The Miracleby John L’Heureux
Witty, profound, and deeply moving, The Miracle explores the way God meddles in our lives . . . and to what end. The Miracle is John L’Heureux’s finest, most daring novel.
John L’Heureux has been acclaimed as “[a] master storyteller . . . elegant, cunning, and wickedly funny” (The Washington Post).
Now, in a pitch-perfect, deeply satisfying work of fiction, he enters the world of an unorthodox young priest whose faith is put to the test. Father Paul LeBlanc is young, handsome, and charismatic. He has just been transferred out of Boston because of his dangerous ideas on sex, marriage, and birth control–and because he just doesn’t uphold the decorum expected of a young priest. Exiled to a summer beach community, he looks after elderly Father Moriarty, an unlikely saint who, on the edge of death, is beginning to question his belief in God. Father LeBlanc goes on preaching his edgy homilies, making his efficient way on the path to sanctity. Then Rose Perez and Annaka Malley enter his life, looking, each in her own way, for answers. When, for no reason, a miracle occurs–a dead girl is brought back to life before his eyes–Father LeBlanc finds his faith and his vows, his reason, his life itself, all called into question, leaving him with nowhere to turn.
Witty, profound, and deeply moving, The Miracle explores the way God meddles in our lives . . . and to what end. It examines with great wisdom and gentle insight how best man can serve his spirit. The Miracle is John L’Heureux’s finest, most daring novel.
“Admirable. . . . What engages L’Heureux’s interest is the human element. . . . L’Heureux has created in The Miracle a set of characters who feel fiercely authentic, not least in their contradictions, their changes of heart, their oscillations between strength and weakness, certitude and perplexity, ardor and apathy. . . . Written in swift-moving prose of unaffected simplicity. . . . It comes off as neither pat nor preachy but, rather, as a delicately nuanced portrait of recognizable human individuals making what they can of life.” –Bruce Bawer, The New York Times Book Review
“Loose cannons are John L’Heureux’s specialty. . . . He writes quietly, almost tenderly, like Charles Baxter, about faith and about regular people. L’Heureux also has a gift for making highly accessible characters, characters. When they make mistakes, no matter how grave, it is easy to understand. . . . L”Heureux brings the priest [in The Miracle] through his crisis of faith with the same tenderness that makes all his books such a pleasure in read.” –Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times Book Review
“It is when L’Heureux write about the existential conundrum and applies it to Catholic priests that the author seems to be standing on the shoulders of giants. L”Heureux writes with great purposefulness and masterful control of the plot. The sentences are tight, clear and declarative; the tone is both serious and comic. The writing feels essential, as if the author is capable of leading his audience to the divine revelation that Paul himself yearns for. . . . [The Miracle] gives a rare human depth to a young priest who wants to become a saint.” –Brad Vice, The San Francisco Chronicle
“L’Heureux’s snappy, succulent novel of faith and body, starts out sharp and ends with a razor slash. Lean, crisp prose delineates Father LeBlanc’s quest to be a good priest and the faith-sustaining events that propel him there.” –Victoria A. Brownworth, The Baltimore Sun
“At a juncture when the Catholic Church is taking a bona fide public relations beating because of its scandal-weary priesthood, Mr. L’Heureux’s timely–and risky–attempt to put a human face on religious aspirations, limitations and belief could not be more brave, or, as it turns out, more rewarding. . . . This powerful book may be Mr. L’Heureux’s finest.” –Carol Herman, The Washington Times
“In this period of turmoil in the Catholic Church, L’Heureux shows the human side of a flawed institution. . . . Always an astonishing writer, a master storyteller, [L’Heureux] teases his reader with the ambiguity of the miraculous.” –Richard Wakefield, The Seattle Times
“L’Heureux balances the hefty moral issues his novel explores with wry humor, making The Miracle an equally entertaining and illuminating read.” –Sarah Gianelli, The Portland Oregonian
“[A] profound, gentle novel. . . . Measures up here to [L’Heureux’s] best storytelling. This novel is darkly funny and lightly told.” –Jill Wolfson, The San Jose Mercury News
“Engaging and thought-provoking.” –Christian Century
“The Miracle puts us back in that exciting and unsettling era of postconciliar confusion when past certainties were falling like tenpins, and bold new ideas were blooming everywhere you turned.” –John B. Breslin, America
