"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Friday, July 30, 2021

Catholics: A Novel by Brian Moore, Post #2

This is the second in a series of posts on the Brian Moore novel, Catholics: A Novel.  The first post can be found here.   


Part Two


Fr. Kinsella is finally able to fly onto the island of Muck by hired helicopter.  The Abbot and Br. Paul watch the helicopter fly in as they are jarring blackberries.  They are surprised as no one has ever flown onto the island before. 

Fr. Kinsella is taken up the winding staircase to the Abbot’s quarters.  Fr. Kinsella gives the Abbot a letter from the order’s father general, a letter of censure for the Abbey still performing the old Latin Mass.  Through conversation we learn just how popular the Latin Mass has become.  They discuss a certain missionary, Fr, Gustave Hartmann, who was tortured on mission in Brazil.  The Abbot has Fr. Kinsella change his plans and leave in the morning so he can spend the night at the Abbey. 

They leave the Abbot’s quarters and head toward the shore where Fr. Manus is fishing.  The Abbot has Fr. Manus catch some salmon for dinner.  Fr, Manus brazenly tells Fr. Kinsella he wants to talk to him about being stopped to celebrating the traditions.  The Abbot has them come inside, as it is starting to rain.

Once inside Fr. Manus goes through a long monologue as to the history and important of the Latin Mass.  Fr. Manus works himself up into a tiny rage where the Abbot has to step in between.  Fr. Manus finally apologizes to Kinsella. 

The Abbot gives Fr. Kinsella a tour of the Twelfth century Abbey.   He shows him the burial place of all the Abbot’s of Muck, and where he expects one day to be buried.  He then takes Fr. Kinsella to the guest house where he will spend the night.  He will get picked up for dinner.

Kinsella takes a bath, freshens up, and is called upon for dinner.  He is taken to the refectory where he meets all of the monks.  They pray and have dinner.  The community of monks all wanted to engage Kinsella over the Latin Mass but the Abbot side steps it all and brings Kinsella back to his quarters for tea.  They discuss Kinsella mission to the Abbey.  The Abbot tells him how they returned to the Latin Mass, and how the people came in droves to celebrate it.  Kinsella informs the Abbot that these liturgical and sacramental changes have been made for the sake of “Ecumen brotherhood.”  Fr. Kinsella informs the Abbot that American television is planning a documentary on the Abbey’s use of the Latin Mass, and it is critical with Rome that they stop before the filming.  And so the burden has been placed on the Abbot by much higher powers to stop performing as they have been doing.  Kinsella finally asks the Abbot where does he stand with the Mass, and the Abbot admits he is not a believer in its mysteries.  However, the Abbot is still unsure what he will do and will sleep on it overnight. 

Back at the guest house, Fr. Kinsella hears someone outside singing a traditional hymn.  He steps outside and cannot find anyone.

At midnight, the Abbot goes down to the church and finds a group of monks praying for the conversion of Fr. Kinsella.  It was they who were singing outside Kinsella’s door.  Fr. Matthew confronts the Abbot and asks what his decision on their future celebration of the Mass.  Fr. Matthew tells him that the new directive that the Mass is merely symbolic is heresy.  The Abbot rebukes Fr. Matthew for insubordination.  The Abbot, last in the church, leaves, not bothering to genuflect.


Presenting the detail of the Abbot’s personal lack of faith at the two-thirds mark of the novel set off red flags.  This is no minor detail.  The Abbot runs a religious community and that specific religious community is in the middle of a movement to return to the traditional rituals of the faith.  That’s a big deal.  My ebook listed the page when the reader is made known of this at sixty-five percent.  Such a critical detail held back that long is a violation of storytelling craft, which undoubtedly would affect the artistry of the novel, especially I might add in a novel of ideas.  If this were a mystery novel, so be it; surprises come but the tale is only a series of actions.  Readers might feel cheated but it doesn’t leave the reader in a state of ambiguity.  When it happens in a novel of ideas such as this, the central idea becomes undermined if the surprise detail relates to the themes.  This surprise detail prompted me to really look at the construction of this novel, and that surprise detail caused me to see several inherent flaws.  As an upfront summary, the main reasons why Brian Moore’s Catholics: A Novel is flawed is because it violates form and scale, of which I will try to explain.

First, the novel integrates two different forms, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but you have to be very careful in their integration.  One form is that of a dystopian novel.  The basic form of a dystopian novel is first the author establishes the dystopia, and then through a resisting character a conflict with the core of the dystopia is generated, and eventually the conflict comes to some sort of conclusion, either in the overturning of the dystopia or in many cases the crushing of the resistance, all of which support the idea which the author wishes to express.

Think of Orwell’s 1984, where the totalitarian state is established at the beginning, and then we are introduced to Winston, who is in conflict with the state.  Think of the novel we read last year, Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, where the Freemason takeover of world government has squashed all religions except Catholicism and is in the process of squashing that too with Fr. Percy Franklin in resistance.  Think of Star Wars, with the Evil Empire in control and the resistance propelled by Luke Skywalker and his friends.  One thing is absolutely required in a dystopian novel; there cannot be any moral ambiguity between the dystopian forces and the resisting elements.  The dystopian forces are the bad guys and the resistance are the good guys.  If there is a sense of moral ambiguity, then the dystopia collapses, and more importantly, the ideas of the storyline become qualified and lack clarity.

In this novel Brian Moore establishes the dystopia in Part One.  We are introduced up front to Fr. Kinsella, who represents the enforcing element of the dystopia. We follow him on the mainland of Ireland as we see the dichotomy of what the regular Catholic wants and what the Church now demands, and the power of the Church to enforce it.  In Part Two we see the resistance, or we think we see the resistance.  The monastery is at the heart of the resistance.  It is the priests from the monastery that are the driving initiative to return to the traditions and therefore are rebelling against the dystopian forces.  So when Kinsella arrives at the island he is paired with the Abbot, and so the intuitive assumption the reader makes is that the Abbot is the personification of the resistance.  The form itself leads to that assumption.  If the author doesn’t want that assumption to be drawn he needs to make that clear as soon as possible.

