It was author Graham Green who popularized the idea of the whiskey priest, a flawed member of the clergy who, despite failings, still manages to inspire others in their relationship with God.
In his novel The Power and the Glory, the unnamed fictitious priest at the center of the story is a fugitive in Mexico in the 1930s, on the run from the authorities during a time of persecution.
He’s not a very good priest; he drinks too much, he has doubts, and he has fathered a child. But when a dying man in another village needs a priest to hear his last confession, he comes out of hiding to help him — despite knowing he will likely be caught and executed. And that is exactly what happens.
In the end, the whiskey priest achieves a sense of dignity, nobility and holiness; villagers are heard to be talking about whether he could even be declared a saint.
Thoughts about whiskey priests came to me after reading All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir, a book by a real-live whiskey priest by the name of Brennan Manning.
Manning, who died in 2013, was the author of 21 books including the popular The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, the Beat-Up and Burnt Out.
Born and raised in a tough Catholic home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Manning enlisted in the U.S. Marines during the Korean War. Upon return to the U.S., he enrolled in journalism school but left after a semester in search of something more.
“Maybe the something ‘more’ is God,” an adviser suggested. Manning agreed, and decided to study theology.
In 1956, while meditating on the Stations of the Cross, he had a powerful experience of the personal love of Christ that confirmed God’s call on his life. After additional studies, he was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1963.
Following his ordination, Manning served as a campus minister and teacher before dedicating himself to living and working among the poor. He also spent time alone as a contemplative, living alone in a cave in a desert for six months.
Through his books and public speaking, Manning became a respected, appreciated and much-admired teacher and inspiration for many people who were seeking a deeper and richer relationship with God.
But behind his public persona was a man who struggled mightily with alcoholism. In his memoir, he recalls how he would drink a dozen beers every night by the age of 18 — and also how later, as a spiritual mentor and teacher, he would sometimes drink himself into a stupor after presentations.
In 1982, Manning left the priesthood to get married. The marriage ended in divorce 18 years later, partly due to his drinking.
Yet despite his flaws and up-and-down personal life, he still had a positive impact on the lives of many.
“He held audiences spellbound,” recalls his friend and fellow-author Phillip Yancey. “One university chaplain told me that no speaker had ever had more impact on his fickle students than this aging, alcoholic failed-priest from New Jersey.”
To the end, Manning maintained that anything good that came through his ministry was due only to God’s grace in his life.
“To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark,” he wrote. “In admitting my shadow side, I learn who I am and what God’s grace means.”
For Manning, it was all about what God did for him, not what he could do for himself. And what God did for him, God could do for others, too.
In Ragamuffin Gospel, he wrote about the many people he expected to see in heaven — prostitutes, addicts, criminals, those with doubts, the insecure, the scared, all the flawed and fearful people who were just like him.
“There they are,” he wrote. “There we are — the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.
“My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.”
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank. He blogs at onfaithcanada.blogspot.ca and writes for the Winnipeg Free Press, where this also appeared.