“The Miracle employs a simple prose style, but it is a cinematic one, too. Lean as a screenplay treatment, it zips along with scenes seldom longer than a page or two. . . . This entertaining and warmhearted novel may bring L”Heureux the miracle most writers wish for: fame and fortune, yes, but, best of all, legions of readers, too.” –William O’Rourke, The World & I
“L’Heureux has captured the emotions and the dilemmas carefully and expressed them quietly but eloquently. As a former church insider, he writes from the strength of his experience, making the somewhat distant and mysterious world of Catholic priests more human and more accessible to the rest of us.” –Don Kazak, Palo Alto Weekly
“[An] elegant novel [that] will fascinate most readers who have ever wondered about the reasons for priestly doubts and defections.” –Emily Alward, The Salem Press
“The Miracle is a small miracle filled with ideas and rich characterization. . . . A provocative, yet positive portrait of contemporary Catholicism, its priests and its laity.” –Graham G. Yearley, Catholic News Service
“Deeply moving and personal, told with restraint and great skill. . . . A finely crafted story.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“L’Heureux’s strength is his ability to expose the all-too-human foibles and flaws of his outstanding ensemble cast, as he connects the dots with short, punchy scenes that instantly get to the heart of the matter. As usual, L’Heureux also looks unflinchingly at a variety of tough moral issues, balancing the serious stuff with humor in a deceptively light style that makes this book entertaining as well as challenging. . . . A balanced, wise book.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“There is great humanity in this well-crafted story, expressed largely through the appealing characters of priests, and a final message: choose life.” –Michele Leber, Booklist
Praise for John L’Heureux:
“A deeply ambitious novelist, one who isn’t afraid of dealing with dark themes and what it means to be fully human, especially in the frightening and ecstatic world we create behind the darkened bedroom walls.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A writer who picks up his readers by the scruff of the neck and won’t let go.” –Chicago Tribune
“John L’Heureux . . . should be a household name.” –San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“A writer who picks up his readers by the scruff of the neck and won’t let go.” –Chicago Tribune
“John L’Heureux is perhaps today’s most frightening novelist because his characters, for all their strange behavior, are not freaks or misfits. They are the people we see and know. . . . Having Everything is an unforgettable exploration of what it means to become fully human.” –Richard Wakefield, Seattle Times
A New York Times Notable Book
A New York Times Book Review Notable Fiction
A Publishers Weekly Best Book
Winner of the Gold Medal in the Commonwealth Club of California’s Book Awards
At this time–it is the early 1970s–Father Paul LeBlanc is still an ordinary parish priest in South Boston, a huge Irish ghetto that stretches from the Southeast Expressway down to Quincy and out to the coast. South Boston is very Catholic, with four different parishes and thirteen priests, and St. Matthew’s parish, where Father LeBlanc is stationed, is the most Irish of them all. This is a neighborhood of spruced-up three-deckers–gray and white and tan–with some wood and brick two-deckers, and a few single-family houses with driveways. No matter the color of the houses, they all seem gray when you stand at the corner and look down the street. It is a gray parish. There are a lot of Irish bars–McGillicuddy’s, Ahern’s, Matt Doherty’s–and even the 7-Eleven is run by a guy they call Maloney. Actually he is Italian, and his name is Meloni, but it sounds Irish when you say it. So.
All the cops are from South Boston, and so are the firemen, and if you own a grocery store or a drugstore or a beauty shop in the parish, most likely you live there. Most people work at Gilette or city hall or one of the utility companies. Nobody has money and everybody has something they are after, a better job or an education for their kids or a house of their own with a front yard and a backyard. Unlike the hippies who spend their time lying down in the street to protest the war in Vietnam, everybody here in St. Matthews works and expects to go on working. Father LeBlanc loves the place and he loves being a priest. There are no miracles in his life except the ordinary ones–waking, eating, speaking, sleeping–and he doesn’t aspire to miracles. He just wants to be a good man and a good priest and, mostly, he keeps out of trouble.
