With the Catholic priesthood under attack—yet again—I am going to devote my next three posts to three classic stories about priests. The first two deal with priests living in the world, so to speak. The last will address the monastic life and the whole issue/question of ‘vocation’, i.e., whether or not a person is called to a life of celibacy, poverty and obedience.
In the canonization process of the Roman Catholic Church, the ‘Promoter of the Faith’ popularly known as the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ is the priest whose job it is to argue against whoever has been proposed for sainthood. Morris West’s The Devil's Advocate takes place in late 1950’s or pre-Vatican II era, Calabria, Italy, the ‘toe of the boot’ for those not so familiar with Italian geography. During this time of apparent calm in Church history—the uneasy quiet before the storm unleashed by the many misunderstandings which grew out of the Second Vatican Council—the tiny hamlet town of Gemello Minore a-top a twin peaked mountain in one of the poorest areas of Southern Italy seems an unlikely place for a saint or miracles, but then God has a habit of using the most ordinary people and places to do the most extraordinary things.
Our devil’s advocate is dying and has been summoned by Rome for one last assignment. In the 1977 West German film version of the book—which I’ve only been able to read about but haven’t been able to obtain—the British actor, John Mills plays the terminal padre. In fact, Monsignor Blaise Meredith is a British Roman Catholic priest living in Rome and working as auditor to the Sacred Congregation of Rites, personal assistant to the prefect himself. Here West describes very poignantly how his protagonist, Meredith learns and reacts, in true stoic Anglo fashion, the news of his impending death: ‘He had been twenty years a priest, vowed to the affirmation that life was transient imperfection, the earth a pale symbol of the maker, the soul an immortal in mortal clay beating itself weary for release into the ambient arms of the Almighty. Now that his own release was promised, the date of deliverance set, why could he not accept it—if not with joy, at least with confidence?’ (pp.7-8)
From the Monsignor, we move to the village of Gemello Minore and its cast of characters: the dead martyr himself, the bishop who has proposed his ‘cause’, the local priest and his ‘housekeeper’, the Jewish doctor who has struggled for acceptance and understanding, the “saint’s” mistress and bastard teenage son, the aging heiress and her uneasy alliance with a rogue artist.
As Meredith proceeds with his investigation, each person must come to terms with secrets or disclosures which he or she might rather not—some like wounds long in need of dressing, others more like being led from darkness into bright sunshine—initially painful, but ultimately healing.
An engrossing read from start to finish both in terms of characterizations as well as a snapshot in time. I wouldn’t classify this as an exciting book, but rather as a thoughtful one; the plot is negligible and yet almost non-essential. However, what The Devil’s Advocate lacks in speed, it more than compensates for in depth and beauty.
Highly recommended as a fitting tribute to the priesthood for this Year For Priests.