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Doris DonnellyJanuary 30, 2012

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.

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12 years 4 months ago
What about "The World, the Flesh and Father Smith" or the hundreds of Irish novels and short stories featuring priests? My favorite short story of all time is "First Confession" by Frank O'Connor. Flannery O'Connor captured priests perfectly. 
Stephen Mullin
12 years 4 months ago
How about the Pulitzer Prize winning The Edge of Saddness?  This is a wonderfully written book by Edwin O'Connor (1963?) about a recovering alcoholic priest and his search for happiness and satisfaction in his ministry.
M Christine Robichaux
12 years 3 months ago
My personal favorite: The Keys of the Kingdom, which was made into a movie in the 40's. Set in China, it illustrates the good and the bad of mission work.
Keyran Moran
12 years 3 months ago
Dear DD,

Why do you think it is the case that there are so few biographies of priests, particularly, depth biographies or psychobiographies??

And try interviewing a priest about his first memories or his relationship to his parents-especially his mother-or his sexuality or his silence about the War Party in the USA (which he is not allowed to criticize)...and then one gets the feeling that many priests have never learned the Hasidic commandment-to know what one feels, to say what one means and to do what one says.

But there are exceptions. Ray Schroth SJ is an exemplary personality in this regard.

Gruss aus der Altstadt
12 years 3 months ago
One of my favorites is John Gregory Dunne's "True Confessions," both the book and the movie. The priestly monsignor, groomed to succeed the cardinal, must "fix things" against his conscience; and instead succeeds a humble priest serving the rural poor.
Joseph Quigley
12 years 3 months ago
Re-previous comments: what about recognising that DD was writing about Priests in Fiction?
Our appreciation of priests in fiction will be coloured by our experience of priests in real life - the good, the bad and the ugly.
What makes priests interesting as characters for me is how they measure up to the ideal of their vocation - each according to his own talents and grace.
What makes them interesting in fiction is how well the author communicates their mental and spiritual life.
Four sentences in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are replete with meaning: "He (Stephen Dedalus) listened to Father Arnall's low and gentle voice as he corrected the themes. Perhaps he (Arnall) was sorry now and wanted to be decent. But it was unfair and cruel. The prefect of studies (Father Dolan) was a priest but that was cruel and unfair."
The Irish Jesuits towards the end of the 19th century were a bunch of extremists, some intellectually brilliant, others outrageous extroverts, and others meek isolationists. Just ask Gerard Manly Hopkins. Now there was a man who recognised in himself the gap between the ideal of his vocation as a Jesuit priest and his practice of it.
12 years 3 months ago
Greetings from Australia and thanks for featuring these novels.  As an Aussie, I would also add our own Morris West with "The Shoes of the Fisherman", "Children of the Sun" (about a priest wotking with street-children in Naples) and "The Devil's Advocate".  
http://www.amazon.com/Devils-Advocate-Loyola-Classics/dp/0829421564/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1327712702&sr=8-1 .
Rick Malloy
12 years 3 months ago
Thanks DD.  Agree with yours, esp. The Sparrow, and the comments of others, esp. Edge of Sadness and the Keys of the Kingdom.

 One I'd add is The Last Western by Klise about Willie, a multicultural guy who becomes a great baseball pitcher, a franciscan type brother of the little "order of the used, abused and utterly screwedup," and eventually the Pope.  On being challenged that he knew no canon Law, he said if I need some canon law, I'll get a canon lawyer. 

Some reviews of The Last Western here:
12 years 3 months ago
Graham Greene also wrote "Monsignor Quixote" (a priest marvelously portrayed once by Alec Guiness on TV) and the short story "The Hint of an Explanation" which are both excellent.  And don't forget Giovanni Guareschi's novels about Don Camillo.  Then too there was "The Left Hand of God," also made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart.  Finally there was the award winning French film "Monseiur Vincent," a fine portrayal of Vincent de Paul.  I'm not sure if it was a book or not, but it is certainly a classic worth seeing.
Daniel St.Laurent
12 years 3 months ago
Might I offer "North of Hope" by Jon Hassler?
12 years 3 months ago
Yes, yes, yes! These are all wonderful suggestions that extend the list I provided, and I'm so pleased to read about your personal favorites. I had a hard time whittling the list down to six, trying as I did for different storylines. To the very last minute, though, I regretted not including Andrew O'Hagan's "Be Near Me," and Jeanette Haien's "The All of It." They, along with your recommendations, certainly round out the selection nicely. Thank you so much for taking the time to write.
Ann Conway
12 years 3 months ago
I also loved "The Edge of Sadness."  O'Connor is a great writer and got the American Irish in a way I've never seen since.

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