Posts Tagged ‘Patty Scialfa’

Andrew Greeley, 1928-2013

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

When novels by Father Andrew Greeley began popping up on the shelves at the local drug stores in Monticello during the early 1980s, I was not interested. I’d glance at the titles – The Cardinal Sins and Thy Brother’s Wife were the first two I saw – and I’d think “genre romance, at best.” That judgment was supported by the cover artwork: The first showed the bare back of a lissome lady otherwise swathed in red bedclothes and the second showed an equally attractive woman holding in one hand and between her teeth a gold chain on which was suspended a gold cross.

Those two titles left the drug store shelves and other titles by Greeley replaced them over the next five years or so. I was aware of them, but let them come and go: Ascent into Hell, Lord of the Dance, Virgin and Martyr, Angels of September. If I thought about Greeley and his books at all, I reflected only that the man had obviously found a niche and formula that served him well. Romance novels were not my deal.

I had nothing against genre fiction. Robert Ludlum was still alive and still writing his occasionally clunky but always diverting spy thrillers, and I gladly laid down my shekels every year for another one of his books. That was especially true for the three Ludlum novels that chronicled the tale of Jason Bourne, the intelligence operative struck with amnesia whom I consider one of the greatest inventions in popular American fiction.

Then, one morning in late 1987 as I looked for lunchtime diversion in the library at Minot State University, I chanced upon the portion of the stacks where Greeley’s novels were shelved. Their presence surprised me. Perhaps the man’s work was not as genre-bound as I’d thought. If that were the case, well, I was beginning work on at least two fiction projects, and I thought I might learn something about writing popular fiction as I read. Finally, I was hungry, and there was nothing that said I had to keep reading past lunchtime if I found the book lacking.

So I grabbed one of Greeley’s books from the shelf – I think it was The Cardinal Sins – and once I opened it, I found myself reluctant to close it. Once I got home, I read until early morning, and then finished the book, eyes weary, the next day. Then I went back to the university library and got another Greeley. Once I’d finished with the backlog, I looked and waited for new titles. And so it went through the years, one novel after another, until 2007, when Greeley had an accident that left him with a brain injury and the writing stopped. He passed on at the age of eighty-five during the last days of May, partly as a result of that injury from six years ago.

I’ve learned in the years since first dismissing his work, of course, that Greeley was far more than just a novelist. He was, as Wikipedia puts it, “an Irish-American Roman Catholic priest, sociologist, journalist and popular novelist.” His work at the latter three vocations often put him at odds with the powers of the Catholic church, and his relations with the church were sometimes strained. I don’t know much about his work as a sociologist nor much about his work as a journalist – I’ve told myself many times I should explore his work in both areas – but I’d venture that Greeley did at least some of his most effective work as a priest through his fiction.

A caveat: I’m not a Roman Catholic. I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I grew up as a Lutheran, and in many ways, I am culturally a Lutheran still. I did, however, grow up in a Catholic city; most of my friends when I was young were Catholic; the Texas Gal grew up as a Catholic; and, in the broad swath of Protestantism, Lutherans do not stand horribly far – even though there are some vital differences – from the Church of Rome.

What does all that mean? Just that, even with all that contradictory background swirling around my life, I know ministry when I see it. And in every page of Andrew Greeley’s novels, there is ministry. Without much preaching and with generally interesting plot lines from 1981 through 2007, Greeley tended to his readers, entertaining and guiding them through their lives by detailing crises and celebrations for his characters. The message was fundamentally the same, both in his basic fictional universe with its close-knit families of Cronins, Ryans and more and in the mystery stories that featured his two greatest creations, priest and philosopher Blackie Ryan and musician and mystic Nuala Anne McGrail.

That message? That there is grace in the world. Those would be Greeley’s words. Mine would be different: The Universe gives us what we need. (That’s not always the same as what we want, of course.) As different as the words might be, the ideas are the same: There is something that is unknowable that is greater than we are, and that unknowable something can give us the tools and opportunities to make our lives better. And I’m willing to label those tools and opportunities as grace.

Along with subtle ministry, grace was a constant in Greeley’s books, which have brought me hours of pleasure through the years. Those elements only worked, however, because Greeley’s novels also provided strong stories, interesting and vital characters, a sense of community and engaging mysteries both temporal and cosmic. And I’ll miss all of that. The end of Andrew Greeley’s writing life six years ago left a hole in the library shelves for me; the end of his physical life last month only made that hole larger.

As long as we’re talking about grace, here’s “State of Grace” by Patti Scialfa. It’s from her 2004 album 23rd Street Lullaby.