|St Jerome, St Thomas Aquinas, St Francis of Assisi|
Good priestsA good priest is a wonderful human being. The minister of spiritual rituals, the mediator between God and mankind, the community figure who heals and balms, who inspires and unites. A good priest is courageous, wise, thoughtful, studious, respectful, loving, generous and collaborative. Not much to ask! But they exist!
Great priestsMonsignor Thompson was the benevolent parish leader at St Austin’s parish in Wakefield through my childhood. I’m not aware he did anything other than act for the good of parishioners. The scholarly St Jerome worked for over 40 years in the 1st Century to produce the first translation of the Bible into Latin; by all accounts he was a dedicated and kind man. St Thomas Aquinas defied his rich family in the 13th Century to become a leading open-minded philosopher. Another rich young man who abandoned wealth and had a world impact was St Francis of Assisi with his love of the environment and respect for poverty.
|Troubled priests in literature - the Unnamed 'whisky priest', Father Ralph and Frollo|
Literary priests who are not so good....Literature has its fair share of troubled and corrupt priests (think the Unnamed protagonist in Grahame Greene’s The Power and the Glory or Father Ralph in Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds not to mention the lascivious Archdeacon Frollo in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.) As far back as Chaucer’s marvellous Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner and the Summoner are portrayed as despicable and evil religious figures (and plenty of historical sources suggest that many priests in those roles in medieval times were indeed duplicitous and open to bribes.)
|Medieval monsters: the Pardoner and the Summoner from The Canterbury Tales|
But my friend you left so early….But there are also some exemplary religious figures in literature: Victor Hugo created one of the most moving portraits of a church figure in the Bishop of Digne (Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel.) In the prologue of the musical Les Misérables my first tears always spring up when Jean Valjean is arrested and returned to the Bishop’s house for stealing his silver and the Bishop surprises the arresting officers and his housekeeper by singing:
But my friend you left so earlyAnd Bishop Myriel hands over his precious candlesticks, inherited from a great-aunt. But in Victor Hugo’s astonishing (and angry) novel the descriptions of him chime with my own view of social responsibility:
Surely something slipped your mind
You forgot I gave these also;
Would you leave the best behind?
(The Bishop) “was indulgent towards women and poor people, on whom the burden of human society rest. He said, “The faults of women, of children, of the feeble, the indigent, and the ignorant, are the fault of the husbands, the fathers, the masters, the strong, the rich, and the wise.” He said, moreover, “Teach those who are ignorant as many things as possible; society is culpable, in that it does not afford instruction gratis; it is responsible for the night which it produces. This soul is full of shadow; sin is therein committed. The guilty one is not the person who has committed the sin, but the one who has created the shadow.”
Brooklyn by Colm TóibínI have recently finished reading the exquisite Colm Tóibín novel Brooklyn and in that novel I expected the character of Father Flood to eventually display some faults but he acts in a benign and generous manner throughout. Jim Broadbent is playing him in the forthcoming film and that, for me, bodes well. Despite Colm Tóibín’s public criticisms of the Catholic church, he has created a character in Father Flood that can only be described as charitable and compassionate. (I thoroughly recommend Brooklyn along with Nora Webster, a companion novel, as believable depictions of repressed feelings and hopeful yearnings in a small Irish community.)
|Forthcoming film of Brooklyn|
Bad priestsHow do you identify bad priests in real life?
• Hypocritical words and actionsI have encountered examples of bad priests in my life who have demonstrated the above bullet points: the priest who led a double life, the priest who would not forgive someone who acted with the best of intentions but made a mistake, the priest whose words WOUNDED members of the congregation. I have even had a conversation with one priest that led me to believe he had evil thoughts.
• Uncharitable deeds and impulses
• Sermons that instill fear and shame