When Chris’ colleague and friend commits suicide, rumors spread that the deceased had been engaging in a long-term homosexual affair. The Arch Bishop announces that all gay priests, sexually active or not, will be immediately discharged from service, sparking a witch-hunt. Now Chris and everyone in the diocese must reevaluate his devotion to the church, and to the people whose faith is in their hands.
But Father Chris can’t stop himself from the godless lust he feels. If Father Jack proclaims that those feelings are requited, all hell is sure to break loose.
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The scene in my head was vivid. I saw Jack Canston in a red tank top and black running shorts, kneeling with his sinewy arms outstretched, as if he were on the cross—not Jesus. He kept his eyes on the real crucifix, spotlighted above the holy tabernacle. I knelt next to him in the dark chapel, trying to keep my focus on the crucifix. Trying not to glance at Jack’s shoulder muscles, like armor pauldrons on a medieval knight, trying not to watch Jack’s Adam’s apple move on his strong neck when he swallowed. When my outstretched arm brushed Jack’s, my groin tingled.
“He’s the crucified Lord,” Jack whispered, “begging us to die with him.” He squeezed his eyes shut in adoration, and tears trickled from his thick lashes, down his smooth cheeks. He was only sixteen and hadn’t begun to shave. But hair grew thick in his armpits. I inhaled their sweaty odor. Before we had entered the dark chapel, I’d noticed that
the back of Jack’s red tank top was drenched with sweat. We had
just finished a secret run on the country road winding around the seminary—while the other seminarians played pool or watched television in the recreation hall in the west building.
“The crucified Lord,” Jack repeated. “Do you feel his love, Chris?”
“Yes.” I glanced at the cross and then back at Jack. I wanted to kiss him and sink to the slate floor in his arms.
“He dies for us again,” Jack continued. “Every day in mass. Every time the priest lifts the bread and says, ‘This is my body, given up for you.’ ”
My body, given up for you. Given up for you. Given up for you.
That scene with Jack, a scene of long ago, faded, morphing into the scene before me now. The real Jack, an older Jack, stood before me. It had been twenty-five years since the scene in the dark sanctuary. Now the light of a waning winter afternoon settled in the airy chapel. And Jack, now forty-one years old, stood behind the altar, beautiful in a white chasuble. Thirty of us priests, also in white, crowded around him in the large, open space—like the heavenly host gathered around the Lamb in the Book of Revelation. All of us extended a hand toward the wafer as he lifted it and pronounced the words of consecration, his dark eyes raised to the soaring ceiling, “This is my body, given up for you.” Jack’s tone was softer now, all these years later, more reflective—marked by experience.
The years had left him even more handsome. His thin face had filled out, and his angular nose, jaw, and chin now made him look rugged rather than austere. Heavy stubble covered his cheeks, and his hair was thick and long and shabby—no longer combed back from his forehead and parted. His wiry body had thickened into a powerful mass of chest, shoulders, and arms. He exuded a rugged, faintly sleazy, sensuality.
Why had he returned, almost twenty-five years after breaking off contact with me and disappearing in the vastness of Montana? Why had he left his own diocese and his own family to return to the Archdiocese of Kansas City?
I couldn’t stop staring at Jack through the rest of mass, with all of the old feelings rushing through me—feelings I thought had died long ago. Their intensity scared me. Jack scared me. When mass ended, I avoided him, removing my alb in the chapel and draping it over a pew rather than removing it in the sacristy where Jack and other priests went to disrobe.
Then I headed for cocktails in the library of what was now St. John’s Diocesan Center. In the late eighties, after years of dwindling enrollment, the old high school seminary had been converted to administrative offices and a retreat center. I, now sixteen years a priest, was in charge of managing it, and I lived on the premises. The archbishop, who lived there as well, held a monthly gathering for his clergy—mass was followed by cocktails and dinner. Tonight, three days after Christmas, we celebrated the holiday.
I stood in line at the drink table, watching nervously for Jack’s appearance. A crowd of priests mingled around a glowing Christmas tree in the center of the dimly lit room. The earnest faces of a few young guys stood out—boys still in love with the church they’d surrendered their lives to. But most of the priests were over fifty, paunchy, and dressed in nappy, stretched-out sweaters or faded clerical shirts with Roman collars.
As I poured myself a drink, Corey Mulhane fumbled toward the table. Corey’s brown eyes were bloodshot. His full lips and pale, freckled cheeks hung loosely, as though his face was slipping off his skull. The boyish cuteness that lingered as he approached fifty seemed strangely grotesque whenever he drank.
