Faith of Our Fathers

Volume 46, Issue 3, by Michael J. Crosbie

I recently read the novel Catholics, written by the late Irish-American writer Brian Moore, and published in 1972. The book was made into a TV-movie a year later. Very short, barely 100 pages, its premise is a confrontation between the Catholic Church and a community of monks on a small island off the coast of Ireland toward the end of the 20th century. The Church has gone through Vatican III and IV, and is deep in transformation through ecumenism with other world religions. In the process, the Church has abolished private confession, along with the belief in transubstantiation: the changing of bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. The Catholic mass is now a symbolic act, no longer a miracle.

A small band of monks from Muck Island are not following the rules. They have been going to the mainland to say Latin Mass and hear private confession. Their actions have attracted the attention of the BBC, and now hundreds of pilgrims are coming to their Latin Mass from the world over. A young American priest, James Kinsella, has been sent by Rome to confront the Abbot and to bring him and his monks into line.

What struck me about the story is how the main themes of defying authority, defining orthodoxy, and applying pressure to conform have not changed in the more than 40 years since Moore wrote the book. There are many other issues at play: the power of prayer, the fragility of belief, the role of faith, and the relationship of the congregant to the clergy. Can we look at any religion today and not find debate and conflict along these lines? The longevity of such questions within organized religion prompts other questions: Is this actually the “default” state of religious institutions? Do we delude ourselves in thinking that religious belief has ever been or will ever be “settled”? Is the very idea of religious consensus or conformity merely human hubris on a grand scale?

At the height of the exchange between Kinsella and the Abbot, the visiting priest asks why the monks didn’t follow orders and stop saying Latin Mass. The Abbot explains that they at first did change; but the men stopped coming to mass, and instead would stand talking and smoking outside church, waiting for their families, while others stopped coming all together. The Abbot expressed his concern to his superior and was told that the new mass was popular everywhere else.

On this, the Abbot reflects: “I said to myself, maybe the people here are different from the people in other places, maybe they will not stand for this change. After all, what are we doing, playing at being Sunday priests over there on the mainland, if it’s not trying to keep the people’s faith in Almighty God? I am not a holy man, but, maybe because I am not, I felt I had no right to interfere. I thought it was my duty, not to disturb the faith they have. So, I went back to the old way.”

The Abbot’s sense of his own limitations in the presence of the faith of others grows from his own self-doubt. We learn that for years he has suffered from his own crisis of faith. This has made him all the more sensitive to the delicate nature of belief in others, and how it might be broken. It might also have made him, paradoxically, a better priest.

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at [email protected]

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