Mostly, because in fact he is often in trouble, though not serious enough trouble to get himself exiled. He has protested against the war in Vietnam, as most of the priests do, but it is the way he did it that was bad: at Sunday mass, during the Prayer of the Faithful, he said–it just came to him, he didn’t plan it–”Let us pray that our Lord will forgive our country the murders we commit each new day in Vietnam,” and the congregation responded, haltingly, “Let us pray to the Lord.” The phone rang all afternoon as parishioners with sons in Vietnam called to complain. Father LeBlanc was summoned to the pastor’s office and, after a long lecture on common sense and moral responsibility, Father Mackin asked him, please, to think about what he was going to say before he said it. On the following Sunday, Father LeBlanc apologized from the pulpit. That was a bad moment.
And he has taught religion to seniors at the high school until rumors got back to the principal that he had ‘slighted” the doctrine of papal infallibility and “implied” that masturbation was not a sin. What he actually said was “Yeah, sure, the pope is infallible, but only when he speaks from the chair of Peter. That’s a folding chair, by the way.” And of masturbation he wondered aloud, “It’s a mortal sin? Hmmmm. An interesting question.” After that he was assigned to teach Latin.
And once, but only once, he said mass using a loaf of wheat bread and Gallo wine for the consecration. It was a private mass for a group of nuns he studied with at Boston College, and one of them wrote home about it, and her mother mentioned it to a friend of the family, and, in short, it took only a week before Father LeBlanc was in serious trouble.
So he stands warned: priests like him get transferred every day. Next stop, the boonies. He is a wild priest, a troublesome priest, and it is only a matter of time until he is dealt with.
To the parishioners–except to the ones who have sons and daughters in Vietnam–Father LeBlanc is a wild priest but a good one. He is handsome and young and not exactly sexy, but strong. He is a guy who is full of energy and life, and it is always exciting to be with him because he knows how to relate to people. He is friendly and normal. He is funny. There is nothing queer about him, the way there sometimes is about priests who wear that cassock all the time.
Father LeBlanc is just like anybody from the parish, except he is smarter and he teaches Latin at the high school and he is a priest. You have to remind yourself he is a priest when you see him in his sweats playing basketball with the kids because he is built so great and he can be a mean son of a bitch under the net when he goes up for a hook shot. He always says, “shit” when he misses an easy shot, and then he says, “sorry.” He never uses the “F” word.
He is smart, energetic, filled with life. A parishioner would look at him and think, Here is somebody who has given it all up, and yet he is happy. He is happier than anybody. Look how he gets along with the kids. Look how he always has a smile and that lift to his step. You can tell him anything in confession because he is very broad-minded about sex and birth control. He jogs every morning. He even sings popular songs, not very well, but he tries. He is what the modern Church ought to be. They think.
Father LeBlanc knows they think he is a wild priest, and sometimes he is pleased that they do. It makes him interesting. When he catches himself thinking this way, though, he is ashamed of such petty vanity, and he prays against smallness and pride and the stupidity of caring what people think. What matters is sacrifice. What matters is to obliterate the self.
“St. Matthew’s is a very busy parish. It’s an old-fashioned parish, the people are devout, they don’t want their faith being upset by new ideas.”
Father Mackin, the pastor, says this at the dinner table, generally, not to anybody in particular. Father Boyle and Father LeBlanc listen dutifully, so Father Mackin continues. “We still have people going to confession,” he says, “as you both know. And that’s a wonderful thing in this day and age.”
“Huh,” Father Boyle says, not looking up. Father Boyle always has a drink before dinner and tonight he has had several.
Father LeBlanc nods agreement, deciding it is wiser to say nothing. He is the youngest priest in the parish, and everybody likes a young priest except the older ones. He knows that.
“What is this stuff we’re eating?” Father Boyle asks.
“I think it’s lamb,” Father Mackin says, just as Father LeBlanc says, “I think it’s veal.”
“I’ll tell you what it is,” Father Boyle said. “It’s a goddamn rubber boot.”
They laugh at that, and then Father Mackin says, “What do you think, Paul?”
“It does have a boot kind of taste.” Father LeBlanc pokes the meat with his fork.
“No, I mean what do you think about the parish? It’s a traditional parish, St. Matthew’s. And new ideas upset people.”
“Oh yeah. We ought to stamp out new ideas.”
Which ends conversation at that particular dinner.
Father LeBlanc, as usual, is penitent. Poor old Mackin is a wonderful man, patient, a devoted priest. And Boyle is a good man, too, even though he has this drinking problem. Why can’t he give them a break?
