Summer is nearly here and that means a raft of new books in a sea of old ones (newly re-jacketed) are available for your summer reading. But why settle for some pulp fiction (or worse) when lounging on the beach or on your back deck? Herewith, ten books—in my mind, “classics”—that feature priests:
1. Hadrian the Seventh by Fr. Rolfe (Novel): No, “Fr. Rolfe” is not “Father Rolfe”; it is short for “Frederick Rolfe” (aka “Baron Corvo”)—both short for Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, the Baron Corvo (1860-1913), who saw nothing wrong with the idea of wanting to be pope. Problem is, he himself was thrown out of the seminary (twice). His revenge? Writing a novel in which his doppelgänger, George Rose, an Englishman who had been expelled from the seminary, is indeed elected pope (twenty years after being ejected from the seminary, just like Rolfe himself) and takes the name “Hadrian VII”. The book, which made no money in its time, foresaw the Lateran Treaty, a pope who walked around Rome (à la St. John XXIII) and, frighteningly, an assassination attempt on the Holy Father. Not exactly a page turner, but certainly a book that is unlike any other novel about the papacy.
2. The Quest For Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A.J.A. Symons (Biography): But, per the above, who was Baron Corvo? A.J.A. Symons, after reading Hadrian The Seventh, became obsessed with the author and was determined to find out. The problem was, Corvo led such a life of alternating saintliness and prayer, insanity and debauchery, that much of what Symons discovered about his subject could not be printed. However, letters, newspaper-clippings, remembrances from students, classmates, landlords, and Rolfe’s own brother—and Bishop—are all here. For a man (Rolfe) who invented color photography, underwater photography, published a half-dozen books, painted the interiors of a couple British-Catholic churches, coined at least a dozen neologisms, and remained a “faithful” Catholic—he would never paint before his brushes were blessed by a priest—Rolfe died miserable, alone, broken and bankrupt in Venice in 1913. In a sense, he was the unknown precursor to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. I’ve never read any biography quite like The Quest For Corvo, both in terms of its singular subject and in how the book is so uniquely structured. Technically, Rolfe was never a priest (though he felt he was an thus founder a two-person Religious Congregation), but a failed seminarian. Nevertheless, his biography is still unmatched.
3. The Island by Gustaw Herling (Fiction: Three Short-stories): If you are more into short stories than full-length books, these three somewhat-related tales are a treat. Gustaw Herling, a Pole who survived a Russian slave labor camp, moved to Italy and wrote some simply incredible prose. The final “long-short-story” in this trilogy, “The Second Coming”, concerns the death of the antipope John XXIII. The entire volume is influenced by William Butler Yeats’ poetry in general, and his famous poem “The Second Coming” in particular.
4. The Red and the Black by Stendhal (Novel): Alas poor Julien Sorel, the protagonist of this book, a great theological mind and even greater hypocrite who is hell-bent on climbing the social ladder of French society via the Church... and his love interests. While many of us have seen the movie, the book is infinitely better and more interesting, and ultimately, Sorel’s self-destruction is even more devastating. If you have already read The Red and The Black, try Stendhal’s other masterpiece (named after a Carthusian Monastery): The Charterhouse of Parma.
5. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (Novel): The great “gotcha” trivia question for Graham Greene fans: “What’s the name of the protagonist-priest in The Power and the Glory? Answer: He’s never given a name: he’s only called ‘The Whiskey Priest.’” Chances are you know the setting of this novel (Mexico during the government’s oppression of the Church) and the story of the Whiskey Priest and his ultimate fate. So feel free to try one of Greene’s later works, Monsignor Quixote, set in Franco’s suffocating Spain, and featuring a child-like priest who cannot see the sins in front of his face due to his St. Thérèse-like nature, and his unlikely accomplice, Sancho Zancas, a Communist ex-mayor of a backwater village. If you’ve read both The Power and the Glory AND Monsignor Quixote, try Greene’s minor masterpiece, A Burnt-Out Case, featuring Fr. Thomas—a priest who runs a leper colony deep in the Congo.
6. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (Novel): Joyce’s self-portrait, in which Stephen Dedalus is educated by Jesuits, confessed by a Capuchin, and lauded by Christian Brothers. All of the priests in this book are typecast: the psychopathic “Prefect of Discipline”, the car-salesman-like “Vocation Director”, and even (and especially) the retreat director who takes Stephen (and the reader) into the bowels of hell. Still, without the priests (and Christian Brothers), there’s no book. And then there’s Stephen himself who writes out: “Rev. Stephen Dedalus, S.J.”, imagining what life would be like if he DID become a priest, as many a young man considering the priesthood has done with his own name.
7. The Plague by Albert Camus (Novel): Instead of sticking with Camus’s classic “absurdist” The Stranger or The Fall, I recommend his existentialist masterpiece The Plague, where a priest, the Jesuit Fr. Paneloux, is one of many characters stranded in Oran, Algeria (Camus’s hometown), a port city quarantined due to an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Written in 1947, the book is (among many other things) both a response and rebuke to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, written twenty-three years earlier.
8. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (Novel): Sherlock Holmes set in a medieval Benedictine monastery which becomes a meeting place for Dominicans, Franciscans, and group of papal legates. The movie version oversimplifies (and over-sexes) the book, but it is really (a) a whodunit, and (b) a lesson in ecclesiology, especially as regards the birth and, more importantly, the survival of the Franciscans in Italy. After the first 100 pages the book takes on a life (and speed) of its own. Have a dictionary nearby: Eco goes barely a page without using a word you’ve never seen before.
9. The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson (Novel): I’ve written at length on this book in these pages. Suffice to say that this epic, sweeping novel earned its billing as Time magazine’s “Book of the Year” in 1950. The protagonist, Fr. Stephen Fermoyle, is believable, but not infallible. The many other priests who people this novel—including a fictionalized Pius XII, and even Terence Cardinal Cooke—are well-limned and the work of a master craftsman.
10. Warriors of God by Walter Nigg (Non-fiction: History): Not a fan of fiction? Here’s a classic from 1959 that takes an in-depth look at the birth and growth of the great religious orders and the men (and women) who made them what they still are today. A masterly translation from the German, and originally published by Knopf, the book begins with St. Anthony of the Desert, moves on to St. Pachomius and monasticism proper, then eastward to St. Basil, before heading to North Africa and St. Augustine. From there we meet St. Benedict of Nursia and his famous Rule, St. Bernard and Cistercians, St. Dominic and his Order of Friars Preachers and St. Francis and the Friars Minor. The Carmelites, the Carthusians, and the Jesuits are all given excellent, equal treatment in this one-of-a-kind volume. You’ve never learnt so much about the Church’s religious orders while enjoying yourself!