Conclaveby Greg Tobin
Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, Timothy John Mulrennan is a typical young American of the post-World War II generation. Since childhood he has known a deep and abiding faith in his God and his Church that leads him to a career as a priest - and prSee more details below
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Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, Timothy John Mulrennan is a typical young American of the post-World War II generation. Since childhood he has known a deep and abiding faith in his God and his Church that leads him to a career as a priest - and pr
"Tobin weaves historical church figures and events into an engrossing story line crammed with contemporary Christian issues."The Newark Star-Ledger on Conclave
"A wonderful book. . . . A beautifully rendered story of faith and devotion, blended with good old-fashioned intrigue and adventure."Nelson DeMille, bestselling author of The Lion's Game on Conclave
"Greg Tobin has written a vivid, compelling tale that will no doubt find the wide audience it deserves."W.E.B. Griffin, bestselling author of The Brotherhood of War on Conclave
"A well-researched history of the modern church and an excellent portrayal of a man of deep spirituality."Library Journal on Conclave
"Conclave will provide many readers (Catholic and Protestant) with grist for criticism and commendation."The Fort Worth Morning Star-Telegram
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By Greg Tobin
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2001 Greg Tobin
All rights reserved.
North Auburn, New Jersey, Christmas Eve 1949
The tall, slender boy in a black cassock and white surplice knelt on marble steps before the altar while the priest, whose back was turned to the people kneeling in the pews, bent over the host and uttered the most solemn words of the Holy Mass. The after-scent of incense filled his nostrils and nearly made him sneeze, but he did not allow himself to do so. Discipline. Tim Mulrennan slid his eyes to the left to watch his fellow acolyte, Dennis Connolly — his fourteen-year-old cousin, a freckled towhead two years his senior — grip the long-handled sanctus bell that would ring in just a moment when the celebrant raised the consecrated host. Always his heart soared almost painfully at this juncture during the mass.
The physical pain of twelve-year-old knees against hard stone was a part of the ritual that Tim took as a challenge — not to shift or squirm but to kneel with his back erect and hands folded. He believed that God watched and rewarded such steadfastness in an altar boy. Again, discipline. Besides, there were a lot worse things than a few minutes of discomfort, which he offered as a small sacrifice in thanksgiving for the many blessings in his life.
The world had survived a long and brutal war in Europe and the Pacific. Valiant American soldiers and sailors in the millions had returned to a country shorn of political illusions and rich in resources. It was hard for a boy from New Jersey to imagine what war really felt like. He read the newspapers and Time, listened to radio broadcasts, watched the newsreels in the local movie theater; he remembered President Roosevelt's talks and was still not used to President Truman's frank and funny twang. He listened in church and school to the ringing words of patriotism and faith in God and fear of communism. He believed what he was taught and held it in his soul and prayed for the strength to lead a good, moral life and to do his duty to God and country. He was a Boy Scout, First Class rank. He believed in the words of the Apostle's Creed and the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary, in the rosary and the mass and the stations of the cross, in Pope Pius XII and the triumphal rightness of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. He believed in the martyred saints and the priests and nuns of his parish; he believed in his father and his brother and sisters, and he prayed for his mother. ...
The parish church was a massive limestone structure in the classic Gothic style that had been built by immigrant Italian stonecutters and masons twenty-five years earlier, a majestic high-vaulted house of worship planted amid the tree-adorned streets of a village west of the thriving industrial city of Newark.
Along with the grammar school, the church was the center of the Mulrennans' life, as it was for hundreds of local families. These Catholics, mostly of Irish and Italian descent, lived, loved, and worshiped fervently and clannishly, as their parents had in the old countries. With a healthy population of Jewish and Protestant neighbors, as well, North Auburn's total population was about thirty thousand souls. There were some Negro families who had lived there for close to a century, from before the village was incorporated, and they congregated at the Second Baptist Church on River Street. The Erie-Lackawanna line ran through the center of town and carried scores of residents to jobs in Newark and Hoboken, and to New York City–bound ferry boats and underground "tubes."
The bell tinkled. Tim lifted his eyes to the pure white host held aloft by the priest in view of the faithful. Always at this moment he felt the secret thrill of connection to the living Christ. He knew that it did not matter where he lived on God's earth, that this sacred rite was being performed in this same manner, at approximately the same time of day, from Rome to Timbuktu to Goa to Buenos Aires. He was a part of something that was so much bigger than any individual or town or nation: he was a member of the living Body of Christ that had been in existence from the time of the apostles and the earliest saints.
