A Lost Tribe by William King review – Silent on the great spiritual needs
In all the reflection on the alienation which clergy experience in this secular age, there’s little sense of the pain and joy that a typical priest finds in the lives of people he serves
It is in applying themselves anew to the ministry of trying to bring meaning, hope and healing that King’s lost tribe will find a sure compass and firmer footing
A Lost Tribe
Even though this novel opens in the context of a priests’ retreat, one’s first impression is of spiritual emptiness and resignation. In many striking snatches of clipped conversation, the novel excavates the effects of the beating that the author feels the Irish Catholic clergy have taken in recent decades at the hands of angry secularists and under the weight of thousands of abuse allegations. The impression is of a beleaguered sub-group stranded in a wider culture which has moved on. One priest quips, ironically echoing Joyce’s outcast character, James Duffy, in the story A Painful Case: “Wouldn’t you feel you’re excluded from the party? Life I mean.” Another is unsurprised at news that a priest has committed suicide: ‘we’re expected to live this nonsensical life. Drudgery and isolation . . . It’s killing us.” The clerical ire reserved for remote, self-absorbed bishops who do little to help priests falsely accused of abuse is a particularly conspicuous theme.
In the context of the recent whirlwind of disclosures concerning a famous American actor and a distinguished Irish journalist, few can be unaware of the damage that sexual abuse wreaks and the questions it raises about institutional cultures. The Catholic clergy have now 25 years more experience than others in facing the full brunt of societal outcry and scrutiny concerning abuse, and this novel offers a searing insight into clerical bewilderment and loss of confidence. It also raises uncomfortable questions for a society quick to resort to witch hunts and scapegoating. While never adverting to the fact, the book’s setting is clearly Dublin diocese where its author, Fr William King, in this his fifth novel, currently serves as parish priest of Rathmines.
The retreat brings a number of elderly priests back to the building which had for decades housed their old seminary, St Paul’s (now, tellingly, sold and put to secular use). The novel’s principal character, Fr Tommy Galvin, had first arrived there as a youthful seminarian 50 years earlier. The novel turns on the dialogue between this handful of priests and Galvin’s interior reminiscences, first about his time as a seminarian and then about his four decades or so of ministry in a fast-changing Ireland.
The tone throughout is bare and unflinching: priests lacking in spiritual energy and deeply scarred by the fallout from the abuse crisis. But it had not always seemed so bleak. Indeed when young Galvin began his studies, the archbishop in an address to the students blithely assured them that “a glorious future” lay ahead for the Church. And as the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) got underway, it seems that both Galvin and many of his contemporaries at St Paul’s were filled with hopes and expectations of a real renaissance in the Church. This sense of anticipation among the students, at least in an Irish context, at precisely this time, strikes this reader as somewhat exaggerated. In fact, so unprepared were the Irish bishops, and presumably the wider Church, for the Council, that there is no minute about it in the record of the Irish bishops’ meetings during the two-year preparatory period. What is indisputable, however, is that the traditional seminary strictures regarding personal relationships, and particularly with women, would soon begin to be questioned. The mood seems to have been one which encouraged the belief that things were bound to change soon. Galvin is deeply conflicted. One fellow student remarks that “celibacy will be history in 10 years” . Other students, however, had different concerns, more interested in positioning themselves for advancement on the hierarchical ladder, especially the lowly-born but indefatigable Damien Irwin.
Galvin’s steadiness of character and reliability mean that in time he is appointed archbishop’s secretary. Unhappily, this will coincide, unknown to him, with the beginnings of the abuse crisis. The diocesan authorities do not divulge to him the nature of the accusations against certain priests. Later, he will face unfair allegations that he was part of a cover up. In the midst of this turmoil he falls in love and has to wrestle with whether to leave the priesthood and marry, or somehow reframe his vocational choice in the context of middle age and the hard-won wisdom that has accrued through his experience.
Notably, if understandably in the context of a single novel, the author is silent on the great spiritual needs which continue to exist among ordinary Catholics, practising or not. Also, in the midst of the reflection on the ennui which clergy experience in this secular age, there’s little sense of the pain – and also the joy – that a typical priest finds in the lives of people he serves, as he goes about his ministry of trying to bring meaning, hope and healing. It is in applying themselves anew to that task that King’s lost tribe will find a sure compass and firmer footing on their pilgrim way.
Fr Niall Coll, a priest of the diocese of Raphoe, is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at St Mary’s University College, Belfast