THERE ARE 1,068 diocesan priests in the New York archdiocese, Don Gold tells us in his book, of whom only 175 are under the age of 40. That one fact speaks volumes about the difficulties facing the Catholic Church in America today, but it also prompts some obvious questions. Who are these young men who are drawn to the priesthood today? How are they sustained in their vocation even as so many of their older colleagues have forsaken that life? What finally, are they like?
To find out, Gold spent the better part of six months -- from July to December, 1979 -- in the company of one such priest. His name is Brian O'Connor, and in 1979 he was 33 years old, eight years out of the seminary, and assigned to a parish in one of New York's more ethnically-rich and culturally-diverse neighborhoods. The idea of writing about a "typical" parish priest is an inspired one; done well, it could serve as a rich metaphor for the state of the church in America today. Alas, Gold's execution is not nearly as inspired as his original idea. In painting this portrait of O'Connor, Gold has given us too many unimportant details of this one man's life, while providing very little of the information we yearn to know about the priesthood itself. Still, The Priest has its moments. And what glimpses we do get of the state of the Church are both accurate and revealing.
Gold makes it no secret that he was looking for a good priest to write about; that he so obviously discovered one is the source of both the book's strength and its weakness. Indeed, in Brian O'Conner, he seems to have found something of a role model. O'Conner is a parish priest's parish priest. He loves his work, and he has that combination of youth and experience that brings with it a sense of assurance and confidence. He knows he is good at what he does. He is not plagued by faith crises, nor filled with desire to get out from under the yoke of celibacy, nor tormented with worry about whether he is serving a useful role in society.
His concerns are far more day-to-day than that. The role of the parish priest, Gold's narrative makes clear, has not changed all that much. O'Connor's days are spent comforting the sick and dying, teaching religion to the children of the parish, saying mass and administering the sacraments, and more generally, offering guidance -- spiritual and otherwise -- to the Catholics of the neighborhood. He is part social worker, part psychologist, part all-purpose adviser. People come to him because they don't know where else to turn, and he does what he can to help them. There is an extraordinary scene, for instance, where O'Connor visits a woman who has just learned that she is dying of cancer. O'Connor sits with her, strokes her hand and head, talks to her as best he can about the need to believe in God's plan at such times. He has not done very much, yet the woman feels much better for his having been there. As a priest, O'Connor is not out to change the world; but in a million ways like this, he is doing some good by making people's lives a little easier to cope with. Scenes like this one, which dot The Priest , are portrayed by Gold with great sympathy and fidelity, and they are by far the best parts of the book.
But Gold also wants to shed some light on O'Connor's private life as well as his public role, and up to a point, he has succeeded. We see O'Connor fighting off what Gold calls the pernicious enemies of the priesthood -- loneliness and boredom. He does this partly by keeping as full a schedule as possible and partly by making sure he has time to spend with close friends and family. On Tuesday nights, he meets with a handful of former seminary classmates -- in sessions that can only be described as male bonding -- to discuss mutual problems and frustrations. We see O'Connor warding off the advances of flirtatious women, and gossiping with colleagues about who's up and who's down in the chancery, and teaching classes in thanatology (the study of death and dying) to supplement his $250 a month income. Most importantly, in my view, we get in The Priest a penetrating look at the current state of relations between parish priests like O'Connor and the bishops and other chancery officials. This relationship may well be the single most intractable problem in the American Church, and from the evidence offered in The Priest , it is not something that is going to be solved any time soon.
O'Connor and his fellow priests at those Tuesday night sessions refer to the hierarchy, in a tone bordering on contempt, as "the official Church downtown." They believe that these Church officials are out of touch with parish reality, and as a result, are unable to offer the the kind of leadership the modern Church needs. O'Connor's pastor recalls a speech given by the archbishop of New York, Terence Cooke, on the subject of morale in the priesthood -- a truly critical problem. According to the pastor, Cooke blamed everything "on our bad manners. We didn't wear the collar all the time and we ate ice cream on the street . . . It was hard for me to relate his words to reality." At another point in The Priest , Gold accompanies O'Connor to an affair at which Cooke is speaking. On this occasion, the dearth of seminarians comes up. "There is a widespread decline," Cooke Acknowledges, "but we do not know precisely why." He continues: "The best action a family can render is to give a priest or nun to the Church. It's more valuable than money." This is a line straight out of the 1940s, and it is no wonder that Gold observes O'Connor grimacing his way through the speech.
The big trouble with this book, though, is that Gold spends too much time watching O'Connor grimace and not enough time asking him questions about why he's grimacing. Again and again in The Priest , O'Connor makes some remark or takes some action that simply cries out for further exploration or comment by the author, yet Gold almost never provides it. Partly this is because Gold wants to be the ultimate fly-on-the-wall, content to observe events and record them as accurately as possible. But it is also because Gold has fallen into the worst trap of all in this kind of reporting: he has become a prisoner of his source. O'Connor's assumptions have become Gold's assumptions; O'Connor's attitudes are now Gold's. Never once does Gold step back to question those assumptions or attitudes, and his failure to do so is fatal. It means that there are dozens of questions -- simple, obvious questions -- about O'Connor that are just left hangin there by the author, unexplored and unexplained. You would love to know, for example, how O'Connor feels about the Church's stance on birth control. We see him gently suggesting to the mother of a 16-year-old who has just had a baby that the girl learn something about birth control, and Gold also tells us that the priest is "troubled" by the church's position on contraception. But that is as far as Gold goes -- and as a result we have no idea how O'Connor really feels about the issue, whether he thinks the Church is right or wrong, how he confronts the potential hypocrisy of believing one thing and having to preach another.
Elsewhere in The Priest , O'Connor and a friend are talking about sex, and in the course of the discussion, O'Connor remarks: "Ten years ago, if I could have chosen to be a priest and to be married, I'm not sure I would have . . . If the Pope said tomorrow, you could get married if you want to, I wouldn't see my life changing." As he says this, questions are fairly leaping to mind: Why does O'Connor prefer celibacy? Why does he think it makes him a better priest? Why wouldn't he want to marry if it were allowed? But since O'Connor doesn't take the thought any further, neither does Gold. The Priest is littered with examples like this, where Gold's reporting, instead of answering questions, raises them.
The kind of "ground level" journalism Gold has attempted in
The Priest can, in the right hands, be enormously valuable. When a Susan Sheehan writes about a welfare mother, she ends up telling us more important things about welfare than a hundred government studies. But to do this kind of journalism, a writer has to learn a great deal about the subject beforehand, and not be content simply with what is absorbed in the course of hanging around the subject. An author also has to be willing to pose all the questions that will naturally occur to the reader -- even if that means having to drop the fly-on-the-wall approach, or even, on occasion, having to be rude. Because Gold was unwilling to do either of these things, the book is severely limited. And the unfortunate result is that The Priest doesn't further our understanding of Catholicism, or priests -- or Brian O'Connor himself, for that matter -- nearly as much as it could have, or should have.