Saving a lost soul: scenes from Irish clerical life

Eamon Maher

Generations of Irish students, myself included, had a novel by Francis MacManus as an optional text on the Leaving Certificate English syllabus. The Greatest of These was first published in Dublin just over 70 years ago, in 1943 by the Talbot Press. It presents a very sympathetic portrait of Bishop Ned Langton, who feels impelled to bring a maverick priest, James Phelan, back into the loving embrace of the Catholic Church.

What I find particularly appealing about this novel is the sensitive way in which the clerical life is described by MacManus. Bishop Langton enjoys the company of his friends Fr Meade and Canon Keeffe, who take pleasure in their regular visits to the episcopal palace, visits that are punctuated by good food and drink, enlivened by discussions on philosophy and theology. They are well-educated, bright men who are totally committed to the Church.

As his local parish priest, Fr Phelan had played a big role in nurturing the vocation of the future bishop when the latter, a pious young altar boy whose father was determined that no son of his would ever become a priest, was encountering difficulties.


The parish priest’s own career was thrown into disarray when he became embroiled in a controversy surrounding a decision to introduce and establish a teaching order of nuns to educate for the local girls. It was this plan that caused the furore, so much as the way Fr Phelan alienated the local wealthy citizens by challenging them to be more generous in their donations.

“He declared that while he complimented the more fortunate members of the congregation on their benevolence and their readiness to give liberally for the sake of the suffering poor, he also wished to remind them that it was their duty to give out of the superfluity of their goods and wealth’.

Such a challenge was not well received by the well-heeled in the congregation. The dispute almost resulted in the outbreak of civil war. Eventually Fr Phelan had his faculties to function as a priest withdrawn and ended up living a hermit-like existence in an isolated part of the diocese.

Bishop Langton is plainly popular among the priests; he supports their ministry and appreciates the sacrifices they make in carrying out their daily tasks. This is why Fr Phelan’s case causes him so much pain as he reads through his predecessor’s notes about the sad end to his career: “He would have nothing to sustain him except a sense of injustice that the world would quietly forget in him. The routine would go on; he would be outside, futile forever because he was a priest forever.”

Christian witness

Langton resolves to visit the estranged priest and attempt a reconciliation. Fr Phelan responds: “I was never a match for the like of you, my lord, who always lusted after office and place. If I had yielded at the beginning of my troubles and held my tongue, I should now be greater than the greatest of you.”

Rich in learning and deep spirituality, Phelan knows that he could have achieved much more within the Church had he bowed to authority. But authentic Christian witness was more important to him than clerical promotion and he had the additional problem of being unable to control his temper.

The old priest finally accepts the bishop’s invitation to come and stay with him at the palace and the healing process begins. The black sheep is slowly reintegrated within the flock and revels in the prospect of being able to end his life in active ministry.

When re-reading MacManus’ novel after some 35 years, I am struck by the degree to which the respect and the esteem formerly enjoyed by the Catholic Church, and especially its bishops, have waned in Ireland, mainly as a result of the clerical abuse scandals.

I also wonder what has become of that supportive relationship between priest and bishop, which is so evident in the tact and empathy that characterise Langton’s handling of his former mentor: “He must be scrupulous with every word for fear a casual syllable might be mistaken by this man and so delay his peace.” Such a sensitive approach could profitably be emulated by modern-day bishops as they attempt to take care of a demoralised and over-worked clergy.