The presence of priests in many of the stories contained in James Joyce's Dubliners symbolizes the presence of Catholicism in the lives of the Irish, an often overbearing presence that stultifies and inhibits the lives of the Dubliners, who live in a city controlled by the British Protestants.
According to Richard Ellman, biographer of James Joyce, Joyce was convinced that the "real sovereign of Ireland [was] the Pope." Joyce repeatedly denounced what he felt was "the deviousness of Papal policy" feeling that the Church and the papacy turned a deaf ear to supplications from the Irish and did not work to lift the Irish from poverty. (Ellmann, James Joyce, 257). One incident which prompted Joyce's opinion of the Church is that it helped to discredit Charles Stewart Parnell who led the move for Irish independence from Britain and was making inroads. But, because he had an affair with a woman, the Church maligned his character to the point that he lost support from his countrymen. Further, Joyce felt that Church doctrine led to spiritual paralysis in the Irish, who could have no freedom of the soul because they must be too subservient to the Church and constantly look to death and salvation in measuring all their actions. This spiritual paralysis, in turn, furthered the political exploitation of the Irish as it increased their docility as they were already so obedient to the Church.
Thus, as symbol, the priest, who takes the vow of poverty, represents not only the spiritual paralysis of the Irish, but their domestic and spiritual poverty, both. Perhaps this paralysis and symbolic poverty of the Irish Catholic Church is best illustrated in "Eveline" in which the young woman cannot abandon her abusive and unsatisfying life because of her religious obligations to her family and her vow to her dying mother.
Of course, Father Flynn of the first story, "The Sisters," is the quintessential representative of spiritual paralysis, corruption, and spiritual poverty. He is "one of those peculiar cases" and critics invest him with a central symbolic significance in Dubliners as a whole. Father Flynn plays a "fleshy role" as his tongue moves in a lurid way and there is a suggestion of something very perverse about him. After he dies, the boy who has had much contact with him in the past, reflects,
I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death.
Truly, then, Father Flynn has exerted a spiritually debilitating force upon the boy's life.