Being a broken man himself, Greene knew how to probe the pain and romance of faith and its failed practitioners better than anyone else. Even those of us who never ended up in a prison in Mexico waiting for execution, like the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory, knew what his self-disgust felt like. We knew what Greene was on about when he described the sadness of missing happiness by seconds at an appointed place. A little more self-discipline and maybe our tormented hearts would have ceased tormenting yet. But we also knew somewhere inside that it was our failures that kept us human.
Being a priesthood themselves, great writers understand this better than most. Tennessee Williams knew that if he’d exorcised his demons he’d have destroyed his angels as well. And the poet Ian Crichton Smith understood that “from our weakness only are we kind”. Greene would have agreed with them both. There was human solidarity in weakness, fellowship in failure. That’s why the spoiled priest in his greatest novel was overwhelmed with compassion for other losers. When you looked at other men and women, “you could always begin to feel pity. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.” And that had to include self-hatred. In Greeneland, in the end, everyone is forgiven because everyone is understood.