Writer Bruce Marshall. Wikimedia Commons

The Man of the Eleventh Hour

The parable of the owner of the vineyard, on which the Scottish writer based his most famous novel. Father Gaston, Father Malachi, Father Smith: stories of priests. All of Marshall’s books speak of the Grace of the Christian Event.
Alessandra Banfi

Bruce Marshall is a familiar name to me. I still remember very well the covers of books by him that my mother had in our home. There was the strange red lozenge that distinguished books published by Longanesi and that title: To Every Man a Penny. I believe I read it the first time when I was a small boy. A wonderful book. Or perhaps it was wonderful to have my mother recount it to me over and over. What is more wonderful than listening to a story? Today, I wonder what I understood of the book. This, too, is mysterious, because the books of our life are like people, because they change with the years, and you learn to know them better, to love them, even if they seem a little different every time. The first time, maybe, you read it in a day or two, and all that stays with you is a distinct impression–maybe nothing about the plot, the characters, or the ideas. In this case, it took time to put Marshall and so many other things in order and then to see that they were in fantastic agreement. Let’s start with To Every Man a Penny.

When I encountered the CL Movement in Turin, it was called “Eleventh Hour,” but I don’t remember that this name meant very much, at least to me… Yes, I knew that it referred to a Gospel parable, the one about the owner of a vineyard who hires workers by going into the town square. He goes in the morning, finds some men, and promises them a certain coin, a denarius, for the day, and they go back with him to the vineyard. Then at noon he returns to the square and hires some others, and then later still he goes in the afternoon, at the eleventh hour, when it is already cooling down and is almost sunset, and he hires the last ones, who only work a short while. His steward pays each man one coin. Those who killed themselves working all day protest. And the owner of the vineyard answers them, “Friends, I am not doing you a wrong, we agreed on a denarius for the day. Don’t be envious of my generosity.” And Jesus, concluding the story, comments, “Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.”

Simple and Exciting Friendship
Did being of the “Eleventh Hour” mean being lucky? Yes, this was clear to me. I was 13 years old, and I was certainly “the last to arrive, I so fresh and he so sweaty” (to tell the truth, I too sweated a lot in those days), as I sang at the top of my lungs. I felt rewarded, and a lot, just for being in a companionship. Today, I know that those words were much truer. That name called up a connection between that simple and exciting friendship, among kids, but real, and the other great story, the most fascinating thing about Christianity, which was the story of the Incarnation, the experience of the first friends of Jesus Christ. I discovered that another great book, Giuseppe Ricciotti’s Vita di Gesù Cristo [Life of Jesus Christ], commented on the passage. Ricciotti’s book is an extraordinary aid to understanding the Gospel and sinking oneself into the story, and there I found this: “The general teaching of this parable is that God’s liberality is poured out on whomever He chooses and in the measure that He chooses, and that the final reward for the followers of Jesus will be, in its essence, equal for everybody.” But this parable, says Ricciotti, is made for those “followers of Jesus who in view of the kingdom of heaven felt, for some reason, more meritorious than others.” And instead, they had to accept being together with publicans, prostitutes, and even pagans, Gentiles–indeed, sometimes last, behind these.

To Every Man a Penny
The good luck to have encountered the Movement came from the same fortune as this unprecedented generosity. And Bruce Marshall had written a novel about the parable of the eleventh hour, which was just this: To Every Man a Penny. The reader only discovers this at the end of the book, when Gaston, after living in the midst of European events from 1914 to 1948, understands in an instant that if all the workers in the vineyard received one denarius, whether they had borne all the weight of the day and the heat or not, it was because a large part of the work was a reward in itself, just as a large part of the world was a punishment in itself. And suddenly Gaston realizes that he, as a priest, has been very happy. I too, now, think that being in the vineyard under the hot sun is already a stroke of good fortune.