The second form that Moore integrates into the novel is that of a character faced with a moral dilemma.  Here the central character is faced with a moral decision that is pulling him in two directions.  The two directions can have two forms, either a clear cut morally good versus morally bad decision or one in which there is ambiguity in the moral path.  The outcomes of these decisions lead to the author’s ideas he is trying to express.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an example of the first.  Huck must choose between the slave owning society and his friendship with the escaped slave Jim.  Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet must choose between taking justice into his own hands or fulfilling his nobility’s obligation of being a vassal to the king, an obligation which comes from God.  Here there is an ambiguity for most of the action but ultimately there is clarity.  So too with Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby.  He has the dilemma of choosing between the immorality of the Buchanans and the immorality of Gatsby.  While the ambiguity exists all the way through, the weight of morality leans with Gatsby.  While it may not be perfect, the innocence of Gatsby’s love for Daisy outweighs the selfish brutality of the Buchanans.  But in all three cases with developed clarity, the moral decision is affirmed.

Of a much more difficult novel to write is where the moral ambiguity is never resolved, where the dilemma is so powerfully weighted on both sides that no clarity is ever reached.  The one novel that comes to mind here is Anna Karenina.  Anna must choose between a loveless marriage—was it an arranged marriage, I can’t recall?—with a man a generation older and life with a man who will satisfy her youth and desire for love.  As we know tragedy ensues, but tragedy could have ensued no matter which choice she made.  It is a very complex novel, and it takes nearly a thousand pages to build the complexity and in the end we still can argue over whether it was better for Anna to have left her cold husband and merely lived without love.  That clarity doesn’t come.

So Brian Moore overlays the dystopia form over a moral dilemma form.  He has Abbot Tomàs (allusion to Doubting Thomas as someone pointed out) undecided as to whether he should follow Kinsella’s directives or resist.  He’s torn between his underling priests who want to resist and… and what?  Going along to get along?  Not rocking the boat?  What exactly is his moral dilemma?  Is it a case of lack of clarity?  No, Tomàs clearly understands the immorality of the destruction of the traditions.  Or does he?  Does he care?  If he has lost his faith, why should he care?  What exactly do we know about Tomàs?  Hardly anything.  How did he lose his faith?  When did he lose his faith?  Do the other priests realize how he lacks faith in even the essentials?

So here are the issues when it comes to the flaws of the novel.  On the one hand Moore creates a dystopia, which requires moral clarity.  There is the immoral imposition and enforcement of heresy.  On that there can be no ambiguity.  It is very clear from the very nature of the first form.  Then there is the central character who is caught in a dilemma.  The Abbot can be either Huck Finn or Hamlet or Nick Caraway where the moral choice is clear or will become clear in development or he can be Anna Karenina where there is ambiguity.  Well, clearly the Anna Karenina example is not the case because as I’ve said it is a dystopia.  There cannot be an ambiguity if it a dystopia.  So then the Abbot can only be having a dilemma not because of temporary lack of clarity but because of lack of will.

Having a lack of will could make for an interesting psychological novel but in this case it would violate the form of the dystopian novel. How can you have a dystopian novel if there is no agent of resistance?  Moore has all the agents of resistance in the minor, undeveloped characters.  The Abbot is the collective representation of the resistance, and therefore when Moore introduces the Abbot’s lack of faith two thirds into the novel the whole intellectual structure of the novel collapses.

Finally Moore violates what I’ll call a sense of scale.  How much of Part Two is actually meaningful to the novel?  Why is he wasting space and time with blackberry jam and catching salmon for dinner?  This is essentially a short novel.  It’s barely over eighty pages.  Yes, you can make the argument that this is showing life at the Abbey, but he’s got to get to the point.  This is not much more than a longish short story.  I kept waiting for the significance of all that to come together, and it never did.  If he were trying to build the characterization of the Abbot, I found it all meaningless.  And then he waits to two thirds of the way to spring the most important detail of the Abbot’s character?  Moore is drawing this out as if the scale were like Anna Karenina.   But the novel is not even one tenth the length of Tolstoy’s novel.  Frankly it’s baffling.  If he wanted the Abbot in a moral dilemma he needed to put him in that dilemma early on.  And where is the development of Fathers Manus and Matthew?  They are the energy behind the resistance.  And where is the background to Abbot Tomàs’ evolution from a believer to his loss of faith?  This novel is seriously flawed.


Kerstin Replied:

Thank you Manny for the detailed analysis!


For me two things didn't make sense: the abbot's lack of faith and the brevity of the novel. If you are going to introduce this complication, lack of faith, then you have to have the requisite number of pages to have it play out. Then I thought that such a short novel requires a much more controlled structure, you don't waste space on mundane detail - that's a mark of pulp fiction, or as we say in German "trivial literature".


I am glad you pointed out that a dystopian novel needs clarity in terms of good and evil, and the corresponding attributes of resistance and destruction. It seems obvious in hindsight, but I must admit I was stumped, thinking the whole thing is falling apart, blown away like a house of straw, if the Abbot cannot counter, but couldn't quite put a finger on it. 

My Reply to Kerstin:

You're welcome Kerstin.  As to the brevity of the novel, here are some thoughts.  By 1972 when this novel was published, Brian Moore had established himself as a screenwriter.  As I was reading the book it felt as if Moore had taken on some of the nuances of a movie/TV script in the narration.  In some cases I thought it worked and in some cases it really hurt the novel.  Let me identify some examples.


