Sooner or later, it comes natural for a writer who is engrossed in their new Catholic faith and in all things ecclesiastical, to want to write about clergy. Stern priests waging war against the powers of darkness, crafty bishops and determined popes make for excellent characters. They are themselves, each one man, laid bare and, for the most part, without mundane desires, clichéd motives and romantic affairs. The story of a clergyman is simply, the story of a soul.
It is easy for a writer to get swept up in epic matters when dealing with clergy characters, partially, from the attributes aforementioned and partially, because they are characters who seldom display their vulnerable, human traits. Indeed, many fictional churchmen are iron-willed or altogether immoral while most, real men waver somewhere in between. Sometimes, in works lacking original quality, they are one-sidedly apathetic, fanatical or power-hungry, to the point where the man is erased and the stereotype is all that stands.
Clergymen have dual-citizenship as to speak. The man dwells on earth, entrapped within sensations, desires and fears while the soul of the man fixes eyes on the heavens, ever battling unseen demons. He is man, wholly man. And despite his impotence or cowardice, he embodies the meaning of what it is to be man.
A priest, whether portrayed as a ruthless tyrant or a weeping martyr, is Adam. The Spirit of God is breathed into him, giving new life and new meaning to the fatherly vocation. Even the most-abominable cleric, which is seen throughout books and movies, is called to be Adam, a tiller of the soil, a tender of the flock and a father of the household. He is the caretaker of Eve, the woman, the Church. He can teach his spiritual children to be like Cain or Abel. And mostly, like Adam, he will fail, will waver and will sin.
But it was through Adam that the tribes of Israel were born and the line of David. Where sin abounds so does virtue. That is why the name of the evil pope will be forgotten in literature, except perhaps the most infamous examples who hearken back to Judas, and why the name of the good will last onwards. Shallow people get caught up in the life of Alexander VI or Cardinal Wolsey, and think their stories to be epic romances whereas people of true, deeper faith are enraptured by the lives of Leo The Great or John Fisher. They preoccupy themselves with those who are living, whom they will meet one, grave day in heaven and ask of them untold questions.
Verily, where Adam failed, there is Christ, the True Adam and True Priest. Where there is sin, there lies hidden a story of redemption. The life and death of a clergyman is measured by sin and redemption. In a good story, one you will want to read again and again, the sinful priest realizes his destiny. He eventually shrugs off the weight of the world, repents and then dies as a chaste, old man- or at least, bequeaths to his children the virtues he never himself learned. The story of a wicked cardinal does not become epic when he falls from grace, robs the poor or defiles his body- no; this tale only enters the realm of saga when he gives himself back to God. It is repentance that gives sin worth- otherwise it is just obscene repetition, only good for backroom novels and second-rate literature.
When writing of clergy; keep three factors in mind: every priest is a sacrifice and a sacrifice-er, a ruler and a slave, a virgin and a father.
The priest is a victim, offered up for sake of his people. Even the most worldly of priests did not own themselves. Their breath was taken from them in the end just like every other man’s, their toils laid into the foundation of the Church. The priest is a lamb, led to slaughter. If any trouble or misery fall upon his flock, it shall fall upon his shoulders. At the same time, he offers sacrifice, the one and only Eucharist of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Lamb of Heaven. The most corrupt and vile cleric must still, despite all his ventures and wills, prepare this Most-Holy sacrifice at the altar.
The priest rules over his family and flock. He is father and presider over them yet he is also a manservant before them and the entire Church of God. He bows down his head beneath the flock’s sins and bares them up in absolution. Even if he may be devoid of life in himself, he must immerse the newborn soul into baptismal waters. Even if he repents not, the priest must provide the sweet unction of forgiveness at every deathbed.
Did you consider that even the lustful priest, after his own flesh, is yet a virgin? There is a right way and a perverse way that one is virginal: The Godly priest keeps chastity and prudence at his side, knowing not charm or romance or affections. He is like Christ, born of a virgin, married to Heaven and not to this world. However, one can be in his spirit, a boy and never a man. His soul knows not the consummation with Christ and stays to itself, waning in spiritual poverty. By this second way, is the priest who commits debauchery. While he is virgin, the priest is a father of many children. As the Great Apostle Paul, he becomes father to his children by the Gospel. As they are babes, he feeds them and raises them up, giving them spiritual meat in good time. Married to God, he gives himself away and lays down life so he may sire mature children of faith.
What are good models or mold for clergyman characters? I suggest simple reference to the Scriptures, for therein, lies the ultimate saga of priesthood. I have said before that the priest is like Adam. Thus, the bishop is like Moses, the cardinal like Peter and the pope like King David. Yet, they all must be like Christ- or else, they are the same as Judas. The priest is Adam, tiller and husband of the Church. He is the primal man, closest to original nature. He wills good at all times, though weak-willed and gullible, and perishes in the duties of protecting his family and flock. By the sweat of his brow, he lives, by the outpouring of self, he loves. His children are many. The best priest of fiction will mimic in every way, Adam, that first patriarch.
The bishop is Moses, law-giver and miracle-worker. He rules the Church. He is covenanted man, closest to what God wills him to be. Christ sees in the bishop a meager and inferior reflection of Himself. The bishop leads his people unto new frontiers; he quells their disputes like a high-priestly judge. He is so united to the flock that on his body, their suffering is mirrored. When he wavers, so do they. When he sins, they do despair.
The model cardinal is as Peter, prince and steward of the Kingdom. He governs the church, brother to the bishop, sharing in the priesthood. He is also covenanted man, urged by God’s will. However, like Peter, the Chief disciple, he represents power mixed with weakness. His courage quickly becomes cowardice yet his every curse becomes a holy blessing.
The most-legendary pope is David, holder of the keys, royal arbiter of the Kingdom. He judges the Church. He bears the burden of the Covenant, commanded by God’s will. Like David of Old, he lingers between grave sin and untold holiness. With each and every commission of adultery, his heart is rent and his soul driven to repentance. The words always upon his lips are: “Miserere me Deus.” “Have mercy on me, O God.” He represents both Christ and the flock. Because the saints wage constant war with devils, the pope will be embodied by thus. If he makes a judgment with evil, he reflects Satan and when judging rightly, he mirrors the Lord Christ. Like Adam, his sin is carried onto the next generation but like David, he is foresworn a fixed place, free from hell’s pressing dominion, at the Lord’s door and gate.
Study these types and write of them carefully. Know what it is you are telling. Cling to the eternal romance which God has unraveled before mankind, throughout history, and you will hold within it, the story of all wickedness and virtue, of all grief and joy, of all death and life- the story of our fall and rise- and of our final salvation.