Powers and Catholicism: an old style works on fresh material
Powers and Catholicism: an old style works on fresh material
“IT SEEMED TO HIM that the Order of St. Clement labored under the curse of mediocrity, and had done so almost from the beginning.” This is the opinion of one priest, Father Urban, on the Roman Catholic order to which he belongs. Father Urban is a bright man, an ambitious man, but he has been cast among fools, and most of the fools are priests and Clementines like himself. “The Clementines,” he decided once, “were unique in that they were noted for nothing at all.”
The sour Father Urban and his order are the creations of a remarkable American writer, J. F. Powers, whose first novel, Morte d’Urban (Doubleday, $4.95, 336 pages), appears this fortnight.
Powers has been writing first-class short stories since the 1940s, and his two collections —The Prince of Darkness and The Presence of Grace—have been well reviewed in both the secular and Catholic press. His work appears often in the New Yorker and other magazines; yet he is still, by comparison with some of his contemporaries, very little known. He is rarely mentioned as part of that “generation” of Norman Mailer, James Jones, etc., which is so much written about, and his stories are seldom taken into account when generalizations are made about the state of contemporary writing.
Perhaps this is because Powers is so unusual: he’s a literary sport who can’t be fitted into any of the categories. For one thing, he writes about the American Midwest, and it is a strange fact that serious writers have lately avoided the Midwest (in contrast to, say, the South or New England), as if it had been exposed as a disgrace by Sinclair Lewis and was never to be mentioned again. What is more unusual about Powers, however, is that he writes about the life of the Roman Catholic church in America, and he treats that life with neither sentimentality nor mysticism.
Powers is a religious writer in the sense that he writes mostly about people whose occupation is religion: priests, seminarians, and laymen whose main interest is in the church. The religion he describes is a dusty, Midwestern Catholicism, half Americanized and halfmedieval, baffled and restless in the midst of social change. His characters search for grace in strange ways: through huckstering pamphlets, through radio programs called God Is Our Sponsor, through local church politics, and even through McCarthyism, which is the
worst disease of both the Midwest and North American Catholicism.
A beautiful Powers story, The Devil was the Joker, first published in the New Yorker in 1953, told about a young would-be priest who had been rejected after four years in a seminary and was now looking for a way back to the priesthood. The young man falls in with a traveling salesman who sells pamphlets, statues and religious magazines to churches in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The young man accompanies the salesman as an assistant, in the hope that this way he will meet a bishop and get back into a seminary. Instead, he finds himself plunged into the most sordid, commercial sitie of the church; the salesman’s specialty is a rosary-saying device, made like a baseball umpire’s counter, which can be attached to the steering wheel of an automobile so that prayers can be said in transit.
This encounter, between the church and secular American life, particularly business life, provides Powers with his strongest continuing theme. At one point in Morte d’Urban, Father Urban looks over the pamphlets which the Clementines publish and sell to churches. They are all hopelessly outdated, and one of them has been reprinted in a modern form which Father Urban knows will not fool “the big dealers, the priests and nuns who could make or break a pamphlet.” That phrase, mingling the ancient church with modern commercial jargon, exactly summarizes Father Urban’s position — and, to some extent, the dilemma of the church in a new kind of society.
Father Urban, for all his sourness, is a likable man. He is not as bright as he believes, and certainly not intelligent enough to justify his snobbishness, yet I find it difficult not to sympathize with him as he brings his progressive, businesslike approach to an order which is too dull to appreciate either him or his ideas. He has become a much-sought-after preacher, and he has done so without the help of TV or radio (he rather resents Bishop Sheen’s success). Nevertheless, he cannot bring the order to life: “Their college was failing, their high schools were a break-even proposition at best, and their parishes, except for a few, were in unsettled parts of Texas and New Mexico where no order in its right mind would go.” The dullness of his fellow priests is a constant annoyance to him. Worst of all, his superiors, possibly resenting his success, take him off the road and assign him to a miserable little retreat house in rural Minnesota. Father Urban, taking this as philosophically as possible, tries to make the retreat house flourish, despite an apathetic laity and a stupid superior.
J. F. Powers’ ability as a satirist is more obvious here than in any of his short stories. To get money and gifts for the order, Father Urban cultivates the friendship of a boorish and overbearing layman, and their relationship (the businessman likes pushing priests around) is described in comic and tragic detail. But Powers gives his satiric talent freest rein in describing the retreat house. To attract a good class of retreatants, Father Urban gets his businessman friend to build a nine-hole golf course on the property. Things go handsomely — even the local bishop is impressed — till Father Urban is struck on the head by a golf ball and sent to hospital, a martyr to the cause of the order. In the end he is defeated, as much by his own pride as by the forces with which he grapples.
Powers is an old-fashioned writer: his compassionate satire and his slow, calm investigation of a single subject suggest the fiction of the 19th century rather than the 20th. His
work proves that these qualities, when applied to fresh material, can still yield brilliant and memorable fiction. Morte d’Urban, though perhaps not as good, artistically, as Powers’ best stories, is nevertheless a fine novel—full of well-told incidents, full of humor, full of insight, full of life.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.