Luca Fumagalli

The Power and the Glory, first published in 1940, is Graham Greene’s most famous novel, a milestone in twentieth-century Catholic literature. It is the only novel in the writer’s extensive bibliography written following a structure already clearly defined at the beginning of the work (the author himself confirms this in the autobiographical volume Ways of Escape). That’s one of the reasons why The Power and Glory appears like a kind of moral fable.

The story, set in Mexico in the Thirties, during the anti-Catholic persecutions by the government, tells the daring escape of a priest hunted by a group of soldiers, forced to travel at night in disguise and to celebrate Mass wherever is convenient. Tired and in trouble, his wandering existence, especially after meeting a mestizo ready to betray him, seems destined for a terrible ending.

Greene, who had been closely acquainted with the tragedy of Mexican Catholics, the so-called “Cristeros”, and had recounted it in 1939 in The Lawless Road, a book halfway between a journalistic investigation and a travel story, starts from a precise historical context to create a narrative with a universal meaning – which deals with the crisis of an entire civilization – where space and time matter little in comparison with the tragic value of the protagonists. According to a pattern that is repeated throughout the writer’s production, in the novel there is a constant passage from perdition to redemption and vice versa, in which the traditional and somewhat stereotyped roles of the saint and the sinner are overturned. Consequently, the reader finds himself increasingly lost in a grotesque universe, dominated by disillusionment, devoid of certainties. On the other hand, Greene is very skilled in shuffling the cards on the table, fleeing the temptation to simplify a complex reality like that of the human soul and its manifold contradictions.

Although a passionate scholar of the Jesuit martyrs during the Elizabethan regime and linked to the figure of the Mexican priest Miguel Agustín Pro – shot without trial, due to his pastoral activity, in 1927 – the author gives shape to unusual protagonists, diametrically opposed to those usually offered in the British Catholic fiction of the Twentieth century: in fact, if the priest is a “whiskey priest”, a drunkard with an illegitimate daughter, who celebrates Mass in mortal sin and who is haunted only by the concern of reaching the border to save himself, the lieutenant of the squad that pursues him shows, on the contrary, a decidedly out-of-the-ordinary moral integrity, worthy of a true missionary, and this despite being the servant of an openly Masonic and violent government. The effect is nothing short of stunning, almost nauseating, deliberately sought by Greene not in a childish spirit of provocation, but to honestly dialogue with a reader who is caught off guard, and therefore without the barriers of prejudice. The “normalization” comes only in the final pages, when the priest reveals himself as a saint, washing with the blood of martyrdom those sins that have weighed on his conscience for too long (it is the glory of eternity that triumphs over power, over the flat and deadly meanness of the world).

The flight of the anti-hero priest, too fragile in the painful circumstances he has to face, becomes a sort of reflection of the condition of modern man who, rather than escape from the temptation of sin, tries in every way to avoid a God who is mercifully on his trail and with whom it is too burdensome to deal (the affinities with Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven” are all too evident). At an allegorical level, the novel, similar to a Seventeenth-century tragedy in the description of virtue and vice, can be read just as a failed attempt to avoid holiness (the refrain of the priest who confesses his sins, considering himself a great sinner, does nothing but underline it cyclically).

However, in the epilogue, faith confirms itself as the only alternative to the nothingness in which Mexico was swallowed up, with its villages suffocated by an unbearable heat, marred by the stench of sweat and corruption, inhabited by the same former humans who also appear in the works of Eliot and Waugh. Moreover, the priest’s daughter herself, an ineluctable image of her mistakes, bears with her the trace of a divine charity capable of drawing a greater good from evil, somehow anticipating the novel’s hopeful ending.

Written with an agile and enveloping style, The Power and the Glory is, in some ways, an anti-hagiographic work, so unusual that many years after the publication, in 1953, even the Holy Office intervened to order Greene to modify some passages, judged excessively direct and unsuitable (the thing ended in nothingness); nevertheless, or perhaps precisely for this reason, the work effectively succeeds in the difficult task of showing what it really means to be a saint, that is not a Übermensch, but a simple man – with all his limitations and cowardice – who converts, who returns to the right path, who learns to welcome circumstances and others with total freedom, also capable of surrendering to the will of the Creator and trusting himself to him, even at the cost of his own life.

The “Whiskey Priest”, unlike his brother, Father José, who married to avoid prison, and unlike the lieutenant, an undoubtedly noble spirit but capable only of suffocating life, in the end proves faithful to his priestly vocation. His sacrifice is not useless and is indeed destined to bear great fruit: already on the very night of the execution a new mysterious missionary makes his appearance in the city.