The Story
You can begin reading Marshall like this, starting from the last page and reading the whole book like a flashback. You will become enthralled by the story of a young French priest who goes to war, World War I, in the trenches, is mutilated, modestly administers the sacraments, hears the confessions of dying men, aids the wounded, and becomes a good friend of a Communist, Louis Philippe Bessier. Both he and Bessier are wounded in the leg, which is amputated, and both limp through the rest of the book. When they return to Paris, no one is expecting them–neither the canons of Father Gaston’s parish nor Bessier’s employers. Gaston, who had always sustained himself with the idea that the great evil of the war could lead to good, is forced to change his mind. The world is moving away from the Church and the Church from the world. The little girl Armelle, his pupil in catechism class, of whom he is very fond and who had always written to him in the trenches, wants to become a model, and he gives her his permission, even if many of his fellow canons disapprove. Marshall masterfully recounts the Catholic Church in France between the two world wars. The more formal people are in approaching her, the more the ecclesiastical hierarchies appear closed in their moralisms, their formalisms, their solipsistic way of thinking. In the end, the Bishop sends Gaston to South America for a couple of years. When he returns, much has changed: Armelle’s mother has died and she has become a prostitute. Bessier is working for the Communist Party. The canons of his parish barely tolerate him. During his absence, friars and priests have been forbidden to go to the barber because of some magazines there (considered risqué by the ecclesiastic authority). He doesn’t know this and goes to get his hair cut. Surprised by a fellow priest, the not very well-loved Fr Moune, he has a noisy argument with him in the street, attracting a small crowd. This time, too, he is punished by the Bishop.

In the meantime, the World War II is drawing near: Mussolini and Hitler have burst onto the European scene. Gaston receives another fierce blow, which is that his beloved Armelle dies giving birth to a baby girl, Michelle. But there is a place where our priest can take refuge: the convent of some nuns who appreciate his simplicity and faith. Michelle will grow up there, among countless economic hardships and countless little economies. During the German occupation, Gaston helps an English soldier, while the canons of the parish are hanging Petain’s portrait on the walls. But at the moment of liberation, when everyone is on the side of the Resistance, our priest this time feels obligated to help a German soldier escape with his Jewish fiancé, whom he himself had earlier hidden from the Nazis. The three are caught on the way by men of the Communist Party who beat them and kill the two young people. Gaston is saved at the last minute by his friend Bessier, who miraculously appears and gets him out of prison. Gaston’s eyes never heal completely from this brutal beating.

In the end, mysteriously, the destinies of the characters fall into place: Bessier’s son, who has in the meantime become a “heretic” within the Communist Party, marries the lovely Michelle, and finally Gaston becomes resident chaplain at the convent of the nuns.

Humor and Irony in Other Works
Marshall is a Catholic. He loves humor, irony, and the subtlety of plays on words. He cites, for good reasons, two giants: Gilbert K Chesterton and Cardinal John Henry Newman. But he himself has an advantage, which is that he is Scottish, not Irish. I say this meaning no offense; what I mean is that he does not have the assumption of religion as part of his national identity. This is an historical problem for Italian Catholics, and even more so for the Irish. In Scotland, Catholics have always been a tiny minority. The Church is the Church of the poor and the derelict. Father Smith says at a certain point in The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith, that our Church is the Church of the poor, and all things considered, it is not a bad thing that it is like this, because this tends to keep the clergy and the people in the spiritual and material conditions of early Christianity: this gives it vigor. Marshall criticizes the clergy for being bourgeois, always intent on criticizing two “Scottish” sins like drunkenness and impurity. He wondered if the bankers, stockbrokers, board members, all those who spurred the young people on to elbow their way forward, extinguishing the light shining in their eyes, were not maybe guiltier than the drunkards and fornicators, considering that the sins they committed in their offices spread through the world and tainted the innocent.

In The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith, the priest protagonist is a Scottish prelate who has to deal with women and modernity, but also with a little Italian girl, Elvira Sarno, who would go on to become a great actress in America.

In The Summing Up, the protagonist is not a priest, like in the two novels already mentioned and in the famous Father Malachi’s Miracle, but is a public accountant, torn between the temptations of corruption and the desire to make his beloved, ambitious wife happy.

A Recurrent Theme
All Marshall’s books are worth reading. In the end, he always talks about the same thing: the Grace of the Christian Event that impacts all of life. He focuses on the lives of priests in relation to history, with a capital H, as well as the history of ordinary people.

He has Father Smith say that “there is something you must remember and remember it all your lives. What you learn in this classroom is what matters, and will always matter, more than anything else in the world. God sent you into the world so that you could save your souls, and there is nothing more important than this. When you are older, bad people may try to make you believe that this is not so, and that the important thing is to become rich and powerful and be honored by your peers: it’s not true.” He tells us that God does not see things the way the world sees them, and that a dirty, ragged beggar, if he has the Grace of God in his soul, is infinitely more beautiful and precious in the Lord’s eyes than any monarch on a throne whose soul is not in a state of grace.

* Vice-Editor of Channel 5 news