The Power and the Glory: Who is a saint?

by frankbeswick

Graham Greene asks the question, who is a saint, and he offers a surprising, somewhat iconoclastic answer.

Hagiography is a Catholic genre in which the lives of the saints are celebrated, and it can in some cases be full of flowery, emotional language in which the saint is portrayed as a being inhabiting a spiritual world in which he or she is spared the burdens of human emotions and finds even heroic sanctity easy. But this is unrealistic, for the saints are, in Manley Hopkins' words, marked with man's smudge and share man's smell. The saint is born as a crying babe and feels hunger, pain and fear. Greene expresses these points in his powerful tale.

Image courtesy of alswart

The situation

The Power and the Glory is set in Mexico in the pre-war period, when President Calles' atheist and secularist government was wreaking its murderous persecution of Catholicism, in which churches were closed and many priests driven out, imprisoned or killed. 

The book is like layers of an orange. Initially we read a small section describing how a cynical journalist sitting in his hotel room overlooks a small and timid man being lined up before a firing squad. The next layer consists of an account of a Catholic mother reading her daughters and son a hagiographical account of a priest martyred in the persectuions. Then the deeper story begins when we read of a small and somewhat inconspicuous man seeking bread and wine, at a time when wine was forbidden by the teetotal government. We know that this is the small man whose execution is happening in the town square, and we know that he seeks these items to consecrate at mass. 

There are four villains who dog the priest throughout the tale.  The Mestizo is a Satanic figure bent on gaining the reward for capturing the priest. He knows who the priest is, but is too weak to arrest him, so he must bide his time and set a trap. The lieutenant is a sincere atheist bent on arresting the priest, as he disbelieves in religion. There is also the Gringo bandit, wanted by the authorities, he shows no interest in the priest, but his fate is wound up with the priest's. There is also the failed priest, Father Jose, who has taken a bribe to abandon his faith. Greene's scorn for this character comes through in the book, as he depicts a man cowardly and degraded, who has fallen from faith and wisdom, and whom no one respects. 

The priest, who like most characters in the novel is never named,  is a stumbling inadequate. He has remained faithful to his mission. While wanting to run away someone's spiritual need always calls him to stay. Yet he is lonely and drinks too much brandy, and one night when drunk he sired a child, leading him to regret his fall from priestly standards. Yet he never betrays his mission. It is this that leads him to his doom.

Having escaped to Guatemala he is ready to say mass when the Mestizo arrives. The ,message is that the Gringo bandit has been wounded and captured, and is pleading for a priest before he dies. Without absolution from a priest he will die unshriven. The priest suspects a trap, but faithful to his ministry he returns with the Mestizo, to find the bandit unrepentant and the lieutenant waiting. The priest is finally taken, the lieutenant gets his prey and the Mestizo his reward. There is only one fate: execution.  

Execution and afterwards

Most of the action after the arrest takes place in the priest's cell, where he broods quietly alone on the eve of his death. He is not rejoicing. He is scared and has launched an appeal against sentence, and he also rues that he is a failure, going to God empty handed, though in this thought he is wrong, as will be seen later. The Mestizo and the Gringo have fallen out of the story by now and are heard of no more. 

Into the cell comes the lieutenant. He has news that the priest's appeal has failed, for he has eluded the authorities for so long that no mercy can be given. He is to die on the morrow, in the town square rather than the prison yard, so that all can see the fate  that is to befall Christians. But the lieutenant has a merciful streak and brings a bottle of illicit brandy. for he knows where to get it. Knowing that the priest wants to confess before he dies the lieutenant goes to find Father Jose and asks him to hear the dying priest's confession, but Jose, fearing a trap, is too cowardly to agree. As the lieutenant goes away we see a man ashamed even to look up at the sky and aware of the depths to which has fallen. 

That night the lieutenant and the priest dream. The former dreams that he is going down a corridor that comes to a dead end, whereas the priest dreams of a banquet of seven dishes that are merely the prelude to something richer and greater. It is clear that the seven dishes are the seven sacraments and that  while both priest and lieutenant must eventually tread the same path,only  the priest has the way through death.

