The Keys of the Kingdom

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Category: Classic
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Date Published: August 1, 2006
Number of Pages: 480
Print Price: $9.93
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Father Francis Chisholm is a good man. While that does not seem to be an extraordinary statement, it is. In a sin filled world being “good” is not an easy thing to accomplish. This, I think, is the overriding theme of A. J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom—man’s ordinary life, despite its hardships, can be quite meaningful, extraordinary, and “good” if God’s grace is allowed to enter.

The novel opens with the old priest back at his home parish in 1938.  Near retirement age, but nowhere near ready to the give up his life’s work, the good Father is under investigation by his superiors. His “parish affairs are in a hopeless muddle,” according to the monsignor sent to oversee the inquiry.  These events provide the opportunity for Father Chisholm’s life story to be told through his own eyes; this is the meat of Cronin’s story.

Young Francis Chisholm’s life is replete with tragedy. Raised by his baker/preacher grandfather and the old man’s wife after his parents’ untimely death, Francis is neglected and mistreated.  Eventually he is relieved of the situation by his Aunt Polly, who wishes nothing more than for him to become a member of the clergy. In the course of events, he soon reacquaints himself with her daughter Nora.  Nora, a free spirit whom Francis is attracted to, also succumbs to a tragic and untimely demise. Francis, left with little more than his old aunt, his education, and a friend who plans to join the priesthood, decides finally to give his life to God.

It is not long before Father Chisholm’s adventurous spirit drives him to become a missionary in China.    What could have easily been a short and largely uneventful assignment overseas becomes the most important and worthwhile period of the priest’s life.  Years become decades. The man’s humility, steadfastness, courage, and honesty become the impetus for much change and many exploits in this very rural and secluded area of China.

Father Francis begins his ministry by teaching the villagers about western medicine and treating them for their ordinary illnesses. The missionary battles the Bubonic Plague and is caught in the middle of a war for political supremacy. He is resolute in his desire to accept only true converts to the Catholic Faith despite his superiors’ desire for “bigger numbers.” After many years of hard work and little help from the Church, he is able to finally open an orphanage and invite a group of sisters to join him and help care for and teach the children.

The relationships Cronin introduces into these situations provide a great deal of opportunity for further development of Chisholm’s character and are the most telling of Cronin’s theme.  The priest’s rapport with Dr. Fiske, the missionary’s Protestant counterpart, is very insightful, showing the Father to be open-minded, patient, and charitable.  Despite his anger at Dr. and Mrs. Fiske’s arrival, he is both friendly and helpful toward them. They eventually become good friends and theological sparring partners.

Sister Maria-Veronica, the Reverend Mother of the sisters brought to care for the orphans, proves to be a source of anxiety for Father Francis.  Their relationship is strained to say the least—Sister is stubborn and stern, whereas the priest (though orthodox) is more calm and lenient.  In one of their heated arguments, after a close friend dies from the plague, having contracted the disease by caring for those affected by the epidemic, Father Chisholm defends his belief that the man (a professed atheist) might go to heaven. “How do you define a Christian? One who goes to church one day of the seven and lies, slanders, cheats his fellow men the other six? (…) Dr. Tulloch didn’t live like that. And he died—helping others…like Christ himself.”

It is in these human moments—in the arguments, in the moments of doubt, stubborn defiance, and even despair—that the reader is most drawn to Father Francis.  There is something real – authentic –  about his character.  Early on in the story, bereft of all consolation, the soul of Francis is revealed. “Francis knelt down in the darkness of the devastated compound and lifted his eyes to the dawning constellations. He prayed with fierce, with terrible intensity.  ‘Dear God, you wish me to begin from nothing.  This is the answer to my vanity, my stubborn human arrogance.  It’s better so! I’ll work, I’ll fight for you.  I’ll never give up…never…never!’”

Although Cronin’s prevailing theme is one of God’s grace transforming the ordinary, he also offers a glimpse at the absence of that same grace.  Anna, the first child accepted to Father Chisholm’s orphanage, leaves against Francis’ wishes and is later shown to be very selfish.  Nora, who demonstrates a real desire to love and be loved never quite understands where to find what she so earnestly longs to have. Even the Bishop, Francis’ childhood friend, cannot quite grasp the idea of grace’s place within his ministry—he seems more occupied with his clerical duties than with the spiritual wellbeing of those in his charge.

In the end, the true strength in Cronin’s classic work is his ability to demonstrate the presence of God in the lives of his characters.  Each life has the potential for greatness, for changing the world for the better—God is always there.  We each make the choice to allow him to work through us or to ignore him.  Father Chisholm, despite setbacks and temptations, made the better decision. His story was very inspiring – and the novel, needless to say, is definitely worth reading!

Publisher:
ISBN-13: 978-0829423341
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 7 x 5 x 1.2 inches


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Michelle Sheehan Tholen is a graduate of Catholic Distance University (CDU). She holds a Master's Degree in Theology with a concentration in Catholic Culture from that institution and a BA in English from the University of Maryland University College. She is the mother of two, lives in Bayou Vista, Louisiana with her husband, Paul and teaches English at Hanson Memorial High School. Mrs. Tholen is a writer for the CDU Year of Faith blog at www.cdu.edu/blog.


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