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Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (various publishers, 1936).Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (various publishers, 1936).

           Last year marked the 70th anniversary of Bernanos's powerful tale of a young and earnest parish priest in rural France who feels that he is a total failure. From a merely human perspective he is not mistaken. As is fitting, we never learn his name. The entire novel is a diary in which he confides his doubts and loneliness, his sense of futility, struggles with a sense of vocation ("Keep marching to the end, and try to end up quietly at the roadside without shedding your equipment."), powerlessness in the face of suffering, clashes with clergy colleagues, the history of his own family dysfunction, and even disgust with his own body due to chronic stomach pains and an impoverished diet. He knows he is physically clumsy and socially awkward. He describes his parishioners as bored, boring, and petty. They gossip about him as a "secret drinker" and a womanizer, both of which are laughable. The priest loves his flock; he visits every home every year, and he prays for them. He has a keen sense of history and his own obscure role to play. He is an astute observer of the weakness, frailty and fallenness of human nature, especially his own. By the time he dies of stomach cancer at a young age, Bernanos has painted a portrait of what we realize is a genuine saint. On his deathbed at the end of the book the priest confesses, "Does it matter? Grace is everywhere." Every person in ministry ought to read this book, but perhaps not until you turn fifty or so.

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