The Priesthood of Father Brown

The stranger put one hand on the counter, vaulted over as easily as an acrobat and towered above the priest, putting one tremendous hand on his collar.

“Stand still,” he said, in a hacking whisper. “I don’t want to threaten you, but -“

“I do want to threaten you,” said Father Brown in a voice like a rolling drum. “I want to threaten you with the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched.”

“You’re a rum sort of cloak-room clerk,” said the other.

“I am a priest, Monsieur Flambeau,” said Brown, “and I am ready to hear your confession.”

“The Queer Feet,” G. K. Chesterton

Father Brown’s ringing declaration lends itself to comparison with that of another, non-fictional, priest: imprisoned in Auschwitz for speaking out against Nazi crimes, Father Maximilian Kolbe stepped out of line to volunteer to take the place of a man condemned to death. Astonishingly, instead of killing him for disobedience, the Nazi Commandat asked, “Who are you?” 

Father Maximilian replied, “I am a Catholic priest.”

Both of these men are making a “confession” of their own, a deep self-revelation: the priesthood of Jesus Christ is who and what they are. And a priest is one who offers sacrifice. Like the last recorded words of St. Maximilian, G. K. Chesterton’s short story “The Queer Feet,” which is definitely his quirkiest and one of my favourites, illuminates the sacrificial reality of the Roman Catholic priesthood. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

The Father Brown stories are G. K. Chesterton’s reply to the proliferating and unrealistic mystery stories of his day, in which he gives full rein to his capacity for absurdity and paradox. His protagonist’s “moon-calf simplicity” (has anyone ever looked up the meaning of “moon-calf”? I haven’t, but it’s still expressive) and Essex flatness are the pale backdrop to his bright perception of moral reality. The reader can’t forget how unappealing this “small dusty-looking Roman Catholic priest” looks, as Chesterton takes a mischievous pleasure in introducing him one-half or two-thirds of the way through each story – teasing the reader’s annoyance at having a fantastical tale intruded upon by such a prosaic character, like the dry voice of reason amidst a thrilling passion.

Why did Chesterton choose a priest, and a dusty little one, as the hero of his detective stories? To mortify self-assured secular powers of reason by a display of the practical advantage of Christian moral knowledge? Perhaps, but he has other reasons.

One such reason is confession. The Father Brown stories don’t say as much about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as one might expect, given that they centre on a priest, but they are strong on the Sacrament of Confession. We learn that Father Brown gets most of his insight into the darker regions of the human soul by hearing confessions from “his little flock.” And, taking the idea of a criminal’s confession and standing it on its head, throughout the stories, through which Brown pursues criminals in his own plodding style, he doesn’t aim for a legal confession but a spiritual one. In “The Queer Feet,” for example, he does get the confession he demands from Flambeau, and then makes no bones about letting him get away.

Hearing confession is an inherently priestly act, an act of Christlike compassion and self-sacrifice. It takes a very brave man to forsake the comforts of a family in order to sit inside a wooden box and hear the ordinariest people alive tell him the worst things that they can; and not just hear, but listen, listen for the hope that lies beneath their words, the hope that they are more than their shameful secrets, that they are beloved children of God, worth suffering for. 

And suffer they must. As Roman Catholic priests share in Jesus Christ’s High Priesthood (see Hebrews), they also share in His victimhood as the Lamb of God. As such, their lives are a sacrifice. Yet it’s a loving sacrifice; Christ gave up His life amid torture for His beloved Bride, and priests pour out their lives for the love of the souls that Christ cherishes. Christ sacrificed Himself to obtain mercy for us, the very same mercy that He pours out of the dusty little confessional – and, in Chesterton’s stories, out of a dusty little priest.

Let’s return to Father Brown, whom we left in the Monsieur Flambeau’s energetic grip. He is there because he is a priest. He is bound to dispense Christ’s mercy at cost to himself. Therefore, he self-sacrificially interposed himself between a dangerous criminal and that criminal’s escape route, just for a slim chance at saving Flambeau’s soul. Father Brown cares about souls. He’s not happy with catching criminals outright. There are more important things at stake.

