A Priest is Just a Man, Imprinted with a Sacramental Character

Morris West’s ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ is a reminder to remember the humanity of the clergy.

(photo: Register Files)

I picked The Devil’s Advocate by Morris West off the shelf of Loome Theological Booksellers in Stillwater, Minnesota, flipping it over to look at the back. I was immediately intrigued by the fact that West was an Australian Catholic author. It took me another year to read the book, but I found that it was providential for me to have read during this time of scandal in the Church. It was helpful to read an account representing the state of the Church between World War II and pre-Vatican II where the hierarchy was detached from the day to day harsh realities of the People of God and priests had the same failings as other men. In fact it was quite familiar.

Morris West wrote the novel The Devil’s Advocate a couple of years after he spent time with a priest in the 1950s helping poor children in Sicily. He witnessed the state of the people there, and set his book in a similar setting among the poor, superstitious Italians in the hill country. He also was a witness to the politics of the Vatican under Pope Pius XII, and his novel provides for us the contrast between the bishops and cardinals striving for political power and the ill-educated clergy of the countryside. The stark, cool halls of the officials in the Vatican seem to have nothing in common with the barren, hot hills of the peasants, but somehow it is all the same Church.

It makes one think of St. Paul talking about the various parts of the Body of Christ, but it seems that in the Church the Head has lost touch with the Heart, and many of the seemingly insignificant parts are inflamed and infected. And those of us in the North American Church are suffering, and looking to Rome for a balm and getting only unsatisfactory answers.

West’s novel helped me to have more insight into how insulated Rome is from the rest of the Church; how the Church in Rome can completely misunderstand the suffering of her people across the globe because she is not on the ground experiencing what her people experience.

Towards the end of the novel, a cardinal who works in Rome reflects to himself:

Christ has made bishops and a pope, but never a cardinal. Even the name held more than a hint of illusion—cardo, a hinge—as if they were the hinges on which the gates of heaven were hung. Hinges they might be, but the hinges were useless metal, unless anchored firmly to the living fabric of the church, whose stones were the poor, the humble, the ignorant, the sinning, and the loving, the forgotten of the princes, but never the forgotten of God.” (West, The Devil’s Advocate, Ch. 15)

A hierarchy that is not in touch with the Church and does not care for the Church as a parent for a child is useless. But the reality of the Body of Christ is that when one part of it suffers, all of it suffers. Serious wounds require serious care, and we need the hierarchy to take us seriously.

The Devil’s Advocate also reminded me of the importance of remembering the humanity of the clergy. It tells the story of a dying priest, Fr. Blaise Meredith, working for the Congregation of Rites, investigating the cause for canonization of a man named Giacome Nerone, a man killed in a small town in Calabria by communists. The priest experiences the contrast between Rome and the peasant country, seeing firsthand the hard realities that these people face. It is harder to live and know one’s faith when the parish priest, Fr. Anselmo, is poor and living in sin with his housekeeper. The bishop of the region has to let things like this slide because he cannot provide that town with a different priest.

In the story we are given a glimpse into the journal of Giacome Nerone where he talks about the state of things with this priest, trying to understand how to relate to him:

I must understand that a priest is just a man with sacramental faculties. The faculties are independent of his personal worth. Anselmo is carrying his own cross, the load of one lapse, multiplied by its consequences.” (West, Advocate, Ch 14)

Ideally, all of our priests would be as holy as the Curé of Ars, but the reality is that many are not. Many priests, like the fictional Fr. Anselmo, carry their own crosses of lapses. They are human just like we are, with their own natural weaknesses and fostered sins to overcome. As a Church we are blessed that the holiness of the priest does not change the efficacy of the sacrament, but also as a Church we desire for our priests to be holy men with sacramental faculties. Especially now, with the scandal so present in our minds, we must pray for our priests to actively seek holiness and not settle for mediocre or worse.

I have been very much encouraged by priests that I know publicly speaking about reparation and emphasizing their commitment to celibacy. A friend of mine from college who is now a priest shared an incident of women seeking to get his attention at a baseball game. He was not dressed in clerics, so probably they really had no clue, but I loved that he emphasized in sharing this incident that he “was already taken” and that celibacy was important to him. He is just a man, but he is a man who is faithful to his bride.

The man Giacome Nerone in the book who is being investigated for sainthood, had a conversion experience late in his life. He went from living a life in mortal sin, to seeking to live virtuously. He reflects on his conversion and the effects of his own sin:

The question of reparation worries me greatly at times. I am changed. I have changed. But I cannot change any of the things I have done. The hurts, the injustices, the lies, the fornications, the loves taken and tossed away. These things have changed and are still changing other people’s lives. I am sorry for them now, but sorrow is not enough. I am bound to repair them as far as I can. But how?” (West, Advocate, Ch. 14)

Like all good novelists, West gives us insight into the reality of our fallen state. Giacome Nerone cannot change what he has done. He can only work to heal the wounds that he has made, and more than that, the wounds that others have made. The same thing can happen for the Church. Those who made mistakes can admit them, be sorry, make reparation, and stop harming the Church. And we can do the same thing in our own lives, while praying every day for the purification of the Church.