This week, Doris Donnelly reviews Vestments, a new novel about a young priest struggling with his vocation. Here she offers a few classic novels featuring a priest protagonist.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (1940)
An unnamed whiskey priest is on the run from a Mexican state that has outlawed the church. All other priests have fled or been rounded up and shot. Stripped of his life of pampered privilege, and in a haze of alcohol and fear, the priest is unwittingly tugged to minister to needy peasants while eluding an intense lieutenant who is determined to rid his country from all seeds of corruption planted by the church. The paradox of strength in weakness has probably never been novelized better than here by Greene.
The Diary of a Country Priestby George Bernanos
(1936 French; 1937 English)
This touching and uncommonly profound diary is in a class of its own. The journal belongs to a young Catholic priest in an isolated French village who serves misguided, petty, impoverished parishioners with unstinting devotion without a shred of gratitude in return. Engulfed by sadness at his inability to connect with his people, he remains a faithful witness to grace in spite of what seems to be a life of unmitigated failure. As he dies of cancer, grace glows and we recognize the privilege of being in the presence of a saint.
The Innocence of Father Brownby G. K. Chesterton (1911)
OK, maybe not so innocent, at least not in the ways of understanding human nature where he excels and outdoes his almost contemporary, Sherlock Holmes, who relied solely on keen observation and deductive reasoning. Brown does more. He solves impenetrable mysteries always as a means to an end—the firm conviction that even the most hardened criminals are not beyond the possibility of repentance and redemption. Brown’s wit charms still, a hundred years later.
The Sparrowby Mary Doria Russell (1996)
In 2019, Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit linguist, travels with his team on a secret mission to the planet Rakhat, where the first proof of intelligent extraterrestrial life is detected. Forty years later, Sandoz, the sole survivor of the failed mission, is rescued only to face an inquest by the Vatican that probes the heart and soul of this emotionally shattered and physically debilitated priest. We learn of a tragic human error that leads to Sandoz’s disgrace and prompts the perpetual question about how a good God allows excruciating suffering to exist.
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (1977)
A popular potboiler, The Thorn Birds turbocharges the clichéd tale of “dark passion” and “forbidden love” between a beautiful woman and a handsome priest. McCullough needs 700 pages to trace lust, ambition and the inevitable pain that burrows deep in the hearts of Meggie Cleary and Father Ralph de Bricassart as Meggie remains in the Australian outback and Ralph sets out for the fast lane of ecclesiastical prominence and success in Rome.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927)
This majestic story belongs to Jean-Marie Latour, a French missionary priest dispatched with a companion to New Mexico in the mid-1800s to evangelize its people who are American by law but Mexican and Indian by heritage. Cather captures the dignity of Bishop Latour, whose gift of self to others is unrelenting as he confronts not only the quintessential beauty and unforgiving landscape of the Southwest but also renegade priests, wrenching human suffering and his own loneliness. Hands down, this is an American masterpiece.
Pictured above: Henry Fonda in the film adaptation of The Power and The Glory.