Reflections inspired by Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory
*Originally published on theYoungCatholicWoman (March 23, 2021); republished with permission.
As Christians, we routinely hear of our call to sainthood. So too are we called to martyrdom by virtue of our baptism. This is, perhaps, an unfamiliar call—one which feels slightly painful and acutely unrealistic. And yet, Christ tells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). But how can we make sense of this daunting call to martyrdom?
Graham Greene’s timeless novel The Power and the Glory reflects on this very question. The novel follows the journey of the unnamed “Whisky Priest” as he evades state persecution in 1930s Mexico following the government’s systematic attempt to eliminate Christianity during the Cristero Wars. As the only remaining priest in his region, the Whisky Priest stares martyrdom in the face as he wrestles with the weight of the bounty on his head while trying to minister to the sacrament-starved Christians he encounters.
However, the Whisky Priest is, by all accounts, a bad priest—and he knows it. He is a broken man, hindered by a love of drink (hence his name) and haunted by love for the daughter he fathered with a village woman. He wrestles with his weak will, deprived of any opportunity for Confession as the only priest in the region, but also stricken by the knowledge that he is not truly repentant, for his sin is entangled with genuine love for his daughter. He is a deeply flawed, deeply human man.
Throughout the novel, Greene offers occasional vignettes of the life and death of a near contemporary of the Whisky Priest: a holy priest who became a martyr, facing the government firing squad and dying with the cry, “Vivo Christo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”) on his lips. This is the common conception of a martyr—a virtuous man filled with the Spirit and empowered to stand tall at his death. This is the example that the secretive Christians in the novel whisper about with hopeful piety.
The Whisky Priest knows this standard of martyrdom, and he knows that he falls far short of this exemplary holiness. He refuses to let his fellow Christians gloss over his sinfulness, his failings. He clings to his sin, forcing those he encounters to see the reality of his wretchedness.
And yet, for all his self-reflection, the Whisky Priest cannot see the ways in which he too witnesses to faith unto death.
In contemplating his sinfulness, he allows the reader to see the ways in which God takes his failings and refashions them into avenues of grace. The Whisky Priest is not conventionally holy but, amidst his reluctant sacrifices and his tangled loves, he still seeks sanctity. He is a man called by God, and he begrudgingly responds.
Even though he cannot understand God’s plan—and he often doubts that there even is a plan—the Whisky Priest offers his life for the Church he serves. Even though he is constantly tempted by the thought of escaping to a foreign land free from persecution, the Whisky Priest sets aside his selfishness to minister to those who need him. One man, secretly allied with the anti-Catholic government, seeks to trap the Whisky Priest. Although the Whisky Priest is nearly certain of the man’s deception, he follows him nonetheless, for this man claims to need a priest.
Torn between saving himself and potentially saving the soul of another man, the Whisky Priest follows the path of the Cross––risking his life so that another might be saved. Even if the Whisky Priest remains blind to the beauty of his own daily martyrdom, the reader cannot miss the dynamic relationship between human weakness and divine power in the novel.
The Power and the Glory unapologetically testifies to the relationship between a priest’s humanity and God’s divinity. The Whisky Priest is sinful, and yet he consecrates the Eucharist for persecuted Christians, bearing Christ to those who desperately long for the sacraments. He is fallen, and yet God works through him. It is in this grace-filled “and yet” that Greene demonstrates a vividly real Christianity.
Indeed, we are all called to be martyrs, called to sacrifice our comforts and, if necessary, our lives for the truth. This is a hard call to desire, let alone live, but we are nonetheless called to it.
We are all the Whisky Priest––so often afraid of our own call to martyrdom. We hold onto our brokenness and weakness and, sometimes, we are comfortable with our most deeply-rooted failings. We are often prone to tepid faith, to reluctant love.
And yet, Christ does not call us to do the impossible. Martyrs are not made through will-power, they are formed by grace. The Whisky Priest acts as a mirror to our reality, for his sins are met with unbound mercy—the same mercy offered to you and me each day. Christ works through weakness, he dwells with our humanity, and Graham Greene’s novel reminds us that our quotidian martyrdom comes not from any worldly strength, but occurs through the power and the glory of God.
Mary Frances Myler is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies with minors in Theology and Constitutional Studies. She hopes to read voraciously throughout the summer months and would greatly appreciate book recommendations. Add to her reading list at firstname.lastname@example.org.