"Phil was weak. Monsignor Renton was strong, and Father Urban, though strong, had no desire to come between old friends. Hence his sometimes halting speech, his turning of the other cheek.

'Your ass is out, Father.'

'And yet, Monsignor.'"

It's another day of rectory politics for the careerist Father Urban--deftly persuading the old monsignor to build the bigger church neither he nor his assistant Father Phil wants--in J.F. Powers' 1963 novel "Morte D'Urban," a chronicle of small-stakes power struggles among the Catholic clergy that won the National Book Award that year.

The novel marked the apex of a long literary career for Powers (1917-1999), who, though a layman, wrote almost solely about Catholic priests. His specific subject matter was the Catholic clergy of his native Midwest during the years before the Second Vatican Council, when there was practically a surplus of priests--hence constant jockeying for parishes and perquisites--and hardly a layperson to be found in parish life, except for the ubiquitous rectory housekeeper with her perpetual novenas and unspeakable cooking.

Powers wrote most of his fiction during an era when the stories about priests that appeared in Catholic magazines were piously saccharine. Powers' stories about priests were wonderfully funny and realistic. His clerics talk like regular guys and worse ("Your ass is out, Father"), practice golf strokes when they should be counseling parishioners, smack the pastor's cat behind his back, patronize the nuns at the parish school, and pop cold beers on hot Sunday afternoons while twiddling their radio dials to sports instead of "The Catholic Hour."

Powers wrote mostly about diocesan priests and the daily penances of rectory life, but he also founded two humorously titled fictional religious orders, the Clementines (to which Father Urban belongs) and the Dolomites. In his fiction, there is always an ironic contrast between the priest as alter Christus (an "other Christ") and as an all-too-human being trying to make his way in an ecclesiastical organization Powers once described as second only to Standard Oil in its efficiency. Bishops exercise their authority whimsically, even cruelly. Father Burner, the protagonist of Powers' story "The Prince of Darkness," is a perennial assistant, waiting and longing for decades for a parish of his own. He finally has a crucial interview with his bishop, who gives him his next assignment in a sealed envelope, telling him not to open it until after Mass the next morning. Unable to wait, Father Burner tears open the envelope as soon as he gets to his car. The story ends with the text of the bishop's message: "You will report on August 8 to the Reverend Michael Furlong, to begin your duties that day as his assistant. I trust that in your new appointment you will find not peace but a sword."

Powers' bishops--and his pastors--are all like that. Their underlings measure out their lives with coffee spoons: the dreaded nightly card game with the domineering housekeeper, scruples over clerical train passes, petty struggles over furniture for the assistant's room. One pastor won't give his assistant a key to the rectory, another inspects his car each time the assistant borrows and returns it. Unlike the spiritually tormented priests of Georges Bernanos' fiction, those in Powers' stories do not seem to be on a tortured quest for sanctity. They want the little perks their world affords them. The best analogy to them is perhaps found in Trollope's Barsetshire novels. Like Trollope, Powers regards his characters humorously but never condescends to them. It has been said that J.D. Salinger loved his characters more than God does. Powers loved his almost as much as God does, because he had no illusions about them.

A native of Illinois who lived most of his life in or near St. Cloud, Minnesota, with extended stays in Ireland, Powers was not a prolific writer. He published only a few dozen short stories from the 1940s through the 1970s, mostly in The New Yorker, and just two novels: "Morte D'Urban" and "Wheat That Springeth Green" (1988). The latter is widely regarded as an artistic failure, for Vatican II had killed off his material. The New York Review of Books has recently reissued his collected stories and plans to reissue both novels. Someone reading Powers today might think that his are a collection of pre-Vatican II horror stories, a portrait of an authoritative church from which priests--and laity--have been mercifully liberated in recent years. This would be a fundamental misreading. It is true that Powers lost his subject because the changes that followed the Council obliterated his specific sources of humor--no more termagant housekeepers, for example. But it is safe to guess that he would have found today's priests an even richer source of comedy had he given them a sharp look. His second novel fails only because he did not work hard enough to recreate the post-conciliar world, instead populating his book with priests from the 1940s and '50s who did not ring quite true in a changed time.

Priests fascinate lay people precisely because there is always a sacramental significance to their lives. Their office requires a deeper living of the Christian life than is expected of the rest of us--and yet they are vessels of clay just like the rest of us.

For the believer, they can provide a privileged instance of the way the world encroaches on the soul. By spinning yarns about the annoying trivia of clerical life, Powers is able to underscore the point that most lives, including priestly lives, are caught up in quotidian, petty events--yet those events constitute the arena in which we save or lose our souls. That is the subtext of every Powers story.

He is a Catholic writer in the way Dante was. The stakes are eternal, but they are decided in a moment, by seemingly disproportional acts. Paolo and Francesca are damned by a single adulterous kiss. Powers' priests can go to hell for picking on an assistant. That is why they retain their interest even in a time when hell and the devil and the capital sins seem as quaint to many of us as a rectory standoff over who has to say the 8 a.m. Mass.


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