Notice how he cuts away from scene to scene.  Take the helicopter scene at the beginning of Part Two.  Notice how the eye of the author works in those first couple of paragraphs.  It sees the helicopter coming in and landing.  It lands and you see the pilot opening the door.  Kinsella runs toward the helicopter, ducking under the rotating propeller blades.  The pilot’s hand comes out and grabs Kinsella.  Kinsella buckles up.  The helicopter lifts off and the eye of the author is looking up, seeing it like a “dragonfly.”  It’s up to the sky.  Then the eye of the author has taken the view from the helicopter, seeing “three faces mooned up” below.  Then we focus inside the cockpit on the pilot and Kinsella. 


How many helicopter scenes from movies have you seen that are just like that?  That eye of the author is exactly how a movie camera follows helicopter scenes.  That helicopter scene is a trope from a hundred different helicopter scenes from movies.  Notice how Moore shifts around, almost as if he’s splicing different camera perspectives together.  In the sky you have this little paragraph:


“Have you even been on the island?” he shouted at the pilot.

“No, but I’ve flown over it.”


Two lines, and then the eye shifts again, almost to another camera perspective.


Notice how you then get these short descriptive sentences at the beginning of paragraphs:  “Thunder.  Lightning sheeted the sky.”  Many times it’s not even a complete sentence, such as here, “Thunder.”  These are movie script setting descriptions or at times directions, where the screenwriter will be leaving it up to the director to create the scene from the fragments the screenwriter has used.  Notice the beginning of the next paragraph: “Now they were over the island, chopping along above a deserted strand…”  It’s as if the eye has panned ahead in time to the splice of film where the helicopter has reached the island.  And so on.  If you have time, read the first few pages of Part Two again, up to the point the helicopter lands.  And then all of a sudden the camera shifts to the blackberries and Brother Paul and the Abbot.


My point is that Moore is writing this novel and his movie script background has created this particular style.  In some cases it works nicely, in some not so nicely.  Here the helicopter scene feels more like a cliché than something fresh.  The way the scene shifts from the blackberry jarring to Kinsella being shown up the winding stairway to the Abbot’s quarters I thought worked beautifully:


 He heard steps, uncertain, coming up the winding stone staircase beneath his parlor, heard, predictably, Martin’s warning. “The ninth step is longer than the others, Father. The trip step, they called it in the old days. Be careful, so.”


“Thank you,” said the visitor in his American voice, the voice the abbot had heard on the telephone. Footsteps reached the top of the second flight. Good. It would not do to trip Rome up. “This way, Father,” the abbot called.


To Kinsella, turning and turning in that cold stone turret, to come out through the narrow door into the abbot’s parlor was dizzying, confusing, causing him, at first, to miss his host’s welcoming hand.


“How are you, Father.” The abbot’s voice was very soft.


 I do like the way that is portrayed, but again it has a movie scene feel to the shifting of where the “eye” is looking.  By the way, that “turning and turning” of a winding staircase is an allusion to the well-known William Butler Yeats poem, “The Second Coming.”  “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”  


But then you have this awful clunker.  Here the Abbot and Kinsella are walking past the kitchen.


The abbot moved briskly, his hobnailed boots loud on the flags of the walk, turning up through a slype and into the refectory, a large bare room around the walls of which were rough refectory tables and benches. In the adjoining kitchen two old monks peeled potatoes from a huge pile. On the hearth hung an iron pot, big as a cartoon cannibal’s cook pot. The turf fire gave off a pleasant scent.


Giving off a “pleasant scent” is not really specific enough for a writer who writes as a novelist.  A novelist would be more specific and say a “wood burning scent” or a “tangy, herbal scent.”  Something specific.  A “pleasant scent” is a shortcut for a director to fill in.  But look at the horrid description of the iron pot, “big as a cartoon cannibal’s cook pot.”  He alludes to a cartoon, a movie image, a shortcut description that you would find in a movie script. 


This movie script style creates the brevity you allude to.  But where I think it really hurts the novel is in the characterization.  I’m already too long, so I’m not going to cite examples, but the characterization is filled with tropes, just like the helicopter scene.  All the characters, except maybe for the Abbot, are purely two dimensional.  Fr, Manus, Fr. Matthew, the brother who walks with a limp and brings the tea, in movie script terms, these are character actor types.  In a movie, the actors are on the screen and have makeup and display facial emotions.  The very nature of acting it out creates a three dimensionality, or helps it toward it.  In a narrative, that comes across as completely flat.  The characters are mere stick figures.


I’ve never read Brian Moore before.  I don’t know if this is his writing style or he got caught up in movie script mentality.  I do know that he published the novel in 1972 and he wrote the movie script for the 1973 movie.  Was he already writing the movie script before he finished the novel? 

My Reply to Frances:

Frances wrote: "I think that’s a brilliant insight, Manny. The helicopter scene is very memorable, it’s so extraordinarily telegenic. Probably, this is the slimmest of Brian Moore’s books and you make a compelling..."

Though I called it a cliché, I do think the helicopter scene was very well done. I'm glad you agree on some of the flaws of the novel. I want to make clear, it doesn't mean that the issue of the dystopia is not important. Let's assume that he is supporting the dystopia theme. We can now talk about the theme and its validity to today's church. I wonder what Archbishop Chaput would say about it.

By the way, that is a brilliant observation on the popularity of Buddhism and Thomas Merton in the 1960s. I bet that played a role in Moore coming up with what he did.

There is a sort of compatibility between Buddhism and other religions. That's because Buddhism I think is not strictly a religion but a way of looking at the world. So there can be overlap.

But to bring this to more contemporaneous times, I think I could see how the "Vatican IV Church" could form such an alliance with Islam. I shudder to think it, but Islam is an "Abrahamic" religion (which I personally feel is a forced assumption and not really in any meaningful way) and there is Jesus and Mary in Islam. Given the relativism and the ecumenical drive to get along at all costs and given the vast immigration of Muslims into Europe, I can see this happening.

My Reply to Kerstin:

Kerstin wrote: "Unless I missed something, here is another unanswered question I have: why does the unbelieving abbot continue to allow the Latin Mass to be celebrated? Given the backdrop to Vatican IV, this is an..."

