I enjoy ‘whiskey priest’ stories a lot.* So much so, that I find myself seeking them out now. I haven’t read many, but they’ve spoken to me, called out to me, ministered to me even. In part, because I see myself in them (more on that later, though).
A ‘whiskey priest,’ a phrase coined by Graham Greene for his protagonist in The Power and the Glory, is a vocational minister – usually a Catholic priest – who has some sort of moral shortcoming. Despite this, and often along with accompanying guilt or feelings of ineffectiveness, God uses him to minister to people and ultimately shows His grace to and through him.
My introduction to this genre was Doctor Faustus, a play by Christopher Marlowe which I’d read at least a decade before anything else below. Though Faustus is not a whiskey priest himself, I’ve long identified with aspects of his character. At the beginning of the play Faustus is incredibly intelligent, and incredibly devout (umm, not those parts). Yet his thirst for knowledge leads him into the occult and alchemy and he summons a demon, trading his soul for knowledge and power (not those parts either…). At the end of his contracted life he desires to repent, and even confesses that “a drop, nay, half a drop even” of Jesus’ blood would be enough to absolve him. But he does not break his contract and is dragged to Hell. He knew the truth, yet turned aside from it. The reason he doesn’t fit is because during his post-soul-selling life, he does not in any way try to serve God, knowing that he has damned himself already. The play shares similar themes with the rest of the items on the list, however, such as Faustus’ knowledge of the depth of his sins.
The first time I read Shusaku Endo’s Silence, I knew it would be one I’ll go back to read again and again. I’d initially picked it up because of the book’s cover, and because I’ve always been interested in the history of missions & Christianity in East Asia. The book blew me away. It’s about a Portuguese Jesuit, Father Rodriguez, who goes to Feudal Japan at a time when Christianity is outlawed, looking for his mentor who rumor has it has apostatized. Great story, with an incredible ending, and to me illustrates the enormity of Jesus’ “emptying Himself” (a la Philippians 2) out of love for His creation. Some may not consider Endo’s protagonist a true whiskey priest, but I can’t help but see him falling in this category.
Next I’d read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and was here first introduced to the idea of whiskey priests. The nameless protagonist is a priest on the run from the 1930’s Mexican government, which is trying to stamp out Christianity. As he runs, he drinks, and he takes confession and offers communion in the communities he runs through. I’d picked up my copy at a used book store, and knowing nothing about it beyond what I read on the jacket that day, recognized that it was a famous author and novel and so should read it. No regrets there! Sadly, I no longer have that copy, and am on the lookout for another.
Sometime after that, I saw a movie called The Apostle written by, directed by, and starring Robert Duvall. This time it’s not about a Catholic priest, but a Pentecostal minister, Sonny, who’s ousted from his church by his wife, who also happens to be having an affair with the youth pastor. Sonny kills the youth pastor in a fit of anger and goes on the run, repenting and trying to continue preaching the Gospel as he goes.
The Sparrow was next on my reading list, and was really the novel that started me off on this track of reading tales about struggling priests. Written by Mary Doria Russell, it’s set in the year 2016 when life on another planet is discovered. A(nother) Latin-American Jesuit, Father Sandoz, an expert in linguistics, is dispatched with the team, and is the only one to return to earth. While he tries to do good, he causes untold harm both to himself and those he interacts with (both human and not).
Currently I’m reading Godric by Frederick Buechner, and it’s the first whiskey priest story I specifically searched for. I haven’t gotten very far yet, but it’s a fictional retelling of the life of the saint based on his real-life hagiographies. Even in the first chapter I see how Godric easily falls into this ‘society of whiskey priests’ if you will. I love how he tries to scandalize the monk writing his biography; I find myself sometimes scandalized too by how frank and honest Godric is, yet without guile.
A Common Thread
While quite different overall, one common thread shared by all the main characters is that they have a troubled or dark past; they’ve all done things or had things done to them which affect what they do in their present. They are all fallible human beings, trying to do what they know to be right amidst their brokenness.
What else is on the docket? Not sure, actually. I’ve heard ‘Diary of a Country Priest’ fits this category, although I haven’t looked into it yet. ‘The Monk’ may as well. We shall see!
* I also enjoy scotch whiskey. As I wrote this post, I savoured a glass of Chivas Regal on the rocks I received for my birthday recently.