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Looking for grace in all the write places.

From Flannery O'Connor to Ron Hansen, Catholic writers have crafted their own literary tradition by delighting and enlightening readers. Patrick McCormick picks the best of the best.

WHEN ASKED ABOUT "GROWING UP CATHOLIC," most of us point immediately to our eight to 12 years of parochial education (or CCD) or relate anecdotes about the priests and nuns of St. Vincent's or St. Agatha s Parish. Still, I wonder if it wouldn't occasionally be a bit more interesting (and revealing) to offer a list of the Catholic novelists we have been introduced to along the way. What Catholic storytellers have shaped or sparked our budding imaginations and challenged us to think about questions of sin and grace in ways that religion class or Sunday homilies rarely did?

And what made them (and by their influence, us) "Catholic"?

An earlier generation of Catholics savored George Bernanos' The Diary of a Country Priest; Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited; Edwin O'Connor's The Edge of Sadness and The Last Hurrah; Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair; as well as Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Arises Must Converge. They also tasted Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins, and The Second Coming, along with J.F. Powers' Morte d'Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green. And alongside such substantial entrees they likewise sampled and enjoyed the lighter and more popular fare of Henry Morton Robinson's The Cardinal, Morris West's The Devil's Advocate and The Shoes of the Fisherman, as well as a number of bestsellers by the likes of Thomas B. Costain and Taylor Caldwell.

Still, as rich as this diet was, it was not always an easy thing being a "Catholic" novelist. Writers with serious literary aspirations often had to forge their fiction between the rock of a church as likely to censure creativity as to reward it and the hard place of a modern secular audience's suspicious of "religious" fiction, particularly when written by members of an authoritarian and seemingly doctrinaire church.

In the middle 1950s, Pope Pius XII's Holy Office was still in the business of condemning works like Greene's The Power and the Glory (which Pope Paul VI later confessed to the author he had very much enjoyed reading). And across the Atlantic not a few American critics wondered aloud if any faithful Catholic author was capable of genuine literary creativity, while others suggested that the interests of Catholic writers were insular and parochial, far too narrowly focused on the particularities of their own ecclesiastical and immigrant experience.

Curiously enough, although American moviemakers were always turning to the costume and clerics of Catholicism for their "religious" iconography, American literature usually expected Catholic writers to use the service entrance. In time, however, authors like Flannery O'Connor, J.F. Powers, and Walker Percy showed American audiences that being a Catholic novelist wasn't an oxymoron but a vocation.

As O'Connor once noted, "When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist."

Four decades after O'Connor made that comment, Catholic fiction continues to flourish in this country, though not without some challenges and difficulties. Percy, O'Connor, and Powers, as well as the recently deceased Andre Dubus, have been replaced by Mary Gordon, Ron Hansen, Robert Stone, Tobias Wolff, Louise Erdrich, Jon Hassler, Annie Dillard, William Kennedy, Alice McDermott, Anna Quindlen, Richard Bausch, James Carroll, Ralph McInerny, William X. Kienzle, and--of course--the ever prolific Father Andrew Greeley, to name but a few.

We tend to think of authors as Catholic for one of two reasons. Either they take Catholicism as their topic, or they approach their stories with a "Catholic" sensibility. Some do both. The best always do the second.

One of the longest running strands in "Catholic" fiction consists of "pardoners' tales," stories about the adventures and travails of Catholic priests. Often the attraction to clerics is romantic, and these tales center around the sexual tension generated by "Father What-a-Waste." (Tom Tryon played him in Otto Preminger's version of Henry Morton Robinson's The Cardinal, and Richard Chamberlain took up the mantle--or cassock--in the TV miniseries version of Colleen McCullough's clerical soap opera The Thorn Birds.) At other times, however, like in Edwin O'Connor's haunting The Edge of Sadness, J. F. Power's Morte d'Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green, and Jon Hassler's North of Hope, celibacy becomes a sacrament for the loneliness all of us must face, an aloneness that can't be redeemed just by sex, or even companionship, but that must ultimately fall back both frightened and faithful on grace.

Catholic fiction has also been attracted to priests because of the confessional, that uniquely Roman sacrament where these "men in black" oversee the shadowy realm of our sinfulness. Maybe that explains the popularity of the priest detectives of Ralph McInerny's Father Dowling mysteries, William X. Kienzle's rosary murders, as well as the continuing adventures of Andrew Greeley's Father "Blackie" Ryan.

Armed with the power to judge and forgive our sins, priests seem like natural combatants in the war against evil. Still, the battle is immensely more frightening and satisfying in works like Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest, Greene's The Power and the Glory, J.F. Powers' Morte d'Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green, and Hassler's North of Hope. Here the clergy have been cut down to size, struggling with their own thorny frailties and wrestling against a cruelty and venality as ancient and pervasive as original sin. In these dark tales of grace bent and broken, priests have been forced to lean on a mercy beyond their reach.

More recently, however, the priest has been demoted in Catholic fiction, and serious writers are bringing the voices of women to their stories of Catholicism. In Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise, a disturbing novel about tyranny and revolution in a Central American state, it is a nun who has moved to center stage. Sister Justin Feeney is a troubled but idealistic young sister trying to make sense of the moral chaos in which both her country and church are immersed and compromised.

