What does a priest make of John Boyne’s portrayal of Fr Odran Yates?
Fr Martin Boland compares John Boyne’s portrayal of a cleric unfavourably to the works of Graham Greene, Georges Bernanos, Shusaku Endo, Brian Moore, Andrew O’Hagan and William Peter Blatty
The best portrayals of priests manage to capture the luminous quality of their vocation. In Georges Bernanos’s The Diary of a Country Priest, something of the transcendent gives a mysterious voltage to the quotidian concerns of the pastor at the heart of the novel.
Some writers expose the visible and invisible qualities in their imaginary priest by placing him in situations of extreme pressure. Brian Moore’s Black Robe places the saintly Fr Laforgue in an alien and violent environment, where his mission to save the souls of the Huron Indians disturbs the securities of his own faith
For Fr Martin Boland, John Boyne’s Fr Odran Yates is ‘a secular invention, a sociological conceit, godless’, whereas in The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty is as interested in the divine power that possesses Fr Damien Karras as in Regan MacNeil’s demonic possession
Please pray for the novelist who attempts to create a priest character. He needs our prayers if he is to avoid resorting to hackneyed stereotypes or pantomime villain caricatures. The challenge, strewn with traps and pitfalls, is to portray a truly convincing priest, a man who lives out of a deep interior reality.
The lawyer, the teacher or the salesman can all be described from a purely external viewpoint. One can immediately grasp who they are by what they do or create. By contrast, the priest cannot be understood in these terms. He slips through our normal grasp of things because he does nothing and he creates nothing. Instead, he is an instrument that is used by a higher power. It is not really he that lives but Christ that lives in him.
The priest is an ec-centric, living outside the centre of things. He has a liminal existence and is to be found camped on that ambiguous border between the finite and the eternal. He is best caught sight of at the peripheries of life.
In order to understand the priest, an author has to place himself imaginatively within the soul of the man and find an elastic idiom that can bridge the material and spiritual realms.
The best portrayals of priests manage to capture the luminous quality of their vocation. In Georges Bernanos’s The Diary of a Country Priest, something of the transcendent gives a mysterious voltage to the quotidian concerns of the pastor at the heart of the novel. This is a deceptively simple story of a young priest struggling with his own faith while having to navigate the conflicting demands of his parishioners. By avoiding pious sentimentality, Bernanos skilfully balances the interior and exterior dimensions of his priest in a sympathetic equilibrium.
Shusaku Endo, in his acclaimed novel, Silence, uses a literary device to probe the vocation of his main character, Fr Sebastião Rodrigues, who is sent to 17th-century Japan to investigate the alleged apostasy of a fellow priest. Endo writes half of his novel as a personal journal, and the other half either in the third person or through the letters of other characters. In this way, Endo is able to drill beneath the crust of the narrative into the psyche and spirit of the young Jesuit.
Some writers expose the visible and invisible qualities in their imaginary priest by placing him in situations of extreme pressure. By pushing their character to the limits of human endurance, the author is able to bring to the surface the operations of grace in the man’s life.
Graham Greene achieves this by setting the spiritual journey of his “whisky priest” in The Power and the Glory against the backdrop of the suppression of the Catholic Church in 1930s Mexico. Similarly, Brian Moore’s Black Robe places the saintly Fr Laforgue in an alien and violent environment, where his mission to save the souls of the Huron Indians disturbs the securities of his own faith.
My favourite depiction of a priest under pressure is Father Damien Karras in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. A young girl, Regan MacNeil, is possessed by a demon and Fr Damien becomes involved in her exorcism. In the process, the priest’s own spiritual demons are released which, paradoxically, serve only to strengthen his faith. Blatty is as interested in the divine power that possesses this priest as in Regan’s demonic possession. Through Blatty’s vivid characterisation, Fr Damien becomes more than a holy water sprinkling vigilante.
In A History of Loneliness, John Boyne inserts his central priest character, Fr Odran Yates, into the pressure chamber of recent abuse scandals in Ireland. The author’s racy narrative – part history lesson, part critique, part satire, part thriller – becomes so dominant that he leaves himself little space to develop the priest’s character. Fr Odran is a secular invention. He persists as a sociological conceit that provides a convenient literary peg onto which Boyne can hang his case for the prosecution.
Boyne is thus guilty of failing to give Fr Odran either any kind of interior life or sense of transcendent purpose. For example, his priest never appears to celebrate Mass and is disconnected from the sacramental life of the church. There is little sense of his relationship with his parish. He is allergic to prayer and when Boyne does allow him to pick up a rosary or bible, he uses these for dramatic effect or to nail a rhetorical point. All the talk is about popes, bishops and priests; Jesus Christ barely gets a mention. Fr Odran Yates is in fact godless.
Andrew O’Hagan’s 2006 novel, Be Near Me, is a much more successful attempt to analyse the effects on a priest of recent scandals. O’Hagan sets his 56-year-old priest adrift in a culture where a sectarian mob can sniff the faintest trace of sexual misdemeanour.
Unlike Boyne, O’Hagan deftly captures his anti-hero’s abiding sense of “homelessness” – that of being in the world, but not of it, of being an Oxford-educated, Catholic misfit marooned in an impoverished Presbyterian town in Scotland. Fr Anderton is a nuanced, tender portrait of a vulnerable man who believes he was called to be a channel of hope, communion and redemption for others. The story of his downfall is poignant because O’Hagan never loses sight of his character’s deep sense of vocation.
While Boyne’s Fr Yates is a “dedicated and honest” man, he is never allowed to mature into a fully rounded person. As a priest character, he is spiritually stunted. There is no sense that this man has a vocation, that he is a priest who, in all his human frailty, is nevertheless sustained by the imperceptible movements of grace. If only his psychological character had borne at least some of these spiritual hallmarks, then we may have been blessed with a truly great “priest” novel. There is a serious novel to be written about what it means to be a priest ministering amid the toxic fumes of recent abuse scandals. Sadly, A History of Loneliness is not that book.
Fr Martin Boland is Dean of Brentwood Cathedral in England. Born in London of Donegal parentage, he has blogged on the interface between culture and faith at theinvisibleprovince.blogspot.co.uk
Next week, he will write on loneliness and the priesthood, one of the underlying, if perhaps underplayed, themes of A Historyof Loneliness:
“For many people, loneliness is that facet of human existence that they most dread and, from which, they tirelessly labour to escape. Yet, loneliness is one of the distinguishing hallmarks of our humanity. It is embedded in the very grain of life itself. We recognise in each other a capacity for loneliness. Alone or together, we plumb its abysmal depths. It cuts through the exposed face of humanity like an ancient geological seam, its primordial origin traceable to the first moments of our creation. Unique among all creatures, we have an intimate knowledge of what it is to be alone. In his poem The Word, RS Thomas, describes this intuition ...”
A History of Loneliness by John Boyne (Doubleday). Hodges Figgis is offering a 10 per cent discount on this and all future Irish Times Book Club titles.