MI: The Croatian publishing house “Verbum” recently published your voluminous novel Father Elijah, translated as The End Times. What inspired you to write this neoapocalyptic novel?
O’Brien: It began one day a few years ago, when I was visiting the Blessed Sacrament in my local parish. I was praying for the Church. Suddenly overwhelmed by the reality of how many particular Catholic churches in the Western world have been seduced by materialism and have slid into grave sin and error, I was stricken with a deep grief. Though I am not an especially emotional person by nature, I began to weep….a profound weeping and groaning that was more spiritual than emotional. I begged God to purify and strengthen the Church in my land, in all the Americas and Western Europe. Without warning or explanation, into my mind there flashed the image of a priest struggling to make sense of his times, confronted by several layers of struggle, both in his interior life and the exterior situation of compromise.
With this powerful image came a peaceful, though compelling, understanding that I was to tell a story about this man, a fictional character who would embody the dilemma of the modern Catholic striving to see the truth and remain faithful in the midst of a spreading apostasy and other evils growing in the world around him.
At the same time there came to my mind a passage in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa, in which he says that if a work of art is to glorify God, the Lord will send an angel to assist in its creation. During the eight months when I wrote the novel, I went to the Blessed Sacrament every day and asked God for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and an angel of inspiration. Though I have written many books and articles over the years, “Fr. Elijah” was the easiest thing I ever wrote. It flowed out almost fully formed, literary problems solved themselves effortlessly, scenes and dialogue appeared in my imagination as if I were watching a film. The whole process still amazes me. It taught me that grace is odorless, tasteless, soundless….yet very powerful.
MI: You have captivatingly synthesized the styles of Dostoyevsky and Le Carre in an apocalyptic theme, the result of which is prose containing both psychological depth and suspense: a book that you just can’t put down. Have you received any feedback on the impact your novel has had on readers?
O’Brien: There have been a number of conversions God has brought about using the book as an instrument, and many priests have written that the story helped them return to a deeper commitment to their priesthood.
MI: What kind of reverberations has it created in critical circles, particularly non-Catholic?
O’Brien: Reactions have been mixed. It has been reviewed widely in the English-speaking world. Some of the critics are extremely positive, and others extremely negative. Fundamentalist Protestants have been critical because of the strongly Catholic message in the tale. Other Protestant reviewers, sympathetic to culture and the intellectual life, have been generally favorable. Catholics are divided. Some literary scholars believe it is an important book, both as literature and as spirituality. However, a certain class of Catholic reviewers have slammed the book hard. Generally, this latter group is very nervous about any reflection on apocalyptic questions, and thus they have tried to dismiss what I was saying, calling it a Catholic version of hysterical fundamentalist “end times” speculation. They ignored completely the call of Our Lord to “stay awake and watch” which every generation of Christ’s followers must do. Moreover, I explained carefully in my introduction that the book’s purpose was to ask timeless questions, not to predict the future. Ignoring this, some critics failed to make important distinctions, I suppose because my novel offered them an opportunity to squash the genre of apocalyptic literature as a whole. This was, I think, because they had applied limited socio-political templates and purely literary categories to a vast cosmological struggle.
Every generation is called to an attitude of vigilance. The scriptures warn us that the generation that is least vigilant is, in fact, the one that will be visited by the ultimate test. My novel, unlike a number of other end-times novels which have appeared in recent years, does not so much try to predict specific details of an apocalypse or to pinpoint certain characters and personalities on the world stage, as to prompt the reader to go deeper and to ask himself, am I personally in a fit condition to meet the spiritual crisis into which I will be plunged if these are in fact the last days to which the prophets were pointing?
MI: In the past one hundred years several novels of a similar content have been written. In how far does your novel rely on the famous works of Benson and Bernanos, seeing as some parallels can be drawn with regard to characterization and composition?
O’Brien: It has been twenty years since I read Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic novel Lord of the World, and I cannot now recall much of the story. I was more influenced (at least in spirit) by Vladimir Soloviev’s tale of the Antichrist from his little masterpiece War, Progress, and the End of History. I have only read one of Bernanos’s novels, Diary of a Country Priest, and was moved by it, especially his emphasis on grace, fidelity, and mercy. But in the final analysis, I think my novel really flowed from a co-creative process…grace building on my own sense about our times.
