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.
For those who are unfamiliar with the novel, it takes place in Mexico in the 1930s during the terrible persecution of the Church. In some ways the story weaves in and out of the story of Bl. Miguel Pro—one of the priest-martyrs of the time.
Greene—who was a serious sinner and whose Catholicism was a very complicated matter—portrays a priest who is agonized by his weakness. He’s an alcoholic and has a child after the sin of fornication. Still, the priest does all he can to avoid being captured and sacrifices much to minister to those in need even when he is in danger and the ministry seems absurd.
I first read the book when I was a student at Bob Jones University. At the time I was doing a Saturday gardening job with a very nice Catholic laywoman named June Reynolds.
I can remember asking June Reynolds what she thought of Graham Greene. She chuckled and said, “I’m afraid he’s too complicated for me. Catholicism’s simpler than that.”
Now I’ve been a Catholic for over 20 years and a priest for over 10 years. 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 and ignorant priests. I’ve met vain and pompous priests, priests with anger problems, drinking 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 labored so long in sins that he knew were wrong? Maybe.
Were Greene’s agonized musings over mortal sin and his classic paradoxical questioning over the person who either feels the wrong thing but does the right thing or feels the right thing but does the wrong thing— somehow tied up with his own moral inconsistency?
I can’t judge, but what I do know is that a true Catholic has a kind of graced simplicity about him because he has learned the simple dignity of repentance. The truly penitent soul is simple. He sees clearly, not only his own sins, but also the everlasting mercy of God.