We just finished reading Graham Greene’s masterpiece entitled The Power and the Glory. In it, the reader follows an unnamed cleric, identified only as the “Whisky Priest”, who clutches to life in the Mexican state of Tabasco around the 1930’s, when the Mexican government was actively suppressing the Catholic Church there.
The story is true to its title, and without revealing anything about the ending, I want to share a theme from the book and discuss its centrality to the vocational aspects of the Catholic priesthood.
Today there is much discussion concerning the question of clerical celibacy. We Catholics within the Latin Rite are aware that nearly all of our priests have taken a vow of celibacy. In fact, for most of the Church, clerical celibacy is the rule, while there are a few exceptions (the most notable example of which is the Anglican Ordinariate).
Clerical celibacy is a long-held tradition of the Church, but admittedly there is nothing that prevents the Church from ordaining married men. Pope Francis has confirmed this recently, indicating that the “door is always open” to the possibility of a larger number of married men being ordained to the priesthood.
But while many of us would like to see more married men a part of the priesthood, I still think that a celibate priest is the best kind, because of what priesthood is.
In The Power and the Glory, the Whisky Priest is on the lam. He must evade “The Lieutenant” — the archetype of the rigid, ruthless socialist ideologue — and his police minions, whose charge it is to rid all of Mexico of every last priest.
As the circle tightens around the Whisky Priest, his options run thin when it comes to where he can run. The Whisky Priest’s friends and former parishioners risk their own death by assisting him, forcing the Whisky Priest further and further into the wilderness without anything at all to sustain him.
The Whisky Priest sees himself not as a good priest, but an exquisitely bad one, in part due to his addiction to alcohol, among other things. He does not consider himself worthy to even be a priest; he is an errant and disobedient servant.
And yet, he is a priest, and there’s nothing he can do with the indelible mark placed upon his soul in ordination, other than to continue to follow where God leads, however imperfectly he does so. The circumstances that the Whisky Priest finds himself in, and the things that separate him from his own escape, are signs of the sacramentality and sacrifice of the priesthood.
When, at the beginning of the book, the Whisky Priest has an opportunity to board a ship at port and sail away, he is called (by a little child) to another village in the opposite direction so that he can bring Last Rites to a dying person:
He said sadly, ‘It always seems to happen. Like this.’
‘You’ll have a job not to miss the boat.’
‘I shall miss it,’ he said. ‘I am meant to miss it.’ He was shaken by a tiny rage. ‘Give me my brandy.’ He took a long pull at it, with his eyes in the impassive child, the baked street, the vultures moving in the sky like indigestion spots.’
‘Vamos,’ the man said to the child.
Similarly, toward the end of the book, the Whisky Priest is once again presented with a situation that could be avoided by anyone other than a priest: another terrible sinner, near death, who needs to confess his sins before he dies.
If he ignores the call, the Whisky Priest will carry another sin to his own grave: potentially denying a man his salvation. And, since all the other priests have been wiped out, he is denied what he himself carries; there is no way for him to absolve his own mortal sins.
But the Whisky Priest is not so hollowed out by his own sins that he would look the other way when there is a person who needs the sacraments. Throughout the book, he recognizes the power of what he carries, which also leads him to so much guilt and despair. He is so unworthy, and yet, time and again there is no one else.
It is in the Whisky Priest’s promised celibacy that he is free to carry out his vocational calling of sacrifice. He is free to respond to the call which may ultimately lead to his own personal mortality. He is free to bring what he brings, however imperfectly he does so. He is free to be a true Father to his people, in the same way that a father is free to be present to his own natural family.
If the Church were composed primarily of married priests, we would lose some of this vocation of sacrifice. A married man is called to sacrifice for the good of his own family, but how does a married priest bring this conflict — between his parish/flock and his family — into resolution? How does a married Whisky Priest, aware that his wife and children wait for him at home, or within the safe boundaries of a more friendly country, resolve a response to a desperate call for mercy?
A priest is a pastor, but he is not merely that. A priest is a visible sign of the sacramental nature of the Church. He is concerned, first and foremost, with delivering the superabundant graces poured out from the sacraments to the faithful. He does this in a sacrificial way; he recognizes, this is a good, not just for me, but also (and even primarily) for the people entrusted to me.
Which is why we should not be so quick to suggest — in response to the repeated claims of the “vocations crisis” — that a married priesthood is capable of replacing a celibate one. Doing so overlooks the great gift borne to us out of a millennia or more of sacrifice.
We should first consider the great gift from God to us in the celibate priesthood, and look for ways to encourage other men who are discerning their vocations. And finally, we must support the many wonderful, excellent, celibate priests that grace God’s Church.
Souls are saved even at the hands of the Whisky Priest.