Before he had traversed the long driveway with its deep-green
sentries of Norfolk pine, and as he approached the iron gates with their
wrought designs of harps, miters, and Celtic crosses, from the archbishop's
house on the far side of the road emerged an arduously creeping old priest.
He was a familiar sight on the bitumen surface between the archbishop's
house and the seminary driveway, and local trucks had been known to steer
around him considerately as he stood, contemplatively catatonic, in the
midst of the road. It always seemed as if, in walking, the old man was
held back by a gravity greater than that of earth. The story was that
he had flung incarnate evil, the Devil, out of souls in China when he
was a young missionary. Now, in vengeance, the Devil and his minions fiercely
delayed the old fellow as he crossed Darley Road on his way to the St.
Patrick's Day feast. It had been known for him to take three hours to
pass four hundred yards up the driveway, and students who encountered
him knew better than to extend a hand to him and thus enroll themselves
in the close combat between him and the Evil One. All Darragh, with a
dental appointment in the temporal world at two o'clock, said was "Hello,
Monsignor, Happy St. Patrick's," to the old man, who was at this time
as at most inhabiting another scale of time and place, and passed on.
Darragh accepted that, though many inches taller--indeed, nearly six feet--he
was an insignificant figure in the exorcist's landscape. But before he
had gone five paces past the barely moving old fellow, he heard a thunderous
voice emerge. "Wait!"
Darragh turned and the old man had him fixed with two blazing eyes set
in his blocklike Irish head, a skull which seemed to come from another
age, from the thirteenth century--reputedly the greatest of centuries,
Darragh knew, apart from the diseases people had, of course. The old man's
eyes were exactly the sort of eyes which, seconds before or eons ago,
had transfixed the Evil One himself.
"You, son!" the old priest further roared. Darragh stopped, and his callow,
student soul blazed in his face. He was not ready yet for such an august
"Monsignor?" he pleaded. He could not tell what would be demanded of him,
but his pre-dentist nervousness was gone, replaced by a terror more absolute
"You must be a merciful confessor!" It sounded as if the old man had been
struck by a message from another sphere, a suggestion that Darragh, unless
warned, would not be at all merciful.
Darragh took his black hat off and straightened the black tie he hoped
soon to exchange for a clerical collar. "I pray I will be, Monsignor,"
he assured the old man.
But the exorcist waved his hands in a cut-out-the-claptrap way. "You must
be a merciful confessor!" he insisted.
"Yes," said a terrified Darragh. He knew this answer had no chance of
satisfying the terrifying old exorcist. "Help me," he heard himself bleat
like a despicable creature, a coward, a sinner, a silly boy as well.
Though the monsignor did not answer, the fury went out of his eyes, and
he seemed content that an essential message had been passed. Turning back
to apply himself again to the driveway, and advancing by millimeters,
he might make the main building by pudding.
This was the most exalted message Darragh had received in all his preparation
for the priesthood. As a revelation, it suited him. He'd carried from
childhood a sense of the augustness and aura of the sacrament of penance.
He was aware of how the penitent, having been absolved, emerged into a
new and better light. A trivial Saturday afternoon in a remote place called
New South Wales--remote from God's apparent eye, anyhow--was connected
to eternity by the exercise of this sacrament so mocked by an unknowing
world, so essential to the inner peace of a pilgrim soul.
And, in the summer of '41-'42, now that Darragh had been ordained and
was Father Frank Darragh, he was still an enthusiastic confessor, and
recognized an extra radiance to the light of day, or on rainy winter afternoons
an unexpected warmth about the shadowy penitential pews, as he made his
way to his confessional box on the western side of the church. He was
thus secretly at a loss at Monday tennis, he did not try to contribute
to the ironic classifications of Saturday penitents his confreres came
up with. He sat, he smiled, he listened without adding anything. He was
well respected by his fellow priests for smiling and holding his tongue.
And he was a merciful confessor.
"My aunt says old Frank's got armies of sinners lining up outside his
box," said a smiling tennis-champion curate from Hurstville, as if to
have armies of sinners was just typical of Frank Darragh.
