Thursday, October 31, 2019


I have cousins who are good priests. When the abuse scandal broke, and even I looked a bit askance at any roman collar I passed in the street, I wrote to my cousins and told them they were the good guys. I did so because I could feel their isolation in the wave of disgust and anger that was sweeping across the whole of Ireland at the time.

So when I came across Tina Beattie's book, The Good Priest, I was burning with curiosity to get hold of a copy. How I did is a professional secret and I'm sorry to say that reading its 442 pages only provided me with a mere 24 hour distraction from the humdrum of daily life.

That's the good news and the bad news all in one go.

The good news is that, after a somewhat slow start, the book took me on a rollercoaster journey which was full of tension, and resonances from my past, and it was just unputdownable.

I can safely say that if this book had been written when I was growing up, it would not only have been banned in Ireland, but it is unlikely that I would even have been granted a certificate to import it from “pagan England” as I was in the case of numerous banned books in the mid-1960s.

I suspect it would have been seen as so outrageously fiction, and blasphemous fiction at that, that no right minded conscientious individual would let anyone near it no matter what the circumstances of the request.

Now its content could happily reside on the non-fiction shelves in any bookshop.

The world has indeed changed since my youth. We now read official reports of child abuse which would make your hair stand on end. I have cried my way through the autobiographies of men who were abused by clerics in their childhood. We are today aware of a Roman Catholic Church which is rotten at its clerical core and may not be redeemable. A far cry from my days as an altarboy basking in the glory and mystery of the mass with bells and incense and the ultimate transformative moment.

Tina has taken all these ingredients and woven them into a thriller delicately balanced somewhere between Chesterton's Father Brown and Jack the Ripper. It's all in there even down to the Cappa Magna. And it's beautifully written in a simple and engaging style.

Despite the compulsion to keep turning the pages, as the life of the Good Priest spins slowly out of control, this is a tough read. I read it as an unbeliever with suitcases full of Catholic baggage and the resonances leaped at me from almost every page.

The Good Priest is doing his best to minister to his flock. He is happy and satisfied in his ministry. Most days are humdrum. He has a family life by proxy. Tragedies occur in other people's lives and he is able to bring some consolation and mitigation by invoking God's presence and concern.

But all is not what it seems, even to him. Dark, suppressed and long forgotten, events from his past come swishing to the surface and take on a diabolical reality which makes him doubt his own sanity.

I'll stop the narrative here as we are approaching spoiler territory.

Tina Beattie

Instead, I'd like to make some general comments and evoke some of the resonances and issues arising for me out of the narrative.

I found the pace a bit slow at the beginning but just as that is beginning to strike me, up swishes the first dramatic event. On reflection, it struck me that the slower bits were probably a good thing. They allowed you to recover from the escalating dramatic shocks but they also gave an insight into the day to day humdrum life of a priest. Matters of serious concern for parishoners in their own lives may be dealt with in a more routine manner by the priest who will have acquired a series of ritual responses along the way.

Some of these low key passages also recalled for me something it took me a long time to learn. Asking people how they are and expecting a truthful response does not make you responsible for actually solving their problems. Just listening sympathetically can in itself have a healing effect.

Tina does get across that a good and well-meaning priest nevertheless has a difficult path to negotiate even at the best of times.

Wisely I think, she has resisted the temptation to make John a campaigning priest. I am sure this must have occurred to her given her own forceful involvement in church affairs. There is enough drama already squeezed in between the covers here.

Pitching the story through the eyes of the seminarian was also worthwile. The little people in these affairs are quickly forgotten or even totally ignored. A timely reminder too that you never quite know who you are dealing with in this life. And, anyway, I had no shortage of well known names coursing through my head as the story progressed and Tina generously sprinkled the scarlet confetti as she went along.

Confession (the sacramental variety) plays a crucial part in the story. I'll avoid spoilers by simply saying that Tina knows what she's at here and the various interplays are fascinating.

I have come to the view myself, as have many others before me, that the church weaponised this “sacrament” many many moons ago, and combined with its peverse views on masturbation, it has not only made many young people's lives a misery but contributed to an ongoing guilt which seemed to suit a controlling church down to this day.

And as to overhearing the confessions of others, I can tell you there's nothing to beat the shock of hearing yourself mentioned in dispatches.

It was only after I had written, and published, this post that I noticed I had not referred to either "bad language" or homosexuality. I'll take it as a compliment to the author that I had taken both in my stride when reading the book. Neither are gratuitous or prurient, as I see hinted at in a review. Both are integral to the story.

The first person homosexual element was a new experience. I suppose the best compliment I can pay is to say that it was just like heterosexual love and sex and it was intense at times. The book would do a signal service to the gay community if it managed to convey this to a wider heterosexual audience.

Finally, on a sad but happy note. I was really taken by the verse on Sarah's tomb. I read the full poem off the altar at my godmother's funeral some years ago. A thought to leave you with.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

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