As the priest, Father John E. Newberry, held the chalice that contained the wine soon to be the Blood of Christ, Tim thought of his mother. She was in the church tonight, in the sixth pew on the north side of the nave, with his father, elder brother, and two sisters. Despite the requirement of fasting, Madeline Anne Mulrennan had been sneaking beer all evening as she and the family prepared for midnight mass, dressing in their best new church outfits, then waiting in the living room for their scheduled departure for mass at eleven o'clock. She did not seem drunk, did not slur or stumble or act wild, but by the forward tilt of her head he knew from long experience that she was more than halfway there. Somehow they all made it to the church in good time, after a cold trek of three blocks over snow-covered sidewalks. Everyone anticipated a Christmas Eve snack after mass and before a sleepless night and a magical Christmas morning with gifts and hugs and tears, with Mom passed out and Dad, James Mulrennan, whistling as he worked in the kitchen, making breakfast for them, pretending that there was nothing in the world wrong in his house. A man could know no greater shame than a drunken wife, and a family likewise for a drunken mother. Tim shuddered as the bell announced the elevation of the golden chalice containing the holy blood of the Savior. He forced his mind to concentrate on his duties as an altar server. His cousin Dennis seemed not to notice or to care that Tim's eyes brimmed with tears.
Oh, dear God, be with my family tonight and help us to be kind and good to one another. Especially, please help my mother to get better ... to be well and not to get drunk ... to — He did not know how to express what he felt in a prayer to the Almighty Father.
After the Agnus Dei and the breast-tapping of the Mea Culpa, the congregation marched forward to the railing before the altar where they knelt to receive Holy Communion. Tim assisted Father Newberry by holding the golden paten beneath the chins of the faithful as the priest placed a host on the tongue; he walked back and forth along the cloth-draped railing at least twenty times, there were so many receiving tonight, on the day of Christ's birth.
The priest served Tim's parents. The boy smelled beer on his mother's breath and hoped to God she would not belch. He thought he saw her wobble and flutter her eyes as she rose from the communion rail, sure signs that she was now feeling the effects of her drinking. He silently cursed her and himself for her condition — after all, if he were a better son, student, ball player, altar boy maybe ... He silently prayed that God would cure her of this terrible, sinful weakness for drink.
Minutes later, Father Newberry replaced the leftover hosts in the gold-plated tabernacle behind the altar table. He swallowed the last drops of communion wine, then Tim Mulrennan poured water from the cruet over the priest's white, tapered fingers. Father Newberry was in his forties, a quick-moving, wiry man who had served as an army chaplain in Italy and France. His hair was a helmet of steely gray, and a dark violet scar scored his cheekbone. He rarely smiled, and maintained an attitude of cool competence toward the parishioners; he ably assisted the church's aging pastor, and the ladies of the congregation were always attentive at his masses. One day soon he would probably be named pastor at another parish in northern New Jersey. He did not pay much attention to altar servers such as Tim, unless there was a slip-up during mass. He simply expected them to do their part competently and without complaint.
Father Newberry dried his hands and returned the linen towel to Tim's outstretched arm. Tim and Dennis resumed their kneeling positions to await closing prayers and dismissal.
A huge, carved crucifix hung ominously above the altar. Tim gazed up into the tortured face of Christ: pain and death resided in the gilt-painted gashes on His face, but also hope and the promise of salvation. The image of the intricate wreath of thorns that made His crown, and which were pushed into skin and skull, made Tim again feel the bones in his knees. He felt the cold of the marble steps and the heat of the Lord's passion. There were so many mysteries and questions that flowed through his mind. How can I know God? How can I be worthy to serve God? Why is my mother — the way she is? What is God's will for all of us? Who was Jesus of Nazareth? I believe in His living presence among us — in the forms of body and blood in the Eucharist — yet how can this be, truly? Am I strong enough, faithful and obedient enough to please Him? What does He want of me?
The mass ended, and Tim and Dennis followed the celebrant into the sacristy where they tore off their cassocks and took up their winter coats. "Merry Christmas, Father!" the boys called as they bolted from the sacristy, not pausing to request the priest's blessing, putting on their coats. Father Newberry waved and returned to the rectory. Tim pulled a woolen sailor's cap over his head as he walked with Dennis into the winter night. His open coat flapped in the cold wind, but he did not notice. He looked up into the black sky.
The cold white pinpoint stars hung so low that he felt he could lift his hand to touch them. The moon was a glowing white disc, casting its light on the snow-carpeted sidewalk outside the church. The church building itself, a massive stone structure, loomed like a black pyramid above the boys as they slid along the sloping, icy walk. Tim Mulrennan's heart was full of the spirit of the holiday and hopeful of better things. He felt clean and open and happy and alive. The world's troubles seemed far from this snowy street.
"I think Joan Fredericks likes me," Dennis Connolly announced soberly.
"Do you like her?" Tim asked, ever the friend-counselor.
"I guess I do. I'm not going to marry her or anything."
"Have you kissed her?"
"No, I don't want her cooties." Dennis barked like a wounded dog.
"She's not even very pretty."
"She's nice. I've always liked her — since first grade."
"You want to kiss her?"
