'Morte D'Urban' by J. F. Powers: April Selection

What makes a priest or consecrated religious worldly? Is it care for finances or fundraising? Is it a taste for fine clothing, food and drink? Is it love of opera or devotion to televised sports? Does a worldly priest or religious simply mean an individual whose spiritual life collapses into a prayerful reading of The New York Times? Actually, can a priest or religious, as hard as they might try, ever be worldly?

In the Dec. 11, 2000, issue of The New Yorker, James Wood offered a review of J. F. Powers’ oeuvre, which had just been republished by The New York Review of Books. He begins his review with a question akin—I think—to the series of questions offered above. Wood writes, “Does anyone really like priests?” Wood’s question is excellent. It seems that if J. F. Powers—the author of the Catholic Book Club’s April selection—did not like priests, he certainly knew priests and religious well. He wrote constantly about them. However, Powers seems to advert to different questions about priests. His writing seems to ask: What makes a priest “normal,” “successful” or “holy” in the eyes of those with whom he interacts? Even if a priest is deemed normal, successful or holy, is he truly likeable? Is he human? Or, is he, in fact, consigned to an unnatural, almost crushing solitude?       

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As J. Greg Phelan cites in his review of a collection of Powers’ letters published by FSG last fall, the Timesmarked J. F. Powers’ obituary with the headline: “J. F. Powers, 81, Dies; Wrote about Priests.” (The epistolary collection is called Suitable Accommodations—there is a wonderful interview of the book’s editor, Katherine Powers, a former contributor to the Boston Globe, here. Indeed, throughout his writing, J. F. Powers thoughtfully considered the complexities of the priesthood and consecrated life. His works are not pious. His writing is precise and beautiful, never saccharine or pompous, and Powers’ stories insightfully depict an abnormal life—a liminal, priestly life lived at the crossroads of sin and the sacred, culture and the Gospel. Ultimately, Powers intuits that few priests are truly liked; few priests are resolutely holy; many are sincere; but none are worldly—though many may appear urbane.

When James Farl Powers died on June 12, 1999, his novels and short story collections were out of print. Yet, his novel, Morte D’Urbanwon the national book award in 1963. The Book Club has selected Morte D’Urban in order to reconsider a classic that has been admired by many (Joseph Bottum; Philip Roth; Donna Tartt; and Elizabeth Hardwick). Morte D’Urban is unique in its wit and its knowledge of the inside baseball of rectories and religious institutes. Its protagonist, Fr. Urban Roche, belongs to a wholly mediocre religious order named the Clementines: “The Clementines were unique in that they were noted for nothing at all. They were in bad shape all over the world” (15).

Fr. Urban—who has traveled out of Chicago for some time giving parish retreats and fundraising—is one of the order’s best men. He is clearly urbane, charming and intelligent. Those who interact with him are drawn to him. At the start of the novel, Fr. Urban is sent to a bleak retreat house somewhere in rural Minnesota. His superior there is intolerably overbearing and bumbling, but Fr. Urban accepts his exile. He knows his own talents, and he is painfully aware of the deficit of intelligence and ability in his fellow Clementines and among the diocesan priests that shepherd the local church in Minnesota. When he is given a chance to succeed, Fr. Urban does; however, as he inevitably succeeds, he is inevitably undermined by the ignorance or the ambition of another who is supposedly working for the same goal: the growth of the church. Benefactors and acquaintances also shed him when he demonstrates some basic principles. Urban is hit twice in the head with inanimate objects, and he twice is baptized—adult baptisms—in cold Minnesota lakes during the course of a twelve hour period. He emerges from the two immersions more alert to his own fragility and more tolerant of the overwhelming mediocrity of the men that surround him.

