He was a bad priest, he knew it: they had a word for his kind--a whisky priest--but every failure dropped out of sight and out of mind: somewhere they accumulated in secret--the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the sources of grace.
I had to read this book. One day, through God's grace, I would like to be a published author--a Catholic author--and it seemed unacceptable that I hadn't read what is considered the most well-known work of Catholic fiction: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene.
I have already read one work by Greene, namely his Heart of the Matter. In the end, he sold me. I was a fan, even though for most of the book I couldn't understand how it was an explicitly Catholic novel. But from the perspective of the final page, I could see the Catholic elements woven through and was struck by the unadorned veracity of the prose and the haunting gravitas of Greene's theme.
A paragraph into The Power and the Glory, I was thrilled to revisit Greene. What I appreciated most about this author was present yet again, perhaps even more so, along with a suspenseful narrative that made this an unfortunately fast read. I raced to finish it, desiring to know the fate of the principle character, and--while satisfied with the ending--was disappointed to have come to the conclusion. At least there is still The End of the Affair!
Greene, a British author, chose somewhat exotic locations for the settings of some of his books. Greene visited Mexico in 1938 to learn first-hand about the Catholic persecution occurring there. In some states, churches were closed and priests were forced to marry. Greene later described what he observed as the "fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth."
The background of the book, therefore, is this severe persecution. The protagonist is a priest on the run. He is the sole remaining priest in the state and the police, led by an unnamed lieutenant, are vowed and determined to hunt him down.
The priest and lieutenant, the principle characters, are without proper name. Such an anonymity provides a universality to their characters--perhaps anyone of us could be the face of the priest, or of the lieutenant. Both are types.
The priest does receive a nickname, however: the whisky priest. It's an adjective that illuminates his complex character. On the one hand, there is the priest. An ordained minister, part of the apostolic succession, he is alter Christus, ipse Christus (another Christ, Christ Himself). After receiving Holy Orders, an indelible mark is imprinted upon his soul: he is no longer just a man, but a holy priest of God. And as a priest, he is a servant to God's people.
This is precisely why he cannot simple escape into another adjacent state. He must remain, because he is a priest.
"But can't you," she said logically, "just give yourself up?"
He had answers as plain and understandable as her questions. He said: "There's the pain. To choose pain like that--it's not possible. And it's my duty not to be caught. You see, my bishop is no longer here." Curious pedantries moved him. "This is my parish...In Mexico City now they are saying Benediction. The bishop's there...Do you imagine he ever thinks...? They don't even know I'm alive."
She said: "Of course you could--renounce."
"I don't understand."
"Renounce your faith," she said, using the words of her European History.
He said: "It's impossible. There's no way. I'm a priest. It's out of my power."
The child listened intently. She said: "Like a birthmark."
The Mexican people hunger for God. As the priest ventures into their towns, they flock to him to have their confessions heard and children baptized. For some, it had been years since they received absolution of their sins. The priest--exhausted, famished, feverish, and under the duress of police pursuit--administers the sacraments to them.
...soon the police would reach the clearing where his mule had sat down under him and he had washed in the pool. The Latin words ran into each other on his hasty tongue: he could feel the impatience all round him. He began the Consecration of the Host...; impatience abruptly died away: everything in time became routine but this--"Who the day before He suffered took Bread into His holy and venerable hands..." Whoever moved outside on the forest path, there was no movement here--"Hoc est enim Corpus Meum." He could hear the sigh of breaths released: God was here in the body for the first time in six years. When he raised the Host he could imagine the faces lifted like famished dogs'.
When the priest speaks the words of consecration, it is Christ who is speaking and Christ fully present in the host held between his fingers.
As I read these passages, I couldn't help but consider how incredibly blessed I am to have Mass offered multiple times per day, just a few minutes from my home. Christ comes to me daily. Do I really treasure and contemplate the greatness of this gift? Do I hunger for this spiritual food, or does it become mere routine?
Indeed, the priest is a holy man of God. But Greene's priest is also a whisky priest.
In many ways, the protagonist is an anti-hero. He is a self-professed bad priest. Quite likely an alcoholic, he has an inordinate fondness for brandy. He is also the father of an illegitimate child. Guilt and sorrow grip him as he flees from the authorities. He is, after all, the only priest left. Mortal sin weighs upon his soul, but there is no one to hear his confession.
The priest's journey across the state in a game of cat and mouse with the police is also a profound spiritual journey. Greene's novel was also published in the United States under the title The Labyrinthine Ways. The priest's journey toward God is very labyrinthine indeed--sometimes approaching that inner room where God dwells, only to veer off again to the edge where sin and darkness dwell. But all the time there is suffering.
The suffering the priest must endure is truly a refiner's fire. It changes him. Illustratively, the lieutenant has a picture of the priest on his wall to identify him, taken from a First Communion at the priest's parish years ago. But now, after his journeying through the wild, the priest looks nothing like he used to--gone is the portly, self-possessed man.