MI: Numerous similarities between novelistic situations and actual historical circumstances in which we are living have not escaped the attentive reader. As a matter of fact, at this very moment we are hearing discussion on the establishment of the institution of President of the European Union, who in your novel is one of the main characters. Do you see your novel as being prophetic?
O’Brien: I do not think of myself in terms of a classical biblical prophet, nor are my books prophetic in any sense other than the prophetic calling of all baptized believers in Christ. In essence, prophecy is the faithful bearing of a “word” from God. The Lord speaks continuously to us all, but the noise of modernity numbs and distracts us. Through culture, however, grace can penetrate the blindness and deafness of modern man by capturing his imagination, clearing away the rampant undergrowth that ordinarily clogs our attention. By focusing on primary structures of reality and movements of the spirit that are usually veiled, Catholic fiction can help us see the true form of the situation in which we are living.
Genuine Christian prophesy is about preparing the heart and the mind to embrace the truth. Therefore, wanting neat fortune-telling packages about the near future is really in a sense undermining the spirit of vigilance. A great mistake is made by writers when they predict events, or interpret too subjectively the details and personalities of their times. This is the error Protestant fundamentalists fall into repeatedly. By being overly specific about names, dates, and times, they may actually distract us from the important matter of seeing clearly the essential structure of the struggle between good and evil. They can also divert our attention toward some obvious monster on the human stage, and then we become less able to see the greater danger, which may be quietly growing behind a pleasant humanitarian mask.
Whenever the State infringes upon the traditional rights and duties of the family, we must see in this a symptom that the nation has made a major move in the direction of Statism. Brutal totalitarianism or seemingly “friendly” totalitarianism is still totalitarianism. Can there ever be such a thing as “totalitarianism with a human face”? I don’t think so. Regardless of what manifestation it takes, it negates the full meaning of the human person. If and when that happens, worse evils are inevitable and are soon to follow.
I do not know if we are living in the actual events predicted in the Book of Revelation. But I do believe we are now facing a world situation in which an unprecedented number of apocalyptic elements are gathering momentum. Is the actual final Apocalypse near or far? Are we in the preliminary stages perhaps? Or is our era a rehearsal for a more comprehensive universal persecution of the Body of Christ? I truly do not know the answers to these questions. But we can certainly ask ourselves the urgent personal question: are we in a fit condition to remain faithful if mankind continues to move into the darkness of the end times? Another factor to consider is that for each soul there will be a personal “apocalypse” or unveiling at the moment of death.
To return to the subject of world-apocalypse: Human psychology is such that we tend to perceive our own times as normal. We are born and raised in cultures with certain spiritual and material realities all around us. Every generation experiences it as an imperfect world but it is still our world. At some point in history, a generation is going to go through the final apocalypse, and yet to them it will appear to be a normal world. It may have serious problems, but it will not be perceived by them in terms of the absolute crisis presented in the Book of Revelation. Jesus speaks of this blindness in the 24th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. That is our danger, if indeed this is a final apocalypse that we are going through, and not some kind of dress rehearsal. Our spiritual and intellectual guard is lowered and we become extremely vulnerable to the spirit of Antichrist that will be more active at the culminating moment of history.
O’Brien: Yes, by drawing upon the life of the Holy Father for inspiration, I tried to link the dimensions of present and future. I wanted to make the questions raised by my story universal timeless ones, but at the same time situate them to some degree in the present—so that the reader is not always pushing the concept of apocalypse into some distant mega-drama at the end of history, far beyond his present reality. I wanted to give the reader a sense of immediacy, a sense of place, a sense of rootedness in history, but at the same time not to be so overly specific that we limit the possibilities.