Good question. The novel is just too under developed to get a satisfying answer. I imagine the Abbot is going along with the priests under him because he doesn't want to upset his Abbey. They would rebel against him. He might figure he lives in a remote part of Christendom and that no one may notice. Or he may have internal feelings - perhaps the Holy Spirit - that kept him connected to the faith. We just don't know. This is why the psychological part of the novel (what I called above the dilemma form) is so lacking. We need to know why he became a religious, and had faith enough to become an Abbot, and we need to know how he lost that faith. It's not there and anything would be speculation.

My Reply to Irene:

Irene wrote: "Manny, Doesn't all art, good art, require a dialogue between the creator and the one encountering that art? If a piece of poetry, a painting, a novel spells out everything, it is not exactly engaging. ."

Yes, of course, but you will find that a great work will have a core that is clear and logical, and from there nuances can be found that makes the work much richer than the surface.

So as i think I said above, let's get beyond the literary flaws of the novel and discuss what we think Moore was trying to get at. Tomorrow I'll post the closing section from which we can discuss the Abbot. I am fascinated by the ending. I don't know if I have understood it completely. I definitely want to hear your thoughts.


I found the trailer to the 1973 movie on YouTube.  Check it out.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Candor Lucis Aeternae by Pope Francis, Post 2

This is the second of two posts on the Apostolic Letter commemorating the 700th anniversary of Dante’s passing.  You can find Post #1 here.  

Refresher: After an introduction, the letter divides into nine sections:


1) The Popes of the last century and Dante Alighieri

2) The life of Dante Alighieri: a paradigm of the human condition

3) The poet's mission as a prophet of hope

4) Dante as the poet of human desire

5) The poet of God's mercy and human freedom

6) The image of man in the vision of God

7) The three women of the Comedy: Mary, Beatrice, and Lucy

8) Francis, the spouse of Lady Poverty

9) Accepting the testimony of Dante Alighieri

Under the fourth part, “Dante as the poet of human desire,” Pope Francis quotes Dante from one of his other works, the Convivio.  


“The ultimate desire of every being, and the first bestowed by nature, is the desire to return to its first cause. And since God is the first cause of our souls… the soul desires first and foremost to return to him. Like a pilgrim who travels an unknown road and believes every house he sees is the hostel, and upon finding that it is not, transfers this belief to the next house he sees, and the next, and the next, until at last he arrives at the hostel, so it is with our souls. As soon as it sets out on the new and untravelled road of this life, the soul incessantly seeks its supreme good; consequently, whenever it sees something apparently good, it considers that the supreme good” (IV, XII, 14-15).

Pope Francis expands on this: “Starting from his own personal situation, Dante becomes the interpreter of the universal human desire to follow the journey of life to its ultimate destination, when the fullness of truth and the answers to life’s meaning will be revealed and, in the words of Saint Augustine, our hearts find their rest and peace in God.”  Yes, this is at the heart of the Commedia, at the heart of Dante’s personal life, and, indeed, at the heart of all our lives as Christians as we make our way to our eternal home. 


Under “poet of God’s mercy and human freedom,” the Holy Father cites two examples from the Commedia.  First is the good Roman Emperor Trajan, who as a pagan had no knowledge of Christ, and yet is the only pagan in heaven.  It is a reminder that with God, all things are possible.  The second is the King Manfred, who was a horrible human being certainly bound for hell, but in battle after receiving a deadly blow to his skull dies with contrition and the Blessed Mother on his lips.  We find King Manfred in Purgatorio.  God’s mercy can be obtained at the last seconds of breath.

The immense number of characters within the Divine Comedy, each with their lives and decisions laid before the reader, does in itself compile an insight into the human heart.  Pope Francis sees this as portraying humanity in its dignity and showcasing their human freedom.


Dante champions the dignity and freedom of each human being as the basis for decisions in life and for faith itself. Our eternal destiny – so Dante suggests by recounting the stories of so many individuals great and small – depends on our free decisions. Even our ordinary and apparently insignificant actions have a meaning that transcends time: they possess an eternal dimension. The greatest of God’s gifts is the freedom that enables us to reach our ultimate goal, as Beatrice tells us:


“The greatest gift that in his largess God

Creating made, and unto his own goodness

Nearest conformed, and that which he doth prize

Most highly, is the freedom of the will” (Par. V, 19-22).

I should add here that in the English translation of the Apostolic Letter, the quotes from the Divine Comedy are taken from the Longfellow translation.  It is not one of my favorite translations, even though it was the translation of the first time I read it.  It is definitely outdated in language, and frankly I find stilted.  They probably used it for copy write issues.   


Pope Francis points out in the section of the three ladies how central the Blessed Mother is to La Commedia. 


In celebrating the mystery of the incarnation, the source of salvation and joy for all humanity, Dante cannot but sing the praises of Mary, the Virgin Mother who, by her fiat, her full and total acceptance of God’s plan, enabled the Word to become flesh. In Dante’s work, we find a splendid treatise of Mariology. With sublime lyricism, particularly in the prayer of Saint Bernard, the poet synthesizes theology’s reflection on the figure of Mary and her participation in the mystery of God.

The Holy Father goes on to note several of the passages where the Blessed Virgin is directly or indirectly essential either narratively or thematically to the work.  It’s a fairly standard reading of Dante’s work, so I won’t quote any more.  I will agree that the prayer by St. Bernard in the final canto is sublime, among the best poetic lines ever written. 


Under “Francis, the spouse of Lady Poverty,” Pope Francis makes a rather audacious claim.


Saint Francis and Dante had much in common. Francis, with his followers, left the cloister and went out among the people, in small towns and the streets of the cities, preaching to them and visiting their homes. Dante made the choice, unusual for that age, to compose his great poem on the afterlife in the vernacular, and to populate his tale with characters both famous and obscure, yet equal in dignity to the rulers of this world. Another feature common to the two was their sensitivity to the beauty and worth of creation as the reflection and imprint of its Creator. We can hardly fail to hear in Dante’s paraphrase of the Our Father an echo of Saint Francis’s Canticle of the Sun.

