Miracleby John L'Heureux, Kathy Crafts
In a pitch-perfect, deeply satisfying work of fiction selected as a New York Times Notable Book, a Publishers Weekly Best Book, and recipient of the gold Medal for Fiction from the Commonwealth Club of California, master storyteller L'Heureux enters the world of an unorthodox young priest whose faith is put to the test. Father Paul LeBlanc is young, handsome, and
In a pitch-perfect, deeply satisfying work of fiction selected as a New York Times Notable Book, a Publishers Weekly Best Book, and recipient of the gold Medal for Fiction from the Commonwealth Club of California, master storyteller L'Heureux enters the world of an unorthodox young priest whose faith is put to the test. Father Paul LeBlanc is young, handsome, and charismatic, but he has dangerous ideas on sex, marriage, and birth control and he just doesn't uphold the decorum expected of a young priest. When, for no reason, a miracle occurs a dead girl is brought back to life before his eyes Father LeBlanc finds his faith, his vows, his reason, and his life itself called into question, leaving him with nowhere to turn. Witty, profound, and deeply moving, The Miracle explores the way God meddles in our lives and to what end. It is John L'Heureux's best, most daring novel to date.
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Read an Excerpt
By John L'Heureux
Grove Atlantic, Inc.
Copyright © 2002
All right reserved.
At this time-it is the early 1970s-Father Paul LeBlanc is still
an ordinary parish priest in South Boston, a huge Irish ghetto
that stretches from the Southeast Expressway down to Quincy
and out to the coast. South Boston is very Catholic, with four
different parishes and thirteen priests, and St. Matthew's parish,
where Father LeBlanc is stationed, is the most Irish of them all.
This is a neighborhood of spruced-up three-deckers-gray and
white and tan-with some wood and brick two-deckers, and a
few single-family houses with driveways. No matter the color of
the houses, they all seem gray when you stand at the corner and
look down the street. It is a gray parish. There are a lot of Irish
bars-McGillicuddy's, Ahern's, Matt Doherty's-and even the
7-Eleven is run by a guy they call Maloney. Actually he is Italian,
and his name is Meloni, but it sounds Irish when you say it. So.
All the cops are from South Boston, and so are the firemen, and
if you own a grocery store or a drugstore or a beauty shop in
the parish, most likely you live there. Most people work at
Gilette or city hall or one of the utility companies. Nobody has
money and everybody has something they are after, a better job
or an education for their kids or a house of their own with a
front yard and a backyard. Unlike the hippies who spend their
time lying down in the street to protest the war in Vietnam,
everybody here in St. Matthews works and expects to go on
working. Father LeBlanc loves the place and he loves being a
priest. There are no miracles in his life except the ordinary
ones-waking, eating, speaking, sleeping-and he doesn't
aspire to miracles. He just wants to be a good man and a good
priest and, mostly, he keeps out of trouble.
Mostly, because in fact he is often in trouble, though not serious
enough trouble to get himself exiled. He has protested against
the war in Vietnam, as most of the priests do, but it is the way
he did it that was bad: at Sunday mass, during the Prayer of the
Faithful, he said-it just came to him, he didn't plan it-"Let us
pray that our Lord will forgive our country the murders we
commit each new day in Vietnam," and the congregation
responded, haltingly, "Let us pray to the Lord." The phone rang
all afternoon as parishioners with sons in Vietnam called to
complain. Father LeBlanc was summoned to the pastor's office
and, after a long lecture on common sense and moral
responsibility, Father Mackin asked him, please, to think about
what he was going to say before he said it. On the following
Sunday, Father LeBlanc apologized from the pulpit. That was a
And he has taught religion to seniors at the high school until
rumors got back to the principal that he had "slighted" the
doctrine of papal infallibility and "implied" that masturbation
was not a sin. What he actually said was "Yeah, sure, the pope
is infallible, but only when he speaks from the chair of Peter.
That's a folding chair, by the way." And of masturbation he
wondered aloud, "It's a mortal sin? Hmmmm. An interesting
question." After that he was assigned to teach Latin.
And once, but only once, he said mass using a loaf of wheat
bread and Gallo wine for the consecration. It was a private mass
for a group of nuns he studied with at Boston College, and one
of them wrote home about it, and her mother mentioned it to a
friend of the family, and, in short, it took only a week before
Father LeBlanc was in serious trouble.
So he stands warned: priests like him get transferred every day.
Next stop, the boonies. He is a wild priest, a troublesome priest,
and it is only a matter of time until he is dealt with.
