Morte d’Urban is a remarkable wedding of realism, comedy, tragedy, and redemption; indeed, the reader often feels that James Powers captures much of the spirit of the daily existence of a mid-twentieth century American Roman Catholic priest. Father Urban Roche is consistently torn between piety and commitment to his faith and a desire to engage the world outside the Church. Urban is a very worldly, urbane man, gifted with social know-how associated with small-town boosters, salesmen, and members of fraternal organizations. Similarly, the other priests whom Powers presents constitute a spectrum of incompetence, foolishness, competitiveness, and sincere intent to do good and to follow the tenets of the faith. Powers shows the delineation of church politics, the petty jealousies and ambitions that motivate priests of various kinds—parish “soldiers,” priests in administrative capacities, and priests who are primarily concerned with prayer and meditation. St. Clement’s Hill, for example, is run by Bunny Bestudik, who is intent on carving out a small niche of notoriety for the St. Clement order by establishing a retreat house. He and his colleagues, including Urban, however, are worried about competition from the Benedictines and by pressure or indifference from the local archdiocesan bureaucracy.
The thematic focus of the novel is Urban’s struggle to determine his own course. The hero’s names indicate considerable irony: Urban is not only the name of several popes but also the name of a saint, and Roche is one of several French words for rock—which constitutes an oblique reference to the Latin petrus and the Greek petros, the sources of the name Peter. Saint Peter is the “rock” on which Christ, according to Scripture, built his church. Ultimately then, Urban Roche is the modern rock of the church, Peter’s heir. He is also a man who is tempted by what modern culture offers.
The reader may be amused and even appalled by Urban’s social sense, his love of cigars, liquor, and fast cars, and by the pleasure he takes in glib verbal salesmanship of his religion and the Church. There is a point, however, beyond which he will not go in his spirit of compromise. He argues, for example, against...
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