I reread a book this week that was written by someone I knew. He was a priest, from 1942 to his death in 2005, and about ten years into his priesthood he wrote a book about being a priest. I knew him because he was the pastor of the parish my father’s side of the family went to for… I don’t even know how long. But I found his book on a shelf in the attic when I was in college; I learned that it had been written by someone I knew. The cover doesn’t even have his pseudonym on it. I read it, and this week I read it again.
Everybody Calls Me Father, from what I understand (never having been able to ask the author about it), is not a memoir in the strictest sense. The conclusions drawn in it are Father Hilkert’s, and the voice is in large part his, I think, and the people and the places are based in fact; but it’s fictionalized to teach lessons, to obscure his own part in events, to make it more a book about the priesthood in general than about Father Hilkert. It’s an interesting way to approach a narrative – a first-person narrator who is too humble to actually tell us who he is, who writes as his office instead of himself, out of a genuine belief that his office is the most important thing about him, and the only thing about himself really worth talking about. It’s cheerfully self-deprecating and not remotely depressed; it’s humble and not self-hating. He writes this about his ordination Mass:
The church is packed to see me bring Christ down on earth for the first time in my life. St. Mark, my home church, has never been so beautiful. In fact, when I see it I almost weep because the Church is making so much fuss over me when I am not much at all… .
He speaks of many things only in terms of their eternal purpose – Communion, as shown above, isn’t Communion but “bringing Christ down on earth.” Likewise, the act of starting a family becomes “cooperating with God in creating a human being that will never die.” This is the most dramatic he ever gets. The writing is simple in every way– well-organized and completely without flourish. One gets the feeling that this was also important to him – that the act of writing a book, for him, had almost nothing to do with him. Like he wanted no recognizable hint of himself in the process at all. This is, in fact, my favorite thing about it. It makes everything feel more true. It makes “I brought Christ down on earth” sound as natural and everyday an event as when he says that “Jimmy Smith says that he will get the gang together and we’ll have a baseball game.” This is, I think, his intention.
That’s the part of the book that stays with me. The events, not so much. It was written in 1951, and it shows; there’s a chapter in which a group of characters berates a planned parenthood meeting for trying to lead innocent people into the sin of birth control, and there’s a very subtle veneer of Cold War-era patriotism that rubs up under certain sentences like sandpaper. The stories are funny (and the more directly autobiographical ones sometimes laugh-out-loud funny), but it’s the impression, quietly delivered again and again, of the inseparability of corporeal and spiritual life that has kept this book on my shelf. Father X makes no great claims about God. He never attempts to speak for God. He is unable, throughout the book, to get over his astonishment that he is a person whose role in life is to help make God real and tangible on the earth. When I want to explain to people why I’ve stayed a Catholic, it’s this book that I most want to quote. It’s this man’s Christianity – not even his specific beliefs, but his manner of believing – that i want to emulate.
The reason I am a priest is because I can never get out of my head the question, ‘What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his immortal soul?’ Even when I am a tousle-haired kid, every time I think about that I begin to feel that I ought to be a priest. This is also St. Ignatius Loyola’s favorite quotation, and so I figure I am traveling in pretty fast company.
It’s a little disappointing, to think that I was too young to talk to him about this book for as long as we knew each other. I left the city we shared when I was nine, four years before his death in 2005. My memories of him are kid-memories; I remember him as being very tall, of being kind but old and therefore boring, of having to sprawl in a chair in the rectory on weekends with Grandma and stare at his bookshelves (containing only books that didn’t interest me) for hours while he and Grandma sat and had coffee and talked slowly about old-people things.
My dad and I talked about his book when he visited last week; he shook his head when I brought up how weird the 1940s morality of Everybody Calls Me Father sounds to me now. “God, he was a flaming liberal,” Dad said. “I remember once he said Mass in the 90s, and all the Eucharistic Ministers were women. They came up to the altar in a row and held out their hands for the Host, and Father Hilkert turned around and looked them over and shook his head and sighed, ‘You girls made it all the way up here and they still won’t ordain you.'”
I wish I had known both that person, and the narrator of Everybody Calls Me Father. I wish I had known more about where they came together, and where they didn’t; I wish I knew whether any of Father X’s beliefs changed between 1951 and 2005. I’m sure they did; of course they did. But I wish I could have spoken to him about it.
There is one specially good thing about being a little man and knowing it – you are not likely to do things just so that people will say you are a great chap. The little men like me can always take comfort in the fact that they are not tempted to that kind of conceit. And it is always possible that it is harder to do the little things, because then nobody says that you are quite a fellow indeed.