Lessons from a Whisky Priest

In February, I read a novel for a men’s book club (back then, we still had the good fortune to be able to meet for normal social interactions; March’s meeting got canceled). The novel was Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, which I had never read, and had always reproached myself for not having read. It’s the kind of “modern Catholic novel” that every literate person ought to have read.

To be honest, I found it both fascinating and repellent. Fascinating, because Greene writes a mesmerizing prose, full of breathtaking metaphors, elevating pessimism into poetry. Repellent, because, well, reading about a priest who prefers whisky to his breviary, continually says Mass in a state of mortal sin, and longs for some sign of affection from his former mistress and his illegitimate daughter is depressing stuff.

But there was something in the novel that struck me when I was reading it, and that I find even more striking now when we are in the midst of an unprecedented shutdown of the Church’s sacramental life.

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The protagonist of the novel, who is never named, calls himself a bad priest. Everyone knows that he and his bottle are inseparable. He freely admits to having fathered a child. He long ago gave up personal prayer. But he knows one thing, and this one thing compels him to stay with the poor Mexican people, in spite of the atheistic regime’s systematic hunting and killing of priests. He knows that the work of the priest is to bring God to men, and men to God. To be, in short, a mediator, to be another Christ for them.

Obviously, he should be another Christ in the sense of a man who, in himself, embodies the virtues of Christ. This is what a saint is, and the whisky priest is no saint. But he knows himself to be another Christ in a more fundamental sense: the priest, says St. Thomas Aquinas, is a “living instrument” by which divine life is given to men, regardless of whether the instrument itself is sharp or blunt. Greene’s novel is a literary translation of Augustine’s anti-Donatist polemic: it is not the holiness of the individual priest that determines the benefits he can confer—it is Christ’s holiness that passes through him as water through an aqueduct, reaching the thirsty soul.

The whisky priest lives at a time of intense persecution of Catholics by the atheistic regime of Mexico, whose policies are put into practice by the “Red Shirts.” The authorities, such as they are, have issued a warrant for his capture and execution, with a hefty reward for any Judas who will betray him to them. The priest knows that every moment he stays among the people, baptizing their babies, hearing their confessions, or saying Mass for them, is at an ever-increasing risk to his own life. He travels incognito, but the people welcome him and kiss his hands, for they know his true worth—not his worth, but the worth of Him whose life he brings. At one point he tries to escape to a safer part of the country, but a plausible claim that someone needs his deathbed ministrations takes him back into danger, and he knows it will probably be the end of him. Given the choice of safety without glory or imprisonment and certain death, he chooses the latter.

In one small village, the people quickly set up a packing-case as an altar inside one of their squalid huts. They know they have little time, as the priest hunters are already in the area. The people kneel around him and he begins the Mass. The Mass.

He kissed the top of the packing-case and turned to bless…. “Oh Lord, I have loved the beauty of thy house…” The candles smoked and the people shifted on their knees—an absurd happiness bobbed up in him again before anxiety returned: it was as if he had been permitted to look in from the outside at the population of heaven. Heaven must contain just such scared and dutiful and hunger-lined faces. For a matter of seconds he felt an immense satisfaction that he could talk of suffering to them now without hypocrisy—it is hard for the sleek and well-fed priest to praise poverty. He began the prayer for the living: the long list of the Apostles and Martyrs fell like footsteps—Cornelii, Cypriani, Laurentii, Chrysogoni—soon the police would reach the clearing where his mule had sat down under him and he had washed in the pool. The Latin words ran into each other on his hasty tongue: he could feel impatience all round him. He began the Consecration of the Host (he had finished the wafers long ago—it was a piece of bread from Maria’s oven); impatience abruptly died away: everything in time became a routine but this—“Who the day before he suffered took Bread into his holy and venerable hands…” Whoever moved outside on the forest path, there was no movement here—“Hoc est enim Corpus Meum.”

Many scenes from the book flooded back into my mind in recent days as I have incredulously witnessed one bishop after another suspend public Masses and limit access to the Sacraments in their dioceses. Some bishops have dispensed the laity from fasting and abstinence, saying the coronavirus has brought enough suffering—as if the reaction of Christians for 2,000 years has not been to increase our penances in a time of grave need like the present, as if the Church’s currently soft discipline were too hard, as if removing every demand were the way to make Holy Week and Easter more meaningful in the absence of liturgies. Other bishops have gone a step further by suspending baptisms, confessions, and anointings for the dying, or requiring that priests obtain case-by-case permission to give these sacraments. In all this, I cannot help seeing the whisky priest as a hero, and some bishops as having more in common with the lieutenant who seeks to end his ministrations.

The Church teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation; whatever else God may do in His freedom, He has revealed to us only one path by which we are saved: plunging into the death of Christ and rising with Him. The Church teaches that confession is the only way to be certain of the absolution of mortal sins, and in this sense, it is necessary for those in mortal sin. Extreme unction, as it was once aptly named, prepares the soul for the great passage from death to eternal life, lest it be a passage from death to second death. It fulfills the petition in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy: “For a Christian, painless, blameless, peaceful end of our lives, and for a good account before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us beseech the Lord.”

There seems no end of dioceses where the faithful are being cut off even from necessary sacraments like baptism and confession—and for what atheistic persecution? Where are the Red Shirts breathing down our necks?

In this world, the Church’s work—the priest’s work—is to bring the life and death of Christ to the people, at all times, in all circumstances, easy or difficult, cheerful or tragic, comfortable or dangerous. This they do by bringing the sacraments of salvation: at the beginning of life to newborn sons of God, at the end to dying sons of Adam, and in the middle to sinners in need of reconciliation and of nourishment from the altar. They bring this comfort and strength above all in times of crisis and emergency.

Bishops who believe in the Christian faith will seek every creative solution to be with their people and to ensure that the clergy, who in a way represent them, can remain where they are most needed. By contrast, for an indifferentist or a universalist who thinks, Abu Dhabi-like, that many different paths lead to God, or that perhaps no path at all is needed as a merciful God will scoop us all up in the end, baptism would not be necessary. To one who no longer believes in the reality of mortal sin—sin that kills the divine life in the soul—confession would no longer be necessary. It helps, of course, that laymen can baptize their own children in a difficult situation and that one can make a firm resolution to go to confession as soon as it is available again. But will the laity who feel abandoned today by their pastors feel confident in them tomorrow after the crisis has passed? The abuse crisis and the coronavirus response are, in many ways, like a one-two punch.

For their part, priests are divided among themselves. Some seem to have lost their faith in the efficacy of sacraments and sacramentals, and have rejoined the world that lives in fear of death (cf. Heb 2:15). Others who still believe the Nicene Creed often find themselves at odds with  rules and regulations that leave the faithful high and dry.

Graham Greene, like his protagonist, was a bad Catholic; he freely admitted it. But he knew what a priest was supposed to be and do. I think the same is true for the vast majority of Catholics: they may not be well educated in the Faith, and they may practice inconsistently, but they can recognize dedication to the needs of the flock when they see it. May God grant us more priests like this, and may He deliver us from the hands of the Red Shirts.

[Photo credit: Penguin USA]


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