“Did you catch this man?” asked the colonel, frowning.

Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face. “Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread .. You are the Twelve True Fishers, and there are all your silver fish. But He has made me a fisher of men.”

“The Queer Feet,” G. K. Chesterton

He’s even concerned with the tidy little sin of the title character in “The Strange Crime of John Boulnois.” C. S. Lewis, in the character of Screwtape, says “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.” Father Brown knows this very well. This funny little story distracts us readers (and most of the characters) with romantic scenes of dark windy pines and romantically flung swords, but Father Brown won’t be put off what is, for him, the main point. He has the moral sense to know that laziness and white lies can destroy Boulnois’s soul just as terribly as the murder of which he is falsely accused, and he doggedly pursues him until he extorts a repentance.

“I have helped a I have helped a few murderers in my time, it is true,” said Father Brown; and then added, in careful distinction, “not, you will understand, helped them to commit murder.”

“The Green Man,” G. K. Chesterton

All this selfless love for criminals who don’t deserve it (and, at times, ordinary people who deserve it even less) adds up to the spiritual fatherhood of Father Brown. My favourite story, “The Hammer of God,” sees an extended dialogue between Father Brown and the type of clergyman that grows more commonly on English hedgerows, an Anglican. In the story, Chesterton does the latter the dubious courtesy of calling him after the conventions of his own tradition: “Mister Bohun” and “curate.” The contrast draws attention to the wilder, almost primal terms of “Father” and “priest”, words which are dark with ancient connotations of blood and sacrifice. They never seem quite tame enough for polite company, somehow, and definitely incongruous with the “small and colourless” Father Brown. But isn’t a father one who saves his children at tremendous costs to himself – and a Heavenly Father one who does so at ultimate cost to Himself? And sure enough, the little man shows his spritual fatherhood by saving a soul from suicide before the story is over. 

There are two stories with especially horrifying moments in the Father Brown anthology: “The Honour of Israel Gow” and “The Sign of the Broken Sword.” In both, from the depths of otherworldly dread, the worldly character Flambeau suddenly, plaintively, calls the little man simply “Father.” It’s not a courtesy title. The giant, self-assured Frenchman is crying out to his friend like a little child lost in the woods. Fatherhood, priesthood, is the deep truth of who Brown is. 

Answering my own question, “Why did Chesterton make his hero a boring little priest?” it’s because Chesterton’s mystery stories aren’t about crimes to be solved, but about the human need for repentance from sin. A Poirot or Holmes might do for the former; for the latter, a priest is the only possible hero. The better question is, “Why did Chesterton make his priest so boring and little?” He did so because Brown’s smallness is the foil against which the greatness of his vocation shines forth. Chesterton is always trying to get us to realize how small and unnoticeable Brown is himself, so that we can perceive how great the One who works through him.

The Nazi Commandant accepted St. Maximilian Kolbe as a substitute for the man condemned to die. The priest spent his last days in a starvation bunker, giving encouragement to those who were dying with him, exhorting them to pray and sing hymns. St. Maximilian outlasted all his starvation bunkmates, so that the exasperated Nazis finally killed him with a lethal injection; the priest offered his arm to them with a smile, forgiving them. His self-sacrifice wasn’t incidental to his identity as a priest: it was the very heart of it.

Father Brown’s story ends less dramatically: he buttons up his coat and catches a penny omnibus home. The heroism of his vocation is hidden behind the ordinary. But Brown – and the priests who serve the Church in the trenches of parish work – aren’t less important for their ordinariness. Christ delights in coming to us disguised in ordinariness: a sweaty carpenter, a piece of bread, an overworked man in a Roman collar. St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, says of the priest that he is “Only in Heaven will he fully realize who he is.” That is because the priesthood is Jesus Christ Himself, and only in Heaven will we fully know Jesus Christ as He is.

Please read Chesterton. Please pray for our priests.

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