Father LeBlanc changes into his sweats and goes over to the school gym, where he pumps iron until he aches all over. He showers, singing all the big numbers from Gypsy, and then he pops into church and prays for the gift of restraint.
Father LeBlanc is at ease with everybody. He celebrates mass, he hears confessions, he teaches his Latin class at the high school–last year Virgil, this year Ovid–and he visits hospitals and the prison and the homes of parishioners who are sick or shut in. Sometimes he plays basketball with the kids after school, and sometimes he just hangs out at the parish hall where he is famous for his imitations of Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman and Perry Como, all those old-timers.
Life at St. Matthew’s is great. The parishioners are always glad to see you, and they are good hardworking people, and deeply religious in their way, once you get to know them one-on-one. When they are in trouble, for instance. A death in the family. A divorce. That’s when he can see that they want something more. They long for the same thing he longs for. And he has no doubt that this is the longing for God. They are good people because they aspire to be good people. He loves them. He loves this parish. He is comfortable everywhere, except in the rectory itself.
Father Mackin, the pastor, is new to the parish, a man in his sixties. He has taught philosophy at the seminary for almost thirty years, and he regards this parish as his reward for all those years of service. Also, his kind of philosophy–Thomistic–holds less interest for seminarians these days. They prefer just the basics. In fact, the bishop has sent Father Mackin here to tighten things up. There is too much talk among parishioners about the “role of the laity” and “parish councils’ and too much interference in how the church is run. Father Mackin is known to hold traditional, reliable views. He is prudent, kind, and patient. He knows how to handle Boyle and LeBlanc, the two impossible curates.
Father Boyle is in his fifties, morbidly thin, with a gray face and an air of defeat. He has a little thatch of short gray hair that is never combed, and he wears a cassock that is never clean. He looks like what he is, a confirmed alcoholic. Father Boyle has spent most of his priestly life at St. Matthew’s, and the parishioners are used to him and accept his little problem with drink. He is human, weak. What can you do about a man like that except, of course, pray for him?
Father LeBlanc is another matter. He is young and energetic, and that is good, within limits. It is always nice to have young priests; it shows that the Church is up-to-date. But LeBlanc has had one of those left-wing Jesuit educations, with a B.A. in classics and an M.A. in social something-or-other, and of course he is addicted to exactly those ideas Father Mackin has been sent here to crush. Or rather to monitor. Right now there is a growing controversy about busing–sending white kids to black schools and, take your pick, sending black kids to white schools–and the bishop wants his diocese to stay out of it. No preaching, no social apostolate crap. “We’ve got our own schools to worry about, and busing is not a Catholic problem.” And then he added, “We don’t expect miracles. We just want you to keep the lid on.”
Father Mackin reminds himself that Father LeBlanc is a good preacher and he is great in the confessional, if you can judge by the number of people waiting for him. God knows he is generous with his time.
Still, look at him. He must be the most extroverted priest in the world; he lives to play sports and perform and . . . what? . . . sing those goddamn songs. He is good-looking, no question, and he is popular with adults as well as kids, and–thank God–there has never been a question of drink or women or boys.
But what is he like inside?
Does he have any interior life at all?
Father LeBlanc has an interior life that is secret from everyone and, in some ways, secret from himself. All the noise–the singing, the basketball, the easy laughter–is merely a cover for what is going on inside.
He worries about hearing confessions. He worries about how he says mass. He worries about his worrying, which is a sign of vanity.
Before mass each morning he kneels straight up at his prie-dieu, his head down, his eyes closed, and he prays not to be such a shit. He is the least profitable of servants. He is a failure, a priest who wants to please people. Does he want it enough to sell out the Church? Is that what is going on? Judas betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver. And am I selling kindness in the confessional for a cheap popularity? He prays for help. He prays to do and say the right thing. He keeps on praying until he achieves a sense of peace or at least until his mind goes blank. He is doing the best he can. At least, he wants to do the best he can.
The thought comes to him: So did Luther.
