Catholic stories

“His one regret was that he would not recover the lost opportunities to do God’s will, to celebrate the sacraments, to cooperate with that mysterious grace that always led him to do good and avoid evil. Time was the adversary now, formidable and final, winning as his life was being used up before their eyes in the inescapable death throes of a priest of God at the end of his earthly days.” — “Last Priest Standing”

“Last Priest Standing” (Lambing Press, $13.95) is the story that gives the cover title to this collection of seven short stories.

The author is Father Richard Infante, pastor of Our Lady of Grace in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He holds a master’s of fine arts in fiction writing from University of Pittsburgh, and this book shows not just that education but the skill behind it. Get this collection of short stories and you’ll get the best of contemporary Catholic fiction.

There’s always been a debate about Catholic fiction. The British author Graham Greene dismissed that identification, claiming that he didn’t write Catholic fiction. He was, he said, a fiction writer who happened to be Catholic.

Yet a number of his works — such as “The Power and the Glory” and “The End of the Affair” — are considered classic works of Catholic fiction, as well as classic 20th-century fiction. “The End of the Affair” — at least the 1955 movie made from it — had one of my favorite lines: “When we seek God, it means we’ve already found him.” The speaker was Greene’s Father Crompton, a crusty if favorite priest-character.

Father Infante has built his own cast of priestly characters in “Last Priest Standing” that get to the heart of commitment and vocation.

“Last Priest Standing” is a great collection of Catholic fiction, but the best fiction is always Catholic in essence.

Catholic fiction is always alive with grace, salvation and sacrament — that mystical intermingling of the eternal with things of nature — even if grace is repulsed, salvation is rejected and sacrament is ignored.

The stories in “Last Priest Standing” are rooted in human nature — flawed human nature in many cases — but are “gathered up in the Holy Trinity, out of time and into eternity.” These are stories of faith lived and faith rediscovered in a priesthood shared.

In “Fields of Grace,” Father Infante tells the story of a young priest, his older uncle-priest, their trip to see the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe and their generational conflicts along the way. “Something passed between them as they smoked their pipes, something ancient yet alive. They had found a place of their own, a sympathy beyond the world yet surely in it, a grace that bound them to each other, forever. They were priests according to the order of Melchizedek, a bond even deeper than the common blood that coursed through their veins.”

Never pick a favorite, but somebody should make a movie of Father Infante’s “Saints and Sojourners,” his story of a pilgrimage by priestly friends that wends its way over a few days from Our Lady of Victory Basilica outside Buffalo, to a casino, to the baseball Hall of Fame, to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs, with a stopover in jail.

With humor, grace, sacraments and baseball, they wrestle with everything from the self-created temptations that can undermine a vocation to the hum-drum demands of diocesan life, and a deadening acedia — where faith and prayer get lost in the ordinary. It’s a story of the “relentless mercy of God working in all these things for the good of those who love him.”

Which is a pretty solid start on a definition of Catholic fiction.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.