Fiction Every Catholic Should Read: Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos
Born Louis Emile Clement Georges in Paris on February 20, 1888, Bernanos was the son of an interior decorator. Early in his life, Bernanos thought of becoming a priest but instead studied law and literature at Sorbonne University. He fought during World War I and was wounded on numerous occasions. He spent his early career as a journalist and insurance inspector.
In 1917, Bernanos married Jean Talbert d'Arc who claimed to be a descendent of the brother of St. Joan of Arc. Together, they had six children. Bernanos was thoroughly Catholic, as is evidenced by his writing. Politically, he supported the monarchy in France. He did most of his writing during the years 1926 and 1937.
In 1938, Bernanos moved to Brazil, (as a self-imposed exile) where he tried running a farm but without much success returned to France after World War II. He was offered a position in the government but refused because he saw no signs of spiritual renewal there. He then lived in Mallorca, Spain from 1934 to 1937. Most of his novels deal with the turmoil of good and evil within the human soul. He died of cancer on July 5, 1948, at the age of 60.
He is remembered for his first novel: Under the Sun of Satan (1926) which is, in its essence, a fictional retelling of the Cure de Ars. He is also mainly known for Diary of a Country Priest (1936) which will be discussed below. Bernanos' final work, published posthumously Dialogue of the1 Carmelites was originally written as a screenplay, but unfortunately never made into a movie. It dealt with the martyrdom of the 16 Carmelite nuns from Compiegne, France who were executed by guillotine on July 17, 1794.
Diary of a Country Priest
In this masterpiece, Bernanos writes as if he were a young priest stationed in a parish in the French countryside, following his dreary life and the interesting people he meets. The book is, in a sense, a diagnosis of the “modern world.” Early on in the book, the priest gives a short piece of writing on the modern world to an older priest and asks him to review it. The older priest responds,
The modern world may deny its Master, but it's been redeemed just the same; present-day society no longer content with merely to administer our common patrimony, so whether it wants to or doesn't, it's got to set out and seek the Kingdom. And that Kingdom is not of this world. Which means they'll never find it. Yet they'll never be able to give up the search.1
This brief quote gets to the heart of the modern worldview. Bernanos not only gives a diagnosis of the modern world but also offers a prescription for it. Through its rejection of Christ, the modern world tries to fill the gap which is infinite and can never be attained in anything or anyone but Christ Himself. The world sets up the false kingdoms of money, power, lust, Communism, etc.
At the very beginning of his book, Bernanos also recognizes the problem which plagues so many in our world: boredom. The parish priest writes “My parish is bored stiff; no other word for it. Like so many others! We can be eaten up by boredom, and we can't do anything about it.”2 M. le Curé de Torcy, however, gives the parish priest the solution to the modern world's problem of boredom. Echoing the Little Flower, Bernanos writes “'Go on with your work,' he said. 'Keep at the little daily things that need doing, till the rest comes. Concentrate...Little things-they don't look much, yet they bring peace.'”3 It is through daily perseverance in small things that one is able to overcome the boredom and monotony of life.
Continuing, he goes on to give the greatest example of a Woman who lived what could be considered a boring life: “But remember this, lad, Our Lady knew neither triumph nor miracle. Her Son preserved her from the least tip-touch of the savage wing of human glory. No one has ever lived, suffered, died in such simplicity, in such deep ignorance of her own dignity, a dignity crowning her above angels.”4 The most exalted of all creatures lived the most monotonous life as a housewife and mother. Mary must certainly have felt this. Yet, it was through doing the little daily things like taking care of Her Son and making food, actually being a mother, that She found peace.
The modern world has rejected the kingdom of Heaven and set up many false ones. The soldier in Bernanos' story has echoed a prophecy that may come true sooner than thought: “'But Christ's Kingdom on Earth will never be again.'”5 Indeed, His Kingdom will not come until the end of time and by then it will be too late to choose it.
What the modern world lacks is peace of soul, something humanity has been trying to find in order to justify its sins. Once again, Bernanos has the answer: “There is no peace save in Jesus.”6 This is why everyone in the modern world has the restless heart that Augustine writes on. And because they have rejected Jesus they will never find true peace and true happiness save in Him.
Diary of a Country Priest should become mandatory reading for those discerning the priesthood and priests. Bernanos offers powerful wisdom for the priest on numerous occasions. He writes beautifully on many theological topics that are intertwined throughout his novel. Overall, Diary of a Country Priest is a true treasure of literature for the Catholic Church.
1 Bernanos, Georges. Diary of a Country Priest, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 48.
2 Ibid, 1.
3 Ibid, 209.
4 Ibid, 210.
5 Ibid, 245.
6 Ibid, 83.
This essay is the first in a series of essays on the greatest fiction books written by Catholics or books greatly filled with Catholic themes.