That is why I tell you that heaven is here: this is a part of heaven just as pain is a part of pleasure...Pray that you will suffer more and more and more. Never get tired of suffering. The police watching you, the soldiers gathering taxes, the beating you always get from the jefe because you are too poor to pay, smallpox and fever, hunger...that is all part of heaven--the preparation. Perhaps without them--who can tell?--you wouldn't enjoy heaven so much.
For most of the novel, I desired to see the priest reach safety. He is, after all, a relatable, sympathetic character. Which one of us can't see ourselves in him: a person flawed, somewhat broken, sinful yet trying to strive for what is good and true? I wanted the best for him. And then, surprisingly, I got my wish. The priest, remarkably, under the very nose of the lieutenant, escaped! Freedom was just within his grasp!
The suffering removed, the whisky priest immediately began to descend the slippery, sinful slope back to what he used to be. For example, he begins calculating how much brandy he can purchase, based on the number of children needing to be baptized.
Then I saw. The point was never about the priest escaping from the police; it was about his escape from sin, from Satan. I began to desire that the priest be caught. The suffering was making him better; he needed it. We need it.
He was a man who was supposed to save souls: it had seemed quite simple once, preaching at Benediction, organizing the guilds, having coffee with elderly ladies behind barred windows, blessing new houses with a little incense, wearing black gloves...it was as easy as saving money: now it was a mystery. He was aware of his own desperate inadequacy .
About to take the road to freedom, the priest is confronted by a Judas figure with a message. The other criminal the police had been tracking (a murderer) is on his deathbed and desires to have his confession heard. The priest goes, knowing it is his death sentence. He goes in the effort to save the soul of the criminal, but the question remains: can the priest save his own soul?
And that becomes the central question of the novel: is the priest saved in the end? He is captured by the police, but that is of little matter ultimately. Is he saved from his sin?
Tears poured down his face: he was not at the moment afraid of damnation--even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted--to be a saint.
I think the greatest lesson of the book comes back to this point. Greene entitled his novel The Power and the Glory. Well, whose power? Whose glory? The phrase is taken from the doxology proclaimed after the conclusion of the Our Father at Mass. We pray, "For Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever, amen."
The power and the glory belong to God and--this is key--are manifested profoundly and powerfully even in the sinful, imperfect, muddied hands of the whisky priest. There is a Latin phrase ex opere operato, meaning "by the work worked." The sacraments confer grace solely because of the power of God; they are not dependent on the disposition or sanctity of the priest.
We are all weak instruments, but we are each made in God's image. This is what the whisky priest comes to see. As he spends a dismal night in a cramped, dank prison cell with fellow inmates, he comes to love and have compassion for those around him. God was present in each one of those prisoners, even though His image had been sullied and twisted and deformed through sin.
...at the centre of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery--that we were made in God's image--God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge. Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard or contorted itself like a camel in the attitude of sex. He would sit in the confessional and hear the complicated and dirty ingenuities which God's image had thought out: and God's image shook now, up and down on the mule's back, with the yellow teeth sticking out over the lower lip; and God's image did its despairing act of rebellion with Maria in the hut among the rats...He said, "Do you feel better now? Not so cold, eh? Or so hot?" and pressed his hand with a kind of divine tenderness upon the shoulders of God's image.
From all outward appearances, the priest's life has ended in failure. His death is far from a courageous stand as a soldier of Christ; he is carried by the police, unable to walk due to his shaking legs, and is shot before he can utter a word. He dies with his sins unconfessed.
Yet, God's glory and power elevate what seems a failure into a channel of grace. Paralleling the narrative of the priest is a mother reading her children the story of St. Juan, a martyr for Christ. Unlike the whisky priest, Juan was a man of outstanding virtue and died proclaiming his faith in God. However, her eldest son is untouched by the account and, in fact, seems rather intrigued by the cause and stance of the lieutenant.
In the final chapter, his mother informs them of the whisky priest's death. The son is startled--the whisky priest had previously stayed with them one evening during his flight. Had he really encountered a martyr?
The boy contemplates that notion and, as he sleeps, dreams of the priest. He is laid out in a coffin for burial, but the boy is shocked to see the priest wink in his direction. Immediately after that, the boy awakes to the sound of knocking at their door. He opens it to find a stranger, who asks for housing for the night. He is a priest. Before the stranger can reveal his name, the boy excitedly grasps his hand to reverently kiss it.
One soul has been converted due to the whisky priest's death for Christ. Perhaps it was just the first of many. Greene does not tell us, nor does he definitely answer whether the whisky priest has experienced salvation. (My wager, however, considering the mercy of God is yes.)
But Greene does make clear that the priest's witness has produced the fruit of conversion in the heart of a young boy. And the priesthood has not died with the whisky priest's death. Governments cannot stymie God's power and glory; neither can human weakness.
In fact, maybe it's precisely in those moments that God's power and glory are best revealed.