October 28, 2020

Recommendation and Review: Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul by Tony Hendra

bookreviews_father-joe-the.gifRead an extended excerpt. Also, a story involving the author of the book suggests he may have problems not mentioned in the book.

I read a lot of Catholic fiction. Baptists and other Christians haven’t done very well with the genre. To be honest, the same could be said of almost any kind of literature, with a few notable exceptions. Roman Catholics on the other hand, have a collection of great writers of fiction, autobiography, poetry, humor and just about any other kind of literature. You won’t be disappointed, whether you are reading Flannery O’Connor or J.F. Powers; Chesterton or W.H. Auden.

Father Joe, a memoir by former National Lampoon writer and editor Tony Hendra, is Catholic- and Christian- writing at its very best. I would encourage every IM reader to take the time to read this amazing book and its portrait of Hendra’s life-long relationship with a Benedictine monk he calls “Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul.”

As you would expect from a writer who promoted some of the edgiest kinds of social/political satire, had a major role in Spinal Tap, did comedy with the pantheon of recent British comedians and became a successful editor and author, Hendra is a compelling and entertaining writer. His vivid and witty accounts of growing up in England in the 1950’s, becoming a Monk-in-waiting as a zealous teenage Catholic, then losing his faith in his tumultuous adult years and recovering it as an adult are guaranteed page-turners for any baby boomer. A PG-13 warning is appropriate, and the book is far too honest and entertaining to show up in a “Christian” book store, but it is far from offensive. It tells a true life story and doesn’t spare anything in describing how far Hendra journeyed into the depravity of his world.

It is, however, Hendra’s description of his beloved Father Joe that makes the book an important and recommended read for Christians. From their first meeting in the aftermath of Hendra’s teenage affair with a married woman to their final parting after meeting Joe’s son, Father Joe embodies the reality, presence and incredible love of God. No matter if Hendra is seeking to become a monk or is mocking faith and espousing atheism, Father Joe is a changeless presence, never doubting that God would love Tony with complete acceptance and unquestioning loyalty.

In the end, we discover with Tony that there was much more to Father Joe than what we saw in the narrative. He ministered to and mentored hundreds, from Rowan Williams to Princess Di to nameless troubled teenagers. He was one of the most significant English churchmen of his time, yet he never wrote a book and rarely left his monastery. In Tony’s experience, we see how a life devoted to contemplation, devoted to spiritual depth and human love, makes a profound difference in a world we are surprised Father Joe even knows exists. In fact, to be centered in Christ, and to be Christ for others, is to have spiritual wisdom that goes far beyond experience, education or worldly insight.

Father Joe is as vivid a picture of an “ordinary” saint as anyone has written, and the fact that Hendra, a professional satirist and comedian, is affected so deeply by Father Joe is a compelling story. The book is Catholic, but it ought to be in the arsenal of every Christian who wants to give a book to an unbeliever that shows the beauty and astonishing power of a life lived in Jesus Christ. (Side note: Catholics will enjoy the book especially for Hendra’s unsparing description of how the church changed from the pre-Vatican II Catholism of his zealous years to the Post Vatican II church he discovered upon his return.)

As a minister and a Christian, I was ashamed of how far short I fall of Father Joe’s example. Let so many who are filled with the Holy Spirit, it is clear that Father Joe is a flawed human being, but his lifelong openness to the Spirit has transformed his life. Reading this book made me want to impact people like Tony Hendra, made me want to be like Father Joe and gave me a hunger to be filled with the Spirit of Jesus in a way that draws others to him.

My highest recommendation to this outstanding book.


  1. To your list of outstanding Catholic authors I would also add Victor Hugo, who in my opinion is the greatest plot novelist ever to walk the face of the earth, and before whom Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins ought to fall down on their faces and cry out “Unworthy!!!”

    Sounds like a great book and I look forward to reading it.

  2. I read Father Joe when it was first published and thought it was an very moving and insightful book. However, the full story of Tony Hendra seems to be more problematic than he lets on in the book. Hendra’s adult daughter has publicly said that he sexually molested her when she was a child and consistently discounted the devastating effect on her. Hendra denies what his daughter says is true, but investigations by the NY Times and others seem to show there is more to the story than Hendra is willing to admit. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/01/books/01BOOK.html?ex=1246420800&en=2359169dc9789ee5&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland

    While this does not discredit the saintly Father Joe, it does call into question the “confessional” nature of the book that “doesn’t spare anything.”

  3. Thanks for the information. I did not mean to imply that Hendra named all his sins.

  4. Read this book a while back and was deeply moved. It’s one of those books that you never forget. Reading your review caused me to look back at my journal (July, ’04) to see what I had written about “Father Joe”. Here is an excerpt: “Rarely do you read a book that, when you are finished, leaves you almost…lonely. Father Joe was that sort of book.”

    The qualities I so admired in Father Joe were: his ability to listen, his unshockability when it came to hearing of Hendra’s sin, his absolute delight in Hendra’s smallest achievments, his utter unfamiliarity with the emotion of disappointment, and his clear focus on why he was put here: “his gentle power sprang from a straightforward assesment of the world and his job in it. That job was love.”

    Living with Father Joe in the pages of a book leave me, like Tony Hendra, saying: “this is what I ahve to become, this clear, this simple, this present and alive.”

  5. Brian W. says

    Another notable Catholic author is Walker Percy, who you’ll be interested to know met and corresponded regularly with Thomas Merton.

  6. I do not think it really matters if the allegations against him are true. Suppose they are and even now he is so ashamed of what he did he could not put it in such a work. That does not invalidate any work that God may have done in him. It is easy to despise pedophiles and child molesters and very difficult to love them. If what the daughter claims is true, then Father Joe is to be admired even more for loving what I could only condemn as monstrous.

  7. Thanks for the recommendation. I’m always on the lookout for Christian novels (even if they happen to be of the Papist kind). Michael O’Brien’s Children of the Last Days series is apocalyptic fiction at its best, and–because of its subject matter–they might be books you could get your Left Behind friends to read.

    One small correction: TS Eliot was an Anglican, not a Roman Catholic.

  8. Mike Taylor says

    “Roman Catholics on the other hand, have a collection of great writers of fiction, autobiography, poetry, humor and just about any other kind of literature. You won’t be disappointed, whether you are reading Flannery O’Connor or J.F. Powers; T.S. Eliot or W.H. Auden.”

    *cough* *cough* Chesterton! Surely the daddy of them all.

  9. Durrn it, iMonk, I’m going to send you my Amazon.com Visa bill.
    After you recommended Shane Claiborne’s “Irresistible Revolution,” an amazing book, I’ve had to buy every book positively reviewed on this site.

  10. I read a lot of Catholic fiction. Baptists and other Christians haven’t done very well with the genre. To be honest, the same could be said of almost any kind of literature, with a few notable exceptions.

    That’s the truth. Studying literature on the university level kicked me of the Christian-bookstore variety of fiction forever and ever, amen.

    I’ll have to hunt this book up.

  11. Dittos on the recommendation. I read this book several years ago and enjoyed each page. In the midst of struggle TH always would return to his friendship with Father Joe. I hope and pray each of us has someone like Father Joe in our lives.

  12. Thanks for the plug on this book, I have read enough reviews on it now that its worth the buy.

  13. I liked this book, too. I found it really refreshing to see something positive written about a priest, one who’s neither molesting altar boys nor fighting for causes diametrically opposed to Church teaching.

    I also really liked that even when Hendra was a lousy Christian, Father Joe still treated him as though he were a great one. Father Joe loved Tony like any real father loves his kids: hoped for the best from him, and worried about him (rather than castigating him) when he was screwing himself up.