Morte D’Urban is subtle and comic. There is no lascivious behavior. There are no unspeakable sins—just sloth, cruelty, ambition and pride. Indeed, the novel is quaint, but there is depth to Powers’ presentation of Urban’s struggles and transformation. As urbane as Fr. Urban understands himself to be, he comes to realize that the world and the people that populate it are far more complicated than the sliver of complexity that Fr. Urban prides himself on being attuned to. There is a fantastic exchange toward the end of the novel. The daughter of a wealthy benefactor challenges Urban:

[The benefactor’s daughter, Sally]: “Has it occurred to you that people might be disappointed by you and your reasons, and even more by you?”
     “I am not sure what you mean,” said Fr. Urban.
     “I mean you’re an operator—a trained operator like Mrs. Leeson, and an operator in your heart—and I don’t think you have a friend in the world.”
     Fr. Urban smiled. “Now you have gone too far.”
     “Name one.”
     Fr. Urban was silent, thinking was there no one he could call his friend? Father Louis? Jack? Monsignor Renton? They were the best he could do, and he could not call one of them his friend – not as Sally was using the word. They all had their shortcomings, though perhaps, as Sally said, the trouble was really in him. He held them off. However, in view of the warnings in Scripture against allowing terrestrial relationships to interfere with one’s apostolic work, he wondered if he might not be justified – in not having a friend in the world? “You may be right,” he said. “The truth is I’ve traveled too much and been too busy, to maintain the kind of friendship you’re talking about” (301).
 

As many Catholic writers and essayists have discussed in these pages and elsewhere, there is widespread lament about the dearth of contemporary Catholic novelists and artists. There is much debate as to why that is. I have chosen J. F. Powers’ novel for the April selection 51 years after it was published because I see in his writing a remedy to our current predicament. Though J. F. Powers was Catholic and wrote thoughtfully about priests, he is usually left off the list of American Catholic literary heavyweights. Thomas Merton is much more well-known than Powers, though Merton produced spiritual writing, poetry and memoir. J. F. Powers’ writing is pristine. His critique of the church he loved is subtle and comic. He does not flay open the interior lives of his characters so as to plunge his readers into their great murky depths, but he offers portraits of authenticity—accessible, meaningful and vivid. As James Wood writes,

For despite Powers’ Christian faith, and despite the severity of his disappointment with the Catholic Church [perhaps overstated here by Wood], his writing, in its human irony, tends toward an unwitting inversion of Christianity, whereby his characters are not punished but already forgiven for sins they do not repent of, and the dry ground of their souls is moistened by the author’s gentle laughter.

One should let Wood know that this is indeed Christianity—not its inversion. Powers’ characters convey authenticity without paroxysm. They inhabit a world embraced by a merciful God and made holy by the Incarnation. Powers offers humor with hope.

Lastly, I offer a brief exchange that Donna Tartt records at the end of her review of Power’s work. Tartt shares that a woman religious interviewed Powers for the American Benedictine Review (Powers spent many years teaching at St. John’s Collegeville). Tartt writes:

Powers was asked if he had any ideas about the special vocation of the Catholic fiction writer. He replied: “No, I’m afraid I don’t, Sister, except that obviously he should not write junk.”

Powers generated beautiful prose about the American church he loved. I urge those familiar with the Catholic Book Club to give Morte D’Urban a read. Your heart will be warmed.

Please contribute to discussion once you have spent some time with the book. I would like to know what you think. To initiate discussion, I offer some questions; address them as you see fit.

1. What do you think of the claustrophobic priestly politics depicted by Powers? Is it stifling or comical or something else?

