A Conversion Story for Our Time

Review of Young Tony and the Priest: Coming to Belief in an Age of Unbelief, by Gary Potter. Loreto Publications, 2012

This, my friend Gary Potter’s first foray into fiction, is a lovely story. Lovely in that it is filled with love — the uplifting kind that the world so needs today. It is also filled with an amazing number of historical lessons for so short a book. Gary calls it a novella. At ninety-three pages, it is indeed a quick read, although if the print were larger, it would be a longer book and much easier on the eyes.

I identified with one of the characters in the early lines of the story, the grandfather — never named — who tells his grandson, an only child, “If you learn to love books, you will never be lonely.” I can remember telling these very words to my oldest grandson when he was just learning to read. At the time he was the exact age that Tony was when he heard those words from his grandfather.

Young Tony is a deep thinker, having spent much time as a child alone with books, many of the titles suggested by his grandfather. He prayed, though he was not religious. His family was nominally Protestant, but not church goers, quitting that habit on his parents’ divorce. He believed in God, but could not, or did not, define him, except as “Lord.” His “spiritual place” was deep in the California redwood forest, where he spent many hours alone praying to the Lord to strengthen his connection with Him. Once, early on, he found the Lord on a Pacific beach.

At age twenty one, Tony has to make some decisions about life — college does not appeal to him; for marriage he is not ready. Influenced by reading Joseph Conrad, life at sea appeals to him; so he joins the merchant marine. Tony grew to love the life at sea, to love the sea itself. He saw beautiful places and met interesting characters. Reading Henry James one night on a Hawaiian beach, he came across a line that claimed that an indispensable part of a young man’s education is time living in Paris, something his grandfather had done in his youth. Tony resolved to take that advice from James.

To live as a Parisian, not a tourist, Tony had to learn French, in which he quickly becomes adept. At the French school in Besancon, he meets one of the few friends he will make in France. It was in this same town that Tony had his first experience in a Catholic church, the Church of Saint Louis. It was not a religious service, but a concert that took him there, but the beautiful interior of the church had a lasting effect on him. He had never seen anything so stunning, certainly not like his parents’ plain Protestant church. He observed several odd actions on the part of the attendees: dipping their fingers in little water containers all around the church was one; another was genuflecting and crossing themselves before entering a pew. It was only later in his reading that he came across Hillaire Belloc’s line “He who dips his fingers in holy water, for whatever reason, ends up by believing.” Another thing he noticed and wondered about was the presence of “a dining room table” a few feet in front of the high altar. After this experience, Tony began to visit Catholic churches when he finally took up residence in Paris, all the while discussing these things by letter with his grandfather.

Tony’s investigations finally took him to Saint Nicholas de Chardonnet, a church in Paris where the Mass “of the extraordinary rite” — the Traditional Latin Mass — was celebrated. It is here that Providence has him encounter Father LaRoque, the priest of the title of the book. Father LaRoque becomes Tony’s teacher, guide and mentor. Not only does he learn the Catholic Faith from him, Tony learns the meaning of how a Catholic civilization functioned in the days it existed in Europe — how it permeated every aspect of life in those centuries of Christendom. I, too, learned a few things from the good Father: several interesting aspects of fairly recent French history and even a couple of facts about Argentina. I will leave it to the reader to discover those.

Young Tony and the Priest may be a small book, but it is not an insignificant one. Short fiction books often suffer from poor or no character development. This cannot be said of Gary Potter’s novella. Tony, his grandfather and Father LaRoque are vividly fleshed out by this master of prose. You will care about these fellows long before the end, and you will learn much about what the world has lost in this modern age.