By Olaf Olafsson
Ecco/HarperCollins, 2019, 292 pp.
I’m not much of a fiction reader, to put it mildly, but I stumbled across a very favorable review of “The Sacrament” that was featured in the progressive Jesuit monthly, “America,” and became intrigued. The reviewer indicated the story revolved around the investigation of a pedophile priest, so why would the American Jesuits’ official magazine promote such a novel? I saw that our local library had a copy and gave it a whirl.
Plot (spoiler alert)
The novel opens in Reykjavík, Iceland with a young, Catholic grammar school student witnessing the school’s priest-principal falling to his death from the adjoining church’s bell tower. Rewind to several weeks earlier. An anonymous letter sent to the Icelandic bishop accuses the principal of the school, priest August Frans, of sexual abuse. Sister Johanna Marie, a French nun, is commissioned by the Vatican to investigate the allegations because of her proficiency in the Icelandic language. The nun is assigned a young, agnostic priest, Pall, to assist her. She interviews several children and their parents, but shame, guilt, and loyalty to the church hinder their cooperation. The nun becomes absolutely convinced of the priest’s guilt, but the investigation is closed for lack of explicit evidence. Sister Johanna then dispenses vigilante justice by stealthily following the priest up to the top of the bell tower and pushing him to his doom. She subsequently comforts the young student who had witnessed the priest’s fall, but what details did he see?
Twenty-years later, the nun is summoned back to Reykjavík because of further developments in the case. The child who had witnessed the priest’s death is now thirty-something-years-old and is struggling with his past. Unnar had also been victimized by priest Frans and, through therapy, discovers he had been suppressing a detail of the priest’s death that he had witnessed. In a meeting with the current bishop and sister Johanna, the abuse survivor tacitly acknowledges that, yes, he had seen her at the top of the bell tower and discreetly thanks her for her intervention.
This novel is challenging for the reader because the author constantly skips back and forth between the two time settings. If that confusion were not enough, an additional sub-plot and timeline is introduced involving the nun in her pre-ordination days and her growing same-sex attraction to her college roommate who hails from Iceland (which explains why the nun had learned Icelandic). Pauline/Johanna Marie never acts upon her urges, which precipitates her joining the convent and “haunts” her the remainder of her life.
Because of the discombobulated, multiple timelines, this story felt VERY convoluted until the very end when all of the sub-plots converge together in the powerful, runaway-freight-train denouement.* I felt sympathy for all of the characters who are caught in the lies, hypocrisy, and filth of the Roman religion. The rampant abuse of children by pedophilic Catholic priests is now out in the open and can no longer be swept under the rug as in decades and centuries previous. I am so grateful to the Lord for delivering me from the darkness of Roman Catholicism and saving me by His grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.
After reading “The Sacrament,” it’s very easy to understand why the Jesuit periodical, “America,” would promote it. The editor of “America” is progressive Jesuit priest, James Martin, who is Catholicism’s #1 crusader for affirmation of LGBTers and their “lifestyle” within the church. Progressive Catholics have no compunctions about discussing the clerical sexual abuse and cover-up scandal because they view the “problem” as a result/symptom of conservative Catholicism’s strait-jacketed rigidness. I’m sure that Martin and others at “America” were absolutely delighted that the heroine of this abuse-busting story was a crypto-lesbian nun. The lesbianism (aka “particular friendships”) that was widespread within Catholic convents, including predatory abuse by those in authority, is another distasteful story that still needs to be honestly addressed.
I had scant knowledge of Iceland (population, 360,000) previous to reading this novel so one of the upsides was frequently checking the locations mentioned in the book with my Google Earth app. Iceland is an amazing, little (size of New York State) country with a formidable climate (the temperatures in Reykjavík during the summer usually reach only into the high-50s Fahrenheit).
While I wouldn’t generally recommend this book, it is an interesting and revealing view of Roman Catholicism from the Catholic Left, especially in regards to the current scandal tsunami, that might appeal to some other evangelical Vatican-watchers.
*Hurrah for blogging! Where else but in a blog post can the average person use such a powerfully descriptive word as “denouement”?