Graphic stories, given by so many victims of Catholic priests and made explicit in (for instance) the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, leave the listener transfixed in terror over how one person could be so broad—in persona Christi and unspeakably perverted—at once. Still more startling is the silence that so many victims kept, especially as such quiet moves us to wonder how many more remain stifled by confusion and the maddening pressure to keep up appearances. What stays silenced, what stays suggested or suspected but not known, discolors all the faithful, even those who do not, like the abused, inhabit a place of paralysis.
This sense of paralysis permeates “The Sisters,” James Joyce’s story of a troubled priest and his troubling relationship with an unnamed narrator. True, his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man culminates in the protagonist Stephen Daedalus’s rejection of his Holy Mother in favor of a strict adherence to the priesthood of art (“forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being”). And yet, the Jesuit-educated Joyce remained haunted by the realities of Catholicity for his entire life. As Father Colum Power notes in James Joyce’s Catholic Categories, although he formally severed his relationship to the Church, the Irish apostate kept “continuing devotion to the Easter liturgy, to the point of ‘secret tears.’” In “The Sisters” he gives us a powerful poetic initiation into the pains that quiet those crippled by priestly abuse.
Paralysis. The word, which “had always sounded strangely in my ears,” now “sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being.” Although this first story of Dubliners is filled with elusiveness and ellipses, we gather that, for the boy, the word is affiliated with Father Flynn, whose “third stroke” leaves the priest with “no hope.” The story starts, then, in an infernal state. When we try to arrive at express and certain answers, we seem to hear the words that hang over Dante’s underworld: ABANDON ALL HOPE YOU WHO ENTER HERE.
When the boy descends the stairs for supper, the family friend Old Cotter is sitting fireside, smoking, speaking to his uncle: “No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly . . . but there was something queer . . . there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion. . . .” Indignant, the boy remains silent but is interiorly infuriated by this “tiresome old fool!” who is, through frustrating indirection and interrupted opinions, casting suspicion on Father Flynn. “I have my own theory about it,” Cotter continues. “I think it was one of those . . . peculiar cases. . . . But it’s hard to say. . . .” The uncle, less animated in his concern, tells the narrator that his “old friend is gone, you’ll be sorry to hear;” still, even here, the enunciation on the considerable difference in their ages, and the idea that the priest was not just a Father but a “friend” advances the sense that their relationship was atypical.
The boy has a hard time absorbing the news, but unsettled by Old Cotter’s insinuations, he feels himself “under observation” and strives to continue eating with feigned indifference. The death comes hard on the boy, his uncle suggests to Cotter, because “the youngster and he were great friends.” The old Father taught the boy much, and “they say he had a great wish for him.” What is this wish? We never come to know. Though the story suggests, at various points, that Father Flynn was grooming the boy to follow him into Holy Orders, perhaps his “great wish” was more nefarious. Cotter’s elliptical hints cover the “peculiar case” with darkening fingerprints: might the priest have had a pederastic relationship with his young mentee? As Ali Günes indicates, “even the doubt of such a rumor clearly defiles and defames the image and reliability of the Church and the priest.”
Old Cotter won’t let up: it is bad for children to be around the likes of Father Flynn “because their minds are so impressionable. When children see things like that, you know, it has an effect. . . .” What precisely the “things like that” could mean remains unnamed, maybe because Cotter, in spite of his outspokenness on the matter, wants to maintain discretion in front of the boy, whose wrath toward the alleger grows.
That night the narrator puzzles with Old Cotter’s words, tries “to extract meaning from his unfinished sentences,” but he falls asleep before he can make sense of them. In his dreams the priest, with “the heavy grey face of a paralytic,” approaches him, “and I understood that it desired to confess something. I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region.” Here, outside of Cotter’s suspiciousness, inside the boy’s own soul, our concern increases. What could the priest need to confess to his charge? Why would this lead him into a region both pleasant and vicious—a region defined by connotations of sexual abuse? Our disturbance reaches an unbearable pitch when we find that the purportedly penitent priest “smiled continually” with “lips . . . so moist with spittle.” Although the narrator tries to rationalize this bizarre image by remembering that Father Flynn died of paralysis, and though he finds that he too is “smiling feebly” as if to “absolve the simoniac of his sin,” this does nothing to ameliorate our worry that he has been abused in some way. Instead, he seems to offer evidence, however partial, that the priest was a pederast. Later we learn that when the priest smiled in the boy’s presence he would “let his tongue lie upon his lower lip—a habit which had made me feel uneasy in the beginning of our acquaintance before I knew him well.”
