Summary of “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene

Quick Summary from CourseHero: “The Redemption of a Fallen Priest”

  • “In 1930s Mexico, religion is outlawed in many areas. An alcoholic priest with a shameful past defies the law. He slinks from town to town and says Mass when he can, all the while evading arrest. Will he escape, or will he risk his life to serve the people who still keep their faith?”

Based on events he witnessed while reporting as a journalist in Mexico in the 1930s, The Power and the Glory, is Graham Greene’s (1904-91) brilliant depiction of the most human of all saint stories. Greene’s books, which usually focus on sinners, not saints, often display how decadent or corrupt anti-heroes can still perform heroic acts. In this case, the verbally ironic title The Power and the Glory displays how a priest, stripped of all visible power and glory, can still manifest the invisible power and glory through the sacrament of holy orders.

The Whiskey Priest

Father_alcohol_TomWright

On the one hand, our protagonist, an unnamed priest known by locals as the “whiskey priest” (22), is a public sinner:

He is proud, envious, dishonest, cowardly, weak of faith, judgmental, a drunkard, and gluttonous. He also has a daughter, meaning he broke his vow to stay celibate. As the only active priest left in the state, he perverts the very faith he preaches. And if he is caught and killed by the state, he will be considered a martyr – which will surely bring mockery to the Church.

  • “The routine of his life like a damn was cracked and forgetfulness came dribbling through, wiping out this and that. Five years ago he had given way to despair – the unforgivable sin – and he was going back now to the scene of his despair with a curious lightening of the heart. For he had got over despair too. He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a word for his kind – a whiskey priest, but every failure dropped out of sight and mind: somewhere they accumulated in secret – the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace. Until then he carried on, with spells of fear, weariness, with a shamefaced lightness of heart” (57).
On the other hand, he still has a sense of duty and faith:

As the only active priest left in the state, he realizes – or at least assumes – that the future of the Church is dependent upon him… But now that his “parishioners” are being held hostage in the state’s pursuit to capture him, he faces a problem: Should he

  1. stay and minister – giving them the sacraments & fulfilling his duties as a priest: “And it’s my duty not to be caught. You see, my bishop is no longer here.” Curious pedantries moved him. “This is my parish.” (1.3.120-1); OR
  2. flee for the safety of his parishioners – leaving them from his corrupting example & allow him to confess his sins: “He thought: if I go, I shall meet other priests: I shall go to confession: I shall feel contrition and be forgiven: eternal life will begin for me all over again. The Church taught that it was every man’s first duty to save his own soul” (62).
  • “If he left them, they would be safe, and they would be free from his example. He was the only priest the children could remember: it was from him that they would take their ideas of the faith. But it was from him too they took God—in their mouths. When he was gone it would be as if God in all this space between the sea and the mountains ceased to exist. Wasn’t it his duty to stay, even if they despised him, even if they were murdered for his sake? Even if they were corrupted by his example? He was shaken with the enormity of the problem.” (2.1.51)
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Having lost all the glory and comfort that he once enjoyed with the priesthood (the reason he became a priest in the 1st place), our protagonist’s faith begins to emerge in mysterious ways.

He considered it impossible to renounce his faith: “He said, “It’s impossible. There’s no way. I’m a priest. It’s out of my power.” The child listened intently. She said, “Like a birthmark” (36). And when interrogated by the lieutenant, he said: “I’m not telling them fairy stories I don’t believe myself.” (3.3.115). Eventually, he’s captured in an effort to fulfill his priestly duties and dies by execution.

Greene leaves us wondering whether he finished courageously or cowardly. The whiskey priest dies like a saint but without any saintliness. Without explicitly asking it, Greene leaves us with this question.

“He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint” (3.4.94).

In the last scene of the novel, a new priest shows up. Does this show that the Church will always supply enough priests by Divine Providence for God’s faithful? No doubt, the new priest has quite the mission at stake!

The Eucharist

I just love these mysterious quotes on the Eucharist…

Image result for priest with eucharist

The priest, Padre José, “knew that he was a buffoon. An old man who married was grotesque enough, but an old priest… He stood outside himself and wondered whether he was even fit for hell. He was just a fat old impotent man mocked and taunted between the sheets. But then he remembered the gift he had been given which nobody could take away. That was what made him worthy of damnation – the power he still had of turning the wafer into the flesh and blood of God. He was a sacrilege. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he defied God… He had lived for two years now in a continuous state of mortal sin with no one to hear his Confession” (23-4).

  • “Now that he no longer despaired it didn’t mean, of course, that he wasn’t damned – it was simply that after a time the mystery became too great, a damned man putting God into the mouths of men: an odd sort of servant, that, for the devil” (57).

“If he left them, they would be safe, and they would be free form his example. He was the only priest the children could remember: it was from him they would take their ideas of the faith. But it was from him too they took God – in their mouths. When he was gone it would be as if God in all this space between the sea and the mountains ceased to exist. Wasn’t it his duty to stay, even if they despised him, even if they were murdered for his sake? even if they were corrupted by his example? He was shaken by the enormity of the problem. He lay with his hands over his eyes: nowhere, in all the wide flat marshy land, was there a single person he could consult. He raised the brandy to his mouth” (62).

  • “There was a time when he had approached the Canon of the Mass with actual physical dread – the first time he had consumed the body and blood of God in a state of mortal sin. But then life bred its excuses – it hadn’t after a while seemed to matter very much, whether he was damned or not, so long as these others” (67).

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. When he raised the Host he could imagine the faces lifted like famished dogs” (68).

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