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on April 11, 2011 :
Former Roman Catholic priest Joe Novara has written the least angry memoir about leaving the priesthood you’re ever likely to read. If Novara is outraged by the church’s child-abuse scandal, he keeps it to himself. If he felt somehow betrayed by those who educated him in the holy mysteries for a dozen years, he doesn’t let on.
And yet Novara has written a most pleasant account of being sent to seminary in high school, remaining there through college and then going off among a select few for further theological training in Rome. Over the course of the narrative, he goes from being “totally engaged” with the church to having an “arm-length indifference” to it.
The tale doesn’t spool out in chronological sequence but is told via a collection of stories – sort of a “Then-there-was-the-time” approach, which works fine. He doesn’t say it straight out, but if I had to guess, I’d bet Novara at least occasionally wishes it had worked out differently. He wouldn’t give up his wife and child from his post-priesthood life, of course, but I think he wishes he were still in love with the church.
Married now and with a grown daughter, he takes a nostalgic tour of the churches in his former precincts. He runs into an old friend, an admirable aging priest who still puts effort into his homilies for a weekday evening liturgy for a congregation too small to justify use of the sanctuary. A nun who had been the principal of Joe’s high school still serves with the priest as “missionaries to Detroit’s East Side, urban-renewed wasteland.” She was now trying to establish and run an experimental high school.
As he leaves the church and his former mentors, Novara wonders whether he had “skipped out too soon – had left right after the bloom went off the romance of priestly work. Theirs has been a lifelong commitment. Mine was a kind of ‘living together’ arrangement – fine as long as it worked.”
Novara doesn’t ignore the priest child-abuse scandal. He writes of a seminary classmate who was great with kids. “Is my memory of Dave naïve? Would he have been the kind of priest to commit these awful crimes? All my instincts shout no. But I’ve learned I never can know for sure.” It’s one more thing that’s changed from the church he thought he once had committed himself to.
One reason Novara’s edges aren’t sharper may simply be the passage of time. He became a priest in the ‘60s, a tumultuous time in the world and an exciting time for the post-Vatican II Catholic Church. He served two years in a Detroit parish before making his exit.
After ordination and his Michigan homecoming, he began to learn the realities of being a priest, that it’s the ultimate 24/7 job, and you never get to leave the burdens at home. He also saw the relationship between priest and parishioner in a different light. “I thought I was going to be a personal trainer for a leaner, enlightened Catholicism,” he writes. “The majority of my congregation simply wanted a massage therapist.”
Whatever yearning for or curiosity about the road not taken, Novara ultimately is content with his choice to leave the church. “I so wanted to serve God and humanity on the macrocosmic, supernatural level. I came to find that atmosphere too rarefied. The scale of one on one friendship; the microcosm of my family has proved a more gratifying and seemingly successful strategy.”
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(reviewed within a month of purchase)