At first I was hesitant to accept the claim, but in time I think he may be right.  While it seems a stretch to say Dante was in love with Lady Poverty—he wasn’t a poor man and though he had his wealth taken from him he didn’t give it up voluntarily from what I know—he did compose the Divine Comedy in the vernacular as St. Francis composed his Canticle of the Sun.  Now you could say this is just one allusion among many allusions to many other writers in the great poem, but it seems to resonate.  I was surprised to learn in my last reading of the Divine Comedy that Dante was a Franciscan Penitent, which was what they called a lay order branch of the Franciscans back then.  And I think the spirit of the poem does exude a Franciscan spirituality, a sort of embracing of creation and making the Gospel come alive.  Of course there is the learned and systemic approach of the Dominicans throughout the poem as well, and one recalls Cantos XI and XII in Paradiso where Dante has a Dominican praise St. Francis and Franciscan praise St. Dominic.  Dante is certainly a bit of both spiritualties, but I now accept he may have been more Franciscan.


Finally Pope Francis concludes the Letter by first acknowledging the incredible scope of the Divine Comedy. 


At the conclusion of this brief glance at Dante Alighieri’s work, an almost inexhaustible mine of knowledge, experience and thought in every field of human research, we are invited to reflect on its significance. The wealth of characters, stories, symbols and evocative images that the poet sets before us certainly awakens our admiration, wonder and gratitude. In Dante we can almost glimpse a forerunner of our multimedia culture, in which word and image, symbol and sound, poetry and dance converge to convey a single message.

A great epic has to encompass a great scope of knowledge and vision, and of all the great epics, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, War and Peace, Moby Dick, none I think has as great a scope as the Divine Comedy.  The Holy Father also touches on the Commedia’s ability to transform lives.


If Dante tells his tale admirably, using the language of the people yet elevating it to a universal language, it is because he has an important message to convey, one meant to touch our hearts and minds, to transform and change us even now, in this present life.

Yes, I can attest to that.  The Divine Comedy was one of the means by which my conversion back to the faith occurred.  Christ came to me when I was ready, but Dante’s work was in my heart for Christ and the Church to find form.

Pope Francis ends with an exhortation to use this 700th year of Dante’s passing to disseminate Dante’s work.


It is fitting, then, that the present anniversary serve as an incentive to make Dante’s work better known and appreciated, accessible and attractive, not only to students and scholars but to all those who seek answers to their deepest questions and wish to live their lives to the full, purposefully undertaking their own journey of life and faith, with gratitude for the gift and responsibility of freedom.

Do yourself a favor, if you haven’t read the Divine Comedy, take this year to read it.  If you’ve read it and don’t have the time to re-read it, take a canto from any of the three canticas, or better yet, take a canto from each of the three canticas, and read that.  Try it in both the Italian and the English.  Learn the nuances of that one canto, and tell people about it.  Spread the word.  The Divine Comedy is the greatest literary work ever composed.  It is the height of human achievement.


My Goodreads Review:  

In commemoration of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, Pope Francis published this Apostolic Letter highlighting some of the recent history of papal documents on Dante, probing the life of Dante, and journeying through Dante’s great work the Divine Comedy. This was a pleasant read, and while it certainly not ground breaking in any literary way—who would expect that from the Pope?—it really is educational for those with only a passing knowledge of Dante and his work.  If you’re a lover of the Divine Comedy, you will enjoy reading the Holy father’s Letter.  If you’re new to the work, let this be an inspiration to delve into it.

Indeed, Pope Francis ends with an exhortation to use this 700th year of Dante’s passing to make Dante’s work better known.  Do yourself a favor, if you haven’t read the Divine Comedy, take this year to read it.  If you’ve read it and don’t have the time to re-read it, take a canto from any of the three canticas, or better yet, take a canto from each of the three canticas, and read that.  Try it in both the Italian and the English.  Learn the nuances of that one canto, and tell people about it.  Spread the word.  The Divine Comedy is the greatest literary work ever composed.  It is the height of human achievement.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Candor Lucis Aeternae by Pope Francis, Post 1

This is the first of two posts on the Apostolic Letter commemorating the 700th anniversary of Dante’s passing.

The full title of this work is ”Apostolic Letter CANDOR LUCIS AETERNAE of the Holy Father FRANCIS on the Seventh Centenary of the Death of Dante Alighieri.”  Popes have various genres of writing forms they use to communicate with their faithful and with the world at large: encyclicals, motu proprio or rescripts, constitutions, bulls, exhortations, apostolic letters, and more.  Apostolic Letters are not quite as long as an encyclical, but they are not a brief note either.  I posted back in March that Pope Francis had just released an Apostolic Letter on the seventh hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death.  I read it and I want to post my thoughts on it.  Candor Lucis Aeternae is about 18 pages long, about that of a short story, and you can read the letter on line here.   

Candor Lucis Aeternae translates into “Splendor of Light Eternal,” and refers to the day the letter was published, March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation.  Here is the opening paragraph:


SPLENDOUR OF LIGHT ETERNAL, the Word of God became flesh from the Virgin Mary when, to the message of the angel, she responded: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (cf. Lk 1:38). The liturgical feast that celebrates this ineffable mystery held a special place in the life and work of the supreme poet Dante Alighieri, a prophet of hope and a witness to the innate yearning for the infinite present in the human heart. On this Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, I readily add my voice to the great chorus of those who honour his memory in the year marking the seventh centenary of his death.

Is there a particular reason why it’s connected to the Feast of the Annunciation?  Pope Francis identifies “the light of the Word made flesh” is part of “the loving plan that is the heart and inspiration of Dante’s most famous work.”  OK, but one could have easily picked Holy Thursday or any day of the Triduum and it could have been as fitting.  The Divine Comedy is set from Holy Thursday to Wednesday after Easter. 

