 

And for Wahlberg, “Father Stu” isn’t his first or last foray into the world of faith-themed filmmaking. In increasingly divided times, he said, he believes audiences need the kind of hope that only comes from the Gospel. 

“I was just so excited to do something that really, really meant something to me, and I knew would impact everybody who saw it,” he said, adding that in the future, he’s going to create more content in the same vein. 

“Hopefully, lots of great projects will come to me; I can help others get their stories out there. This is something that I'll definitely revisit. It was a wonderful experience; there’s nothing better than to see a movie that really impacts somebody in a positive way, especially in these needy times where people are really struggling.

“People are questioning their own faith and losing hope,” he added. “And so, encouraging people not to give up on themselves and let them know we're not giving up on them either, it’s very important.”

Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: leah.klett@christianpost.com

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