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From the September/October, 2010 issue of Touchstone


Father Urban’s Lesson by Thomas W. Jodziewicz

Father Urban’s Lesson

Thomas W. Jodziewicz on Real Christianity for Losers

A broad-brush approach to American history would surely accentuate the forefinger: Americans like to win; they like, even celebrate and envy, apparent winners. The traditional story of the past two American centuries usually emphasizes America’s winning ways, including the enactment of necessary reforms and the achievement of victory in war, while the culture itself is adorned with such adages as “Winning is the only thing,” “Show me a loser and I’ll show you a loser,” and “We’re (or I’m) Number One!”

For many, self-autonomy, personal gratification, and various examples of personal prosperity—despite periodic and even heart-felt calls for a retrieval of community and common values—constitute the avowed lodestone of the Americ

an enterprise in self-fulfillment, and it is not a completely misplaced or miscalculated narrative accent. We do have personal responsibility for ourselves, and any progress toward that is in some way surely a victory.

But what about a responsibility to and for others? In the tension in American history between the one and the many, the I and the We, lies a more complicated social storyline regarding being a winner. Christ’s apostles, all chastened and seasoned by grace, would surely contest this particular, mostly individualistic, American description of winning, as well as its relevance for the good life, and substitute another frame of reference: the seemingly un-American reality of losing. So, eventually, would Father Urban Roche.

The Ambitious Father Roche

Father Urban Roche is the creation of the novelist J. F. Powers (1917–1999) in his 1963 National Book Award-winning Morte D’Urban. A member of the apparently mediocre Order of St. Clement, Fr. Urban sees himself as engaged in a one-man effort to bring the Clementines up to date. Operating out of Chicago, and enjoying many of the finer things of life, he lectures and preaches widely in what he sees as a heroic quest to vivify a religious order that, in his eyes, was “unique in that they were noted for nothing at all.”

Fr. Urban himself had joined the order while under the exhilarating influence of a well-accomplished visitor, Fr. Placidus, who had carried all before him by the force of his personality and vitality. In short, Fr. Placidus was a winner in Roche’s eyes and a wonderful mentor, who had counseled his charges: “Be a winner! Never say die!” Indeed, on his own otherwise rather busy escutcheon, Fr. Urban had included only three words: “Be a winner.” It turns out, however, that at least in Fr. Urban’s view of things, Fr. Placidus had been unique among the Clementines.

Perhaps because Fr. Urban’s more worldly tendencies and pride were noticed by the provincial (the local head of the order), he gets assigned to a fairly dismal retreat house in rural Minnesota. But even here, the Clementines’ self-appointed promoter enjoys apparent successes, whether as a visiting pastor who shakes up and indeed vivifies a slumbering parish, or as a Catholic priest whose apparent non-judgmentalism and urbanity are attractive even to non-Catholics. He gets the idea of opening a golf course adjacent to the retreat house, so as to attract wealthy and influential people, the movers and shakers of society, with whom he liked to be found on his travels and who were potential donors to his cause—even if these acknowledged winners are fairly materialistic and morally tone deaf.

Fr. Urban is not a “bad” priest, and much of his activity does appear to have a good effect, but his moral imagination has been tainted by his operating definition of what it is to be a winner. In his own estimation, the increasing successes of several of his fellow Clementines in outback Minnesota come about because of his own entry into their world and his necessary courting of what at first glance does appear to be mammon:

The Clementines, competitors not so much for the alms and stipends of the faithful as for their hearts, had got nowhere until Father Urban entered the lists. He, unlike Wilf [the rector of the retreat house], had taken good care to conquer the profane world before tackling the other one, and, for that reason, was able to deal with the clergy [of the local diocese] from a sitting, rather than a kneeling, position. They loved a winner. It was as simple as that. That was what was really behind the great change.

Without noticing it, Fr. Urban starts to give in more and more readily and eagerly to the selfish temptations of worldly accomplishments and standards, though he does all these things in the name of furthering the corporate interests of the Clementines. By certain worldly standards, he is indeed a winner; but by following a map marked out by and for himself, he is, in ways of which he is not yet conscious, near to becoming a fatal loser.

Headaches & Cleared Vision

His Damascus moment comes when an errant golf shot by the local bishop—who is engaged in a determined quest of his own to turn the retreat house into a diocesan seminary and to put this proud and popular priest in his place by seeing him lose the match—hits Fr. Urban in the head. The priest is so badly injured that, from then on, he finds himself troubled by persistent headaches—and also by a clearer appreciation of what is happening around him and to him.

At the end of the novel, Fr. Urban is elected the new provincial of the Order of St. Clement, but he is a different man, a more securely pious and even wise man, whose spiritual journey toward salvation has been resumed along a far more selfless and authentic path. During his installation, he participates in a ritual written by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in which the new provincial responds to several questions. When asked just how it is that the pure of heart shall see God, Fr. Urban answers:

By the toil of humility, by the emotion of compassion, by the ecstasy of contemplation. In the first, truth is found harsh, in the second, loving, in the third, pure. Reason leads us to the first, Love brings us to the second, Purity carries us up to the third.

By denying himself, by confronting the world’s understanding of a winner from a more critical, Christian perspective, and by acquainting his new self more readily and charitably with the crosses carried by his confreres and others, Fr. Urban has come out of a comfortable self-centeredness and has embraced a far different and counter-cultural understanding of what it is to be a winner.

Winning by Losing

To deal with this counter-cultural understanding is, for believers, to be on mostly familiar terrain. Christ, present now in his Church, counsels self-denial, and the need for a sturdy shoulder, that will paradoxically result in the opposite of apparent self-abnegation or even self-annihilation. But as Fr. Urban’s story shows, this paradox of finding oneself by losing oneself, while an easily phrased staple of the Christian faith, is not so easily lived.

The opportunities for self-distraction by surrounding oneself with the latest noise and gadgets, and intimations of power and control, are perhaps more numerous today than even in Fr. Urban’s 1950s, and certainly more so than in the days of Christ and his apostles. But the temptation to secure oneself in one’s own carefully constructed moral universe and imagination, to determine the right and the wrong for oneself, is always a strong temptation. The world’s estimation of what it is to be a winner seems always present, even as the historical details may be different.

Many good things have been accomplished by America and by Americans, but the cult of self-determination and the celebration of self-reliance, visible already in the Garden of Eden, is a lingering and ultimately damaging, perhaps even damning, temptation within any historical project. Perhaps it is even more so in a national narrative that too often defines winning as an expression of utter self-autonomy and self-direction that, in the Christian frame of reference, is rather the very definition of losing. Then again, it may be prudent, and pastoral, to refrain from directly instructing Christ’s followers, in the new dispensation . . . to be losers!

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