Confusions and confessions

With war on the horizon, a young priest rushes to save the world - and loses himself

With "Schindler's List," Thomas Keneally documented the saintly work of a hedonistic man at the center of the 20th century's most ghastly crisis. The Booker Prize-winning book and the Academy Award-winning film raised the sort of awesome questions about our own moral courage that, thankfully, few of us will ever have to answer.

"Office of Innocence," Keneally's latest work is set in World War II also, but it's far from the heat of battle or the furnaces of genocide, way off on the periphery of crisis where most of us make the decisions that will redeem or doom us.

Frank Darragh, a new young priest on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia, begins this sensitive novel "dazed and delighted with his sacramental duties." While other priests perform the rite of confession "in a brisk, functional way," Frank radiates a spirit of mercy that draws parishioners to him. In fact, it's a little embarrassing the way they line up outside his box, dwarfing the paltry line at his monsignor's door. In these tense times, with husbands and brothers fighting far away in Europe or Africa and rumors of Japanese invasion circling, Frank's uplifting conviction of God's grace is a comfort that dispels the petty sins of undisciplined boys and tempted housewives.

Keneally's witty dissection of shame never gives a hint of pomposity or cynicism. The characters who implore Frank for forgiveness form a wonderful catalogue of human comedy: women who confess excessive pride so they can describe the reasons for their pride; tormented saints "locked in such a relationship to their own sinfulness that no other events count"; legions of young men deluded by the narcissism of guilt to imagine that their private offenses are new to the world - and of interest.

Without ever sacrificing Father Frank's humanity or our credulity, Keneally portrays "exactly the sort of unsullied, unworldly, yet not stupid young man the seminary sought." Indeed, he seems at first like the kind of person all of us should strive to be, or to be again. But there's a tragic theme running through this fable about the cost of confusing spiritual innocence with emotional immaturity.

The novel follows Frank on a kind of pilgrim's progress, a virgin errand into the wilderness of real life that explores the author's uncanny insights into the nature of sin and redemption.

Frank sets off to discover others' salvation holding the trusty compass of church doctrine with his sights fixed on mercy. He was raised in a terrarium of maternal protection where the moist air of piety allowed him to flourish without ever encountering the confessions he begins to hear in the stirred climate of wartime. "He was prepared by the sins which occupied the major headings in Nolden's 'Moral Theology,' " the narrator notes with a tone that somehow honors Frank's sincerity, but mocks his confidence. "Surely, the footnotes of extreme perversion belonged to Europe, to France, say, with its world-weariness and its ancient record of sin."

When a young soldier confesses his homosexuality, another reveals his pedophilia, and another describes a ménage à trois, Frank finds himself disoriented by the rich variety of depravity, struggling to make sense of these new pages thrust into his moral atlas.

He tries to maintain "a voice which fraudulently implies that he has heard everything that could possibility be confessed," but inside he's shocked. For the first time, his comforting arguments and platitudes seem colorless and silly.

Staggered, Frank falls into a state of accidie, "a sort of religious version of profound boredom, a sense of the withdrawal of grace." The anxiety this inspires raises his usual earnestness to a fever pitch. Without entirely realizing it, he comes to believe that the key to his own salvation rests on saving these parishioners - some sincerely thirsting for reformation and some not.

In this needy state, convinced of his indispensability, he's an easy mark for manipulation by others - and his own will. One of the most troubling and ambiguous episodes involves a black American serviceman arrested for desertion. Frank throws himself into the middle of the case, insisting that he has some special insight, but he may just be getting the Australian wool pulled over his eyes.

Keneally is always gentle with this eager and sometimes pompous young priest, but he won't let him escape the humiliation he deserves. "It isn't that you lack virtue," a chaplain warns him. "It's that you have too much of it for the world to work with."

In fact, he has more than excess virtue. Soon, he becomes obsessed with a married woman in his church, writing her notes and bending the customs of his office to see her again. Frank attributes his new "flexibility" to the extraordinary demands of war - the need to meet parishioners where they are. But Keneally investigates all the tributaries of this young man's mind, showing the way he conflates logic and desire, responsibility and pride.

Despite careful efforts to hide his compromising relationship one moment and convince himself that he has nothing to be ashamed of the next, events pick up a velocity of their own, and Frank spirals into a scandal that threatens everything he believes in and even his life.

What a strange pleasure it is to encounter this kind of psychological precision in the portrayal of a character's spiritual development. There's no shortage of despair in modern literary fiction, or angelic fluffernutter in religious fiction. But Keneally brings to the table the skills of a superb novelist and a sensitive cleric. (He studied for the priesthood as a young man but left before ordination.) The result is a terrifically engaging analysis of the challenge of simple piety in a complicated world.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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