Priestly fiction

By  Michael Higgins
  • May 22, 2007
If you want to find a cipher for society’s attitude toward the Roman Catholic priest, look to the priest figure in fiction and popular culture.
For many years the priest and the religious leader (saints and prelates both) were treated with a mixture of respect and deference against a backdrop of mystique and remoteness. Writers such as Taylor Caldwell, A. J. Cronin, and Henry Morton Robinson tended to the reverential when writing of priests and worthy Catholic figures, both historical and biblical, but writers of greater skill and reputation, specifically Georges Bernanos and Francois Mauriac, saw the priest less as an icon and more as an alter christus, broken, flawed, human and struggling toward holiness.

The fiction of Graham Greene is especially interesting when examining the place of the priest if for no other reason than that the priest has played a central role in three of Greene’s novels: The Power and the Glory, The Honorary Consul and Monsignor Quixote. Greene never pulls his punches. His priests are not without heroism and faith but they are marginal men, riddled with guilt and doubt and possessed of a sense of deep unworthiness and failure. But we love them.

The priest in contemporary fiction is more broken still. Certainly in North America, Ireland and the United Kingdom, the priest of fiction is portrayed as a figure in crisis. The crisis is not necessarily spiritual in nature. More often it is sexual, with all kinds of consequences — social, legal and psychological. Given the pronounced loathing many priests feel is directed toward them precisely as priests, in view of the predator or emotionally dysfunctional figure made popular in the media because of the sex abuse scandals, it should come as no surprise that many novelists will simply incorporate a new priest caricature, displacing the conventional dotty-but-holy cleric of yesteryear with the manipulative and poisonous cleric of today.

Fortunately, there are exceptions. Glaswegian novelist Andrew O’Hagan has written a work of exquisite power in Be Near Me, the story of an English priest in his 50s, an esthete, Balliol-educated and Rome-trained, of respectable Catholic pedigree, a product of Ampleforth, the great Benedictine public school, cultivated in manner and taste, and adrift, seriously adrift. Fr. David Anderton finds himself in a Scottish town with a solicitous, blunt-speaking, unnervingly insightful housekeeper, parishioners who find him as much a puzzle as the congregations of industrial England must have found Gerard Manley Hopkins, local teachers who find his ways haughty and dismissive and an unwholesome pack of yobs who befriend him with appalling consequences.

Anderton knows a great deal more than those who surround him. But on one particular point his ignorance proves deadly. He is a man who loved once, shut down his emotions, transformed himself into a cerebral and witty companion to his impressively gifted mother, secure behind the carapace. But fissures appear. In the end, he comes to know himself as “just another person looking for faith in the cold night air.” The journey that brings him to this awareness is both wrenching and purifying.

I first heard of Ken Bruen’s novel, Priest, from reading Margaret Cannon’s detective fiction column in The Globe and Mail. Her brief comment on the latest Jack Taylor escapade, the Galway ex-Guard whose travails make Morse or Adam Dalgliesh look like softies, prompted me to hunt down the novel and I am glad that I did.

This is the first mystery novel, to my knowledge, that makes frequent (well, a couple of times) and favourable mention of the monk-writer Thomas Merton. What kind of ex-copper is this?

Although the protagonist is not a priest, he is marked by a history of priests who have crossed his path, a typical product of his generation. Bruen’s novel is set in the new Ireland, the Ireland known to the world as the Celtic Tiger, affluent, cocksure, entrepreneurial with a vengeance, rabidly anti-clerical in key decision-making sectors of society, increasingly disconnected from its agrarian and pious past, as much winning with its hospitality as it is deadly with its greed. Early in the novel, the perpetually anguished Taylor opines that “Ireland had changed irrevocably. In my youth, the clergy had been bulletproof. Now it seemed to be open season.” A decapitated Fr. Joyce proves the point.

Bruen chronicles the “massive fall from grace” of the priest in contemporary Ireland in a work that has a shamed and fallen Guard uncover more than iniquity in a day’s work. He discovers the terrible cost of love. There is something of the priestly in that, I’d say.

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