I hadn’t read a Graham Greene novel in years, but remembering the tale of the ‘whiskey priest’ in The Power and the Glory I got it down and re-read it last week.
I can remember reading Greene as an Anglican student and asking my Catholic friend, June Reynolds what she thought of him. She chuckled and said, “I’m afraid he’s too complicated for me. Catholicism’s simpler than that.”
Now as a Catholic of ten years, and as a priest, I see what she means. Over the years I’ve met lots of priests. I’ve known very clever and accomplished priests and very simple ignorant priests. I’ve met vain and pompous priests, priests with anger problems, drink problems and sex problems, but most of them have been good, hard working men with simple tastes and a modest way about them. I’ve never met any who seem as morose, self absorbed and complicated as the whiskey priest.
Greene’s story (like most of his stories) is flawed because it doesn’t account for the simplicity and clarity that the sacrament of confession brings to the complexities of the human heart. Was this because Greene himself laboured so long in sins that he knew were wrong? Dunno.
What I do know is that a truly penitent soul is simple. He sees clearly, not only his own sins, but also the everlasting mercy of God.
Fr, for a while, I was enamored reading Greene, because I could identify exactly with his characters: here’s a believer who wished he has not encountered God and yet having encountered Him, he’s unable to resist God or denounce his belief. But as time goes by, my faith became simpler 🙂 Normal human trials don’t just bring agonies, they help me to see how weak we are and how merciful God is.
Kenneth Covington teaches English at St Joseph’s School.Here’s his take on Greene’s novel:It was published in the U.S. with the title, The Labyrinthine Ways, which, I believe, is the better title, alluding as it does to “The Hound of Heaven.” The whiskey priest is pursued by God throughout the novel. (We know the identity of the pursuer because of the anonymous priest that appears at the end. What seemed to be abandoned by God was indeed not. Abandonment is one of the main themes of the novel.)The problem with understanding the whiskey priest is best understood in the execution scene. It’s viewed by the dentist, who does not give us a complete or clear report. The reason for this is that the fate of the whiskey priest cannot be known by the casual observer. In fact, perhaps he himself does not know it. He is a mystery, a question mark, as Greene notes early in the novel. The depths of the human soul are hidden, even from ourselves. The power and the glory are evident — but not the kingdom, for that is within.On the supernatural level, several of the characters who encounter the whiskey priest are touched in inexplicable ways. Coral has died, but her brief encounter, implied through the priest’s dream, saves her. The hope for Mr. Tench lies somehow with the conversion of his wife — who seems to have been touched mysteriously by the priest she never even met. Even for the lieutenant there is hope — for he has the same question that the whiskey priest asks Tench, after he offers to work on his teeth — “What’s the good?”Towards the end of the novel, the priest meets the Lehrers. The baptismal scene in the river reminds us that baptism confers sanctifying grace, not simply an external, imputed grace, and it is clear from the first moments of the novel, in its cinematic narrative style, that Greene is interested in external appearances. The whiskey priest looks like a bum, and his reputation is certainly soiled (deservedly so), but in the course of the novel he really does nothing wrong. He obeys God the best he can, to the death. He forsakes any power and glory, which there had plenty of in his youthful years as a priest, for an ignominious death. Throughout the novel he is extremely hard on himself, but I wonder if he has the vision of a saint? He is acutely aware of his own pride — revealed anew towards the end when he has a new pair of shoes. An objective look at him would make him a hero, but we see him through his own eyes and are fooled because he does not fool himself about his own piety or pious motivations. But what are his final words? Something like “excuse..,” which sounds a lot like “pardon (them).”What seems to be lacking in the whiskey priest is joy. (I’ll have to think about that one.) But he is convinced at the end that only one thing mattered — to be a saint, and he goes to his execution with that in mind. I find the book humbling. In the end, he has obeyed Christ’s commands, and that is one definition of love, and died for that love as an example. His sacrifice seems to be accepted with the arrival of the new priest, so in the end, in spite of our great failings, love and obedience win out. He has done the will of God and given hope to those left behind.
Fr. Longenecker,See Fr. Ian Ker’s chapter on “The Catholicism of Greeneland” in his book THE CATHOLIC LITERARY REVIVAL 1845-1960 (Notre Dame Press). It’s a very good assessment of where Greene went wrong.
Dear Fr Longenecker,Congratulations on your ordination. We met a few times through miles Jesu, of which i am a vinculuum member. You raise an important topic, re Graham Greene. I remember studying The Poer & the Glory, as a 6th form student, at our Girl’s Catholic school. I remember being a bit shocked!Now i’m older with 10 children of my own, i don’t know what to think about Greene. I run a Catholic Women’s Book club, & i ventured to tell my ladies that Greene wasn’t really a Catholic Author…although i do have my sympathies, particularly in A Burnt Out Case, since his descent into depressions are all too familiar to me…Interesting debate,God bless,mrs Jackie Parkes MJ
After the scandal, I am grateful for priests who are merely drunks, wounded healers, sleep with adult women, and weak in faith. (Not like I know any particular priests who are like this.) Better than child molesters…”better a millstone” fits them better.The whiskey priest cannot help being a priest and administering the sacraments, bringing healing based on Christ’s promise and power and certainly not his own. There is a strong Catholic message to that–ex opere operanto or whatever that expression is.