Saturday, October 24, 2009

A "Whiskey Priest" Church

Below is one of the meditations I offered as chaplain at General Convention 2006. It seems just as pertinent now.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene is one of the great novels of the 20th century. Set in Mexico in the 1930’s during a period of revolution, its protagonist is the last Catholic priest in a state where the Church has been outlawed. But this outlaw priest proves an odd protagonist. He is a “whiskey priest” who is usually either drunk, hung over, or yearning for the next drink. He also has sired a daughter in a village in the mountains. On the run from the police, he first appears in the story about to catch a river boat to escape to safety in another state. Cowardly, morally suspect, and self-interested, the Whiskey Priest is hardly exemplary.

And yet. The priest’s attempts to escape are foiled by his own sense of obligation to his sacramental ministry. Though often with a sense of regret or resentment even, he does hear confession, baptize, and administer Eucharist. While he is in many ways self-interested, the priest is also self-aware and convinced of his own failure. And though he is convinced he is a failure, it is clear throughout the novel that he has indeed ministered to many. In spite of himself, it seems the Spirit never abandons him. By the end of the story, it is clear that, while his witness is mixed, the priest has indeed borne witness to the gospel.

It is a story of God’s amazing grace as he uses one dissolute priest to demonstrate his power and glory. It gives hope to all of us who, while perhaps less obviously dissolute, are nonetheless able to carry on only because we live under the Mercy. It is one of the handful of books that have truly changed me.

The protagonist in The Power and the Glory is also a good metaphor for the Church. We would like to imagine the Church striding through history like a hero or a saint. But, if we are honest, we must admit that the Church has ever staggered through history like the Whiskey Priest – all too often drunk on (worldly) power and sin, cowardly, less than faithful, self-interested, etc. But, while it has never been more than a Whiskey Priest, it has, by the grace of God, never been less. In spite of all its shortcomings, it has borne Word and Sacrament to the world. And it has also raised up exemplary saints – known and unknown. As with Graham Greene’s priest, we know that in spite of its shortcomings, the Spirit does not abandon the Church and God’s power and glory are present in and through it. But only and always by God’s grace, not its own heroic or saintly purity.

And there’s the rub. The compulsion and presumption to create a pure Church, whether that be pure in holiness or pure in teaching or pure in justice – however and by whomever any of those is defined – is rooted in either pride or impatience (or both). If we continually expect and demand that the Church stride through history like a hero-saint we will continually be frustrated by its actual plodding through history like a Whiskey Priest. But we will also miss the opportunity to learn what it means to live by God’s power and glory rather than our own. We will miss the fact of God’s sheer grace. I wonder if the refusal to accept and love the Church as a corpus permixtum – a mixed body of sinners and saints – is not rooted in our own unwillingness to see ourselves as simul justus et peccator – simultaneously righteous and sinful. We only ever live under the Mercy.

The Whiskey Priest has no such illusions about himself. As a result, he ends up exhibiting those basic gospel virtues, humility and charity – virtues that continue to be shaped even, and perhaps especially, in a Church that, like the Whiskey Priest, bears the Good News in spite of its all too evident imperfections.

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