Graham Greene’s last “priest errant”

Imonsignorquixote‘ve just finished reading Graham Greene’s 1982 novel, Monsignor Quixote.

On one level, it’s The Power and the Glory played for laughs – the parallel being evidenced most clearly by this exchange:

“Have another glass of wine, father.”

“In your company I fear if I’m not careful I shall become what I’ve heard called a whisky priest”. (p.82)

Indeed, I laughed out loud on several occasions, which isn’t typical for a Greene novel. But I burst into tears at the end.

Set in post-Franco Spain, it’s the story of a parish priest, Father Quixote, descendant of the great Don Quixote. Father Quixote – having been promoted unexpectedly (and unwillingly) to the rank of monsignor – departs his parish and embarks on a chaotic road trip in his battered old Seat, Rocinante, with the deposed Communist mayor, “Sancho”, for company.

Quixote and Sancho spend most of their trip drinking wine and debating Catholicism and Communism, and it’s hard not to read their dialogue as Greene working through his own issues with faith and the Church. See also, of course: every other Graham Greene novel ever. But the veil between author and creation seems thinner here – perhaps because Greene was in his mid-70s as he wrote. For example:

“I know I’m a poor priest errant, travelling God knows where. I know that there are absurdities in some of my books as there were in the books of chivalry my ancestor collected. That didn’t mean that all chivalry was absurd. Whatever absurdities you can dig out of my books I still have faith…”

“In what?”

“In a historic fact. That Christ died and rose again.”

“The greatest absurdity of all.”

“It’s an absurd world or we wouldn’t be here together.” (pp.77f.)

But in the end, what gives this book its heart (and prevents it from being nothing more than an entertaining but light curiosity of Greene’s later years) is that it is a book about love. This is made abundantly clear in the closing pages (hence my tears), though I’m not going to spoiler it by quoting them. But a hint is given earlier in the novel, as Father Quixote addresses Sancho about the work of the pernickety moral theologian Fr Heribert Jone, whose book of casuistry Quixote had brought with him:

You may laugh at Father Jone and I have laughed with you, God forgive me. But, Sancho, Moral Theology is not the Church. And Father Jone is not among my old books of chivalry. His book is only like a book of military regulations. St Francis de Sales wrote a book of eight hundred pages called The Love of God. The word love doesn’t come into Father Jone’s rules and I think, perhaps I am wrong, that you won’t find the phrase “mortal sin” in St Francis’s book. (p.83)

“Moral Theology is not the Church.” And there, ladies and gentlemen, we have the entire works of Graham Greene summarised for us in a sentence.

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