This is not the age of miracles, but Father LeBlanc feels that now and then miracles do happen in the confessional. The boys come in and say they used the Lord’s name in vain and they missed morning and evening prayers and–they always speed up here–they masturbated several times and they lied twice and they beat up their little brother. The old sin sandwich: put the easy stuff at top and bottom and then slip masturbation into the middle where it might not be noticed. Father LeBlanc plays along. He tells them yes, it is hard to remember to say morning and evening prayers, and sometimes you can’t help wanting to beat up your little brother, but you have to concentrate on the positive things and remember what a nice family you’ve got and remember how you can help make things better by not being a grouch all the time or by helping out around the house or being patient with your folks and not talking back to them. Your folks are tired. They work hard. So give in a little. Okay? And, oh yes, something else, you mentioned masturbation. He pauses so they have time to realize he knows, and then he speeds up again. Well, try not to let that get important in your life. Sex is a natural and wonderful thing, and you’re still young, with your whole life ahead of you. Thank God you’re living such a good life. For your penance say three Hail Marys. And they leave the confessional, these kids, better than they came in. More free to make something of themselves.
It is the same thing with women and birth control, except he meets that problem head-on. “Why do you mention this in confession?” he asks. ‘do you feel birth control is sinful?” And then he talks about it slowly, carefully, helping each one realize it is her own conscience she has to live with, not the pope’s. Men are easier to deal with, either because they welcome the personal responsibility or because they don’t care a hell of a lot but just want to be okay with the Church. But they all go away happy. He is doing the right thing, an important thing. It is what Jesus would do, he is sure.
What bothers him is their conviction that sin is necessarily sexual. They confess the same old things over and over–fornication, adultery, masturbation–and how much of it really matters? He finds it hard to imagine that God is upset when some twelve-year-old jacks off. Who does it hurt? What does it matter? The poor kid is just checking the equipment. Adultery is something else, of course; people get hurt in adultery. Which is why it is sinful: because it violates charity and justice, not just because it is sexual. Nobody seems to care about charity, a nice safe category of sin. They are all quite happy to confess uncharitable thoughts, uncharitable conversations, uncharitable acts. And so he sits there for two hours and listens to the endless catalog of small failures. Of good people. Because only good people come to confession in the first place.
He leaves the confessional happy, filled with energy and life. He sings, mostly on key, “put on a happy face.”
Sometimes he has to smile to himself, because he knows he is possessed by the demon of discontent. He says outrageous things just to be funny. Or to shock somebody. Or because he has been praying and can’t stand himself for another second. When the fit is on him, he can’t help himself. He just says it.
Dinnertime is the worst. He doesn’t care about food, and for some reason, he cares a lot–during dinner–about social problems. First it was the war and then it was race and now each night he brings up the subject of busing as if it is a parish problem they are all concerned about.
“The parish has no busing problem,” Father Mackin says, stabbing at the peas on his plate. He has explained this to Father LeBlanc over and over again. “Parishioners don’t like the idea of all these blacks being brought into their neighborhood, of course not. That doesn’t mean they’re against blacks. We have always had blacks in parochial schools, and some of them are pretty smart–that’s how they got accepted, that’s how they got scholarship money–and, up until recently, they’ve always known their place. But everything is getting out of control these days, and people just want to protest. It’s becoming a way of life. Protest. Protest. Protest.”
Father LeBlanc interrupts with something about democracy and justice, but Father Mackin has had enough. He falls silent with a hostile silence that even Father LeBlanc recognizes.
After dinner Father LeBlanc says he is sorry if he has given offense. Father Mackin nods and says nothing.
How can he be so happy in his work and so miserably lonely at the same time? He bursts out laughing because, in his brain, he hears a voice–as clear as the voice of God–saying to him, “Hey! Who cares!”
Father Mackin calls Father LeBlanc to his office and says he is disturbed that one of the Christian doctrine teachers has asked if it is true–”as Father LeBlanc says’–that not all methods of birth control are equally bad.
Father LeBlanc doesn’t remember saying that, but, he says now, it seems to him that abortion is more extreme than using prophylactics, don’t you agree? And then of course there is the rhythm method, which is different from prophylactics in that prophylactics work and rhythm doesn’t. And then . . .
Father Mackin shakes his head and explains that it is better not to discuss birth control at all, since the Church’s stand on it, though perfectly clear to any rational mind, is so open to misinterpretation by all the others.