After an introduction, the letter divides into nine sections:


1) The Popes of the last century and Dante Alighieri

2) The life of Dante Alighieri: a paradigm of the human condition

3) The poet's mission as a prophet of hope

4) Dante as the poet of human desire

5) The poet of God's mercy and human freedom

6) The image of man in the vision of God

7) The three women of the Comedy: Mary, Beatrice, and Lucy

8) Francis, the spouse of Lady Poverty

9) Accepting the testimony of Dante Alighieri

Pope Francis starts by summing up what the various Popes going back a century—to the sixth century of the poet’s death—have had to say about Dante and his great work, then showing how Dante’s life reflects the human condition.  He then provides several sections on the themes within The Divine Comedy, showing hope, human desire and freedom, and God’s mercy, and how the images of God reflect in man.  Pope Francis then highlights the three central women of the work, and Dante’s relationship with St. Francis of Assisi.  He concludes with final reasons why today people should read and appreciate Dante’s great work.

Some interesting highlights from past popes.  I found interesting Pope Benedict XV’s claim in his encyclical (In Praeclara Summorum, 30 April 1921) that Dante can only have come from Catholicism.

The fact that Alighieri is our own… Indeed, who can deny that our Dante nurtured and fanned the flame of his genius and poetic gifts by drawing inspiration from the Catholic faith, to such an extent that he celebrated the sublime mysteries of religion in a poem almost divine?”

That was written obviously in a time when ecumenicalism was not a priority.  But it is true.  Dante could only have written his work through his Catholic worldview.  It is a deeply Catholic work.  Still to claim Dante as “our own” may have dissuaded others from seeing the great beauty and universal themes in his poem.  This is exactly the point Pope Saint Paul VI makes in his Apostolic Letter of 1965, Altissimi Cantus.

“Dante is ours, we may well insist, but we say this not to treat him as a trophy for our own glorification, but to be reminded of our duty, in honouring him, to explore the inestimable treasures of Christian thought and sentiment present in his work. For we are convinced that only by better appreciating the religious spirit of the sovereign poet can we come to understand and savour more fully its marvellous spiritual riches”.

He goes on to say, “Dante’s poem is universal: in its immense scope, it embraces heaven and earth, eternity and time, divine mysteries and human events, sacred doctrine and teachings drawn from the light of reason, the fruits of personal experience and the annals of history”.  Pope Francis captures the full scope of Dante’s genius from another quote from Paul VI’s Letter:


“In Dante all human values – intellectual, moral, emotional, cultural and civic – are acknowledged and exalted. It should be noted, however, that this appreciation and esteem were the fruit of his deepening experience of the divine, as his contemplation was gradually purified of earthly elements”.

Yes, this is what makes Dante’s Commedia the single greatest work in all of literature: it captures all elements of humanity, captures all elements of divinity, expresses it beautifully in craft that can only be described as sublime, and creates an aesthetic structure that reflects all those elements artistically. 


Perhaps the most original thought—at least one I had not come across before—in Candor Lucis Aeternae is the relationship Pope Francis draws from Dante’s life exile to the human condition and how it shaped his great work.


Dante, pondering his life of exile, radical uncertainty, fragility, and constant moving from place to place, sublimated and transformed his personal experience, making it a paradigm of the human condition, viewed as a journey – spiritual and physical – that continues until it reaches its goal. Here two fundamental themes of Dante’s entire work come to the fore, namely, that every existential journey begins with an innate desire in the human heart and that this desire attains fulfilment in the happiness bestowed by the vision of the Love who is God.


For all the tragic, sorrowful and distressing events he experienced, the great poet never surrendered or succumbed. He refused to repress his heart’s yearning for fulfilment and happiness or to resign himself to injustice, hypocrisy, the arrogance of the powerful or the selfishness that turns our world into “the threshing-floor that maketh us so proud” (Par. XXII, 151).

So the constant moving from city to city after his exile becomes sublimated into the journey of toward the beatific vision.  From his personal struggles to earn a living and find a stable home, Pope Francis identifies what caused Dante to create his poem:


Reviewing the events of his life above all in the light of faith, Dante discovered his personal vocation and mission. From this, paradoxically, he emerged no longer an apparent failure, a sinner, disillusioned and demoralized, but a prophet of hope. In the Letter to Cangrande della Scala, he described with remarkable clarity the aim of his life’s work, no longer pursued through political or military activity, but by poetry, the art of the word which, by speaking to all, has the power to change the life of each. “We must say briefly that the purpose of our whole work and its individual parts is to remove from their state of misery those who live this life and to lead them to a state of happiness” (XIII, 39 [15]). In this sense, it was meant to inspire a journey of liberation from every form of misery and human depravity (the “forest dark”), while at the same time pointing toward the ultimate goal of that journey: happiness, understood both as the fullness of life in time and history, and as eternal beatitude in God.

Just as the Resurrection is a sign of hope for our eternal life, so too does the Holy Father see the movement from dark forest to the beatific vision as an expression of hope that permeates the Divine Comedy.  I think “prophet of hope” is a fair moniker for Dante.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Catholics: A Novel by Brian Moore, Post #1

This is the first in a series of posts on the Brian Moore novel, Catholics: A Novel. 

Brian Moore was an Irish born novelist and movie script writer, but after serving in WWII as a young man emigrated to Canada where he established himself as a novelist.  Later he moved to the United States where he wrote for film as well.  He tends to be thought of as a Ca
nadian writer.  He was short listed for the British Booker Prize three times, so he is a writer of some reputation.  Catholics: A Novel was not one short listed.  As you will see, especially in my later posts on this novel, I do not think highly of this work, and of course I don’t recommend it.  I don’t know what his good novels are like, but this novel makes me skeptical about the value of the others.  However, his three short listed novels came after Catholics.

