An Exceptional Catholic Novel at Lent

What makes a great Catholic novel?

Does the author have to be a Catholic? Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop disproves that. Does it have to be populated by priests and nuns in a distinctively Catholic environment? Paul Horgan's A Distant Trumpet, an old-fashioned saga about the frontier on one level and a great Catholic novel on another, has no nuns whatsoever, and the only priest is fleetingly mentioned in a single sentence.

If the novel does involve a priest, does he have to be an unsullied paladin of the faith? Read Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory and you'll never make that assumption again. Must it have a happy ending? Try Shasaku Endo's Silence.

A novel is both great and Catholic if the author believes—and conveys with literary skill—the truth at the end of Georges Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest: “Grace is everywhere.”

A great Catholic novel is filled with a sacramental sensibility. The old Baltimore Catechism definition helps here. A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by God to give grace. Translate that into a world view and you get a sacramental sensibility: the extraordinary is not located in some alternative universe; the extraordinary is just over there, on the other side of the ordinary. Everyday things and ordinary people become vessels of grace, not by magical transformation but by being what and who they are.

I was recently asked who today's great Catholic novelists were and after an embarrassed silence had to confess that I couldn't think of any. It seemed odd, in a century that had produced Bernanos, Greene, and Evelyn Waugh, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, and Endo plus the Catholic efforts of non-Catholics like Willa Cather. But most of what passed for “Catholic novels” today struck me as banal, literarily or theologically.

Then I found Mr. Ives' Christmas.

First published in 1995 and now available in a HarperPerennial paperback, Mr. Ives' Christmas is the fourth novel by Oscar Hijuelos, a Cuban—American born in New York City in 1951. His second book, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, defied all the odds by successfully portraying Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball's husband, as Aristotle's great-souled man. But what really makes Hijuelos an exceptional writer, according to my friend, the critic J. Bottum, is that Hijuelos may be the only American novelist who “still believes in the possibility of great-souled men” and has a literary technique that does “more than mock or demean them.”

Mr. Ives' Christmas is a far less exuberant book than Mambo Kings, which befits its subject: Edward Ives's struggle to reconcile his faith with the murder of his son (gunned down senselessly on a New York street just before entering the seminary) and to forgive his son's murderer. In less skilled hands, that plot line would be a sure prescription for literary catastrophe of the most saccharine sort. But Hijuelos's bare-bones narrative style and theological sophistication have given us a book that is sweet (itself a minor miracle in serious contemporary fiction) without being sentimental. Sharply chiseled three-page chapters are laced with an Augustinian determination to look life in the eye and an ineradicable, if deeply shaken, conviction that God must be doing something redemptive with all this sorrow.

The result is a novel that tells a wonderful story and makes Catholicism seem a faith for intelligent, serious adults. Mr. Ives' Christmas displays none of the hand-wringing neurosis that distorts other self-consciously Catholic novels these days. Ives is a very stricken man. He is a realist, but never a whiner.

Hijuelos has nerve as well as skill. How many other contemporary writers would dare end a novel like this?

“With pained but transcendent eyes, bearded and regal. He would come down the central aisle toward Ives, and placing His wounded hands upon Ives' brow, give His blessing before taking him away, and all others who were good in this world, off into His heaven where they would be joined unto Him and all that is good forever and ever, without end.”

The title bespeaks Christmas, but the story is about a lifetime of Lent completed by Easter. I commend it to you at this season, and indeed at any season.

George Weigel is senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.