Responding recently to an invitation by college sophomores to discuss Georges Bernanos’s celebrated novel, The Diary of a Country Priest, which they were studying in literature class, I spent a memorable afternoon. The class was held the day before the press conference in Washington, D.C., announcing that their college, Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, was cited in a list of the 21 best models of Catholic college education in North America, so I could remind the students that they were part of the reason for the award, along with their teachers, such as Dr. Angelyn Arden.
The Diary of a Country Priest (Le Journal d’un Curé de Campagne), which appeared in 1938, is Georges Bernanos’s masterpiece, a novel of such superb classical style that it won the Grand Prix of the Académie Francaise, and is cited as the reason why the author has been dubbed “the novelist of holiness.” It transcends his other great works, including Under Satan’s Sun (Sous le Soleil de Satan) and even the drama of the canonized martyred nuns during the Terror, The Dialogues of the Carmelites (1948), which eventually became the source for Poulenc’s great opera, a magnificently staged event at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Moreover, Bernanos’s respect for the priesthood was so profound that the most powerful compliment that can be accorded to a priest today in French is, simply, “You are a priest like Bernanos’s” (C’ést un prêtre á la Bernanos).
Surely the Diary ranks among the greatest of Catholic novels, alongside, I think, Sigrid Undset’s masterpiece, Kristin Lavransdatter. (Undset won the Nobel Prize in 1928.) A Catholic novel is one in which grace triumphs over Satan. Bernanos’s drama is a special reminder that a priest’s struggle in this world is not against the contrary forces of this world, but rather against the powers and dominions of Evil. The penultimate sentence of the Diary is the priest’s last words: “Grace is everywhere.” The phrase complements St. Paul’s admonition in Romans: “Grace is everything.” (4:16)
Preparing to speak about the Diary, I reached into my bookshelves for my precious copy; “precious,” because it was sent to me as a gift one Christmas by the world-famous psychiatrist, Dr. Francis J. Braceland, then Psychiatrist-in-Chief of the Institute of Living in Hartford. Dr. Braceland had studied under Carl Jung, about whom he shared some stories with me. An Admiral in the U.S. Naval Reserve, he led the way in establishing the Navy Psychiatric Section, and headed the U.S. team of psychiatric experts in the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial following World War II. His respect for the priesthood – and for priests – was concretized in his own love for the Diary.
Ironically, however, inside my copy of the Diary, was a neatly folded, decades-old, published essay about Bernanos by another world-famous psychiatrist, Robert Coles of Harvard University, which appeared in the 8 June 1986 New York Times Book Review. To Dr. Coles, the Diary constitutes wisdom that “will never become outdated.” The “literary device of a diary,” he observes, “permits a candor, a lack of self-consciousness and self-importance, so that gradually this ailing, seemingly confused, melancholic young priest becomes to the reader a virtual incarnation of divine grace. His unpretentious, stumbling, honestly earnest manner, his mixture of knowing sadness and naiveté, his moments (and longer) of self-doubt, followed by guilt spells of prayerful trust in the Lord’s intentions for him and for everyone, all are evidence for the reader of what a true homo religiosus is like inwardly.”
Bernanos, who was wounded in action while in the French army during World War I, also knew the “smell of blood and terror” that characterized the Spanish Civil War. He left Europe and resided with his family temporarily in Latin America (Brazil), but was recalled to France in 1945 by General Charles de Gaulle.
Bernanos’s masterpiece is required reading in the course I teach on “Priesthood, Eucharist and Penance”; the course is usually scheduled for the final year of theology, just prior to priestly ordination. To me, it represents a major stepping stone to priestly Orders in that it helps prepare a priest for the countless lonely, difficult and trying days which he must weather despite his obvious inadequacies for the incomparably noble task for which he is ordained. Yet, as the parish priest of the novel knew so well in the midst of his own trials, he nonetheless has been called by the Lord despite his inadequacies. And through it all he believes, unreservedly, that grace is more powerful than sin; and that the weapons of grace are the only effective ones against Satan’s relentless warfare.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese
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