My vote for Hollywood’s next action hero and the literary model for young Catholics of the 21st century was first described with the following words:
“He had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown paper parcels, which he was quite incapable of collecting. […] He had a large, shabby umbrella, which constantly fell on the floor. He did not seem to know which was the right end of his return ticket.”
Perhaps not the most enticing set of qualities, but don’t let that dissuade you: G. K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown – the humble English Roman Catholic priest detective of the 20th century – is a fascinating character. In contrast to the perceived paucity of (and problems with) contemporary and popular Catholic literature, in the volumes of Fr. Brown’s tales, one finds humor, wit, excitement, moral questioning, and a window into a strange and forgotten world. The general entertainment value of these stories notwithstanding, there are at least three reasons why Fr. Brown serves as an exemplar for today’s millennials.
First, Fr. Brown resolves the seeming paradox of faith and reason in his person. While a man of the cloth, Fr. Brown utilizes rational thinking to solve the mysteries he stumbles upon. The unorthodox situations and crimes committed all have rational conclusions, and as the answer is unveiled, suddenly the disparate pieces all come together. But in contrast to the most popular detective of recent memory – Sherlock Holmes – Fr. Brown’s resolutions come from inductive, rather than deductive, reasoning; his surprising insights or revelations come from placing himself in the mindset of the criminal, or from a particularly small gesture or clue. In this, Fr. Brown’s faith really comes into its own, for his Catholic belief in egalitarian human sin, a comprehensible world, and small movements of the Spirit help remove biases and barriers to his thinking. For Fr. Brown, faith and reason complement one another, a particularly important understanding for millennial Catholics to embrace in our own lives.
Second, Fr. Brown’s successes largely derive from his familiarity with sin. Fr. Brown attributes much of his understanding of criminals and their ways to his work with sinners: the Confessional, the city streets, the underbelly of human life. Therefore, he understands sin and the sinner: he can put himself into the mind of the criminal in order to determine how he himself would have committed the crime. Yet Fr. Brown neither judges nor turns away from the sin, but instead embraces it in order to resolve it. His main investigating partner is a repentant French thief that has joined forces with the cleric after having his schemes disrupted so often by the unassuming Fr. Brown. And these mysteries, in true Catholic fashion, end with undertones of mercy, not justice; more often than not the police learn in amazement that the newly-revealed criminal has walked off with Fr. Brown deep in conversation, and the world seems better for it. In short, Fr. Brown has that real yet merciful recognition of, and engagement with, sin that millennial Catholics in this relativist and utopian time need to enshrine in our hearts.
Finally, Fr. Brown is an unlikely protagonist. Chesterton’s mysteries might be subtitled: “The Adventures of a Simple and Humble Man.” This parish priest detective usually does not appear as the protagonist or main character of the mystery, instead stumbling in unexpectedly or for some pedantic and unrelated reason. As the opening description suggested, Fr. Brown’s unassuming appearance often leads him to be ignored or put-down at first by the more “dynamic” characters of the tale. Yet, in his simplicity and humble manner, he exudes happiness, joyfully running through the details of the scene or responding quick-wittedly to a comment or question. He asks nothing in return for his discovery of the embezzler, the murderer, or the thief, but instead quietly departs from the scene to visit a poor school or hear a confession. Like your average millennial Catholic he is not larger than life, not the principle character of the stories, but he nevertheless plays his part well and with joy, and ends up being both memorable and successful.
For these three reasons and more, Fr. Brown seems to be a model for the millennial Catholic mind and spirit. Yet, perhaps most importantly, his character is entertaining. Nearly all of Chesterton’s Fr. Brown tales appear in the form of short stories, easy to quickly read and appraise. Each one contains an all-inclusive mystery to unravel: “The Blue Cross” is perhaps the most famous, yet my personal favorite so far has been “The Queer Feet.” To inspire a new renaissance in Catholic literature and to rediscover enjoyable Catholic thinking-tales, let us take up a Fr. Brown tale or two: I suspect it will be hard to stop at just one.
Michael Fischer is a recent graduate of Georgetown University.