Rarely on that list is the great American novelist Edwin O’Connor. He was a Catholic but not a Catholic writer per se. He did, however, produce one of the greatest Catholic novels of the 20th century, The Edge of Sadness.
The great accomplishment of this work was that it was unabashedly Catholic yet the story was universal. As a testament to that accessibility it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1962.
O’Connor’s novel also served a second purpose: It added a heavy layer of humanity on the priesthood by giving an insight into the burdens priests carry, often in self-imposed isolation.
My good friend Fr. Robert Wild, who attended the seminary more than 50 years ago, remembers that The Edge of Sadness gave him a perspective from an unexpected source.
“I can say that it gave me realistic insights into the life and struggles of priests and that from a layperson’s perspective,” said Wild, a priest at the Madonna House Apostolate, the Catholic lay community started by Catherine Doherty in 1947. Wild is the postulator for Doherty’s sainthood cause.
“I marvelled at how a layperson could know so much about priests. I think I was amazed at that most of all.”
Reading it from the vantage point of today’s isolated and secularized society, it has the feel of an archeologist unearthing an ancient civilization and then extrapolating a common language and culture. The culture was called Roman Catholic.
The story revolves around Fr. Hugh Kennedy, a highly connected priest in a city that most readers assume is Boston, although it is never named. Fr. Hugh had one of the best parishes in the city — or at least one of the wealthiest. Then following the death of his father, he fell into despair and alcoholism.
There is a gripping sequence of events in which Fr. Hugh realizes he has a problem, decides he can correct his problems by dint of pure will, only to realize his failure to reach out for help will be his undoing.
“Shame, pride, may have held me back; I don’t know,” he says.
“I went for God’s help. I went desperately because this time I was badly frightened — but the discovery I made now frightened me even more. For I found that, just when I needed to most, I could no longer pray.”
The story picks up after his return from drying out at a clinic in the desert of the American Southwest. Those scenes of Fr. Hugh coming back to himself will be familiar to anyone who has ever battled addiction.
He returns to his hometown and is given a second chance by his bishop, but is assigned to the most woebegone, rundown parish in the diocese. He suspects few of his parishioners speak English yet they nod at his every word. His curate, the son of Polish immigrants, is attentive to Fr. Hugh’s needs to the point of distraction. Some of the great comic moments of this novel take place when priest and curate discuss the business of the parish and the mundane events of everyday life.
O’Connor’s main gift was his ability to create a tragedy with large doses of insanely funny scenes. A dinner discussion on the “care and feeding of dwarves” may be one of the greatest comic dialogues in modern American fiction.
It is from this new parish that Fr. Hugh works out his vocation, his faith and comes to terms with the people whom he loved but fears he let down. Each encounter is not just a case of reacquaintance but opening up the same past that put him on the road to ruin.
I realized during my second reading why I loved the book so much: Despite hardships and frustrations faced by Fr. Hugh, I realized his life was built on a foundation of love — love of God, the Church, friends and the sense the he is at home.
Today, the notion of home is a moving target. Our priests are rarely the boys we grew up with. We know them at the altar but often we know little else.
That is the greatness of The Edge of Sadness. It shows the heart of a priest is also the heart of an ordinary man.
(Lewis, former religion editor for the National Post, is a Toronto writer.)