2. What constitutes success for a Christian? What constitutes success for a priest or a consecrated religious?

3. How has Fr. Urban been transformed at the end of the novel?

I invite you to post your comments and questions below. I will respond later this month.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 6 months ago
My book is on order through inter-library loan. Should be here soon. Without having the book in hand as of yet, my reaction to the question above "does anyone really like priests?" is that it depends on who you ask; a Catholic or a non-Catholic. As a cradle Catholic, I learned as a young boy going to Mass with my family never to like or love a priest. I remember our family's heartbreak one Sunday morning when a young priest in our parish who was universally loved by the parishioners was transferred out of our parish and he announced his departure. The lesson that morning imparted by my parents in the car on the way home from Mass was: "never like or love a priest, as soon as you do, the church will move him away (and your heart will be broken) ". I loved another priest many years later at another parish far from home and this rule of thumb held true so many, many years later. When your parents cannot lend any insight to your experiences at Mass, it confuses children and to see their parents confused, troubled and hurt is unsettling. And this was before the era of parish closures and mergers.
Catherine McKeen
3 years 6 months ago
Just finished the book. Re: the first question: the power politics in the rectory, as Powers imagines them, leave one sad for the wasteland of ordinary clerical life. He shows how devastating such behavior is to the possibility of real friendship and community well-being. Re: question 2: I think success for a Christian is grounded in fidelity, whatever we do or whoever we are. For consecrated persons, this fidelity to a Person and a church is always open to scrutiny. It's the nature of the sacraments and the ritual and the expectations that people have for priests and religious that they are always evaluated, always expected to somehow show that joy and goodness are possible amid service and sacrifice. The world longs for the evidence of goodness in the midst of so much suffering, which I think explains the extraordinary public fascination with Pope Francis and what he represents. Re: question 3: I liked Fr. Urban more than I think JF Powers did. If they are to survive, institutions, including religious orders and retreat centers need people to go out and fundraise. Fr. Urban had certain gifts for impressing, for preaching, for -- if you will -- acting. It was less self-centered than Powers implies. Urban silently endures all the jealousy and resentment of his fellow clerics. But once bopped on the head by the bishop's golf ball (wonderfully ironic twist), Fr. Urban enters his subjectivity and into his utter loneliness and questioning of himself. As that inner world melts down, he enters his agony and that of the Person he thought he was serving all along. A memorable book.
Kevin Spinale
3 years 5 months ago
Ms. McKeen, Thank you for your thoughtful insights. I like particularly your answers to questions 2 and 3. I think you are correct about Urban's motivations. Your thoughts regarding fidelity and hope are quite right. Thank you again, and please contribute to the Book Club in the future. Kevin
Susan Beason
3 years ago
I so enjoyed the book that I subsequently ordered other books by Powers. Read and enjoyed. I did not get the idea that his work and life disappoints are what made Father D'Urban I'll. That was a natural life progression as I saw it. In some of the responses to the book I see a questioning about "liking" or "disliking" priests in general and viewing of priests as friends or authoritarian person. I was not raised in the Catholic church but became involved in the Catholic church as the years went by first thru Cursillio and then other organizations. Having not thought about what my relationship should be with a priest I look back and realize I held priests in reverence for what they were doing, the life they had chosen. No different than how I felt about the clergy in my own faith. And now I am realizing that as I took the steps to be a Local Pastor in my denomination I hope that is how people saw me. Not on a pedestal!! But with some reverence. The Sacrement of Communion would lose something in translation if any friend or next door neighbor consecrated the elements of the Sacrement. The book did present a priest as a little more "human" than perhaps I had in mind.
Anne Chapman
3 years 6 months ago
I haven't read the book either, but my local library has a copy, so I will pick it up today. As far as the question about 'liking priests" is concerned, I would have to admit that I can't say that I have ever "liked" a priest as in a friendship. I have preferred some priests/pastors to others as far as how they handled their parish responsibilities, but that does not translate into liking them as individuals. Never really having thought much about it before, So I have just asked myself why I feel this way. Perhaps keeping my distance from priests is a reaction to early experiences - as a child priests were the scary judges to whom we were forced to confess - marched over to the church by the nuns every month. At mass, they were on the altar muttering in Latin with their backs turned to us. We didn't have much chance to really see what they looked like even. Vatican II happened while I was in high school, and I began to see the impact in college when one priest - a theology professor - and I had a sort of a friendship - maybe not a "real" friendship, but the only priest I've ever known that I felt comfortable talking with in a normal conversation. We would sometimes meet for coffee and discuss faith and religion and life in general. His explanations of Vatican II (outside the classroom) kept me Catholic at a time I was ready to walk. He is probably the only priest I have ever known that I trusted to tell me the truth about a lot of things (including about the church') and not to judge me. As a married woman, a mother, a worker I did not relate to priests. They didn't understand me and my life as a woman and I didn't understand them or their lives as male celibates. Our lives were (are) too different. For years I was an active parishioner - low-level involved, but involved enough so the priests knew my name in a parish of 3500 families. My family never socialized with the priests when I was growing up or when I was running my own household. At the parish level, there are always some parishioners who seek out the priest, invite him to dinner, etc - sometimes called the priest's "groupies". But I don't know if those relationships are "real" friendships either. I have always assumed that priests have friends from childhood, from seminary etc, as do most of us from different stages of our lives, and that they develop friendships with colleagues as well as with some parishioners.
