Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.
Shrouded in mystery and awe, these words typically form the first utterances in the Catholic confessional, a place where grace and absolution mix in equal measure with fear and self-reproach, an enclosure wherein the confessor-priest, ever mighty, has the power to loosen or hold bound the connections between the sinner and the sin.
The mysteries of this sacrament, as experienced in New South Wales, Australia, during World War II and amid mounting fears of a Japanese invasion, are the touchstone for “Office of Innocence” by novelist Thomas Keneally (“Schindler’s List,” “American Scoundrel”).
The tale revolves around a young parish priest, Father Frank Darragh, who strives to live up to the holy edict he received from an ancient monsignor while still in seminary: “You must be a merciful confessor!”
Darragh is such an earnest believer and merciful confessor that he is favored with endless lines of penitents, all of whom turn to him for relief from the often domineering manner of his fellow priests. Darragh’s abiding faith in the Catholic Church and his personal calling to the priesthood are absolute. “He believed the world simple and had confidence in the automatic comfort which he represented simply by being a priest,” Keneally writes.
At odds with Darragh’s piety is the real world, in which morality seems to shift by the moment as war news throws accepted truths into question and desperation fuels all manner of vice. The young priest’s naivete is contrasted, as well, with the worldliness of his superior, whose cardinal gift seems to be for fund-raising and parish management. “Classrooms, playgrounds, toilet blocks were Monsignor Carolan’s chief visible sacrament.”
It’s a small surprise, then, when Darragh’s innocence runs headlong into the difficult facts of life, and he sees for the first time the depths of sin and human suffering. Not only are people tempted during times of strain to betray what they profess, but even a priest like Darragh, whose motives are as clean as an unblemished lamb, can find himself inching down the slope of impropriety.
The trouble starts when Darragh befriends Kate Heggarty, a young wife and mother whose husband has been taken as a prisoner of war in North Africa. Darragh is initially dazzled by the woman’s seeming flawlessness, finding in her outward signs of love and devotion for her small son the very attributes Darragh had hungered for as a child. Though he tries to help her, priest-to-penitent, as she confronts a moral dilemma regarding another man’s attentions, Darragh is clearly smitten. When she is later discovered strangled and Darragh’s letters are found at the scene of the crime, their association threatens to undermine his standing as a priest.
Although the plot focuses on solving this murder, the true heart of the book lies in its more quiet aspects, like the question of faith. Are Darragh’s convictions a realistic help in his life, or, as he wonders, is “Catholicism and its orthodoxy sometimes better designed for the timid, for twitching souls who came too often to confession, for the scrupulous so hungry for absolution at every hour?”
Keneally, who studied for the priesthood in his youth, is able to maintain a graceful balance between respect and awe for the Catholic tradition with a willingness to peel back the layers of pomp and circumstance and uncover the human (and thus flawed) reality that lies beneath.
As Darragh follows his conscience, he also becomes more deeply embroiled in his own emotions regarding Kate, her murder and the tragedy of war, and finds himself pulled farther away from the picture-perfect image he’d presented at the outset, until he’s seen by even his own pastor as a kind of rogue curate. Facing a church hierarchy more concerned with the maintenance of absolute authority than in caring for the faithful in a genuine way, Darragh wrestles with the orthodoxy of his youth to form a belief system malleable enough to stand up to the corporeal world in which he lives.
As his numerous novels and nonfiction works attest, Keneally is a consummate storyteller. Readers relax in his capable hands as he weaves a tale as old-fashioned (and at times, as simplistic) as Darragh’s earlier blind faith.
Though “Office of Innocence” is not Keneally’s greatest effort and the murder plot falls flat, there’s no denying the author’s ability to pull us into his narrative. He is able to interest readers in the mostly mundane lives of these characters as they struggle to believe amid the horrors of war. The confessional, brimming with mystery and the complexity of faith, comes to represent not the black-and-white of absolution, but the human desire for goodness to reign supreme.
Office of Innocence
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 336 pp., $25