"No." The crystalline clarity of his religiosity was shattered by uncertainty. Didn't he want to kiss her? Or any girl? Girls ... they complicated his thoughts. How could he be a priest if he liked girls, which, of course, he did? Kissing? Marriage? These were exotic concepts that secretly interested him deeply. What would his brother Kevin say? Kevin had girlfriends all the time; they liked his outgoing personality and athletic achievements. He was a ladies' man, as their father called him. Tim, on the other hand, felt awkward and embarrassed around girls, or even when they were mentioned.
"Sorry I asked." Dennis lifted a handful of snow and packed it into a ball that he threw at Tim, hitting him squarely in the back. The boys laughed and raced to the street corner. The Connolly kid peeled off to the right with a wave. "Happy Christmas, chump. Hope you get what you want."
"Same to you, chump." Tim lofted a snowball that landed near the other boy but did not hit him. He turned and walked toward home.
The cold air filled his lungs. He paused to gulp it in, ambled slowly along the white sidewalk, kicking up snow crystals with each step. He thought of school and friends and girls and church and home. He was reluctant to go home right away. He was all too familiar with the scene that awaited him. His mom would be drinking beer and rattling around in the kitchen, and the house would be thick with tension as everyone hoped she'd go to sleep so they could relax and open some Christmas gifts and play records on the new RCA phonograph. Tim's dad had bought a new Bing Crosby record, and Tim's eldest sister, Theresa, had a boxful of other records that she wanted to hear — she loved dance music.
His younger sister, Gertrude Anne, was just a baby, less than a year old, and would probably need a diaper change and feeding before being put to bed. That would fall to Theresa or Dad. Tim was hungry, having fasted before mass; he would eat a big sandwich and might sit down with a book or the Saturday Evening Post and read himself to sleep. He did not believe in Santa Claus anymore — he had up until three years ago, he thought sheepishly.
He crossed the lamplit street. He was a boy on the slippery cusp of young manhood, brimming with uncertainty and hope, typical for any American youngster, yet filled with a deep and sincere connection to an ancient faith. Was this how the early saints felt, filled with a mysterious, ineffable knowledge of God's presence in the person of His Son? The Blessed Sacrament was, to Tim and to most Catholics, no mere abstraction but a living reality — here in his own parish church, in his own hometown, in his own life. He stopped, looked up again into the star-scored predawn blackness of Christmas Day 1949 in New Jersey, U.S.A. A boy who believed with his entire physical and spiritual being.
He stood perfectly still, arms hanging loosely at his side. The cold bit into his uncovered hands and wrapped itself around his pale neck.
What is happiness? What is justice? Why does Mom drink? Who are You, God? These were questions of faith, not doubt. Why was he blessed — or cursed — with the need to believe, to accept the mysteries of God's unknowable universe? He murmured a short prayer, "Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen." Words of faith. It felt so right to believe, and it hurt so bitterly to see his mother behave the way she did. He could not shake the hurt, even in this moment of quiet joy.
He walked on, past the town's public library building that looked like an old brick castle, where he had spent many hours studying and reading. He knew every bookcase and every aisle, every sound and smell of the place, and felt at home there, too. Now the windows were dark, and he imagined himself inside, like a spy — spying on what, or whom? He smiled at his own perverse imagination.
Tim crossed Orchard Place and turned up the next block, walking in the middle of the deadly quiet street, pushing the snow with the toes of his shoes. His steps made a soft crunching sound. In the dull yellowish light of a streetlamp he saw the mist of his breath. "Merry Christmas," he breathed, and watched the words come out in cloudy fragments.
He walked once around the block before he came to the back door of his house, paused before he entered, and shook the snow from his shoes. He stepped inside, through a dark narrow passage cluttered with shoes and shovels, entering the warm, brightly lit kitchen. His mother and elder sister bustled about, preparing the family's midnight snack; Tim observed his mother, looking for signs of impairment. She seemed perfectly — too perfectly? — normal, and she spoke to him over her shoulder.
"Where have you been, Tim? We thought maybe you got lost."
"Just took my time getting home. I like the snow."
"Well, you'll catch your death if you don't button up your coat. Take off those wet shoes, and help your sister set the table."
Madeline Anne O'Casey Mulrennan, thin and plain, brown-haired, wearing a festively decorated apron over her church dress, gave every appearance of normality: suburban mother and faithful Catholic wife. Her oval face was neatly and subtly made up, with thin eyebrows and red lips, her hair curled and sprayed. A faux pearl necklace and matching earrings added a final elegant touch. But Tim's eyes went straight to the brown Pabst bottle that stood next to the kitchen sink — always the open beer bottle. He tried to meet his sister's gaze, but Theresa, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, was busy putting pickles and olives into the glass serving tray, concentrating on the task and not paying any attention to him.
"Sure, Mom." Tim kicked off his shoes and hung his coat on a metal hook by the back door. He took some plates from the cabinet and shuffled out to the dining room in his damp socks. After a few more trips the table was set and laden with sandwiches and drink for all. The baby was in bed, but the rest of the family sat down to end their Christmas Eve fast.
Excerpted from Conclave by Greg Tobin. Copyright © 2001 Greg Tobin. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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