Kevin Spinale
3 years 5 months ago
Ms. Chapman, Greetings. I hope that you have had the chance to read the book. However, your preliminary comments are quite interesting. I agree that there must have been a great distance between the priest and laity prior to Vatican II, and this distance was made concrete in the gestures and the shape of the Tridentine mass. Your insights on friendship and priests are rich. I myself have always found it easier to relate to priests and religious in and around the classroom. It is the natural setting for me, a religious, to interact with folks in a meaningful way. However, outside I have been absolutely blessed with friendships throughout my life - with my buddies from college and, now, with friends who are fellow Jesuits. Such friendships have sustained my vocation and made me a better Jesuit. Healthy friendships ensure healthy priestly or religious life. I think that your sense of friendship and relationships between priest and parishioner is also quite right. There can be a great deal of artificiality in relationships between priests and those that to whom priests try to minister. I think that the genius of Powers is that he shows the dynamics of such relationships from the perspective of the priest - a particularly knotted and complicated perspective. Please take a look at "Wheat That Springeth Green" - which has been selected for May. Please continue to contribute to the Book Club. Kevin
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 6 months ago
I have't looked at the book either but just stopped by to ask, after reading the email blurb today, if the novelist got into the truth of Christianity in any sense. I find here your unabridged essay and it is full of that question. Who abridged it? I can tell you, so far, you've made me want to go look at the book.
Bill Parks
3 years 6 months ago
I have not read the book. But as a cradle Catholic, I have some views about the priestly profession. Let me preface my remarks by quoting the words of Jesus. Matthew 20:25-28 : 25 Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave- 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Priests are products of the culture they were born in. For example, priests in Poland are friendlier than priests in the United States. The people there are of one nationality and have a lot in common. The United States is a conglomeration of many cultures and therefore like any citizen in America, priests can not relate to every type of culture in America. Also, I think it is harder to find a likeable priest because of the judgmental nature of the profession. Some do not like to be around judgmental people. Also, I think the hierarchy is very wealthy acting and pompous and dress like peacocks. It's hard for me and others like me to relate to such people in old age. Also, I think the church should follow the example of Jesus Christ. He chose 11 married men out of 12 to be the first priests whom He ordained at the Last Supper. Therefore, 11 out of 12 priests should be married. I do not expect the present day church to allow this to happen because in many respects the church does not follow the example of Christ and this is just another example of excluding and discriminating against married Catholics. Many of them today are very well educated and qualified to say the mass. Also, the profound separation between the laity and priestly classes is a bad way for Christians to behave. Jesus was very hard on the priestly class of his day. But His message was not just for them in His time on earth but for all time which is borne out the way the church has developed unChristian traditions over centuries of time.
Jesse Rimshas
3 years 6 months ago
I finished the book yesterday. I really never got the impression Powers didn't like Urban, and I certainly never perceived that he disliked the Church. Powers seems to work against unwarranted idealization of the Priesthood. And as Powers realizes, many, many laypeople idealize priests. 1. I have never been a paid employee of any religious entity, but the politics portrayed strike me as perfectly normal, in the secular sense, if not toned down. So the Clementines are a religious order; so the Bishop is a Successor to the Apostles; so what? They are still human, their institutions are filled by humans. The politics portrayed are fairly benign, and will be familiar to anyone who's worked for a corporation of any size. Do we expect our orders and dioceses to be exempt from this normal human social behavior? 2. Contentment would seem to be the elusive standard of success. Fr. Urban is quite successful in many good works, but thinks he cannot find contentment unless he becomes more and more, in his own eyes and the eyes of others. When he finally climbs to the top, he longs for the post he left. 3. Fr. Urban is likely disillusioned with himself at the end. He had earlier felt disillusioned by his order, and certainly almost every Priest he knew, the Bishop, his secular benefactors, and now, himself. He sees himself as he really is: on par with his brother Priests in the third-rate order of Clement. He has suffered the final disillusionment, no doubt making him a holier Priest and, because he's lost his confidence, a poor manager. Fr. Urban is merely human, not very especially holy, but not especially profane either. He's a gifted preacher and administrator of mediocre spirituality; not a few Catholic career laymen can relate. I would wager we would find priests like him in any diocese. He would, perhaps, not be the best confessor, but I sure wouldn't mind sharing a drink and a long conversation with him.
ELIZABETH MALONE
3 years 6 months ago

