I was first introduced to Michael O'Brien's writing when doing research for my reviews of the Harry Potter series. Mr. O'Brien is an ardent Potter-basher and at first, I considered him a bit strident. Yet after I finished reading the series and J. K. Rowling made her ridiculous "Dumbledore is homosexual" statements, Mr. O'Brien's opinions suddenly seemed right on the money. Here was a man who was able to cut through the moral haze of Pottermania and discover the slime within well in advance of the rest of us.
I had previously heard of Father Elijah but only recently made the connection between the book and its author. Once I did, it became imperative that I read it and I'm very glad I did so. Father Elijah is a fascinating and engrossing tale. Interestingly, it's subtitled "An Apocalypse"--as opposed to the Apocalypse. I suppose this is because this is a work of speculative fiction that offers a scenario of how the Apocalypse could happen and might be happening right under our noses.
The main character, Father Elijah himself, is a monk who entered the monastery after converting from Judaism. His past life was a succession of tragedies--he is a survivor of the Holocaust and was formerly a prominent figure in Israel. He has lived peacefully in a monastery near Mount Carmel in Israel for many years but now he has been called upon for a much more dangerous mission--to confront the one suspected by the Vatican of being the anti-Christ and convert him.
The plot continues from there through numerous twists and turns. There are moments of calm reflection on the mysteries of the Catholic faith interspersed with scenes of genuine spiritual warfare that are often frighteningly real. The characters are well-drawn and true to life. A couple of them seem like parodies of certain individuals or types within the Catholic Church. The better you know the Church, the more likely you are to chuckle at these characters. Overall, the writing is superb and flows well. It's easy to rip through 80 page chunks in one sitting.
O'Brien is insightful and clearly privy to the undermining effects of modernism which have been gnawing at the Church's foundations for at least the past 100 years. In Father Elijah he creates a mirror-world where certain clerics within the greater Church as well as within the Vatican itself, have embraced the spirit of the world and who view the spirit of God with contempt. There is one scene in particular where the sickly and aging Pope confronts a headstrong Cardinal on this very point and the outcome is striking. One is forced to wonder how many of our prelates in the Church today would act in the same way toward the Pope?
One thing that struck me about Father Elijah is that it clearly is set in an age before the internet. It was originally published in 1996 when the "old media" still ruled the roost. Among the chief culprits undermining the work of the Vatican and good priests like Father Elijah are those who run the so-called Catholic media--newspapers, magazines, etc. These are exposed as merely agents of the world who are trying to co-opt the Church for their own diabolical purposes. And indeed, in the bad old days of the 1980s and 1990s, the Catholic media often acted in just this way, though with a few notable exceptions.
But in the 12 years since Father Elijah was first published, there has been a sea-change brought about primarily by the advent of the internet. Now, obfuscatory, dishonest, and outright dissenting articles published in places like the National "Catholic" Reporter can be exposed and criticized in a public forum before millions of serious readers. A good priest who is faithful to the Pope can have a blog that gets read by hundreds of thousands every day, while the true numerical and popular weakness of dissenters in the Church is made plain for all to see. Bishops, priests, and powerful lay people who publicly dissent from Church teaching and act as wolves in the sheepfold are known beyond their own localities--indeed, the whole world knows them now.
Of course, this takes nothing away from Father Elijah. It is an excellent read, highly recommended to anyone who is a Catholic and who wants to have a better understanding of the nature of evil and how evil has occasionally donned the guise of goodness and penetrated even the Church itself.
By way of closing, this book reminded me a great deal of another fascinating work of fiction called Dream of Fire. The plot is similar, though Dream of Fire is set in a fantasy world and is considerably more brutal, at least in a physical sense.