Father Paul LeBlanc is handsome and charismatic, but also troubled. Not because he questions the war in Vietnam, papal infallibility, and the primacy of individual conscience, all of which puts him in conflict with the Boston hierarchy. Rather, it is because he cannot commit himself to his vocation, nor establish a true relationship with the God he serves. And so as this 2002 novel begins, he is transferred to a small church on the New Hampshire coast; and, forced to admit his troubled vocation, he appeals to God. Since he cannot find himself to love others, including God, he prays that God will love him—and says he will do anything in return if God will only do so.
And then, the housekeeper at his new rectory, Rose, sees her daughter Mandy die of an overdose. But, refusing to accept her daughter’s death, she prays for her to survive. In fact, the church’s dying pastor, Father Moriarty, sees her alive in a dream. And she does survive. Which intrigues Father Paul. What did Rose do? Is it a miracle? He wants to deny it, but cannot. And he decides it isn’t the miracle he needs to understand; it’s Rose.
L’Heureux has more on his mind here than if there was a miracle. He explores what this presumed miracle means to others. Father Paul, especially, needs to know how Rose revived her daughter. What capability for miracles does Rose have within her? And his fascination with Rose turns this novel toward the bond between human love and divine love. And about the doubts his new attraction to Rose raises in his faith and in his worthiness as a priest.
Meanwhile, a parishioner, Anna Kathryn Malley is herself attracted to the handsome Father Paul. She even sees him as a “man she might marry one day.” When she reveals that she has never been able to commit herself to a man, he realizes it is his own problem as well: human relationships. But a priest need not commit himself to such relationships, she says, whereas her life has been one of continual failure at them. Eventually, Father Paul realizes that this good person needs help. And he is a priest. And as each begins to understand the other’s failure, they begin exploring their mutual need. Whereupon, the reader wonders where this new relationship is going.
Meanwhile, Mandy dies again, irony of ironies, and seems to be a victim of a miracle gone wrong. Now begins the heart of this novel. Father Paul is drawn to comfort the bereaving mother. And finds that this is expressed in a lust for her. For if he can possess her, he thinks, he will finally understand that miracle. “And is it lust,” he ssks, “to want to understand a miracle?” She, in turn, has long looked upon this attractive priest with equal fervor. And so by letting his body fulfill itself sexually, he relates to another person. But if he has fulfilled his role as a man, he is drowning in guilt.
In the morning, both are sorry, but there are no regrets. Only guilt. Whereupon, Anna Kathryn helps Father Paul realize that while God will forgive him for this sin, the priest cannot forgive himself. And when he raises new doubts about his vocation, Father Moriarty, his own body betrayed by ALS, suggests to Father Paul “you became a priest because you wanted God’s approval. But God doesn’t need you. Or me.”
Father Paul, however, cannot shake his guilt, or his lust. In fact, in his dreaming of a kiss, Rose turns into Anna Kathryn. Is it now Anna Kathryn he wishes to possess? For the rest of the novel, Father Paul is torn between his desire for the two women and how this conflicts with his wish to remain a priest. What is remarkable is the understanding of the priesthood in this novel, such as one’s responsibilities to God, to the faithful, to fellow priests, and to oneself. This comes across most beautifully in Father Paul’s conversations with his supervisor, Monsignor Glynn, and with Father Moriarty. “Tell me to stop being a priest,” he says to Glynn. “I’ve come a long way from wanting to be a saint. Isn’t that that the next step?”
Both priests are sympathetic to Father Paul and his internal travail, but both treat him, first, as a fellow human being trying to deny his own humanity. They remind him that he has a relationship with God, yes, but it is a relationship that he needs to have, not one that God needs to have with him.
These priests are themselves human, not representatives of God, or of their Church. They fully understand the weaknesses and uncertainties of being human. And L’Heureux surely presents such effective portraits because he himself was once a priest. Who left the priesthood following the upheaval that Vatican II brought to the Catholic Church. Indeed, what this novel suggests is that such modernization did not go far enough in acknowledging the humanity of both priests and the faithful.
Meanwhile, Father Paul and Anna Kathryn are drawn closer together. At the beach, he says, “Tell me about your boyfriends.” And she: “Tell me about God.” Later, she invites him on a picnic to tell him that she loves him. But at the key moment, both are frozen speechless. And later, she writes, “You are incapable of happiness, and I incapable of living without it.”
Father Paul realizes that “his idea of God was simply egoism turned inside out.” Thus, “extinguishing the self to make it perfect meant getting rid of everything human.” This is accompanied by the one melodramatic scene in the novel, a scene in which Father Paul convinces himself of one thing while doing another. It is not entirely convincing, but it does lead to him facing reality, and recalling the earlier advice of the dying Father Moriarty: “Try loving somebody besides yourself for once.”
L’Heureux winds up this story of the three priests and the two women somewhat poetically, as each reaches a self-realization. Father Paul, says, “I don’t want to love God, any God. I want to love someone.” While Rose decides that having sex, including with a priest, “was like getting even with God,” presumably for the loss of her daughter. And Father Moriarty “reaches up and his hand fades in darkness, and another hand grasps his. [And] this new…dark is more light than humankind can bear.”
In sum, this novel explores the link between faith and love, and how a crisis in one can lead to a crisis in the other. As Bruce Bower sums up in The New York Times, this is “a delicately nuanced portrait of recognizably human individuals making what they can of life.”
This reviewer needs to read more works by L’Heureux. (July, 2019)