Welcome to Muck Island

The sacking of Bishop Strickland brings to mind the sad plot of Brian Moore’s novella "Catholics".

I watched the EWTN interview of Bishop Strickland last night and had nightmares while I slept. The bishop, articulate and, to my mind, innocent of all irony, recounted what had happened in his process of deposition and professed his recognition of the pope’s authority and his obedience to his removal from office. 

The sincerity of the man’s confusion about why he was singled out was piercing. Many sources have hinted at “administrative” reasons without any real evidence. The fact that the protocol established for the removal of bishops was not honored did not make him doubt the pope’s authority. His distress at the confusion caused by some of the statements that have come from the Vatican lately is logical and not some extremist reaction. 

He said, for instance, that only two years ago, the Vatican had said same-sex couple blessings were impossible. Yet, the topic was introduced at the Synod on Synodality. The president of that assembly is on record doubting the biblical and traditional Church teaching on sexual relations outside of marriage for same-sex-attracted individuals. 

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Strickland’s surprise that he has been removed from his diocese while other bishops contradict ancient Church teaching and pastoral practice was honest and made me doubt the criticism he has received from some unexpected quarters. I read, for instance, that Strickland should not have traveled to other diocese and spoken his mind on issues because that was the monopoly of the local ordinary. A geographical restriction to a bishop’s preaching would have robbed us of the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the courageous resistance of St. Athanasius to the Arian heresy, and the heroic valor of exiled bishops from St. Anselm and St. Thomas Becket to modern times. A geographical restriction to a bishop’s preaching would have robbed us of the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the courageous resistance of St. Athanasius to the Arian heresy, and the heroic valor of many exiled bishops.Tweet This

The experience of seeing his televised version of Apologia Pro Vita Sua made me compare his plight, and those like-minded, with Brian Moore’s novella Catholics, which was written in 1972. In that brilliant short novel, an American priest, James Kinsella, is sent to Muck Island, Ireland, to discipline an Irish monastery of his same “Albanesian” (fictional) order for disobedience to the teaching of Vatican IV.

The monks continue to say the Tridentine Mass in Latin and pilgrims from around the world come to their liturgy, celebrated on an old “Mass rock,” an allusion to the Penal Days in Ireland. A BBC report and then a threatened American television special has made the Father General of the Order angry with Abbot Tomas O’Malley and his monks. Kinsella has plenipotentiary powers to force the monks to change their ways. There is concern in Rome that the World Ecumen Council, in which the Catholic Church now participates, is offended by the Old Mass and also that the monastery’s clinging to tradition will cause problems with the “apertura,” an initiative hoping for a merger between Buddhism and Christianity.

The two main characters in the novella are a study in contrasts but also have a great deal in common. Fr. Kinsella, who is refused a boat ride to the monastery island because he is not dressed like a priest, hires a helicopter to get there. He is a disciple of a liberationist priest, Gustav Hartman, who decided that the best way to change the world was to use the institutional Church. Kinsella was not allowed to go to South America, like his mentor, and has ended up a bureaucrat in the World Ecumen Council in Amsterdam. When Father Abbot asks him about his faith, he says that 

I do not believe that the bread and wine on the altar is changed into the body and blood of Christ, except in a purely symbolic manner. Therefore, I do not, in the old sense, think of God as actually being present, there in the tabernacle.

The abbot himself, however, has lost his faith. He has not prayed “in years.” His reason for allowing the Old Mass and private confession (outlawed by Vatican IV, as is making the sign of the cross, the Lourdes shrine, and even the traditional grace before meals) is that he is “not a holy man, but, maybe because I am not, I felt I had no right to interfere. I thought it was my duty not to disturb the faith they have. So, I went back to the old way.” I’m sure Graham Greene must have admired Moore’s abbot, a lost soul austerely shepherding the souls of the faithful. Kinsella has not read the books that O’Malley has, and he does not want to talk about theology. He represents ecclesiastical power: “obedience: in the end it was the only card.” This Kinsella had learned from the activist Fr. Hartman.

Minutes before the helicopter is prepared to take Fr. Kinsella away from Muck Island in advance of a threatened storm, the Abbot capitulates, but he does not allow the priest-inquisitor to speak with the other monks. He writes a letter apologizing to the Father General and promising obedience. Then he convokes the monks. Staring at the golden door of the tabernacle, “his fear came. ‘Prayer is the only miracle,’ he said. ‘We pray. If our words become prayer, God will come.’” 

Fr. Tomas O’Malley kneels down stiffly and says the “Our Father” trembling. The ending is ambiguous. He is recognizing God present in the tabernacle, something Fr. Kinsella denied. It is not clear how things will work out.

If I wrote the novella, I would have Kinsella’s helicopter crash in the storm and have the monks go back to square one. Moore is more subtle and allows the reader some space for speculation as well as meditation. When a television movie based on the book came out in the ’70s, I remember a laywoman who taught at the seminary remarking how striking and frightening the story was. Jejune confidence made me volunteer the opinion that something like that could not happen. 

Kinsella’s superior who wants to force the monastery into submission admits to the younger priest, “Even Vatican IV can’t bury two thousand years in a few decades.” Sexual ethics and Church order are not the same as Eucharistic heresy, but I think that it might be useful if some in Rome thought about the fictional superior’s reflection, perhaps substituting another kind of meeting for “Vatican IV.” Meanwhile, some of us are caught on Muck Island, wondering.


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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