"Of course he does," said one of the other muscular young priests. "If
I'd robbed a bank, I'd want to go to Frank."
"Or if you ran away with a housekeeper?"
"You haven't seen our housekeeper."
Their waspishness had fondness to it. They respected that mixture of secretiveness
and warmth of nature that he had inherited from his late father. And the
parishioners knew this too. It was not a wonder that the lines outside
his confessional occupied perhaps a sixth of the seating in the church.
Entering the church with Monsignor Carolan, who manned the confessional
on the east side of St. Margaret's, his name above the door--Monsignor
V. J. Carolan, Parish Priest--and Darragh himself, the curate, occupying
the hotter box on the western side, Darragh was half embarrassed to see
the extent to which the four or five pews of his penitents outnumbered
those outside his parish priest's box. He took no glory in it, because
that would be the most stupid vanity. And he knew most experienced priests
mocked men who attracted too many penitents. It was a sign of some weakness
in a priest-confessor, and a characteristic of a particular type of young
one. Nor did Monsignor Carolan, his threads of hair sleek across his fine
skull, in any way envy Frank. "You'll have to put in for overtime, Frank,"
Carolan would tell him, all without an edge to his voice.
As a confessor the monsignor appealed to men like himself, grizzled old
jokers from Homebush or Strathfield who wanted to be absolved for bread-and-butter
sins--taking the Divine Name in vain, making an unseemly joke about an
office girl to a companion--all without fuss. Men blessedly unburdened
by vaster guilt. Pragmatic, faithful, self-certain fathers of families.
Women, too, of similar sunny and practical cast of mind. Monsignor Carolan's
finance committee generally went to him to be shriven.
To Darragh, merciful confessor, came many souls troubled by war. Terrible
questions had been generated by the time. Men who wanted to know whether,
should the Japanese come, they had divine leave to kill their wives and
daughters to save them from violation. When Frank conventionally told
them that they must trust in the will of God, which cannot be foreseen
by humans, he could feel the warmth of doubt begin to rise from them,
like condensed water from some scorched surface. He would say, because
it was true, "I know I'm a young man, and I do not have your experience.
But it seems to me that in these times, when we can predict nothing, the
safest road is blind faith. It will give us all more light than any prediction
will." He would say also, "You must depend on God to save you from such
terrible acts. He understands why you are tempted. But He wants you to
be hopeful! It's not as if the Japanese have captured Singapore."
It was not yet the case, he should have said. These Japanese, who had
made so many Jesuit martyrs in the sixteenth century! Could it be believed
that in plain old Strathfield, amongst the Federation houses or against
the red brick wall of St. Margaret's, they would convert himself and Monsignor
Carolan into similar martyrs? His own honest fear as a mere human animal
moved frankly in him, and the men who were considering the murder of those
nearest to them felt he had taken their impulse off them and onto himself,
and were consoled.
To Frank Darragh's confessional too came, these fraught days, a fair number
of girls from the bush who had come down to Sydney to work in war factories
far from the control imposed by their severe country fathers. They were
bewildered, intrigued, delighted, and morally confused by their first
kisses and caresses at the hands of more-traveled and opportunistic soldiers
As for wives and husbands, the keen chance of Japanese invasion had made
people not more wary but more reckless. Darragh knew what was said of
priests in these matters--they knew nothing of marriage yet arrogantly
traced out the law for lovers and the married. His closest physical contact
with a woman had been a blunt and clumsy kiss he had landed on the cheek
of a Rose Bay convent girl when he was sixteen. It had heated his blood,
but it had not caused him to suffer one of those stupefying erections.
