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The very title of the book invokes the specter of decline, most obviously in reference to Father Urban Roche himself, a 1950’s master preacher and fundraiser for his [fictional] Midwest religious order the Clementines, a group outstanding for “exactly nothing,” as Urban knowingly puts it. Based in Chicago, Father Urban radiates through the Midwest and the Great Lakes region moving parish throngs to piety and generosity through his retreats and missions. He does much of his best work over long dinners with rich Catholics and blue pencils his sermons in fine hotels. By his own estimate he had five truly talented confreres in his order. The rest were nondescripts kept afloat by his efforts, but regrettably for him some of those lesser stars had been elected to positions of leadership in his community, to the detriment of the Church, to be sure, but particularly to Urban himself. The homebound harbor jealousy of the sort-of-rich and sort-of-famous.
It occurred to me that the story of the fictional Father Urban is set in the late 1950’s, while the famous American Trappist monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, was in his prime. Powers would certainly know of Merton. Merton’s name never appears in the novel, but he and Urban are cut from the same cloth. Both lived their vows in a fashion that suited them while doing much good for the Church and their orders. Urban was chaste, to be sure. But poverty and obedience he played like a Stradivarius, though it is hard to get too angry with his shortcomings. In the Church of his day, many were quite forgivable.
For despite his liking for five-star hotels and smooth scotch he is a gentleman missionary, too, and something of a pastoral visionary for the postwar United States Church. He obtains for his order a prime piece of downtown street level Chicago real estate which he envisioned as a religious/cultural think tank for professionals and intellectuals, where the best philosophical and theological texts and journals are featured and noted international scholars would lecture and lead discussions among the GI-Bill graduates of Catholic colleges. To his dismay, the Clementines decide upon old seminary castoff décor with a library of its inhouse publications and devotionals instead [“Ask Father Clem’ pamphlets], material we seminarians of the 1960’s would have referred to as “pious drivel.”
Urban comes to a crossroad of his own when his provincial pulled him off the road and reassigned him to “the newest white elephant” of the order [p. 25], a ramshackle property in rural Minnesota destined to become a retreat center. To be sure, there is a personal twist of the knife in this assignment—it was delivered by letter, not in person, and Urban, for all his ministerial gifts, was placed under the command of a local superior, Father Wilfrid, a living, breathing proof that Catholic institutional life was not immune to The Peter Principle.
The Conversion of the White Elephant, which is the setting for most to the narrative, is a testimony to the many talents and mysteries of Father Urban, who begins his exile as essentially an aging day laborer mishandling tools on tasks that a local skilled professional could have dispatched at a minimum of time and cost. Wilfred never advanced to that next administrative maxim, that “time is money,” nor to the idea that Urban and the other priest-handymen might be more profitable to the project if they were released for weekend work in nearby parishes offering Masses, hearing confessions, and talking up the retreat project.
Urban’s mood during this period ranges from sardonic to philosophical. It took every ounce of self-control to eat the steady diet of fish from a backwater pond on the property [“a fisherman’s paradise” according to Father Clem’s pamphlets] or to endure the cold in his room, given Wilfred’s refusal to heat that wing of the building. [“But you refuse to wear long underwear, Father Urban!”] For a time, there is a battle of wits between Urban and his superior, until Urban subtly plants the seed in Wilfred’s mind that if the Clementine priests [namely Urban] cannot circulate in the diocese, the Jesuits will soon usurp the apostolic landscape, or at least this chilly quadrant of Minnesota.
And so it happened that Urban became a local diocesan player and, at the request of the bishop, served as a substitute pastor for a growing parish while doing what he did best, selling the community on the Clementine retreat venture while at the same time angling for a promising sinecure as permanent pastor of a growing parish. He is successful in the former, but not so much in the latter. [“For a traveling retreat master, you seem to enjoy parish work a great deal,” said the bishop without smiling in the presence of one of his own men.] The retreat house enjoys numerical success in terms of retreatants, but financial wizard that he is, Urban realizes that the retreat house will not sustain itself with its steady stream of blue-collar Catholic men. As he explains to Wilfred, the retreat center needs more affluent Catholic businessmen, the type who like to pray…and play golf.
Urban has been scheming with his primary high roller benefactor to purchase a large tract of land adjacent to the retreat center, and this respectable course is finished in time for the late spring. The golfing venture is highly successful and, not surprisingly, attracted a sizeable number of local clergy including the bishop himself, whose gaze across the Clementine compound inspired thoughts of a diocesan seminary. Meanwhile, the Clementines themselves, seeing the transformation of the White Elephant, and looking for a leader in the mold of the newly elected John XXIII, turned to Urban to lead them into the next decade.
By the time Urban received word of his election, he was dead—not quite physically, as that would have been too kind. Matters having come to a head—literally and figuratively—during a round of golf with the bishop, the man of the world gradually withdrew from it into a cloud of pain, fatigue, illness, and confusion. Without the old Urban, the Clementines of the Midwest watched their property and their relevance, such as it was, dissolve under the crushing weight of a modern Church and a modern America. Not even the five competent Clementines understood the true nature of this paradigm shift, and they blamed Urban, bitterly, for what was befalling them.
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I was going to attempt an analysis of what precisely the author was trying to achieve here, but I came across an excellent essay on “Morte d’Urban” by Kevin Spinale in America from 2014 which, along with some thoughtful reader posts, summarizes better than I could the complexities of this novel and its meaning for the Church and the priesthood. I recommend the America essay, but I particularly recommend this book.