Catholics:A Novel was published in 1972, well beyond his developmental years.  What is important to know about Moore’s biography is that he grew up Catholic in Northern Ireland, and by the time he was an adult he had pretty much lost his faith and considered himself an atheist.  Still, a good deal of the subject matter of his life’s work dealt with Catholicism, as does this novel of course.  This novel was written shortly after the Vatican II Church Council, and it takes the changes of the Council to an absurd level.  The premise is that after a “Vatican IV” Council, almost all the traditions of the Church have been obliterated and those rules are enforced by a militarized church.  So Moore is writing a dystopia set in the future.  One of the changes to the traditions is to the Mass, the Latin Mass now forbidden, and the novel hinges on the changes to the Mass, as well as the loss of the belief that the true Presence of Christ is in the Eucharist. 

We read this novel for the Goodreads Catholic Book club, and it was coincidental (or perhaps providential) that as soon as we completed the read, Pope Francis issued is moto propio, Traditionis Custodes, severely limiting the use of the old Latin Mass.  It was amazing how contemporaneous to real life activity this read became.  And if I may editorialize, Pope Francis’ moto propio was just as dictatorial in tone as the militarized future church in Moore’s dystopia.  Our discussion did not take the moto propio into account because that was published one week after we had moved on from the book. 



Part One

The novel is set in the future after Vatican IV has removed all mysteries associated with the faith, all rituals now to be regarded as symbols.  Father James Kinsella is sent by Rome to Muck Abbey, a monastery off the west coast of Ireland where a religious order (the fictional Albanesian Order) still practice the Latin Mass as it has been done for centuries. 

The weather has made it impossible for any sea craft to get to the island, so Fr. Kinsella stays on the mainland encountering the people who attend the old Latin Mass and traditional private confessions.  He learns that the Abbot of Muck, which dates back to 1216, is a sixty-nine year old Tomás O’Malley and the Abbey contains thirty monks who live off their fishing and growing of kelp.  No one on the mainland identifies Fr. Kinsella as a Catholic priest because in the new mode, priestly dress is à la secular. 


This captures the devotion of the locals who attend the traditional Mass.


The pilgrims rose early on Sunday, went in buses and cars to the foot of Mount Coom, five miles from the village. There, they ascended the mountain, on foot, to kneel on muddied grassy slopes, or on shelves of rock, often in the unyielding Irish rain. Most could see the Mass rock and the priest only from a distance, but all heard the Latin, thundering from loudspeakers rigged up by the townsfolk. Latin. The communion bell. Monks as altar boys saying the Latin responses. Incense. The old way.

And this exchange with the hotelkeeper shows the emotional reaction of learning the locals are not following Rome’s directives.  Fr. Kinsella first asks about confessions:

“But why do the confessions take so long?”


“We still have private confessions. One person at a time in the box.”


Private confessions. This was not known in Rome. “What about public confessions?”


“Public confessions, Father?”


“Where the whole congregation stands before Mass and says an act of contrition?”


“Ah, that never took here.”


Anger, sudden and cold, made Kinsella say: “It took everywhere else!” Ashamed, he saw the hotelkeeper bob his head, obedient, rebuked, but unconvinced.

Fr. Kinsella is angry over this.  “It took everywhere else.”  Why hasn’t it taken here in this remote part of Ireland?

It may have taken everywhere else, but perhaps parishoners were forced to, or did it out of obedience.  Kinsella then recalls a conversation he had with his friend who had done some sort of study on this.


His friend Visher, a behaviorist, had made a study of current Catholic attitudes toward their clergy. “People are sheep,” Visher said. “They haven’t changed. They want those old parish priests and those old family doctors. Sheep need authoritarian sheepdogs nipping at their heels from birth to funeral. People don’t want truth or social justice, they don’t want this ecumenical tolerance. They want certainties. The old parish priest promised that. You can’t, Jim.”

This novel was first published in 1972.  It certainly speaks to us today.  We have been going through changes since Vatican II, and they are still current today.  I’m not against ecumenical tolerance or social justice, but when it becomes the primary focus of the faith there is something wrong.


Joseph Commented:

It is certainly fascinating that a 49 year old novel is still current events. I offered Mass for our local Latin Mass Community yesterday and celebrating both forms of the Roman Rite pretty much back to back makes the issues they're talking about even more poignant. I wouldn't say that I noticed a difference in attitude on the part of the people, but the ritual patterns of worship and having to switch between them makes me appreciate more just how jarring things must've been when the Novus Ordo was first promulgated and why there are people who will literally drive hours to find a TLM.

My Reply to Joseph:

That’s pretty cool Joseph. I’ve only been to one Latin Mass in my life, and I have to admit it wasn’t the spiritual experience some claim it to be. I found the language did not resonate with me. Even when I knew the Latin referred to a known segment of the Mass, say the Agnus Dei, my mind transliterated the words in block rather than knowing each word as one would in their vernacular. I think the vernacular makes the words more intimate. I feel I absorb the “spiritual nutrients” better from the vernacular than from the Latin. Of course if I went to Latin Mass routinely that might change. But it occurred to me now, since I’ve been writing on Dante the last few days, that Dante consciously chose the vernacular for his great religious poem and rejected writing in Latin. Now I understand the theological value of having the Mass in a universal language—it’s small “c” catholic!—the very opposite of the Tower of Babel, but yet there is a lot of value with the language of prayer being intimate with the parishioner.


As to facing ad orientem, I can’t make up my mind. It’s not as warm as facing the congregation, but I think it is proper and the Church should experiment with using it with the vernacular. Perhaps there is an optimum mix of when during the Liturgy of the Eucharist the priest should face Christ and when he should face the congregation. Perhaps East during the Eucharistic prayer and the congregation when we re-kneel for the presentation of the Lamb of God? After all it is an exchange of our man-made gifts for His flesh and blood.

My Reply to Catherine:

Catherine wrote: " Imagine describing a form of liturgy or prayer as nostalgic! These are worship and prayer that go back to Jesus. Maybe not the rosary directly but the prayers and the mysteries are Scriptural based."

