J.F. Powerss Comic Art
May 1989By Richard Stokes
At the beginning of J.F. Powerss 1962 novel Morte dUrban, Father Urban sees a coarse businessman as a possible benefactor for his impoverished order, the Clementines. Urban diligently cultivates his friendship, and later entertains the fantasy that the Church ought not be too strict in her dealings with the rich and powerful:
He was up against a situation that had often confronted the Church, and one that had cost her heavily in lives and property. Father Urban had given a lot of thought to this particular aspect of ecclesiastical history, which, generally speaking, suggested that it is too hard for some people, and all too easy for others, to do the right thing. Father Urban felt that Clement VII had been the wrong pope to deal with Henry VIII, and he wondered what the feeling was in heaven on this point.A literary relative of Powerss Father Urban is surely the Dean of Blangermont in George Bernanoss masterpiece The Diary of a Country Priest, who believed it would be imprudent to judge too harshly the sharp business practices of the merchant class, the source of the French Churchs revenues and political support.
Powerss Father Urban is an extroverted and energetic American priest (an operator a born operator) who sprinkles his popular sermons with the idiom of American business: [Charlemagne], you might say, owned and operated Europe. He soothes a group of businessmen annoyed by a campaign, sponsored by Urbans own superior, to put Christ back into Christmas: As I see it, merchants to mention only one group are paying homage in the way best suited to them and their real talents. Naught for your comfort isnt one of Urbans pastoral principles, not when he is ministering to the well-to-do and influential.
Father Urban also bears a certain literary resemblance to the whiskey priest in Graham Greenes The Power and the Glory, who, before the persecutions in his Mexican province, had nurtured ecclesiastical ambitions beyond his well-run and comfortable parish. But Morte dUrban is a comic novel, and it isnt religious persecutions but an errant golf ball inexpertly driven by his bishop, whom Urban regards as one of his persecutors, that chastens Father Urban and transforms him at the novels end into, in Thomas Mertons words, a deeper, more noble and more spiritual priest. Merton, in his review of Morte dUrban, recognized that Powerss novel was not just a satire on the American Church and its clergy but also a valid and penetrating study of the psychology of a priest in what is essentially a spiritual conflict.
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