Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul
by Tony Hendra (Random House)
Tony Hendra has devoted most of his adult life to biting satire. He’s most well-known for his performance as the cricket-bat-wielding Ian Faith from This Is Spinal Tap, and also for taking the piss out of government and religion as editor-in-chief of National Lampoon magazine and co-creator of the television show Spitting Image. One might expect a memoir about a priest Hendra met as a child to be an indictment; instead, Father Joe is full of wonder and respect, a tale of faith’s resilience in the face of seductive worldliness (to which the author refers in the Latin, contemptus mundi).
As a precocious 14-year-old, Hendra is taken to Quarr Abbey in the English countryside to resolve the matter of his near-affair with a married woman. There he meets Father Joe, a knobby-kneed, big-hearted priest who challenges the young boy’s notion of an uptight, judgmental clergy. Religion becomes his passion, at first as a boy longing to join the brotherhood at Quarr, and later as a man bent on destroying its hypocrisy. The book sometimes reads more like a philosophical thesis than a memoir, and Father Joe himself can be a bit cartoonish. But the character is appealing, and Hendra is such an unusual acolyte that the trip is worth the occasional bump in the road. And for the masses of lapsed Catholics, it’s comforting to know that religion can still inspire, if you find the right teacher.