The Convict and the Whiskey Priest — Two Reasons I Am a Catholic
These books helped convince me of a God who might work in a way that the Church teaches
I grew up listening to the soundtrack of Les Misérables, and I had the pleasure of seeing the play on Broadway twice as a young man. In fact, since my father was an actor and knew people in the business, I even got to go backstage after the play to explore the set and meet some of the actors. The music and the story have always been deeply compelling to me, and I knew most of the songs by heart.
While my wife and I were teaching in our first years of marriage, she taught Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the novel on which the play is based, in her humanities class. Since I was familiar with the play, I decided to take it on one summer (I say “take it on” because I endeavored to read the unabridged version).
This was also the summer just after I decided that Catholicism was not a heresy, and I was in the precarious position of beginning to see some of the truth and reason in the Catholic faith after trying to disprove it and while working at a private Christian school, though I still found it unlikely and in some ways repugnant.
There are things that a good novel does to the human person without the intellect’s approval or interference. A great story, with all its intricate details and the actions of the characters, presents an encounter and moves the heart of the reader in ways that the reader may not be aware. Blaise Pascal wrote that the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of; the heart is by its nature attracted to the Universal Good. So, when a skillful writer presents some of that Good to the reader, the heart is naturally drawn to it. I think the same is true for any great work of art because beauty is the aspect of the good recognized by the intellect. As St. Thomas Aquinas points out, beauty and goodness are one in reality and different only in aspect.
When I read the novel, I was awed by the immensity of the work. Hugo had worked out so many minute characteristics and back stories and synthesized them all together to create a single, enormous fabric that communicated God’s Providence in a way I had never experienced. I found myself moved with wonder for the way God can work in the world, even through such broken and depraved vessels. The conversion of Jean Valjean will always be one of the most beautiful scenes in literature to me. I later learned that Hugo based his fictional bishop’s actions on an actual historical event.
Somehow the clear lines I had drawn between what was holy and unholy and how God makes use of those things were blurred. The world is a messy place. We have a messy Savior. God is involved in the gritty, miserable world and is present in a mysterious way, more mysterious than I had previously imagined.
In reflecting on the musical and whether or not it did justice to the novel, I could conclude that the play does in fact do justice to the novel, but primarily because of the music.
Another of the books from my wife’s curriculum was The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, and I decided to read this book as well. Unlike Les Misérables, I knew nothing about the book or the author. I learned that Greene was a Catholic, and the main character of the novel was an alcoholic priest who has a child and is on the run from the police. In my intellectual framework of Christianity, this made no sense. First of all, I didn’t believe in the sacraments, but I certainly would have looked at this whiskey priest as an argument against the Catholic idea of priests, not for it.
Yet the book did something to me in a way that bypassed the intellect. I was affected in a way that made me wonder at the grace of God. Not only could God use an alcoholic to achieve his providential plan, but the priest could even be a conduit of divinely ordained grace, not because of any merit on the part, but because of God’s own power. His merciful manner of dealing with sinful men and the grace he gives are his power and glory.
Catholicism suddenly became a little more likely to be true after reading these books. They didn’t reveal anything about Catholicism, but they convinced me of a God who might work in a way that the Church teaches.
I want to emphasize that there is no formula here. It most likely will not work to force non-Catholic friends and family to read these two books and then they will become Catholic. I guess that is part of what I learned from these books: God’s own, individual, unique way of working in each person’s soul. Only time has revealed to me the impact that books, music, friendships and works of art have influenced me.