Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Bernanos's highly praised novel "The Diary of a Country Priest" tells the tribulations of an earnest and committed country priest as he attempts to minister to the frivolous and frequently cruel, unperceptive parishioners of Abricourt in Northern France.
The author uses the protagonist's diary as a way to directly reveal his outlook, changing thoughts, and reflections as he carries out his duties. Early on we are tipped off to the religious symbolism embodied in the priest by his choice of red wine and bread for fare (the components of the Eucharist as symbolic of following Christ's path or taking up his cross). In the case of this country priest, his cross to bear seems to be his being constantly misunderstood by almost everyone around him (e.g. when people falsely conflate his consumption of wine with being a drunkard). Despite this, his presence and words have a redemptive effect when it counts the most. We come to admire the priest's ability to carry on with grace despite his being falsely accused and even persecuted by those he tries to help.
For example, when the Countess who has lost her young son and closed herself off from her family and society is called on by the young priest, she is initially dismissive of his age and accuses him of depending on book knowledge rather than experience. His calm and resolute persistence and grace allow him to be God's instrument to break through to her. Eventually he persuades the Countess to pray and recite in order to reconcile herself with God, from whom she had become estranged through her anger. The priest's aid is fortuitous because she dies the next day. Despite his spiritual success, the daughter blames him for her mother's death and spreads this slander through the village.
He brings an nonjudgemental approach to a former classmate of his who has lapsed from the priesthood and now lives with his girlfriend, working as an apothecary. The girlfriend has not married him to leave the way open for him should he decide to return to the priesthood. When the priest of Abricourt declines in health, he chooses to live with this couple (an unconventional but Christlike choice) because he hopes he can do the most good there.
By the end of the novel, we realize the author has depicted the life and suffering of a saint and greatly increased our understanding of what that means. It is also a novel about all of us: how we can let God's grace work through us, and how many of us are too quick to judge and condemn others.