Pawn Sacrifice

Posted on 08. Feb, 2016 by in Priests

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In spite of Bobby Fischer’s uncertain (if any) religious background (his mother was of Jewish blood and under investigation for alleged Communist sympathies during Bobby’s formative years), in Pawn Sacrifice, his mentor, aide, and second, was Bill Lombardy, then an active priest, portrayed in the movie at times wearing priest street dress or a cassock, but the truthfulness of that portrayal is to be doubted. (A period photo of him together with Fischer at a chessboard has Bill in civilian clothes.) Lombardy’s relationship with Fischer preceded his entry to the priesthood.

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Factual accounts of Lombardy’s personal involvement with Fischer have it that he asked for and was granted an extended sabbatical by his superiors in the Church in order to accompany Fischer while on tour during the time his famous match with Boris Spassky was played.  If Pawn Sacrifice’s portrayal of how that tour went was true, it was anything but a vacation for Lombardy, who serevd as a companion goat to the thoroughbred Fischer, who became increasingly paranoid and prima donna. Lombardy is shown in the movie agreeing with Fischer’s family members that Fischer had mental health issues, but to seek conventional treatment by means of medication would be “pouring concrete into a holy well”. Here, an active priest of today, Fr. John Barry, sums up the meat of the movie Pawn Sacrifice:

Maguire delivers as the troubled character Bobby Fisher, brilliant in 
chess, but so personally disturbed and mentally anguished.  The build up 
of the film, and of chess king Fisher's life, was to play the Russians 
and the great Boris Spassky, in showdown games.   Actor Liev Schrieber 
play Spassky, first coldly, then as a interested study of his opponent 
Fisher, who is so unpredictable to him, and one to be pitied for the 
misery that afflicts his talented rival across the board and from across
the ocean in America.   Spassky is the face of Communism to Fisher, who 
greatly dislikes it, so some agent of the American government 'recruits' 
Fisher him to 'win a world war III' cold-war battle of USA vs. Russia by
saying that his taking a chess championship away from Spassky is his
'patriotic duty.'  Fisher is all in.   His listening to doomsday 
Christianity radio and tapes feeds this act-like-it's-the-end-of-the-
world viewpoint to Bobby.  
 
Enter in the character in the film of Fr. Bill (Lombardy). He is a whole 
different and sane and mature and faith-filled man to walk into Bobby 
Fisher's life.  Fr. Bill is a smart chess player, too, and knows all the 
moves and lingo of the game, and becomes the coach/advisor to Bobby.  
Lombardy actually had won against Fisher in chess, which Fisher 
remembers and respects.  (Lombardy also was an International Grandmaster 
who finished second to Fischer in the 1961 US Championship.)  He is now 
Fr. Bill.  He will come and try to help the genius but greatly mentally- 
disturbed Fisher (paranoia) to not beat himself, but attain his goal of 
winning against Spassky.   The character of Bill, played wondrously by 
Catholic actor Peter Saarsgard, shows a priest serving in a good light.  
He is non-judgmental, yet firm in care.  He is caring for Bobby's 
humanity, and relating person-to-person with him, every sharing a 
cigarette or drink or an earthy word or two with him.  Bobby sees him
as a real person, and eventually as the only one he can believe just 
really cares for him, without strings attached. 

When Fr. Bill seems exasperated with his task of helping Bobby (as 
Fisher gets worse and worse in his paranoia), you see the priest getting 
out his rosary calling on help from Holy Mary.  I liked seeing that 
scene, of course.

The film has its usual language and sexually-risqué PG-13 content, but 
it doesn't ruin the story, because it comes from a true one (which 
exhibited these things).  
Since the film is based on real history, I wondered about where Fr. 
Bill is these days. Four decades later, Fr. Bill Lombardy is not an 
active priest.  I looked it up to see if he was a retired Jesuit. 
Alas, he was one of many in the turbulent times of the priesthood to 
leave it.  Yet, the kind of priest he was serving as, back in those 
times, was of a priest shepherd out caring for a lost sheep.