Yet in thinking he is going to God empty handed the priest is wrong. The lad who was bored by the emotional hagiography inflicted on him by his devout mother is inspired by the priest's courage. He has found a masculine aspect to his religion and makes it his own. At the end there is a knock on the boy's door. It is another priest sent to replace the dead one. The lad does not hesitate and invites him in. 

Graham Greene

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There are no perfect adult characters in the book. The priest is brave and faithful, but he is weak for alcohol and fearful at times. The devout mother is priggish and condemnatory of the priest for his human weaknesses. We feel that the lieutenant is basically good, but misguided, for while he is ruthless in his cause he shows mercy and flickers of kindness. Of the priest's foes he is the only one who has any virtue.

The three other adult characters are rather nasty. The Gringo dies impenitent and ungrateful for the priest's efforts. The Mestizo is pure evil, driven by ruthless greed to destroy a good man for money, and he shows not a whiff of courage in the whole process.Father Jose is a picture of degradation, living on a pension with a really horrible female allocated to him by the government,mocked by the local boys and too cowardly to do a dying man a favour for fear that his wretched privileges would be lost. Father Jose is Greene's insight into a life of bad faith, the life lived by persons who betray their principles for cash or safety. Father Jose shows martyrdom is an option more attractive than treachery. 

Many people see the priest as a whisky priest and think that his weakness for alcohol makes him a bad priest. It does not, as a man alone and hunted by those who would kill him he needs some human solace. He is weak, but he never fails in his mission to serve his people. When he falls he is penitent and picks himself up again and carries on. He has the humility that never sees itself as good, but is conscious of his faults. Such a consciousness of faults is the mark of genuinely holy people. In the end he displays courage in the face of death. 

Many will be shocked when I say that in portraying the whisky priest Greene is showing us what true saints are like in real life, sinners who fall but pick themselves up again and carry on faithfully in the service of God. The priest-hero of the novel is a saint.

Graham Greene


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Updated: 05/02/2023, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/30/2023

I think that this is an American saying.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/29/2023

Your last sentence, about saints and sinners falling down and picking themselves up, calls to mind a saying here.

The saying goes that fall down, pick yourself up seven times or fall down, pick yourself up eight times. There is actually a controversy over which one is the original and which one makes the most sense!

Would that saying exist on your, eastern (Atlantic) pond side?

frankbeswick on 08/26/2015

The message of the Power and the Glory is that humans are flawed beings with the capacity to reach for the infinite, but our lives are messy. We have urges that drag us down. The only response is to keep on pressing and don't fall into despair. Note that in the book the priest dies thinking himself a failure, but he was unaware that the boy had been inspired by him.

The New Testament sets a standard of perfection that is above us all, that' the message of the Sermon on the Mount, one of whose passages you cite. But God simply wants to draw us forward, we will never reach that standard of perfection, but that's why forgiveness is so important.

blackspanielgallery on 08/22/2015

Indeed, many saint have picked themselves up. Peter after the denials of Jesus and Paul who served Rome before being struck with a bolt. And, if these great saints were able to do so, certainly the others could. Interesting and profound.

Mira on 07/16/2015

I didn't know about Go Set a Watchman, and I find it so very interesting that Harper Lee now has two books presenting her characters in two different ways.
I agree with the way you see sainthood, and I love Graham Greene!

frankbeswick on 07/16/2015

I was motivated to revisit The Power and the Glory, one of my favourite books, by my discussion with HappyNutritionist about the new novel, Go Set a Watchman, and the issue of Atticus' character. I wanted to make people realize that sanctity is not something present from infancy, but a process on which we must work all our lives, and in which there are many stumbles. I want people to apply the lessons of The Power and the Glory to the reading of other novels when they analyse characters, such as Atticus.

Mira on 07/16/2015

I didn't know Graham Greene wrote so openly about religion. Thank you for this review.

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