* * *
To the parishioners-except to the ones who have sons and
daughters in Vietnam-Father LeBlanc is a wild priest but a
good one. He is handsome and young and not exactly sexy, but
strong. He is a guy who is full of energy and life, and it is always
exciting to be with him because he knows how to relate to
people. He is friendly and normal. He is funny. There is nothing
queer about him, the way there sometimes is about priests who
wear that cassock all the time.
Father LeBlanc is just like anybody from the parish, except he is
smarter and he teaches Latin at the high school and he is a
priest. You have to remind yourself he is a priest when you see
him in his sweats playing basketball with the kids because he is
built so great and he can be a mean son of a bitch under the net
when he goes up for a hook shot. He always says, "Shit" when
he misses an easy shot, and then he says, "Sorry." He never
uses the "F" word.
He is smart, energetic, filled with life. A parishioner would look
at him and think, Here is somebody who has given it all up, and
yet he is happy. He is happier than anybody. Look how he gets
along with the kids. Look how he always has a smile and that lift
to his step. You can tell him anything in confession because he
is very broad-minded about sex and birth control. He jogs every
morning. He even sings popular songs, not very well, but he
tries. He is what the modern Church ought to be. They think.
* * *
Father LeBlanc knows they think he is a wild priest, and
sometimes he is pleased that they do. It makes him interesting.
When he catches himself thinking this way, though, he is
ashamed of such petty vanity, and he prays against smallness
and pride and the stupidity of caring what people think. What
matters is sacrifice. What matters is to obliterate the self.
* * *
"St. Matthew's is a very busy parish. It's an old-fashioned
parish, the people are devout, they don't want their faith being
upset by new ideas."
Father Mackin, the pastor, says this at the dinner table,
generally, not to anybody in particular. Father Boyle and Father
LeBlanc listen dutifully, so Father Mackin continues. "We still
have people going to confession," he says, "as you both know.
And that's a wonderful thing in this day and age."
"Huh," Father Boyle says, not looking up. Father Boyle always
has a drink before dinner and tonight he has had several.
Father LeBlanc nods agreement, deciding it is wiser to say
nothing. He is the youngest priest in the parish, and everybody
likes a young priest except the older ones. He knows that.
"What is this stuff we're eating?" Father Boyle asks.
"I think it's lamb," Father Mackin says, just as Father LeBlanc
says, "I think it's veal."
"I'll tell you what it is," Father Boyle said. "It's a goddamn
They laugh at that, and then Father Mackin says, "What do you
"It does have a boot kind of taste." Father LeBlanc pokes the
meat with his fork.
"No, I mean what do you think about the parish? It's a
traditional parish, St. Matthew's. And new ideas upset people."
"Oh yeah. We ought to stamp out new ideas."
Which ends conversation at that particular dinner.
Father LeBlanc, as usual, is penitent. Poor old Mackin is a
wonderful man, patient, a devoted priest. And Boyle is a good
man, too, even though he has this drinking problem. Why can't
he give them a break?
Father LeBlanc changes into his sweats and goes over to the
school gym, where he pumps iron until he aches all over. He
showers, singing all the big numbers from Gypsy, and then he
pops into church and prays for the gift of restraint.
* * *
Father LeBlanc is at ease with everybody. He celebrates mass,
he hears confessions, he teaches his Latin class at the high
school-last year Virgil, this year Ovid-and he visits hospitals
and the prison and the homes of parishioners who are sick or
shut in. Sometimes he plays basketball with the kids after
school, and sometimes he just hangs out at the parish hall where
he is famous for his imitations of Jimmy Durante and Ethel
Merman and Perry Como, all those old-timers.
Life at St. Matthew's is great. The parishioners are always glad
to see you, and they are good hardworking people, and deeply
religious in their way, once you get to know them one-on-one.
When they are in trouble, for instance. A death in the family. A
divorce. That's when he can see that they want something more.
They long for the same thing he longs for. And he has no doubt
that this is the longing for God. They are good people because
they aspire to be good people. He loves them. He loves this
parish. He is comfortable everywhere, except in the rectory
* * *
Father Mackin, the pastor, is new to the parish, a man in his
sixties. He has taught philosophy at the seminary for almost
thirty years, and he regards this parish as his reward for all those
years of service. Also, his kind of philosophy-Thomistic-holds
less interest for seminarians these days. They prefer just
the basics. In fact, the bishop has sent Father Mackin here to
tighten things up. There is too much talk among parishioners
about the "role of the laity" and "parish councils" and too much
interference in how the church is run. Father Mackin is known to
hold traditional, reliable views. He is prudent, kind, and patient.
He knows how to handle Boyle and LeBlanc, the two
Father Boyle is in his fifties, morbidly thin, with a gray face and
an air of defeat. He has a little thatch of short gray hair that is
never combed, and he wears a cassock that is never clean. He
looks like what he is, a confirmed alcoholic. Father Boyle has
spent most of his priestly life at St. Matthew's, and the
parishioners are used to him and accept his little problem with
drink. He is human, weak. What can you do about a man like
that except, of course, pray for him?