And that, apart from the love of his mother and Aunt Madge, was all! Though
he would admit without quibble that to advise on matters of marriage and
physical desire he needed guidance from the Holy Spirit, he believed it
to be superabundantly forthcoming to him in his role as confessor. Sometimes
he was surprised by the tenor of the advice which rose unbidden to his
lips. To the new race of female riveters, sheet-metal workers, welders,
for example, these green and pleasant girls who would have remained under
their parents' care but for the war, he might say this: "God has given
you in trust the incalculable treasure of your womanhood. Since He has
given you free will, you must honor and guard yourself in his place. Remember
that one day you will be a grandmother, and your grandchildren will look
to what you did when you were young for a model of their own youth." More
conventionally he would tell them to turn to the Virgin Mother of Jesus
for succor, counsel, and example. The troubles of the war-working girls
were nothing to those of soldiers' wives. Sydney suburbs were populated
by American soldiers who had arrived well-fed and confident straight from
the United States without passing through the filters of war. They had
not been humbled by the defeats and hardships of the Philippines. They
wore sharp-creased uniforms unstained by battle, yet, as far as fabric
could, promising gallantry. They had access to hosiery and chocolate,
both of which seemed to mean so much to women, and would kindly bring
into the lounge rooms and kitchens of every parish the glossy magazines
of American Mammon. What might be most dangerous was that compared to
Australian men, the Americans were said to be courtly. Occasionally, after
Sunday Mass, one or two of them would present themselves at the sacristy
door with a pleasing frankness, courtesy, and respect. One GI had given
Darragh a stipend of a pound note and asked him to say Mass for "me and
the boys of my section." Darragh told the soldier the normal Mass offering
in Australia was five to ten shillings. But the boy--he could have been
little more than twenty--said, "No, no, Father. I want you to say a real
good Mass." This mixture of innocence and worldliness was of a different
order than that of Australians, and that gave the Americans fascination.
Excerpted from Office of Innocence by Thomas Keneally
Copyrightę 2003 by Thomas Keneally. Excerpted by permission of Nan A.
Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part
of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing
from the publisher.
is a writer of extraordinary range: from Schindlers List
to The Great Shame his storytelling has engaged millions of readers.
Now, after a brief departure into non-fiction, he is back with a novel
as timely as it is enduring.
On the outskirts
of Sydney, Father Frank Darragh is embarking on his new life of priesthood
just as war erupts in the Pacific theater. American GIs pour into Father
Darraghs neighborhood, and with them comes a reminder of the atrocities
abounding nearby. Determined to shun hypocrisy, the earnest priest finds
himself constantly at odds with his superiors, who frown on his efforts
to rescue an errant black soldier and pay deathbed visits to the wayward.
But Frank Darragh persists, becoming his parishs most popular confessor,
particularly among wives of Australian servicemen who confront an array
of temptations while their husbands are away.
parishioner, Kate Heggarty, turns the tables of temptation on young Darragh,
challenging his spiritual beliefs and stirring a vulnerable place in his
heart. When Kate is found murdered, his anguish is only compounded by
accusations that he caused her death. Poignantly depicting the conflicts
between the secular and the holy, and between the family of Darraghs
birth and the brotherhood of priests, Office of Innocence is a
tale set in the most compelling of circumstances. Drawing on his own experience
studying for the priesthood in his youth, Thomas Keneally has created
an endearing protagonist who speaks to the conundrums of our age while
paying tribute to quiet heroes of the past.
Keneally was born in Sydney, Australia in 1935. He completed schooling
at various schools on the New South Wales north coast before commencing
theological studies for the Catholic priesthood. He abandoned this vocation
in 1960 and turned to clerical work and teaching school before publication
of his first novel in 1964. Since that time he has been a full-time writer
with the odd stint as lecturer (1969-70) and writer in residence.
for the Booker Prize on 4 occasions, in 1972 for The Chant of Jimmie
Blacksmith, in 1975 for Gossip from the Forest, and in 1979
for Confederates, he finally won the prize in 1982 for Shindler's
Ark (which was made into Steven Spielberg's Oscar winning movie Schinder's
List). He has won the major Australian literary award, the Miles Franklin
Award twice with Bring Larks and Heroes and Three Cheers for
the Paraclete. In 1983 Thomas Keneally was awarded the Order of Australia
for his services to Australian Literature.
and his wife reside in Sydney and they have two daughters.