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The Pathetic as Hero: “The Diary of a Country Priest”


The first-person narrative in George Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest might divert our attention from the heart of the novel, at least for a few chapters: unsuspecting readers might suppose that the young Curé’s career as a village pastor will control the tale. Instead, the Diary develops through its conversations. It almost wanders from one encounter to another, spotlighting individual men and women whose ultimate fates remain often, but not always, hidden to both reader and narrator. Through their words, the true character of this sickly priest and his tired flock shine out, as Bernanos weaves his masterpiece from these thin threads of sin and sanctity. A few themes seem central here:

A Shepherd’s Heart

The Curé’s conversations provide a direct answer for our Lord’s command to Peter: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Feeble and inexperienced as this priest might be, the man is truly a pastor, bearing throughout the novel his love of and responsibility for this town of Ambricourt, for these men and women. The lone priest walking his parish rounds might be an image of sanctity unfamiliar to the modern world; nevertheless, his charity reflects some facet of Christ’s all-encompassing compassion, especially for the “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:35-38).

Evil and Sin

Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd, but also the Divine Physician: these two aspects of priestly ministry are necessarily related. A good shepherd cannot ignore disease: “A priest can’t shrink from sores any more than a doctor. He must be able to look at pus and wounds and gangrene” (117). Uncomfortably incisive in his diagnoses of broken humanity, it’s no wonder he becomes known as a meddling idealist. But the Curé won’t tolerate a false peace in a dead soul: Jesus came not to bring “peace on earth . . . but a sword” (Matt. 10:34-36). 

Bernanos’ memorable discussions of sin and evil might unsettle good Thomists, who firmly insist that evil is “neither a being nor a good.” Evil is merely privation, a lack of real being or order (ST I, q. 48, a. 1). “Essential evil” or essential sin as a positive desire, a “vast yearning for the void, for emptiness” (112) makes little sense to existentialism and none at all to consistent metaphysics. Contrast Augustine’s reflections about pear-stealing and desiring false goods (but not evil itself!) in Confessions II. Still, as long as we don’t “reify” evil in our philosophy, the author’s disconcerting language serves its purpose. It startles us out of our daily compromises, making us recognize just how horrible sin is and, likewise, how great our redemption.

Poverty and the Church

The apostolic coffers began rather empty; in Acts 3, all the beggar receives is the invocation of Jesus’ name (Acts 3:1-10). The Curé, too, lives in what many would consider intolerable poverty, and he was raised in worse. Bernanos does not whitewash this cross, and more than once he brings poverty to the foreground. Marxism, however, has no place is Bernanos’ ecclesiology. Jesus did not claim a kingdom in this world (John 18:36); similarly, the Church comes and announces the Gospel, not material relief: “Blessed are you poor” (Luke 6:20). “God sends us to them first, and what is our message? Poverty” (43). As earnestly as we must apply ourselves to the works of mercy (see Jas. 2:15-17 on “dead faith”), the real treasure of the Church does not change: she ultimately offers no richness but Christ.

Weakness and Suffering

Without revealing too much here, suffice it to say that this priest is a man of intense physical and spiritual suffering. Don’t wait around for him to defend his reputation or earn the goodwill of his parishioners. His long spiritual darkness persists as well. To the world he remains a pathetic figure on every level; faith is left to judge differently.

Bernanos’ Diary is a quick read, even for a novel; all the same, it captures something of the profound beauty of God working through human instruments. One can ultimately hear the Lord’s words in these pages: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

This essay was written by Bro. Linus Martz, O.P.