“And,” he adds, “will you please stop singing in the corridors. This is not a rock emporium!”
Father LeBlanc can’t get it out of his head for days. A rock emporium! And for those days he is careful not to sing in the corridors.
Father Mackin says he is distressed to hear the latest: Father LeBlanc has chosen to discuss the issue of busing not only at dinner but in his Latin class at the high school. Several parents have phoned to complain.
“There is no theology of busing. Do not discuss the matter again.”
Father LeBlanc smiles a little and looks penitent.
“And Paul? Think about this, if you will. You’re getting to be a royal pain in the ass.” Father Mackin is losing patience.
Father Boyle has been drinking, of course, but he is not drunk, and that is a nice change. He is chatty at dinner, and after dinner he invites Father LeBlanc to his room. Father LeBlanc begs off–he has a funeral mass the next morning and has to prepare a homily–but Father Boyle insists that he needs help. Reluctantly, Father LeBlanc says fine, sure, okay.
Father LeBlanc has been at St. Matthew’s for three years, but until now he has never been in Father Boyle’s room. He looks around, surprised at the chaos. There is a bed and a bureau and a small television on top of the bureau, but everything else is covered in heaps of paper–newspapers, magazines, advertisements, pages torn from a spiral notebook. There are even letters. Who would be writing to Father Boyle? Next to the television there is a collection of tiny stone animals. There are several full ashtrays. There are books everywhere. By the look of the place, Father Boyle must have started accumulating this stuff long before he took to the bottle.
“Well,” Father LeBlanc says, looking around for a seat. “Lots of books.”
Father Boyle scoots a pile of papers off the easy chair for Father LeBlanc and then sits behind his desk and tilts back his chair. After a moment, he says, ‘do you mind if I have a drink?”
Father LeBlanc makes a gesture, palm up: be my guest.
Father LeBlanc shakes his head no.
“I want to know about confessions,” Father Boyle says. “I want to know how you do it.”
‘do what? Is this the birth-control business again?”
“As a matter of fact.”
“And is this entrapment?” He goes red, which surprises him, and he goes redder still.
“I’m sincere about this.” Father Boyle stares across his glass, and Father LeBlanc thinks, Yes, he is sober after all.
“Okay. Fine. Sure. I’d be happy to talk about it sometime. Right now maybe isn’t the best time.”
“Why not? Because I’m drunk and wouldn’t understand? Try me.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean . . .” Father LeBlanc begins.
“Yes, you did. You do.”
And then, doubting he should do this but unable to stop himself, Father LeBlanc explains the process of reasoning by which he helps “concerned Catholics to form their own consciences in an intelligent and responsible way, in the light of Vatican II.” He uses these exact words, part of his confessional lecture. “You see the difference?” he asks. “It’s not advocating birth control. It’s advocating responsibility. It’s about the primacy of conscience.”
“But how do you actually do it?” Father Boyle asks. “What do you actually say?”
“You just help them see where they feel their duty lies. It’s their conscience, after all.”
“But how do you get them to see it? What do you tell them?”
Father LeBlanc gives Father Boyle a long hard look. Is he, in fact, drunk? Is he sincere? Or is Boyle getting the goods on him so that he can stagger off to the pastor, or even to the bishop, to cause all kinds of trouble?
“You could help me,” Father Boyle says. ‘sincerely.”
Father LeBlanc clears his throat and thinks about it. This could be very dumb. There is nothing Rome likes better than slapping down the uppity parish priest. And all you have to do to get branded “uppity” is mention married clergy or women priests or–bingo–birth control.
“I think I’m coming down with a cold,” Father LeBlanc says.
Oh God, Father LeBlanc thinks, and plunges ahead. “I do this. First off, I talk to them about the other things they’ve mentioned–you know, the usual stuff, impatience with their kids, missing mass, sins against charity, stuff like that. And after I’ve talked for a while, I say something like–let’s see–”I think you mentioned that you’ve been practicing birth control? Is that right?” And they’ll say they use the pill, or they’ve been trying to stop, or they know it’s a sin. But the thing is to ask them, right away, why they think it’s a sin, and invariably they’ll answer: “Because the Church says it is.””
“And then I try to explain that it isn’t just a question of what the Church says. The birth-control issue is far more complicated than that.”
“But what do you say?”