The Latin Mass used to be universal. It's now nostalgic.

Catherine wrote: His description of confession was equally horrifying. An act of contrition before the congregation and that's it??? I have to wonder if this was the author's hope for where the Church was going. "

When I got married back in 1991 and I went to confession, the priest just had me think my sins to myself without saying them to him. Then when I was done he gave me absolution. Some really funky things were happening back post Vatican II. [Actually I kind of prefer confession like that, but it's not real confession.]

Good insight on his outfit resembling Maoist.

My Comment:

This is the second novel we've recently read where the author presents the collapse of Catholicism from the de-sacralization of the rites over the emphasis to social justice. Lord of the World had a similar argument.

Joseph Commented on the Latin Mass:

Manny I think your experience with the Latin Mass points to what I was getting at, and I think what Moore is getting at as well. It's something so alien to our everyday experience that if you just drop someone into it they're completely lost. I had the same experience my first time going, and that was after 6 years of studying Latin. The tension that Moore is pointing out between these two understandings of liturgy is very much present and the debates about how to do whatever thing best haven't ended either.

My Reply to Joseph:

Joseph and others, why do you think Pope Francis is anti Latin Mass? I'm struck by his outright hostility toward it. As I said above, the Latin Mass is not something that moves me spiritually, but I know it does many Catholics, and I see no harm in keeping it as an alternative for those who prefer it. But Pope Francis has spoken against it and there are rumors he may actually put a stop to its use. I can't understand why. I think that discussion is worthy here. I would like to do it without bringing up Church politics, but it does dovetail with the central dystopia being presented in the novel.

Joseph’s Reply:

I don't think it's so much that he's against it as he's worried about a division within the Church along liturgical lines. I generally find that reporting about stuff that comes out of the Vatican is woefully inaccurate and misrepresents what's actually going on. That being said, I think that whatever updated Latin Mass guidelines come out are going to be emphasizing that it's currently considered the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and that it shouldn't push the Ordinary Form to the side in any given parish.

Kerstin Replied:

The most recent episode of the Burrowshire Podcast delves into this issue and sheds light on the different versions of the Latin Mass, whether it is a Novus Ordo Mass said in Latin or the Extraordinary Form. I was very much surprised how many historical details there are I wasn't aware of at all.

My Reply to Kerstin:

I listened to that Kerstin. I thought it was excellent, though they seemed to get off topic toward the end. Actually what they said is what I support. If done reverently the Novus Ordo is a richer Mass, bringing in more rites than are in the Tridentine Mass. What people call the Latin Mass was established at the Counsel of Trent, and therefore a reaction to Protestants. It was not the original Mass. If it feels that there are more parts to the Novus Ordo, it's because there are more parts. The Church brought them back from prior to the Counsel of Trent. I maintain the Novus Ordo is a richer Mass if done properly.

My Reply to Irene:

Irene wrote: "The abbey seems to represent the opposite temptation. It has so withdrawn from the world that people only can hear the liturgy over a megaphone, kneeling at a distance. I think that Moore describes the mood of the worshipers as nostalgic because he wants the reader to understand that this is not a deep encounter with Christ, but a clinging to some external for its own sake. It may be engaged in lovely liturgical rituals, but, in the words of St. Basil, whose feet are they washing? ."

That is interesting Irene. I had not picked up on that. You seem to be reading this as a balanced tension between the past and the future, while I'm seeing this as a dystopia. At least the Introduction in my edition by Robert Ellsberg presents it as a dystopia. Even on the surface it strikes me as unbalanced between the two sides: little obscure, powerless monastery in the middle of nowhere versus the big, bad institution of the Church who exerts its will through power. I haven't finished but haven't been seeing it that way. Perhaps I have to look a little closer with this in mind, but the surface details do not paint Fr. Kinsella as having any positive attributes that would engender sympathy.

Irene Replied:

No, I am not reading this as a balanced tension between past and future. I am reading this as two temptations against what it means to be church. Both have existed in the past. Both can exist in the future. One builds walls to keep out the world; the other knocks down walls to let the world in. One finds certitude in clinging to a particular historical moment; one denies all certitude and with it all truth. But God can't be walled in or pinned to a historical moment. Nor can we claim to be Church just because we claim institutional titles or authority.

My Reply to Irene:

Two temptations still implies some sort of equal weight. Nonetheless, I don't see the Abbey as building walls. If anything they are reaching out to the mainland as far as their limited reach can go. In Part One at least there is nothing to suggest they are ignoring the social justice needs of the people around them at the expense of their liturgy. Who is being shown as deprived? If you're reading was accurate, there should be some sort of social deficiency dramatized or suggested.

My Comment:

There was a really good article in The Catholic World Report as a memorial to a nun who was influential in the author's (who happens to be a priest) life, "Requiem for a Holy Nun". The article's intent is to highlight the nun who was the author's teacher and who had predicted he would one day be a priest. The nun lived to 108, so he got to know her as an adult as well. It was quite touching and I would recommend that article for that alone. Here is the article:


But I post this in the context of this read and discussion. The author mentions how the nun refused to no longer wear her religious clothing after Vatican II, while apparently all the other sisters of her chapter followed the directive. Here is that paragraph:


We moved out of the city after fifth grade, but Sister and I kept in touch. She was thrilled when I entered the seminary in 1968, making me truly one of “her boys” (an affectionate term nuns often used for their students who became priests). That year – that annus horribilis – was also the year of her community’s general chapter when they doffed their habits, moved into apartments, and abandoned our schools in droves. Sister stayed the course. When she refused to take off her veil, she was sent for psychological counseling and was also told there was no position open for her in the community.


Can you imagine? Sent for psychological counseling because she refused to change to secular clothing? That is just so Marxist. So one can see where Brian Moore is coming from when he created this dystopia.

My Comment:

I should also make it clear, Brian Moore is not ridiculing the Novus Ordo. He is ridiculing the fictional "Mass" that came out of the fictional "Vatican IV."