Father LeBlanc is another matter. He is young and energetic, and
that is good, within limits. It is always nice to have young
priests; it shows that the Church is up-to-date. But LeBlanc has
had one of those left-wing Jesuit educations, with a B.A. in
classics and an M.A. in social something-or-other, and of
course he is addicted to exactly those ideas Father Mackin has
been sent here to crush. Or rather to monitor. Right now there is
a growing controversy about busing-sending white kids to
black schools and, take your pick, sending black kids to white
schools-and the bishop wants his diocese to stay out of it. No
preaching, no social apostolate crap. "We've got our own
schools to worry about, and busing is not a Catholic problem."
And then he added, "We don't expect miracles. We just want
you to keep the lid on."
Father Mackin reminds himself that Father LeBlanc is a good
preacher and he is great in the confessional, if you can judge by
the number of people waiting for him. God knows he is
generous with his time.
Still, look at him. He must be the most extroverted priest in the
world; he lives to play sports and perform and ... what? ... sing
those goddamn songs. He is good-looking, no question,
and he is popular with adults as well as kids, and-thank God-there
has never been a question of drink or women or boys.
But what is he like inside?
Does he have any interior life at all?
* * *
Father LeBlanc has an interior life that is secret from everyone
and, in some ways, secret from himself. All the noise-the
singing, the basketball, the easy laughter-is merely a cover for
what is going on inside.
He worries about hearing confessions. He worries about how he
says mass. He worries about his worrying, which is a sign of
Before mass each morning he kneels straight up at his prie-dieu,
his head down, his eyes closed, and he prays not to be such a
shit. He is the least profitable of servants. He is a failure, a priest
who wants to please people. Does he want it enough to sell out
the Church? Is that what is going on? Judas betrayed Christ for
thirty pieces of silver. And am I selling kindness in the
confessional for a cheap popularity? He prays for help. He
prays to do and say the right thing. He keeps on praying until he
achieves a sense of peace or at least until his mind goes blank.
He is doing the best he can. At least, he wants to do the best he
The thought comes to him: So did Luther.
* * *
This is not the age of miracles, but Father LeBlanc feels that
now and then miracles do happen in the confessional. The boys
come in and say they used the Lord's name in vain and they
missed morning and evening prayers and-they always speed
up here-they masturbated several times and they lied twice and
they beat up their little brother. The old sin sandwich: put the
easy stuff at top and bottom and then slip masturbation into the
middle where it might not be noticed. Father LeBlanc plays
along. He tells them yes, it is hard to remember to say morning
and evening prayers, and sometimes you can't help wanting to
beat up your little brother, but you have to concentrate on the
positive things and remember what a nice family you've got and
remember how you can help make things better by not being a
grouch all the time or by helping out around the house or being
patient with your folks and not talking back to them. Your folks
are tired. They work hard. So give in a little. Okay? And, oh yes,
something else, you mentioned masturbation. He pauses so they
have time to realize he knows, and then he speeds up again.
Well, try not to let that get important in your life. Sex is a natural
and wonderful thing, and you're still young, with your whole life
ahead of you. Thank God you're living such a good life. For
your penance say three Hail Marys. And they leave the
confessional, these kids, better than they came in. More free to
make something of themselves.
It is the same thing with women and birth control, except he
meets that problem head-on. "Why do you mention this in
confession?" he asks. "Do you feel birth control is sinful?" And
then he talks about it slowly, carefully, helping each one realize it
is her own conscience she has to live with, not the pope's. Men
are easier to deal with, either because they welcome the personal
responsibility or because they don't care a hell of a lot but just
want to be okay with the Church. But they all go away happy.
He is doing the right thing, an important thing. It is what Jesus
would do, he is sure.
What bothers him is their conviction that sin is necessarily
sexual. They confess the same old things over and over-fornication,
adultery, masturbation-and how much of it really
matters? He finds it hard to imagine that God is upset when
some twelve-year-old jacks off. Who does it hurt? What does it
matter? The poor kid is just checking the equipment. Adultery is
something else, of course; people get hurt in adultery. Which is
why it is sinful: because it violates charity and justice, not just
because it is sexual. Nobody seems to care about charity, a nice
safe category of sin. They are all quite happy to confess
uncharitable thoughts, uncharitable conversations, uncharitable
acts. And so he sits there for two hours and listens to the
endless catalog of small failures.
Excerpted from The Miracle
by John L'Heureux
Copyright © 2002 by John L'Heureux.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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