This novel is unified partially by the failing efforts of several characters to communicate significantly with one another, and Greene uses the metaphor of the Communion of the Mass, the Eucharist, to delineate their frustrated attempts. At the beginning of the novel, the dentist Tench pours symbolic wine (brandy) for the priest to drink, as he symbolically usurps the role of celebrant. Later, the crucible, which he uses in his dentistry is used to blend a cheapened quality of gold, just as the priest's chalice is symbolically defective — that is, chipped. The American outlaw, Calver, and the nameless priest exist in a mystical, parallel communion throughout The Power and the Glory. Both of their outdated pictures hang in the police station; the photograph of the priest is one taken at a First Communion party long ago.
Throughout the novel, Greene cites the pathos of priestly celibacy in the priest's inability to communicate truly with Maria, the mother of his child. Maria provides all of the ingredients for him to celebrate Mass, but the priest must hurry the Sacrifice because of the arrival of the police. In like manner, he is prohibited from "communicating" fully with Maria in a marriage because he is a priest.
The wine-buying episode in the hotel room exemplifies, symbolically, the priest's inability to carry out his clerical function -that is, to distribute the Eucharist. Here, the Governor's cousin and the jefe drink all of the precious wine, leaving the priest with only brandy, which is unusable in the Consecration. The priest is as ineffectual in this setting as he was years before at Concepción, and his memory constantly returns to his pompous strictures at the First Communion celebration. Later, he associates Coral Fellows' name with the gemstones worn by girls after their First Communion.
On one level, this novel traces the priest's realization that Communion, in the theological sense, is not as important as compassion and human understanding. All of this Communion symbolism is reinforced by the many references to teeth in the novel. The mouths of the characters, except for the pious woman in the jail cell, are unfit for the reception of the Eucharist.
If, as we have seen, the characters in this novel are unable to symbolically receive Communion, neither can they symbolically "confess" to one another. The Fellowses have long ago lost the ability to communicate; the mestizo threatens to use the guise of Confession to trap the priest into admitting his ministry; and the priest's death is occasioned by his return to a police state to shrive Calver.
Padre Jose steadfastly refuses to hear the condemned fugitive's confession, and the priest worries that hostages might be shot and die without receiving penance. Again, Greene replaces the formality of theology with the human virtue of humility. The priest-protagonist is close to God when he "confesses" that Padre Jose was always the better priest, even though he fails to carry out the formal Church stipulations concerning the Sacrament for the priest who is about to die.
False fathers permeate the novel and help to define the priest's dilemma: the emotion that he feels for Brigitta should, by Catholic precept, be applied to all the "children" of his congregation — in fact, to all the "children" (men, women, and children) in the entire country of Mexico. Other "fathers" in the book serve as foils to the priest. Padre Jose is an obviously ineffectual "father" (or priest); he married after government insistence, and he spends his days living with a nagging, grotesque wife. Luis' father has abdicated his responsibility; he leaves the task of rearing their three children to his wife. In short, his only contribution to the marriage is an occasional, cynical comment about traditional religion.
Coral Fellows' father is serene in his ignorance and inefficiency, and his daughter, therefore, becomes the true head of the family. Captain Fellows' negligence presses her into maturity before her time. And, in almost a parallel situation, the Tenches ceased to exchange letters after the death of their son.
The priest's guilt is heightened by Brigitta's spiritual condition; his daughter seems already condemned to a hell in both this life and in the afterlife. Fatherhood throughout the novel becomes a metaphor for the characters' inability to communicate successfully in the world of emotions and reality. Even the lieutenant is a misguided "father," wanting to spare the new children of Mexico
the privations, which he experienced as a child. His gospel, however, is rejected by Luis, who spits on the lieutenant's pistol at the end of the novel.
Finally, Calver also fits into this false father theme of the book. He addresses the priest as "father' in his note; then, he enrages him by using the term 'bastard" to describe the police, just as the priest is trying to hear his confession.
The Lieutenant and the Priest
In an essay, Greene emphasizes that the lieutenant is not all bad. Both the lieutenant and the priest are leaders of two different types of totalitarian states, and both have the good of the people at heart, although their means are diametrically opposed.
The priest's three meetings with the lieutenant correspond to Christ's three falls on His way to the Cross, and they form a major structuring device in the novel. All of the priest's meanderings seem to gravitate toward these confrontations, and the final meeting ends with a partial reconciliation of opposites. The lieutenant is able to see the worth of his prisoner, and he does all he can to comfort the priest during his last hours. This kindness is foreshadowed in the second meeting, when the lieutenant gives the disguised clergyman a five-peso note, the price of a Mass. He feels that the priest might soon be too old to work.
The Young Juan Story
Almost all of the priest's actions should be viewed against the backdrop of young Juan's holy doings. The priest's Way of the Cross unfolds section by section, counterpointing the mother's reading of young Juan's sentimental saga. At the end, young Juan cries out "Long live Christ the King," but the priest, in contrast, must be led to his execution because his legs are buckling beneath him.
The novel is written, in part, to refute the kind of destructive sentimentality inherent in traditional religion, the type that helped bring about persecution by the police state in the first place. Greene's book is a deliberate and vibrant protest against the tale of young Juan. His rendering of a very human priest gives lie to the plaster saint.