Jonathan Briggs's Reviews > The Power and the Glory

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
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May 03, 12


In the 1920s and '30s in Mexico, the governor of Tabasco state decided that he had had enough of that pope joker and his pals, and he did his best to kick God and Catholicism out of his territory. Graham Greene never mentions Tabasco specifically in the P&G, but it's clear that's what he's writing about in one of his greatest novels. A fanatically anti-religious police lieutenant presents priests with three unpleasant alternatives: Get out, get married or get shot. Mass is canceled. One priest remains on the loose, and he's not much of an onward Christian soldier. In his years as a man of the cloth, the "whisky priest" has allowed his venal drives and alcoholism to erode his faith: "Feast days and fast days and days of abstinence had been the first to go: then he had ceased to trouble more than occasionally about his breviary -- and finally he had left it behind altogether. ... Five years ago he had given way to despair -- the unforgivable sin." He believes himself damned, but he continues to risk his own life and the lives of the faithful by holding illicit communions and baptisms. The peasants resent the danger he puts them in, they recognize him as fallen and contemptuously call him "father" like they were sticking him with knives. Yet they show up for every Mass. Why? Is it faith or superstition? Devotion or duty? Love of God or fear of damnation? Greene seems to be wrestling with these questions himself, presenting no easy answers, just doubts to be grappled. One can sense his struggle with faith in almost unbearably bitter lines such as "Why, after all, should we expect God to punish the innocent with more life?" Debased, a criminal and sinner, the whisky priest discovers the emptiness of rote platitudes and feels awakening inside him a painful empathy for his fellow dregs of society -- though Greene is far too cynical a chronicler of human nature to let his protagonist off with a mere epiphany. Greene writes simply but with a sneaky power that can strike like a truncheon across the knees: "She was one of those garrulous women who show to strangers the photographs of their children, but all she had to show was a coffin." You certainly don't have to be religious to appreciate Greene, but I'm bettin all my guilty Catholic friends would LOVE this.
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