Award-winning 20th century writer J.F. Powers wrote short stories and novels. I encountered his first novel, Morte D’Urban in a used bookstore a few months ago, and since then I have also read his last, Wheat That Springeth Green. Morte D’Urban won the American National Book Award in 1963. Wheat That Springeth Green apparently took Powers twenty-five years to complete. Both books show the same careful craftsmanship on the levels of prose and overall construction. Both concern the lives of Catholic Priests in mid-century, middle-west America, a favorite topic for Powers. One critic has asserted that Morte D’Urban is the classic American novel on work, and the same can be said of Wheat That Springeth Green. Both depict the compromises, disillusionment, sometimes sheer exhaustion that are involved in pursuing a career, especially one involving membership in a large organization. As a retired military officer, I was struck by the interplay of ideals and ambition, leadership and authority, sacrifice and compensation, and tradition/doctrine and the individual, that are features of both military and religious professions.
Of course, there are demands that are particular to the clergy, in the case of Catholic priests there is rule of celibacy (strictly observed by both protagonists, although this does not mean that it isn’t an issue). Another pitfall for parish priests may be the need to attract paying church members and to otherwise raise funds. Both priests are intelligent and somewhat worldly, but in one instance the priest’s willingness to court a wealthy donor, overlooking flaws in the man’s character, along with a scene in which he is forced to confront the price of his celibacy, may help to bring on a personal crisis. The other priest as a young seminarian seems to be aiming at sainthood, or at least sanctity, even wearing a hair shirt for a time. He falls far short of sainthood, and he adjusts himself to the practical demands of running a parish, but along the way, and perhaps in contrast to the other priest-protagonist, he retains his integrity. He refuses, for example, to resort to hard-sell tactics to raise money, even when pressured by his bishop to raise exorbitant sums. He also maintains his opposition to the Vietnam War, despite the fact that a defense plant is an important employer in the town, and an influential local journalist is virulently pro-war. We also learn that this opposition is no trendy liberalism. He has thought much about questions of war and peace, as he demonstrates when he gives a short but fairly advanced critique of Catholic “Just War” theory, claiming that it takes the individual conscience too little into account. Powers himself was a conscientious objector in World War II, and was jailed for a time, also serving as a medical orderly, so it is more than likely that the priest is expressing the author’s antiwar views.
There are other interesting differences between the two priests. The more worldly priest is a man of unquestionable, even exceptional ability, but he has a tendency to hold himself aloof. The other priest is more successful in cultivating priestly fellowship and other relationships that do not necessarily further his career or lead to donations. He has a becoming instinct to side with the underdog.
When the more worldly priest gets his coveted shot at a position of leadership, he finds himself sick and tired, unable to perform at his best. One critic has said that he ends up embracing sanctity and forsaking the world that had meant so much to him. There is something to this view, but in a sense the priest has sanctity foisted on him by ill-health and lassitude. I would say that his retreat from the world is at least only partly deliberate. It might be said that the other priest is younger, a heavy drinker and putting on weight. It may be that when his opportunity at advancement comes, he won’t be fully capable of rising to the challenge. These are mature novels, by which I mean that not everything is revealed, and that the interplay of concealment and revealing is achieved artfully. Of course, we never know what will, or might happen after a novel ends. In this case, I like to imagine the priest would be prepared: More hope for all of us flawed servants of one god or another, trying to do our best.