It might seem a bit odd to review a book that was published almost 30 years ago and that I’ve read many times before. But having recently re-read Patience of a Saint by Father Andrew Greeley, who died in 2013, I wanted to talk about him and his writing.
In 1987 I wouldn’t have been able to understand or appreciate Father Greeley’s work. I’d read about him, of course–what Catholic hasn’t been horrified at the idea of a priest writing “racy novels” with actual sex scenes? (Such very mild and tasteful scenes, by the way.) I’m sure at the time, without having read any of his books, I disapproved. I’m sure I thought that a priest ought to have better things to do than write sexy novels. I’m sure I assumed it was notoriety the man was after.
Of course, Father Greeley, a sociologist as well as a priest, was doing other things too. In addition to his priestly duties, he was cranking out scores of non-fiction books in his field. But he considered his novels a ministry too, something that is obvious to me when I read them now. In his own words: “I wouldn’t say the world is my parish, but my readers are my parish. And especially the readers that write to me. They’re my parish.”
Anyone who reads Father Greeley will see that he loves Chicago, the Irish, and the Church. That doesn’t mean he won’t point out what he thinks their flaws are! And I don’t always agree with his perception of the Church’s flaws–I’m no authority on Chicago or the Irish! But always the love is there, and his conviction of the truth of the Church and of the power of the love of God to transform people’s lives.
Red Kane, a somewhat dissipated Chicago journalist, is a perfunctory Catholic when Patience of a Saint begins. A conversion experience comparable to St. Paul’s on the Road to Damascus propels him reluctantly into a reformation of his life which simultaneously delights and threatens his friends and family. He comes to realize that “if one party in a relationship undergoes a transformation, then the other party in that relationship must be transformed too,” and that this is scary for those around him who have grown comfortable with the roles they were used to playing.
In a climax that is foreshadowed throughout the novel, Red’s family decides he has had a nervous breakdown and they send for the men in the white coats. In the end, in what to me was a particularly moving passage, Red asks himself where he can go for help. “The answer was still obvious. The only institution in the world that could help him now was the Roman Catholic Church–the real Catholic Church. Send in the first team.”
I’ve read many–not all, by a long shot–of Father Greeley’s novels. He’s a good writer, not a great one. He does have what to me is crucial–the ability to anchor his novels firmly in a particular place and time. Chicago and its environs are intrinsic to his books. His characterization is terrific, his dialogue not so much, although to me in Patience of a Saint it rings most true. But most important is that his books are deeply Catholic, even the “sexy parts.” It’s a misunderstanding of and a disservice to Church teaching to claim that Catholicism believes sex is bad, or base, or dirty. Greeley’s novels elevate sexual love within marriage almost to a sacramental level–the ultimate act of self-giving that reflects God’s love for us.