“Oh God. I say that, yes, the Church sets down as a general rule–and I underline those words for them: as a general rule–that Catholics shouldn’t practice birth control. But the issue, I tell them, is essentially a personal one, involving private rather than general norms of morality, and so it’s the responsibility of each of us to inform our minds on the matter so that we can properly form our own consciences. You see, I’ve got it down to a rote speech, practically.”
Father Boyle drains his glass and pours another drink, straight Scotch this time. He leans forward. “And then you help them inform their minds?”
“I tell them they should ask themselves three questions. Like this. I say: “First, you should ask yourself if you are shirking your Christian responsibilities; that is to say, ‘do I just want the pleasures of sex without the responsibility of children?” Now, you’ve already got two children, you said, so obviously you’re not out just for pleasure.” Or, if they don’t have any children, I say, “Probably you’ll want to have children later, someday.” Anyway, I take away their worry about the sex part. Then I say, ‘second, you ask yourself if there is some real need for you to use birth control. But you’ve already indicated financial reasons–or psychological, or physical, or whatever.” I just fit the answer to the case, you see. Then, “Third, you should ask yourself if this is going to help you and your spouse to lead a fuller, happier, more responsible Christian life. Now, only you and your spouse together can answer that, so you should have a discussion with him or her, and then once you’ve made up your mind to use or not to use birth control, then just go ahead and live comfortably with your decision. And whatever you do, don’t mention it in confession again, because eventually you’re sure to run into some crazy priest who’ll scream and yell and say you’re committing mortal sin.””
“Some crazy priest.”
“Well . . .”
“Well, it’s sound morality, I think. And it helps people to assume responsibility for their own lives.” Father LeBlanc pauses a moment and then adds, “I try to get them past fear, past blind obedience.” He pauses once more. “I try to help them see it’s only love that matters.”
Father Boyle says nothing. He stares past Father LeBlanc with a surprised look on his face. Father LeBlanc turns, expecting to see Father Mackin, expecting to be denounced for hypocrisy or heresy or God knows what. But no one is there. Father Boyle is merely looking into a new world of possibilities.
“Again. Say it all again,” Father Boyle says. “I want to get those three points by heart.” He pours himself another glass of Scotch, and before Father LeBlanc can continue his explanation, Father Boyle looks up and mutters, “I always wanted to be a good priest,” and a boozy tear slides down his cheek.
Father LeBlanc lies in bed looking out at the moon. It is three months before he will be sent into exile at the beach in New Hampshire, and he is still at St. Matthew’s in Boston. Nonetheless, even in this paradise of the priesthood, he is anguished, he is unloved and unloving, he is hungry. He has vowed his life and his mind and his body to the service of Jesus Christ, and he does the best he is able, but . . . does he?
He is alone. Abandoned. He feels nothing.
He reaches beneath the blankets and touches himself. He masturbates, without a fantasy, without an image. He is thinking of nothing. He is fucking nothing. It is all nothing. It is all hopeless.
The next morning before mass he seeks out Father Boyle and confesses that he has masturbated. Why is masturbation a sin for him but not for the kids he counsels in confession? He has no idea.
They are free. He isn’t.
Father LeBlanc has been summoned to the Kremlin, which is what they call the bishop’s residence in Boston. It is an old brownstone mansion crammed with antique furniture and Persian carpets and dusty portraits of dead or dying bishops. To be summoned here means serious trouble. They have provided him with a long list of questions about faith and morals, and he has responded to each in writing. Today he will be examined by a monsignor assigned to his case. The procedure is straight out of the sixteenth century.
Now he sits across the desk from Monsignor Glynn, who turns out to be a nice old man, lean and red-faced, with white hair like a bird’s nest. He wears wire-rimmed glasses that slip down his nose and make him look like a bright child. It’s easy to be deceived, though. Some of these old guys have a mind like a razor and a tongue to go with it.
“Ed Glynn’s my name,” he says. “You’re Paul LeBlanc?”
“Yes, Monsignor. Um, yes.”
“Have a hard candy? I’m trying to stop smoking.”
Father LeBlanc smiles and shakes his head no as Monsignor Glynn pops a candy into his own mouth.
