“Morte D’Urban” at Fifty

Fifty years ago this week J. F. Powers published his first novel and masterpiece Morte D’Urban, a satirical study of a Catholic priest who, tempted by the worldly rewards of popular preaching, nevertheless remains “true to his vow of poverty — to the spirit, though, rather than the letter.”

Powers (1917–1999) wrote about parish priests, wrote about them almost exclusively, from the first publication of his first story in a little magazine in 1944. His priests are now familiar types in popular culture, but Powers was the first to dramatize the man of God whose spiritual vocation has disappeared into fundraising and “pastoral” work, which is a fancy name for social visits with aging congregants. “What gave his fiction its force,” Joseph Bottum wrote in calling Powers the greatest Catholic writer of the 20th century, “was the contrast between those little foibles of priestly life and the constantly looming reality of what a priest actually does in the sacraments.”

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“Morte D’Urban” at Fifty

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