The Thinking 

“The Power and the Glory”

March 19, 2017



Crucifixion of St. Peter, Caravaggio; 1601

STEPHEN IPPOLITO writes from Australia:

I have just re-read, as I do each year, one of the greatest novels of the last century and perhaps one that speaks more powerfully than any other to traditional Catholics about what really lays at the heart of our faith and what we have a right to expect from our shepherds. I speak of Graham Greene’s masterpiece: The Power and the Glory (1939).

The novel is a very rich one, interweaving many important themes relevant to both religious faith and the human condition which would require a book-length essay to do justice to it. Very broadly it is the story of the alcoholic “whisky priest” hunted for a number of years by the fiercely-anti Catholic government of a Mexican state that has confiscated Church property, outlawed the Mass and declared all priests to be, prima facie, traitors subject to execution upon capture.

This sun-parched, barren and disease-ridden land was abandoned by its bishop long ago in favor of comfortable exile in a neighboring state. Most of his priests went with him. The few who did remain to serve their flock have all now been killed – leaving only the whisky priest and the pathetic Padre Jose, who renounced his priesthood, married and now receives a pension for his reward.

The whisky priest alone, deeply flawed and very much  aware of his weaknesses, has not abandoned the faithful. Despite his constant self-loathing and painful self-recriminations we, the readers, come to recognise in this lonely figure a profoundly humble and self-sacrificing man who is very much in awe of, and even comes to define himself entirely by, his privilege and burden of “carrying God around at the risk of his life.”  

While  once, years before, at the beginning of the persecution, the whisky priest was perhaps motivated not to flee by a combination of vanity and passivity, his reason for staying with his flock has evolved. He reveals to us, if not to himself, his true, Christ-centric motive for continuing to stay when he observes of himself: “it doesn’t matter so much, my being a coward…I can put God into a man’s mouth just the same – and I can give him God’s pardon.” 

But this priest is no coward. We see that, though he cannot. We see him several times turn away from assured escape in order to travel to the sides of those he is told are dying – to bring them the consolation of a last Holy Communion and Confession. (“But the stranger had got up: unwillingly he had been summoned to an occasion he couldn’t pass by“).

On the final summons, knowing full well that he has been betrayed for money and that a police trap awaits him at the dying man’s location, being unable to deny the Sacraments even to a dying murderer, he answers the call without hesitation, is captured, undergoes his own dark night of the soul the evening before his execution, (after being, himself, denied the Host and Confession by the cowardly Padre Jose), and offers his grisly and solitary death up to God as a sacrifice – just as we see Saint Peter doing in your Caravaggio.  Like Saint Peter’s, the whisky priests’ body, already broken down by his years of comfortless trial, is last seen lying crumpled, almost formless and discarded in the dirt, forgotten and unmourned.

It is very telling that we learn that long ago, before his persecution,  the comfortable priest would answer people enquiring after God in what he describes as his own “facile” way, speaking to them in the tritest, least challenging terms so as to give comfort to the comfortable. After undergoing his persecution we learn that central to his faith about the nature of God is the knowledge that although God is not completely knowable and must remain to us an ineffable mystery, we are made in his image and he therefore expects more of us than empty pieties offered up from out of a comfortable existence and that the meeting of challenges and suffering in God’s service is a duty and a privilege he bestows:

At the centre of his…faith there…stood the convincing mystery  that we were made in God’s image … Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard…

I do not doubt that Bishop Dave and his priestly bros are well-meaning men in your recent post “From Party-ers to Martyrs,” but do they not present like the whisky priest before his refinement through suffering – as he was when life was easy for him and the church? Plump and sleek and comfortable and inwards-looking, concerned with pleasing their equally inward-looking parishioners, and comfortable with offering up “facile” answers to questions of faith.

On the other hand, very much to his credit, the often starving whisky priest, who in one scene fights a dog for a bone, “felt an immense satisfaction that he could talk of suffering to them now without hypocrisy – it is hard for the sleek and well-fed priest to praise poverty.”

Caravaggio and Greene offer us the same truth: those who would know God fully and honor him best must first surrender themselves to his will. When stripped of all that is extraneous we learn best that we are not fashioned primarily for this world. We are made in his image and each possess a divine component, the soul, which yearns for unity with God and is therefore God-focused rather than self-focused.

Although joy and beauty are gifts from God and are good and worthwhile in themselves, it is through suffering, even to death, that we grow best, Caravaggio and Greene suggest.

Saint Peter is almost naked, almost literally stripped bare and intensely, pathetically vulnerable. We are shown his broken body and his powerlessness. He is so exposed he is unable even to conceal his anguish. But this does not mean that he regrets his faith or doubts God’s love.

Likewise the priest. Throughout the novel certain key words recur: ‘abandonment’, ‘surrender’, ‘loss’. The priest is constantly being stripped – of physical possessions, of worldly status and pride.  First his breviary is lost, then the altar stone he carried; the chalice then goes to be replaced with a chipped cup; his attache case given to him to mark the anniversary of his ordination is taken from him and thrown on a rubbish dump; his clothes and shoes wear out, not once but several times. Even his once flabby face and body are stripped down so that even the policeman who leads the hunt for him and who holds a picture from better times twice fails to recognise him when they cross paths.

And the benefit of this thorough stripping away through sacrifice and trials? Greene puts it beautifully:

The simple ideas of hell and heaven moved in his brain; life without books, without contact with educated men, had peeled away from his memory everything but the simplest outline of the mystery.”

The profound mystery of God and the need to trust and submit to and serve him become the whisky priest’s lode star. Frightened and convinced of his personal unworthiness to minister to his flock, the priest must stay because:

“… it was from him too they took God – in their mouths. When he was gone it would be as if God in all this space between the sea  and the mountains ceased to exist. Wasn’t it his duty to stay, even if they despised him, even if they were murdered for his sake? Even if they were corrupted by his example? He was shaken with the enormity of the problem.” 

He persists because something in him recognises and responds to the imperative that the faith is not about securing the feelings or comfort of humans but is about honoring God for his own sake, as an end in and of himself. Greene and Caravaggio teach us what His Excellency does not: we should not look to God because of how happy he may make us feel about ourselves but simply because he is God.

I am staggered by the truth and power of Greene’s accomplishment when, in describing the priest  saying Mass in a remote village as the police close in on him, he conjures a brief moment frozen in time when we read:

Everything, in time, became a routine but this…’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“.

Where is any of this in Bishop Dave’s soundtrack or his groovy car? The tragedy is not that Bishop Dave and the bros like music or sunglasses or the patois of the young – or that they preach that God is there for us to turn to in times of trouble to make us feel better, for he surely is.

The tragedy is that this is as profound as it gets for some Catholics nowadays. The ultimate end, the Vatican II Church tells us today, is for us to to feel good about ourselves and to this end encourages us to orient our sight inwards towards ourselves rather outwards towards God and our fellows.

As I watched Bishop Dave and the bros offer hackneyed words of comfort about feelings, I was starkly reminded of the whisky priest as he watches, powerless, the precious wine he risked his life to obtain in order to say mass and offer communion being guzzled to the last drop by his venal and vulgar tormentors who are unaware of his true identity and converse in empty truisms they don’t believe anyway in order to sound wise to each other:

[T]his was the atmosphere of a whole state – the storm outside and the talk just going on – words like ‘mystery’ and ‘soul’  and ‘the source of life’ came in over and over again, as they sat on the bed talking, with nothing to do  and nothing to believe  and nowhere better to go“.

The whisky priest can only weep at the scene before him as he feels “all the hope of the world draining away.”

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