Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Heroes and Mentors II
December 15, 2010, 11:37 am
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After Don Camillo, another of my early priest-heroes was Chesterton’s priest-detective, Father Brown. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, who solved problems by meticulous attention to physical details- tobacco ash, for instance- Father Brown succeeded by his insight into human psychology. By imagining in what circumstances he himself might have committed the crime, he was able to identify the criminal.

Father Brown was depicted (rather unconvincingly- surprisingly) on screen by Alec Guinness, but far better on television by Kenneth More. Guinness made the priest too much of a clown, quite untrue to the books, whereas More gave him that particularly English feel that Chesterton had intended.

One of my favourite moments was when Brown unmasked his (then) arch-enemy, later friend, Flambeau as a fake priest, because he denigrated reason. Chesterton, with all his love of paradox, knows that Christianity is a faith that may transcend reason, but is never unreasonable. Another favourite scene is when Brown exposes the hypocrisy of worldly aristocrats who preach forgiveness of what they do not really think are sins, but have no pity for the real sinner- whereas the priest knows how to condemn the sin, but have great compassion for the offender.

As I say, it is surprising that Alec Guinness was so poor a Father Brown. I remember his powerful portrayal of the Cardinal in “The Prisoner”, with Jack Hawkins as the Inquisitor. This was based on the story of the Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty, given a show trial by the Communists and imprisoned until the Hungarian uprising, when he took refuge in the American Embassy.

Much later in life, Guinness portrayed on television Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote. This late novel owes something, I think, to “Don Camillo”, in that it recounts the adventures of a priest and his friend, the Communist mayor of the village. However, Greene’s priest is supposedly a descendant of Cervantes hero, and his (mis) adventures parallel those of the famous knight. The story is set in (just) post-Franco Spain, and reflects a typically Greene-ish approach. Fr Quixote entertains an Italian Curial Bishop whose car has broken down, and in return is “knighted” by being made Monsignor- to the chagrin of his own Diocesan, who has a low opinion of him. Leo (“Rumpole of the Bailey”) McKern played the mayor, “Sancho”, while the Bishops were Ian Richardson and Graham Crowden. The ending is sad, in that Quixote’s Bishop eventually suspends him a divinis, a penalty the priest says is like a death sentence. “I remain a priest, but a priest only to myself. A useless priest forbidden to serve others.” The climax of the novel I will not reveal: you must read it for yourselves. With all his faults, Greene understood something of the true nature of the Catholic priesthood, both here and, earlier, in “The Power and the Glory.” However frail we are, we are still called to bring Christ to the world.


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