Monday, March 17, 2014

The Power and the Glory

I recently finished re-reading Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”. It is the third time I’ve read the book, but the first time I’ve read it as a Catholic. It is one of Greene’s “Catholic novels”, the first novel I ever read by him (for high school English class), and with the benefit of hindsight I believe it influenced me in my movement towards the Catholic Church. It is a beautiful book and has sparked many thoughts in me as I’ve re-read it.

Imagining Belief

I believe the book influenced me when I first read it because it allowed me to glimpse the beauty of faith and life as viewed from inside this foreign, bewildering, and vast system of Catholic faith. The moral drama of the book is made rich precisely because it mostly takes place within a character who is caught up in that moral universe.

Although Greene was a convert, the last thing the book does is proselytize. The one voice who raises some standard Protestant objections against Catholicism is a background figure (Mr. Lehr), and his objections are never directly addressed. The hero, a persecuted priest, is an anti-hero. His character would challenge few to directly question any prejudiced stereotype they may hold about Catholics, Catholic priests, or Mexican/Hispanic Catholic priests.

But there is such beauty! Years before I ever attended a Mass, I carried within me an imprint of the mental image that the description of the scene below made on my mind. It describes the scene in a crowded, dirty hut as an alcoholic priest with a bastard child hastily says Mass in a part of Mexico where the Catholic Church was outlawed:

“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.’ He could hear the sigh of breaths released: God was here in the body for the first time in six years.” (Greene, 71)

I don’t think I even bothered consciously rejecting Catholic teaching when I first read the book. It never put me on the defensive as a non-Catholic. But I admitted that something in this scene in particular was beautiful. I could imagine in a small way what it would be like to believe—how comforting it would be to speak with such certainty about the presence of God.

The Scandal and Promise of Church History

Although it is historical fiction, I think the book reflects some of the persistent themes of real Church history.

It is not difficult to sympathize with those who balk at the idea of the Church’s divine origin after reading some sections of Church history. It is not difficult at all to understand why so many might have reason to smile a bit and relish the details of the intrigue, vice, sin, and corruption that have marked its history. I can understand the instinctive desire to reject the idea that this visible Church stretching back into the past carries the banner of the Church that Christ founded. I can even understand the desire to embrace fanciful notions of a separate, “hidden” Church that must have always existed made up only of pure saints, with no crusaders or hypocrites to mar its self-image.

But isn’t there something beautiful about this other image of the Church? One where saints and sinners are caught up together in Christ and in the communion of saints…and somehow God’s grace is working and sanctifying the whole body despite the continued falls of each individual? Isn’t there something beautiful about the plot of it all? For every Constantine there is a St. Antony moving out into the desert. There are moral dramas and triumphs intertwined with the intrigues.  And even in the sinners one can sometimes…or often, glimpse the movement of grace.