MI: Perhaps the most moving scene in the novel is the encounter, or rather the conflict between Cardinal Vettore and the Holy Father, in which Vettore reveals himself as the servant of the Antichrist within the Church. Pope Paul VI stated on one occasion that the smoke of Satan had penetrated through a crack and entered the Catholic Church. May we ask for your assessment on this: is the situation that bad already or did you have in mind a novelistic conception of Christ’s prophecy on the “abomination of desolation…standing where it ought not?”
O’Brien: Vettore is a tragic figure, the kind of cleric who does exist in the hierarchy, though I believe such men are a small minority. Is the situation as bad as my novel presents? I hope not. I have no “inside information” about the inner workings of the Vatican. However, after the publication of the book, priests and theologians who work in Rome told me that in certain details the situation is worse than my fictional scenario. There are indeed Vettore types who hate John Paul II and are working toward an alternative model of the Church which suits their disordered theology. In a sense, such people would re-create the Church in their own image…which is a symptom of colossal pride.
Regarding, the passage about “the abomination of the desolation”—Its precise meaning is uncertain, and as scripture says, its meaning will be sealed until the end. It is constantly on my mind. Practically everywhere in the West, one sees the erosion of the Faith, and in certain places this “smoke of Satan” enters even into the sanctuary of the House of God. By this I mean false teaching and also the acting out of dissident ecclesiology and cosmology in the Mass and other liturgical celebrations. To my mind, whenever Christ is displaced from the central position in worship, and human personality or “community” are exalted in his place, this comes dangerously close to the term “abomination.”
The Holy Father and bishops truly in union with him have worked hard to bring about a new spiritual renaissance for the Church, and a rebirth is indeed taking place. But in the churches of the wealthy nations there is much resistance to his vision. Perhaps in the Catholic churches of the East, so devastated by overt persecution, you are not as infested by Modernism, which one might call materialism with a little Christian cosmetics. I think the persecuted churches, having seen evil unmasked, are not so easily fooled by various forms of materialism. Too many Catholics in the West still think materialism is benign. It is killing us, but we still think it is our best friend. This is the fruit of Christians falling to the temptation to seek both God and Mammon. In the end Mammon will betray us if we do not wake up. That is one of the themes of the novel: it is precisely our desires for security and comfort at all costs that can render us vulnerable to an Antichrist…to the smoke of Satan.
MI: We Croats were particularly struck by the role in the story of Friar Jakov who is from Croatia, and by the significance of his effect on Fr. Elijah as he begins his mission to confront the Antichrist. What motivated you to give this role to a Croatian Catholic?
O’Brien: I am deeply moved by the sufferings of my brothers and sisters in the persecuted churches. I have known several people from many nations of the former Soviet empire and other Marxist states. The agony of Croatia and the other Balkan nations was a violent revelation of the war between good and evil that is always with us. The war crimes committed against individuals and whole peoples show us that even in civilized countries man becomes capable of the worst atrocities when he loses his sense of identity as a son of God. This is the ugly underbelly of materialism. As the Holy Father has pointed out, both dialectical materialism and consumerist materialism radically devalue the human person. Many Christians in the relatively peaceful and prosperous West do not yet understand this. We have much to learn from you.
In the character of Friar Jakov, I tried to portray the anguish of a good soul who has suffered under radical evil, and who strives to find hope and healing. Jakov struggles to forgive. With the help of prayer, the grace of God, and the love of his religious community, he gradually finds peace. Is Jakov not every man, for at some point in life each of us experiences the blows of unjust suffering? By uniting our suffering to Jesus on the Cross, we can participate in His redemption of the world. There is no more powerful force on earth than crucified love. Yet the extraordinary nature of the evils of the 20th century have cast mankind into the worst of temptations, the temptation to absolute despair about human nature and about God. In order to avoid this despair he either turns to Christ or to the seductions of the spirit of Antichrist. Jakov represents a soul who wrestles with this despair and overcomes it in Christ. Fr. Elijah learns much from him that is helpful for his own interior struggle.
MI: Within the category of Catholic Literature we have a series of great writers and poets stemming from the second half of the nineteenth century up until World War II. How would you assess the status of Catholic Literature in the world today?