“You’re a very smart young man,” Monsignor Glynn says, shifting the hard candy to one side of his mouth. He indicates the papers in front of him. “These answers are fine, very thoughtful. I admire the way you’ve quoted Vatican II in the questions on conscience. Very fine.” He crunches the hard candy, swallows, and then they talk for a long while about birth control and individual conscience and the confessional. At the end the monsignor indicates there have been complaints about Father LeBlanc’s position on birth control, but “like Pilate with Jesus, I find no fault in you,” he says. They both laugh at this, and Monsignor Glynn pushes the papers aside and leans back. “Tell me,” he says. “Quite apart from your “case” –which will be fine, by the way, you seem harmless enough to me–I’m curious to know what you think about sin. Off the record. Just between us. Do you think that anything is sinful?” Father LeBlanc looks at him as if to say of course. “What?” Monsignor Glynn asks. “What exactly?”
“Off the record? Just between us?”
Father LeBlanc is exhilarated suddenly. “I think it was a mistake for the Church to get into the sex business in the first place. There’s no evidence that Jesus was upset about prostitutes or homosexuals or even the woman taken in adultery.”
“You don’t think adultery is wrong?”
“Of course it’s wrong, but not because it’s sexual. It’s wrong because it’s a sin against justice. And, for that matter, against charity as well.”
“Charity and justice. You’re quick on your feet.”
“But isn’t it?”
“If the Church took charity and justice as seriously as it takes masturbation and birth control, it would be a very different Church.”
‘so the Church is the problem.”
There is silence and a clock ticks somewhere.
“No, I’m the problem. I know that.”
“Yes,” Monsignor Glynn says.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
They say nothing for some time, and then Monsignor Glynn asks, “What do you want? Deep down, what?”
“I want to be a good man,” he says, “and a good priest.”
Monsignor Glynn looks at him.
“And I try to love God.”
“But you don’t let him in, do you.” It is not a question. “Why not let him in?”
Suddenly the interview is over, and Monsignor Glynn stands up. “There’s a man you should meet, an old friend of mine, Tom Moriarty. He’s the pastor of a little beach parish in New Hampshire. You’d like him. He talks like you. He thinks like you. Except he’s a saint.” He comes around the desk to shake Father LeBlanc’s hand and give him his blessing, but just as he leans forward to embrace him, Father LeBlanc turns toward the door. It is an awkward, impossible moment.
“I’ll see you before long,” Monsignor Glynn says.
So perhaps there has been a miracle and he will not be transferred after all.
Two days later the bishop’s secretary phones Father Mackin, who summons Father LeBlanc to his office and says he is about to be transferred. To a lovely beach parish in New Hampshire. Our Lady of Victories. Father LeBlanc goes white for a moment, and blinks, and says, “Thank you, Father.” But on the way back to his room, he knocks on Father Boyle’s door. There is a long silence and the clink of a bottle against glass. Father LeBlanc knocks again and pushes the door open.
“Are you the one?” Father LeBlanc leans into Father Boyle’s room. “Are you the one who turned me in?”
Father Boyle is drunk, however, and does not understand what Father LeBlanc is talking about.
“I’m leaving St. Matthew’s. I’m being sent to Our Lady of Victories. In New Hampshire!”
Father Boyle shifts in his chair, shakes his head, concentrates. His eyes are wide, crazy. And then he smiles, beautifully. “You’re Jesus Christ,” he says.
Father LeBlanc starts as if he has been slapped. He steps outside the door and closes it. Then he thinks of Monsignor Glynn and opens the door and asks Father Boyle the question the monsignor has asked him.
“But you don’t let him in. Do you?”
“Yes!” Father Boyle says emphatically. “Tha’s why I drink.”
Father LeBlanc closes the door before he realizes what Father Boyle meant.
A week later Father LeBlanc gets a letter from the bishop confirming what he already knows. He is to be transferred to Our Lady of Victories parish in New Hampshire. At once. He will assist Father Thomas Francis Moriarty, who is ill.
So the miracle has not occurred after all.
He goes to his room and, mad as hell, kneels down to say a prayer for Monsignor Glynn. Then he goes out to throw some hoops. He is angry and disappointed for the rest of the day, unaware that the whole time he is packing his bags, he is humming “Everything’s Comin” Up Roses.”
Excerpted from The Miracle
©2002 by John L’Heureux. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.