(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Diary of a Country Priest presents the journal of a recently ordained priest in his first year in the parish of Saint Vaast in the French countryside. The priest is an ordinary young man from a working-class background with a decidedly intellectual bent and an above-average preoccupation with his physical health. He began writing for comfort, but more than likely also as a substitute for contemplative prayer, a spiritual requirement that he is not completely comfortable with, but which he would never admit the journal replaces. He determines this writing exercise will be his experiment for only the next year and vows, “On the 25th of November I’ll stuff these pages in the fire and try to forget them.”

His approach to helping with the spiritual well-being of his parishioners consists of an intellectual debate. He approaches his young catechism students in this manner and views them as adults of miniature stature, a fact that endears him neither to the children nor to their parents. On one occasion, the mother of one of his students declares to the priest that he is treating her daughter Seraphita entirely too harshly. The young priest, confident in his sacred duty to guide the girl down the correct path to God, tells the woman that her daughter is far too advanced for her age, a trait that is causing her to be a problem in class and implies future problems of a much more severe nature. In the process of the discussion, the priest makes the mistake of describing Seraphita as “coquettish,” a word that her mother objects to because of the priest’s youth and inexperience. Later it is this very girl who befriends the priest when he falls ill on the road near her home. Seraphita, who had been sent out that night to deal with the cattle, literally stumbles across the priest. After seeing the priest is not dead as she had originally feared, the girl decides not to inform her brutish father of the priest’s condition. She is very understanding as she bring cold pond water to wash his face of blood and vomit and cleans him up until he is somewhat presentable. She stays with him until he gets some strength back and walks with him down the rough road toward his home until her father comes to the door of her house and calls to her to hurry up and come inside.

The youth of the priest...

(The entire section is 948 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A thirty-year-old priest who is in charge of the Ambricourt Parish in France records in his diary his impressions and activities over a period of one year. His purpose in keeping the diary is to maintain frankness with himself in his relationships with his parishioners and in his service to God.

The priest is a man of marked humility, sympathy, simplicity, and great loneliness. Son of a poor family in which there was much suffering and hardship, he plans to raise the scale of living in his parish. His plans for a village savings bank and for cooperative farming are discussed at his first monthly meeting with the curates, but his plans are disapproved because of their pretentious scope and his lack of personal influence in the parish. This blow, which causes him to question whether God is prepared to use his services as he did the services of others, is intensified by the words of his superior and ideal, the Curé de Torcy, and of his friend, Dr. Maxence Delbende, who soon afterward commits suicide because of his disappointment at not receiving a legacy he expected.

These two men thwart the young priest’s ambition with their belief that the poor cannot be raised for religious and social reasons. God gives the poor a dignity, the Curé de Torcy says, which they do not wish to lose in his sight. According to the doctor, poverty serves as a social bond and a mark of prestige among the poor. In the eyes of the Church, the curate believes, the rich are on the earth to protect the poor.

Undaunted, the priest accepts an invitation to the chateau, where he hopes to get financial help for his parish projects from the count. He is unsuccessful in this, but he devotes himself with all his physical energy, which is limited because of insomnia and a chronic stomach disorder, to the spiritual advancement of his parish. Even here, however, his efforts are ill-spent. He questions his success in teaching a catechism class when the children do not respond as he hopes, and he is tormented by the attentions of Seraphita Dumouchel, a young student in the class, who discomfits him by her suggestive questions and remarks to the other children and by the scribbled notes she leaves about for the young priest to find.

Seraphita later befriends him when on a parish visit he suffers a seizure and falls unconscious in the mud. A few days later, however, bribed by sweets, she tells Mademoiselle Chantal, the count’s strong-willed, jealous daughter, that the priest fell in drunkenness. The story is believed because it is known among the parishioners that...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)