I was not at all familiar with J. F. Powers but reading Mort d’Urban left me wanting to get to know him better. Thanks, Father Spinale.
I think this is a more complex story than the easy read suggests at first. Way too much for me to digest even over the next several months. But here’s what I’m starting with:
Father Urban is an immensely gifted individual. You might even say he’s sinfully gifted because he’s also a supreme snob and “operator” confusing sophistication with excellence. He’s determined to attract a “better type” to his undistinguished order. It seemed all but inevitable to me that over-confidence in his ability to play the mixed motives of “lesser” souls would be his undoing.
Still, I was hoping to see him emerge from his physical and spiritual dark night a wiser and more humble man. I was hoping to see him ready to put his gifts to work again--this time to fire up imagination and creative energy among his stuffy brothers. Father Placidus had done this for him long ago and his fellow Clementines must have thought he could do it for them. They elected him Father Provincial.
I was disappointed that Powers leaves little room for this hope at the end. His final chapter is called Dirge! Urban’s physical healing seems unlikely. Wracked with pain, he hasn’t been left in peace to figure out that humble isn’t the same thing as mediocre any more than urbane is the same as excellence. And what incentive is there, anyway, when the good work of dedicated and creative religious may be expropriated, undermined or censored by cavalier (not to say spiteful) hierarchy?
I wonder what other readers’ thoughts are about why, when all was said and done, Father Urban came to think of the Hill as home. And why did he send Father Louis there for a second stint?

