In Catholics, Brian Moore’s typical antipathy toward Catholicism is transformed into a tolerant skepticism as he pits two contrasting definitions of the Church against each other. Set in what seemed to be the not-too-distant future at the time of the novella’s publication (most likely the late 1990’s), Moore’s novel depicts a clash between the traditionalists and the progressives, who battle for the devotion of the laity.
It has come to the attention of hierarchy in Rome that monks from a remote abbey off the coast of western Ireland are still celebrating the Latin Mass, and the ritual has become so popular that pilgrims travel from throughout the world to celebrate in the ancient ceremony. The popular press has seized on the phenomenon and plans a major documentary. Seeing a threat to its authority, Rome dispatches a young, radical priest, James Kinsella, to stop the practice and preserve the new orthodoxy.
Kinsella is a disciple of the revolutionary Father Gustav Hartman, a priest who has been tortured by totalitarian regimes for inciting seditious ideas. Kinsella’s theology is thoroughly modern and, as he sees it, progressive; he is impatient with the older practices of the monks from the abbey. His foil, Tomás O’Malley, a sixty-nine-year-old abbot on Muck Island, is a practical, hardworking man in charge of twenty priests who live an anachronistic, ascetic life. As strongly as Kinsella believes the old Mass must be abandoned, O’Malley is convinced that it serves a profound theological purpose, and its growing popularity is potent evidence of its efficacy in reaching the laity and reviving flagging congregations.
The body of the narrative is taken up with a debate between the two priests’ antithetical notions of the role of religion in the lives of the faithful. Kinsella believes in a church that advances the social welfare, while O’Malley is concerned with the condition of people’s souls. In the figure of the humble Father Manus, Moore creates a stirring defense of the old Mass when he...
(The entire section is 840 words.)