Holy sinners and doubting saints: The fiction of Brian Moore
This Thursday, Oct. 19, is the “Memorial of Saints John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues, Priests, and Companions, Martyrs” in the lectionary for Mass used in the United States. Those of us south of the Canadian border might know them better as the “American Martyrs,” while those on the other side prefer the “Canadian Martyrs” and celebrate their feast day on Sept. 26. If you’re in a Jesuit parish or ministry, you’ll probably hear “North American Martyrs,” a clever way to sidestep the problem of the overweening jingoism of our neighbors to the north.
In mainstream U.S. culture, those martyrs are perhaps best remembered because of Black Robe, a 1985 novel by Brian Moore that was later turned into a 1991 film by the same name, directed by Bruce Beresford (Moore wrote the screenplay). Both the book and movie relate the fictionalized experiences of a group of French Jesuit missionaries sent to “New France” to work primarily with the Huron Nation in the interior of Canada in the 17th century.
“From his earliest and best known novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, to his last, The Magician’s Wife, the mystery of belief has haunted his best fiction.”
Those missionaries were based on six Jesuit priests from France (Isaac Jogues, Antoine Daniel, Jean de Brébeuf, Gabriel Lalemant, Charles Garnier and Noël Chabanel) and two donnés, lay assistants (René Goupil and Jean de la Lande), who were all martyred between 1642 and 1649. The tales of their exploits (and martyrdom) were published at home in The Relations of the Jesuits of New France. Isaac Jogues in particular became famous for coming home after having been tortured and mutilated—then returning to New France to try again and ultimately meet his fate. Canonized in 1930, the North American Martyrs are honored today at a number of shrines in the United States and Canada and in numerous hagiographies.
But why would their stories inspire a Belfast-born Irishman with no great love for the Catholic Church? Brian Moore seems an unlikely candidate at first glance. Born in 1921 into a Catholic family of nine children in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Moore spent most of his career in exile from both his homeland and his childhood faith, living in Canada and California and writing (in over two dozen novels, as well as short stories and screenplays) often of the Catholic Church’s negative impact on Irish life, the pernicious influence of the priesthood on religion and the general precarity of faith entirely. He described himself over the years as “agnostic” or “not religious.”
At the same time, a number of Moore’s novels dealt subtly and deftly with the profound emotional impact of struggles with faith, including Catholics, a 1972 novel called a “near masterpiece” by The New York Times. That short book might be perhaps the greatest poke in the eye of the post-Second Vatican Council church ever written—the tale of an Irish monastery that clings to a pre-Vatican II liturgy and spirituality in a Catholic Church lost in the throes of a syncretist “Vatican IV.” (You can view the 1973 made-for-TV movie adaptation, starring Martin Sheen, here.) An America reviewer of the book in 1973 wrote that “if reading it upsets you, do not be surprised. With one stroke Moore has eliminated our standard escape from God—a secularized Kingdom or a romanticized past.”
"Laforgue joins the other renegade clerics of 20th-century Catholic fiction: Greene’s whiskey priest, Bernanos’s curé, Endo’s Jesuit missionary. Not bad company for character or novelist.”
Seventeen years before, Moore’s breakthrough novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, had presented “the portrait of a soul seeking to expand, seeking to find faith, mercy and companionship,” in the words of Kevin Spinale, S.J., in a 2017 reflection on “Three little-known Catholic novels that can enrich your faith.”
Thirteen years later, Black Robe, with its tormented priests trying to find both meaning and comfort in a harsh and foreign land, marked a return to what John Breslin, S.J., called “these troubling questions of faith and the transcendent” with which Moore’s fiction dealt for much of the rest of his career. Moore died in 1999, and Breslin’s tribute to him in America was published soon after.
“For all his suspicions about faiths and allegiances, he could never stop worrying them, especially in their religious, and usually Catholic, forms,” wrote Breslin, a former literary editor of America. “From his earliest and best known novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, to his last, The Magician’s Wife, the mystery of belief has haunted his best fiction.”
In a 2006 essay, James Martin, S.J., included the film adaptation of Black Robe among his “10 best films and documentaries about the saints.” Martin found Moore’s story inspiring even if starkly unsentimental. “Some Catholics find this movie, based on the stark novel by Brian Moore (who also wrote the screenplay), unpleasant for its bleak portrayal of the life of the priest as well as for its implicit critique that the missionaries brought only misfortune to the Indians,” Martin wrote. “But, in the end, the movie offers a man who strives to bring God to the people that he ends up loving deeply. The final depiction of the answer to the question, ‘Blackrobe, do you love us?’ attempts to sum up an entire Catholic tradition of missionary work.”
Breslin, a former literary editor of America, also regarded Black Robe as Moore’s masterpiece, noting that the efforts of the main character, Father Laforgue, “to cling to an absolute of conscience in the face of intolerable physical pain, spiritual despair and failure triggers the literary adrenalin.” At the same time, Moore escaped the pitfalls of hagiography in his rather bleak tale, giving Father Laforgue a vitality that places him among the most compelling priests of 20th-century Catholic fiction.
“Moore’s conviction…that love trumps all other spiritual values, is consonant, ironically, with the deepest truth of the Gospel and with a soupy humanistic sentimentalism,” Breslin wrote. “What saves it here and elsewhere is the crucible of passionate commitment and intense suffering from which it emerges. Thus Laforgue joins the other renegade clerics of 20th-century Catholic fiction: Greene’s whiskey priest, Bernanos’s curé, Endo’s Jesuit missionary. Not bad company for character or novelist.”
Black Robe, with its tormented priests trying to find both meaning and comfort in a harsh and foreign land, marked a return to “these troubling questions of faith and the transcendent.”
Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: This fall, we are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus's Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here for more information or to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.
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James T. Keane