Meanwhile, back at home, the tales of growing up Catholic in America, of negotiating a passage to sexual and moral adulthood have increasingly--with the exception of works like William Kennedy's "Albany cycle" (Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, Legs, and Ironweed)--become the stories of daughters and wives. In Mary Gordon's Final Payments, we learn as much about vocation and the ambiguity of sacrifice as we are to find in any Catholic source, while Anna Quindlen's Object Lessons, One True Thing, and Black and Blue explore the fading ethnic texture of our parents' urban and immigrant American Catholicism, as well as some contemporary moral questions haunting adult Catholics who are no longer sure their priest has all the answers. So too Alice McDermott's nearly heartbreakingly sad Charming Billy looks back on that Catholic ghetto from the sorts of places without centers where so many of us now live, remembering with ambivalent sentiment a sense of community that was both close-knit and claustrophobic.

Still, the best Catholic fiction has not been stories that are just about Catholicism, but tales informed by a "Catholic" sentiment, by a profound belief in the sacramentality of both the world around us and the words we use to connect with one another. As Andrew Greeley continues to note, Catholic fiction is informed by what the theologian David Tracy has called the "analogical imagination." It looks unblinking into the heart of our often brutal experience and detects in the fissures and cracks what the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once described as a world "shot through" with mystery and meaning.

Sometimes this "Catholic" sentiment surfaces in a richly sacramental sense of the world, in a sense of the mystery of place, custom, and ritual. In O'Connor's and Percy's tales, the South is more than a geographic region. It is home, the place they have to take you in, but also the place from which one can never seem to escape. So too, in William Kennedy's Ironweed and the rest of his Albany cycle, upstate New York is a magical, rooted space that both nurtures and suffocates, a place of original sins and final redemption. And in Louise Erdrich's tales of The Bingo Palace and other places, the reservation is that sacramental homeland whose siren call must be obeyed.

A different sort of "Catholic" sentiment "shines forth like shook foil" (to quote Hopkins again) in the novels of Ron Hansen, whose Atticus offers a poignantly contemporary tale of the prodigal son. Hansen's stories point to the sacramentality of human experience, revealing a grace embedded in the course of our daily lives. The same might be said of the unflinching and often disturbing tales of Tobias Wolff, whose The Barrack's Thief and other stories explore the dark terrain of human violence and deception, trolling for deeper truths in an entangled morass of cruelty and lies. So too, in works like Mary Gordon's Final Payments and Jon Hassler's North of Hope, dramas of hope and grace unfold against the intimate backdrop of unraveling and shattered families.

Thirty-five years ago the bishops of Vatican II gave us a rich sense of "Catholic" when they wrote in Gaudium et Spes that "the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of this generation, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted are the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ." What is going on in the world, what is giving gladness and sorrow to our sisters and brothers, this is the concern of any church daring to call itself "catholic," this is where God shows up. And a truly "catholic" imagination will forever find the world around us spilling over with "outward signs of grace." The genius, then, of these Catholic authors is not that they understand (or agree with) the church, but that they recognize and remind their readers of the sacramentality of the word and the world.

RELATED ARTICLE: McCORMICK'S QUICK TAKES ON CATHOLIC FICTION

Mary Gordon. Piety and sexuality are colliding worlds in Gordon's fiction, forces to be integrated in the adult lives of her characters. In Final Payments (1978), Gordon explores the meaning and ambiguities of the sacrifices women are asked to make, weaving a tale of a daughter who surrenders her youth to care for a dying father, searching later for a love that is intimate and redemptive. So too in The Company of Women (1988), Gordon's central character is a daughter trying to connect the rich domestic life of her religious childhood with the freedoms of adulthood out in the secular and intensely sexual world. The tables are reversed a bit in the novella "The Immaculate Man," where it is a middle-aged priest who is the religious innocent encountered by a woman whose life and faith has not prepared her for a man she wants to possess but cannot really fathom.

Jon Hassler. Over the last quarter century Hassler has constructed an imaginary Midwestern world populated by a menagerie of small town folks coming of age, growing old, and looking for bits of meaning and reconciliation amidst all the tedium, anxieties, and absurdities of life in places where you keep running into the same neighbors or colleagues over and over. Two of his best stories include North of Hope (1990), tracing the struggles of a middle-aged seminary priest who must somehow navigate a new course when all his students are gone and an ancient passion is rekindled, and Dear James (1993), in which a retired school "marm" discovers that the object of her long-term romantic correspondence has been a priest In all of these stories Hassler finds grace in the ways people face their limits and failures.

Ron Hansen. There is an almost biblical violence haunting Hansen's modern parables about good and evil, and about the tension between these forces and what passes for H normality, in his first two novels, Desperados (1979) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1987), Hansen places the villains of the Dalton and James' gangs at the center of these Western tales of character. In Mariette in Ecstacy (1991), a 17-year-old postulant who may have the stigmata brings turmoil to the sisters of a New York priory who aren't sure if they're in the presence of a saint or an hysteric. And Hansen's fourth novel, Atticus (1995), traces the pilgrimage of a formidably decent man in search of his prodigal son, while his most recent work Hitler's Niece (1999), offers a domestic view of the 20th century's most monstrous fiend.

Alice McDermott. Beginning with her debut novel, A Bigamist's Daughter (1982), and continuing in her second work That Night (1987), McDermott has been exploring the meanings of memory, especially as it ties us to the communities and character-shaping events of our childhood. The "Catholic" or sacramental shape of that memory is even sharper in At Weddings and Wakes (1992), which looks at an Irish Catholic family bridging the gap between a Brooklyn homestead and the promised land of Long Island. But it is Charming Billy (3998), McDermott's tour de force, that probes the ways in which we are haunted by memories--even false ones, even someone else's. In this tale of love gone awry, a sentimental Irish boozer is waked in a feast of remembrances, evoking a community that once held a generation together and still casts a fading shadow over its children.

By PATRICK MCCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Author:McCORMICK, PATRICK
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 1999
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