The Year for Priests is a good excuse to visit or revisit one of the most memorable clergymen in modern literature: the "whiskey priest" attempting to escape the anti-Catholic Mexican government in the 1920s in Graham Greene's dark masterpiece "The Power and the Glory."

The priest is, as his moniker implies, an alcoholic haunted by past transgressions -- including fathering a child. Yet he insists on performing his priestly duties until the very end.

The priest's name is never mentioned, but that hasn't kept him from being a controversial figure in the Church. The important thing to remember, though, is that while the priest is the central character of Greene's novel, its "hero" is the Church.

Power of sacraments

In that light, "The Power and the Glory" is a meditation on what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches about the sacraments. Baptism, confirmation and holy orders "confer an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily" (No. 1582). With regard to holy orders, the Catechism says, "The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently" (No. 1583).

Dramatically, Greene captures this in a single scene early in the novel when a teenage girl is letting the whiskey priest hide in her family's barn without her parent's knowledge. She asks him why he continues to try and exercise his priestly ministry, even though the police are trying to hunt him down and kill him.

"She said, 'Of course you could -- renounce.'"

"'I don't understand.'"

"'Renounce your faith,' she explained, using the words of her European History."

"He said, 'It's impossible. There's no way. I'm a priest. It's out of my power.'"

"The child listened intently. She said, 'Like a birthmark.'"

"She could hear him sucking desperately at the bottle. She said, I think I could find my father's brandy.'"

"'Oh no, you mustn't steal.'"

By placing a key theological truth alongside "him sucking desperately at the bottle," Greene is contrasting the gifts of God with the weakness of man.

'Immoral conduct'

Needless to say, not everyone has seen it that way. In fact, "The Power and the Glory" was briefly "condemned" by the Vatican's Holy Office, and Greene was asked to revise it, which he refused to do.

Ordinarily, any book that the Church considers even "questionable" isn't worth reading, but the controversy over "The Power and the Glory" actually highlights a few key elements that show why the novel is deserving of the title "masterpiece."

For those who enjoy the details of Vatican politics and the subject of forbidden books, Peter Godman wrote an in-depth piece for the July/August 2001 issue of Atlantic Monthly about the conflict between Greene and the Vatican regarding "The Power and the Glory." (The documents for the article, some of which are quoted below, were made available to Godman by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.)

The controversy over "The Power and the Glory" started in 1953, 13 years after it was published -- mainly when it was being translated into other languages. The fact that anyone still cared so many years later is a testament to the quality of the book.

After two examiners appointed by the Vatican's Holy Office deemed the book sad and morally ambiguous, "The Power and the Glory" was condemned in a pastoral letter from Cardinal Bernard Griffin, archbishop of Westminster, by direction of the Vatican. The letter states, "Novels which purport to be the vehicle for Catholic doctrine frequently contain passages which by their unrestrained portrayal of immoral conduct prove a source of temptation to many of their readers ... the presentation of the Catholic way of life within the framework of fiction may be an admirable object, but it can never be justified as a means to that end the inclusion of indecent and harmful material."

The immoral conduct would be the whiskey priest's child and his drinking. There are no gratuitous descriptions of how the child was conceived. That cannot be said of other Greene novels -- and Catholics should be selective when reading him -- but that is not the case here. The whiskey priest admits it was a moment of weakness, and he recognizes that he is in the state of mortal sin.

More importantly, Greene uses the child as a point of contrast between the whiskey priest and another priest in the novel, Padre Jose. Padre Jose renounces his faith and gets married. He is impotent, and the neighborhood children come to his window and mock him. After the whiskey priest is arrested, the nameless lieutenant who has been chasing him throughout the novel grants him a final wish. The whiskey priest asks for the lieutenant to get Padre Jose to hear his confession so that he won't die in a state of mortal sin. The lieutenant agrees to the request, merely to show his superiority and how meaningless religion is. Padre Jose refuses, instead saying that he'll pray for the whiskey priest. It's the final humiliation in the whiskey priest's way of the cross.

As for the alcohol, Tomás Garrido Canabal was the governor of Tabasco, the southern state in Mexico where the novel is placed and the area of the heaviest persecution for the Church. Canabal was an atheist and against alcohol. The whiskey priest's alcoholism is another deliberate contrast by Greene.

Novel's merits

The condemnation of the novel almost didn't have to happen at all. Greene had friends in high places, including the Vatican's pro-secretary of state for ordinary affairs, Archbishop Giovanni Battista Montini, who would later become Pope Paul VI. He had a different opinion of the book, but the letter in Greene's defense didn't arrive until after the Holy Office had already instructed Cardinal Griffin to issue his letter.

While acknowledging the sad tone of the work, Archbishop Montini wrote: "But it seems to me that, in such a judgment, there is lacking a sense of the work's substantial merits. They lie, fundamentally, in its high quality of vindication, by revealing a heroic fidelity to his own ministry within the innermost soul of a priest who is in many respects reprehensible; and the reader is led to esteem the priesthood even if exercised by abject representatives."

Greene himself wrote a letter to Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo, secretary of the Holy Office, trying to patch things up: "Your Eminence will therefore understand how distraught I am to learn that my book 'The Power and the Glory' has been the object of criticism from the Holy Office. The aim of the book was to oppose the power of the sacraments and the indestructibility of the Church on the one hand with, on the other, the merely temporal power of an essentially communist state."

Apparently his appeal was successful, because three weeks later the Holy Office was told it should "understand and excuse" Greene.

Art mirrors life

That being said, as a Catholic, Greene is problematic. A convert to Catholicism who clearly understood the basics, the way he lived his personal life -- including extramarital liaisons -- was a scandal to the Church. Thus the close association between him and the whiskey priest.

In recent years, his scandalous behavior has been a source of perverse delight for scholars -- even more so than his writings. But the saddest part of all is that he lived a miserable life, and he knew it. Like the whiskey priest, reflecting at the end of the novel before his execution, "It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted -- to be a saint."

The whiskey priest, when asked why he kept exercising his ministry, says, ambiguously: "The fact is, a man isn't presented suddenly with two courses to follow: one good and one bad. He gets caught up. The first year -- well, I didn't believe there was really any cause to run. Churches have been burnt before."

Priests in literature

Graham Greene's "whiskey priest" is not the only memorable portrayal of a man of the cloth in literature. Here are some other examples:

Father Brown: the hero of a number of novels and short stories by G.K. Chesterton. Father Brown uses his priestly experience to solve crimes he happens to stumble upon.

Father Dowling: the star of a series of mysteries by Notre Dame professor Ralph McInerny. A TV series based on his character ran in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Father Elijah: the protagonist in Michael O'Brien's 1996 apocalyptic novel of the same name. Father Elijah confronts the anti-Christ.

Father Urban: The protagonist of J.F. Power's "Morte D'Urban," winner of the 1963 National Book Award, humorously spreads God's word in the Minnesota hinterlands.

The unnamed priest in French author Georges Bernanos "Diary of a Country Priest" (1936) is perhaps better known in the film adaptation by Robert Bresson. The book is a fictional autobiography of a soul.

Mexico's martyrs

The persecution of Catholics in 1920s and '30s Mexico was not just the stuff of fiction. More than 250,000 Mexicans were killed in the persecution of the Church.

In May 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 27 of these Mexican martyrs. On the day of their canonization, the pontiff said of the new saints: "They did not stop courageously exercising their ministry when religious persecution intensified in the beloved land of Mexico, unleashing hatred of the Catholic religion. They all freely and calmly accepted martyrdom as a witness to their faith, explicitly forgiving their persecutors."

Mark Sullivan writes from Pennsylvania.