Jesse Rimshas
3 years 6 months ago
Excellent final question. I suggest the grass is always greener, and "you don't know what you got 'till it's gone (they paved paradise and put up a parking lot," etc.) Also, Fr. Urban was good at the Hill, in his depth. He was apparently a poor Provincial, and probably felt out of his depth (rightly or wrongly).
Kevin Spinale
3 years 5 months ago
Ms. Malone, Thank you for your comments. I especially like your insight: "humble is not the same thing as mediocre any more than urbane is the same as excellence." I think you are quite right about Urban's brokenness at the end of the novel. Indeed, Urban's work is undermined, expropriated, and censored by rivals, peers, and his superiors, but I think Urban does change in a meaningful way. At the end of the novel, he understands that Wilf and others who are the vanguard of mediocrity do, in some way, try to conform themselves with Christ. They are limited men, but, for the most part, they are not duplicitous, and they are not cruel at all. Urban's benefactors manifest their cruelty, and Urban is hurt by it in many ways. Perhaps, there is hope in Urban's recognition of this as well as his extending his regard to those lesser types both within and outside the Clementines. Please continue to contribute in the future. Kevin
M. Annette Joseph
3 years 5 months ago
To answer Fr. Spinale’s questions: (1) I found the priestly politics depicted by Powers as sometimes comical, sure, but wrong and almost tragic as well. Under such circumstances it would be hard for anyone, including a better priest than Fr. Urban, to “get things done.” If bishops can pursue their own whims and their own consultors don’t care to “expose themselves” by standing up against them, something is wrong even though, as Jesse R. commented, it’s normal human behavior. (2) I don’t know that the words “success” and “Christian” go together. A Christian aims to follow the gospel and to become ever closer to God, and perfection or “success” is an ever-receding mark. For a parish priest, I don’t think you can count success in statistics like attendance at Mass or the amount of weekly offerings. It must be something more intangible. (3) Fr. Urban has been transformed by finally listening to his own inner voices and putting into action what he knows is right. But his health is broken in the process. I didn’t find the beginning of this book engaging. I wondered how Fr. Urban would handle his new rural life but didn’t find any reason to care much about the characters nor was there any tension from chapter to chapter to keep me wanting to read (I continued because of Fr. S.’s invitation), not until the golf game and its “sudden-death play-off,” which would have been more captivating if I understood the game of golf. From that point on, though, I was riveted till the end, which I thought would be Fr. Urban’s actual, not just impending, death. To come to a conclusion about Fr.’s Urban transformation, I had to think through the turning points in the plot (spoilers follow): Fr. Urban’s goal seems to be to lift his religious order out of its mediocrity and utilize his own gifts for teaching and preaching in the process, while pursuing wealthy benefactors and enjoying the associated perks of fine meals, cigars, first-class travel, driving a borrowed sports car, etc. Here is his liminal life as mentioned by Fr. Spinale—being scrupulously correct in Church financial matters while accepting and using the occasional “fives, tens, and twenties” from “grateful laymen and understanding pastors” that find their way into the pockets he’s not supposed to have (p. 10). Fr. Urban receives a series of three knocks or obstacles to his goals—his traveling is halted and he’s sent to rural Minnesota; he fills in and revitalizes the parish of St. Monica’s but is replaced and sent back to the Hill; finally, the Hill itself is threatened by diocesan takeover. But none of these obstacles or challenges make Urban change his course. Then the knocks become physical, as if to really get his attention, when he is smacked in the head by a symbol of worldiness, a golf ball. One result is that the bishop backs off on the takeover (it was the bishop’s ball); another is that Urban’s physical decline begins but his awareness slowly begins to increase. The place where he goes to recover (Mrs. Thwaite’s place) is pleasant in its sylvan surroundings but is the home of cruelty and selfishness, with blaring TV sets and an underground bomb shelter. This experience is soon followed by the fishing trip with Billy. Urban finally faces up to the defects of Billy’s character that he has basically been letting go with an “Oh well.” He admits to himself that he “feels cheap” in Billy’s company and he finally takes direct action, and ends up stranded in the water. After that a combination of factors leaves him stranded not in, but on, the water at Belleisle by the daughter of Mrs. Thwaites, “the best of a bad lot,” where he gets his second physical smack to the head by another symbol of worldliness (or of the temptations of the flesh perhaps, though Fr. Urban seems to have no trouble handling that), Sally’s high-heeled shoe. He manages to extricate himself from the situation tactfully, but his headaches start to become more frequent and incapacitating. But then Fr. Urban’s order seems to recognize his abilities by electing him Father Provincial, just when he’s physically depleted. It’s too late, as Elizabeth Hardwick says in her introduction. So Urban ends up stranded for the third time—at the Novitiate as Provincial, when the simpler life at the Hill finally appeals to him as a place he feels at home—because he’s become world-weary after his pursuit of the world? This was a powerful story and I needed to go back and reread and ponder over it. But what felt lacking in the story of Fr. Urban was his inner transformation and the nature of his spiritual life. We hear that he “gave Mass” and “heard confessions” and “read his breviary” but nothing about the content of his prayers or his relationship with God. I don’t think Powers meant us to take anything for granted in this respect; I think the author was more interested in behavior, in how Urban lived out his vocation in his interactions with those in his order and with others. But the result was that it felt like one character was absent from the story: God—or at least, the unknowable God from Urban’s point of view. On another matter, I couldn’t help noticing the comment about nuns on page 236, when Urban is wondering how to block the bishop from taking over his order’s retreat house at the Hill for a diocesan seminary: “Nuns could coo their way out of such difficulties, or, that failing, would often fight, and sometimes cardinals would ride forth in their behalf.” This made me think of the U.S. nuns of the LCWR fighting the results of the CDF’s investigation, and that they may have individual priests taking their part but no cardinals—but then in recent news, Cardinal Kasper seems to be “riding forth”!

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