With Günes, and wishing otherwise, I too find that this tongued lip “implies sexuality,” an implication that gains credence when combined with the spittle-moistened lips of the post-mortem priest of the boy’s dreams. Speaking of dreams, when the boy recalls Father Flynn’s distended tongue, he is moved to revisit old Cotter’s words, is driven to try and “remember what had happened afterwards in the dream. I remembered that I had noticed long velvet curtains and a swinging lamp of antique fashion.” Where are we, here? In a bedroom? In the confessional? Once again, our search is cut short, kept in the dark.
When the priest’s sisters try to make sense of his death, though they try to press on with the funerary courtesies, they can’t help recalling a weird instance wherein the lost Father Flynn was found “sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide awake and laughing softly to himself.” One of the sisters, Eliza, assures us that his confused (and clearly maddened) state was caused by “the chalice that he broke . . . that was the beginning of it.” The chalice, we learn, “contained nothing,” which is both reassuring, given that the alternative would mean Christ’s Precious Blood spilled on the floor, and curious. For, if the sister is correct in assuming that “it was the boy’s fault” that the chalice broke, what exactly could the priest and the boy have been doing to bring about such an accident, that it would be the boy’s fault? When “they say” that the narrator is to blame, we can’t help but hear yet another iteration of that pattern of priests who try to persuade their victims that they are the guilty. The sisters do not wish for their sympathies to be interrupted. At the funerary meal where they “commun[e] with the past” memories of “poor James” their brother, one of the sisters is piqued when the narrator refuses her offer of “a little glass of wine and some cream crackers,” a profane sacrament seemingly meant to transubstantiate their disturbed and disturbing brother into a spotless victim. In the last lines of the story, she again tries to absolve Father Flynn: because others found her brother James in a confessional, “laughing-like to himself,” when “they saw that that made them think that there was something wrong with him.” Notice the way in which she hedges a halo of innocence around her brother: they think there is something wrong with him, but, she implies, they exaggerated the case.
Father Colum Power speaks of Father Flynn’s “frustrated masculinity” and “unhealthy” religiosity. He roots Flynn’s case in the fact that “the Catholic priesthood sometimes bore an authoritarian (as opposed to authoritative) power that is difficult for the contemporary mindset to conceive of; a power and prestige that conjoined the mystical, the social, and the political.” Perhaps, he muses, this is why the priest sought absolution for his “simony.” Maybe. Maybe it is our unhappy familiarity with too many abusive priests, protected and explained away, that makes it hard to shake Old Cotter’s suspicions. But maybe there is more substance in the sense that the broken empty chalice, the loss of the Catholic Church’s credibility, is not the start of the crisis but the consequence of sins less easy to speak than simony.
We know how often, in cases of clerical abuse, sexual exploitation and monetary exchange go hand in hand. Are we wrong to shake our heads knowingly when the boy finds himself “annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death”? Is it only the “old woman’s mutterings” that make the boy “pretend to pray” at Father Flynn’s funeral? Joyce’s story of a paralyzed priest masterfully brushes with all of the signs most of us know from a distance: the elliptical, elusive indirection, the blamed boy. Resorting to a style that is both subdued and cryptic, his portrait of the young man is confused and confusing at once. Old Cotter’s allegations are never proven true. All fears of pedophilia may be a misguided projection, prompted by too many portraits of a dubious priesthood smoked and mirrored by a self-interested clericalism. No, such suspicions do not amount to definitive verdicts. Still, in passing through the suspiciousness of Joyce’s “The Sisters,” we come closer to grasping the sufferings of many of the formerly faithful who, paralyzed by the crisis of sexual abuse, find the chalice of belief half-empty.
Joshua Hren is co-founder and assistant director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey. He is founder and editor in chief of Wiseblood Books. He is the author of the short story collections This Our Exile (2018) and In the Wine Press (2020), published by Angelico Press, Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J. R. R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy (Cascade Books, 2018), and most recently of How to Read and Write Like a Catholic (TAN, 2021).