This is Your Life

This is not the author and his father.

This is not the author and his father.

My father has never been much for television. Evenings when I was young, while I lay in front of our big wooden Zenith doing my homework, he would sit in the living room with his hand to his forehead like he was blocking the sun, an open prayer book in his lap.

His breviary always seemed a way of holding off the world the rest of us lived in, and a way of holding onto a world that once was his. Along with the vestments that hung in dry cleaning bags in the front hall closet, and the nip bottle of holy oil he carried with him in case he had to administer last rites, his breviary marked him — despite marriage, mortgage, family, and job — as a Roman Catholic priest.

Of course I didn’t need to see any of these markers to remember what he was. Prayer was all I really I knew of him. He always worked late hours, and had no hobbies to speak of, so praying was the one thing I saw him do on a regular basis. Each night after washing the dinner dishes he’d say Vespers, the psalms for the evening — book open but eyes closed, lips moving slightly: Into your hands, oh Lord, I commend my spirit — as he had daily since his seminary days, and continues to do today.

Lately though his prayers have been troubled. Just as he settles in his spot by the fireplace, my mother calls from the other room, “William, they’re on!”

He’s pushing seventy now, but hustles in to see the news. Holding his place in the breviary as if he’ll only watch a minute or two, he joins my mother in front of the television for what has become a new Catholic ritual. The cardinal is on again: denying, then apologizing, then explaining, then denying again. And the priests are on too: in handcuffs, in courtrooms, in smiling still photographs taken before they had reason to run.

My father watches and shakes his head. He knew all these guys, knows some of them still. Together they’d grown from altar boys into men of God. John Geoghan, who once remarked he preferred the children of poor families because they were more affectionate, more in need, was a year ahead of my father at the archdiocese seminary. And Paul Shanley — accused of raping a Catholic school boy in, among other places, a confessional — ministered to junkies and street kids in Boston all through the 60s. So did Dad. And so did his good friend George Spagnolia, who thirty years ago offered his church for the wedding of the priest and the nun who would be my father and mother, and who, just last month, left his parish following allegations of abuse. Few in his parish believed the charges against him, but when he admitted he was gay and had not always been celibate, Catholic assumptions pushed him out the door.

Dad’s even dealt with Cardinal Bernard Law, the man at the center of this mess. While shuffling known child-abusers from church to church to save face and hold the priest-shortage at bay, Cardinal Law sought to get priests like my father off the books. A priest who married and refused to be laicized — refused in a sense to declare that he was unfit to be a priest — was thought to be an embarrassment, a public flouter of the authority of the church. The current cardinal and his predecessors have repeatedly called on my father finally to resign his ordination.

His response? “I’ll think about it.” Dad’s not trying to be difficult; he’s just a quiet man with a wife and three grown children who nonetheless remains a priest first and foremost. He wouldn’t know how not to be one.

And now he watches television as men with whom he once shared a calling stare out from the screen.

There’s Shanley now: Just off the plane from San Diego, extradited to Boston to face charges of child rape. Surrounded by a small army of Massachusetts State Troopers, his head down like he’s walking through a hard rain, he wears a bulletproof vest and ball cap with an unbent brim. These days the newspapers disgustedly, damningly, refer to him as “the street priest,” as if the notion of it — a priest in the streets — was always a sham. It’s a label my father once wore with pride.

“Poor old bugger,” Dad sighs.

My mother can’t help but smile. “Are you sure that’s the word you want?”

They both muster a small laugh. It’s not a joke I would expect either of them to make or be amused by, but lately they laugh when they can; they are heartbroken by this every day. After all, this is their life they’re watching on the news each night — another chapter in the long history of sex, love and the Catholic Church. Love seems a strange factor to include between these others which in the past few months have become so darkly linked. Yet love is the muddled heart of it: love for the church; love for each other; the challenges and limits of each. They are not always easily reconciled.

No one knows this better than my parents. When they married they were in many ways locked out of the church they loved, and their love for it has kept them close enough to feel the heat as it goes up flames. Tonight in their living room, though, they’re only bystanders, this priest and this nun, thirty years married. Their love for each other provides necessary distance. And so they watch. It’s all they can do.

My father closes his prayer book and sets it aside. On the television he sees clearly what he’s feared for some time. It’s evening now in his church; the sun is setting and no one knows what the night will bring. Into your hands, oh Lord, I commend my spirit… He asks me to turn up the volume.

“But not too much,” he says. My mother has fallen asleep on the couch beside him, and he doesn’t want to wake her.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.