Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 840
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 argues for the miracle of “God coming down among us,” as opposed to the modern ritual of “singing and guitars and turning to touch your neighbor, playacting and nonsense, all to make the people come into church the way they used to go to the parish hall for a bingo game.”
Kinsella and O’Malley, through their debates, represent notions of theology that have long been associated with the Catholic Church and that continue to define its future. On one hand, the Church can be seen as an instrument of social revolution, and in Kinsella’s post-“Vatican IV” era, private confessions have been abolished and distinctions between mortal and venial sins are moot. Most important, the celebration of the Mass, the cornerstone of Catholic ritual and faith, has been rendered nothing more than a pious act of symbolism; members of the Church hierarchy no longer accept the notion of transubstantiation. By contrast, for O’Malley—and even more so for his monks—the Mass is a daily miracle; through the taking of the body and blood of Christ, “God com[es] down among us.”
The novella hinges on two central ironies. The first of these ironies involves a priest dedicated to revolution and world ecumenism who is actually an agent of orthodoxy and conformity. He seeks to stamp out heresy and thus reminds O’Malley of the Grand Inquisitor and an intolerant Church bent on quashing all dissent. The second and more profound irony is that O’Malley, the voice defending the sanctity of individual belief, has lost the security of his faith. Overwhelmed by the commercialism and tawdry spectacle of the “miracle” of Lourdes, O’Malley has come to know “the hell of the metaphysicians: the hell of those deprived of God.” All of this begs the question, How can a man who has lost his faith remain in the Church and supervise others? O’Malley’s answer is that belief is a gift from God, and if he can nurture and protect that belief in others—his congregation and his brother monks—he has done God’s work.
An encounter with a second monk, Father Matthew (a strong, uncompromising figure who holds an all-night vigil, praying that Kinsella’s orders are countermanded), encourages O’Malley’s ultimate decision. When Father Matthew refuses to terminate his vigil and go to bed, O’Malley stands on his authority and orders the priest to concede. The next morning, when Kinsella braces himself for more debate and dissension, he is shocked to find a compliant O’Malley, who now follows the very demands he placed on Father Matthew: He obeys authority regardless of personal opinion.
After Kinsella’s departure, the brother monks are distressed and angry. O’Malley calms them by insisting they pray: “Prayer is the only miracle,” he said. “We pray. If our words become prayer, God will come.” As the community kneels and offers their supplications, O’Malley is left alone, yearning for faith yet denied its comfort and assurance.
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