O’Brien: Scattered, marginalized, not producing the fruit the Holy Spirit desires to bring about in culture. Part of the problem is that commercialized culture and its incestuous partner the secular media, are determined to keep an authentic Christian vision from entering the mainstream of culture. There are exceptions, but they are not numerous. Another cause is the condition of our Catholic people. Although God continues to pour out great gifts of creativity on mankind, many gifted young people reject the call to become explicitly Christian artists. Like the rich young man in the Gospel, they turn sadly away, thinking that survival in this vocation is impossible. They have been convinced by the overwhelming ethos all around them that such a vocation would be a path of poverty and suffering. Well, to some extent it is, but they do not realize that there is a glorious joy within this struggle. Too often we forget that God always calls us to the “impossible.”
MI: In your opinion, which are among the best works produced by Catholic writers in the last half century? How contemporary are they in the sense of providing a Catholic response to the problems of modern man, primarily with regard to cultural issues, as does your novel?
O’Brien: A few titles stand out, such as Eugenio Corti’s The Red Horse and the novels and short stories of the American Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. Each in their way, using varying degrees of implicit and explicit Catholic insight, incarnates the truth of existence. The real universe is full of wonder and surprise, beauty, tragedy, and resurrection; grace is powerfully at work in it. A writer can reveal this drama in many different ways, all of which we might call Catholic if the work of art is produced from a spirit of reverence for God and creation, with faithfulness to the moral order of the cosmos, and as a fruit of prayer. Catholic culture is a very broad term. It should be as deep as it is broad. But contemporary Catholic culture is only scraping the surface of its potential.
I can think of a half dozen English-speaking fiction writers who are devoutly Catholic and who write “non-religious” novels acceptable to the secular mind. In this they are doing a good service, a kind of pre-re-evangelization. However, there is still an aching void in the field of explicitly Catholic fiction.
MI: What should Catholic intellectuals undertake and how should they channel their activities in order to infuse new world trends, such as globalization, with righteousness and spirituality and thus have a constructive effect on the future of the world?
O’Brien: That is a big question, requiring answers too complex for an interview. But at least may I offer a few basic thoughts on the matter: First and foremost Catholic thinkers need to rediscover the light that comes from humility—a light that invigorates the mind as well as the soul. There is an urgent need to return to a proper integration of intellectual and spiritual life…an understanding of how mind, heart, body, and spirit work most fruitfully in the human person. It seems to me that disproportion rules practically everything at the moment, and that few Catholic intellectuals are listening to John Paul II and the wisdom of the universal Church. A stringent self-examination of conscience is desperately needed. I suggest, also, a careful and prayerful reading of the Holy Father’s extensive writings on the arts and on culture in general, for anyone interested in the restoration of Catholic intellectual life.
The gift of intellect is a God-given one, yet the world is dominated by a new non-cultic Gnosticism, where reason has been largely divorced from faith. In the case of many Catholic scholars, there has been no formal divorce, yet reason is placed in the driver’s seat of the car and faith in the back seat. Reason is a strength, a power, yet it so easily becomes a law unto itself whenever it is not in submission to the Mind of Christ. It is, of course, a paradox rooted in the Gospels that in our weakness we find the strength of Christ. When we are most conscious of our poverty as creatures before God (beloved creatures, I should add), grace can pour most effectively into us. Without humility, pride inevitably takes over, with resulting blindness or one-dimensional thinking.
Regarding the specifics of how Catholics can infuse truth into new world trends and the emerging powerful forces that are reshaping man, I do not have pragmatic solutions. I believe the real solution is for modern man (beginning with Catholic thinking man) to return to the fundamental “architecture” of reality. He must ask himself in every situation, What is the human person? What is the purpose of his existence? What is his place and value in the social order? What is the relationship between freedom and responsibility? And above all, who is the true Lord of this world and source of wisdom?
Moreover, I believe that neither Catholic activism (even with the highest motives), nor brilliant Catholic rhetoric, are going to change anything for the better unless profound prayer and fasting are the foundation of our words and acts. When we rediscover humility and proper proportion, then the solutions to the myriad socio-political problems will come.
translated into Croatian by Vesna Borovic, Zagreb