“Nice little party, huh?” Corey said. “The archbishop loves his priests.” He filled a glass with Scotch and raised it in a toast. “Here’s to the church and its lovely twelve days of Christmas cheer.”
I nodded doubtfully. Corey must have started drinking that afternoon before mass. He’d been off the wagon since his parents’ death the year before—his mother’s stroke coming just two months after his father’s heart attack. But his parishioners at St. Michael’s indulged their dimpled Irish darling, and the archbishop felt sorry for him, only gently nagging him to reenter the archdiocese’s treatment program for parish priests.
We stepped over to a sitting area and settled on a leather sofa.
“How are you doing?” I said.
“Never better. Nice to be with the gang.”
“How did Christmas masses go at St. Michael’s?”
Corey smiled and snorted. “Fat Mary Conley belted out ‘O Holy Night’ again. The stroke didn’t stop her, goddamnit. Year number fifteen.”
I glanced at the door when someone entered. But it was only the archbishop, a bony man with a fringe of white hair. He wore a black jacket over his clerical shirt, and the pectoral cross he’d received on becoming a bishop was visible inside the lapels. We all applauded him.
“Thank you,” the archbishop said, raising his hand as though offering an appreciative blessing. “You are good and faithful servants. After a busy Christmas in our parishes, I know you’d prefer to stay home on a cold night like this. Your sacrifice shows how fortunate I am as your shepherd. You truly inspire me!”
Corey was right. Archbishop Alfred Koch did love the priests of the three counties that made up the Archdiocese of Kansas City. And he bent over backward to keep them happy. He knew how overworked everybody was, a number of priests serving two or three parishes in rural areas. Little by little, lots of priests had abandoned their posts after the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s awakened them to the beauty of the secular world. Most left to get married. More than a few found a place in the growing gay community—not that this was ever officially acknowledged. I’d learned more and more about the gay life in Kansas City through the Web site of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. One of our ex-priests, a student I had admired back in high school, recently had become the center’s president.
The church’s return to staunch conservatism ushered in by John Paul II did attract some devout young candidates to the priestly ranks. Maybe their number would grow until the archdiocese returned to its smug days of glory, but if it did, the archbishop could say good-bye to some of the last liberal holdouts.
The archbishop’s little speech triggered Corey’s disgust with Roman hierarchy. He turned to me with a cynical expression and said, “Did you read what good old Cardinal Ramirez said in the Vatican rag?” He raised his chin and affected a snotty attitude as he quoted the cardinal: “Homosexuals are intrinsically disordered, incapable of spiritual leadership. Allowing homosexuals in the priesthood is ‘absolutely inadvisable, imprudent, and risky.’”
“Jesus,” I moaned. “Let the witch hunt begin.”
Corey nodded. “Oh, it will. Of course, you have nothing to worry about. Father Seib is pure as the driven snow.” Corey spoke with mock reverence. “Father Seib would give his chaste body over to be burned for the sake of Holy Mother Church.”
“I don’t think Ramirez is making any fine distinction between repressed homosexuals and active ones. He’d happily toss out anybody he suspected of ever having a wet dream about another man. Which would mean tossing out fifty percent of the clergy in every diocese—bishops included. Men who’ve given their lives to Holy Mother. Talk about ingratitude. And hypocrisy!”
Corey snorted. “You’ll all just get more damned scared—and closeted.”
“Whatever you say.” I resisted getting drawn into the familiar argument. According to Corey, I’d sold out to the increasingly uptight church and turned into a pathetic, asexual zombie. Corey himself proudly joined gay organizations and went to an annual retreat for gay priests.
Corey looked ready to argue, but his attention suddenly shifted to the door. “Well, don’t forget your virtue now that lover boy is finally here,” he said. “I know you’ve been counting the minutes since his transfer was announced last month.”
I turned, and there he was, accompanied by a pudgy old classmate, Reggie Lutz, jabbering in his ear. Jack looked tired, besieged, like this party was the last place he wanted to be.
“How nice,” Corey quipped. “You two can reembark on the road to sainthood together—leave old sinners like me in the dust.”
“He seems different,” I said, oblivious to Corey’s bantering. “Does he seem different to you?”
Corey sputtered a laugh.
“I mean besides being older. I know we’re all older.”
“But not wiser, apparently. You believe his story? Why he’s back in the archdiocese?”
I shrugged off Corey’s suspicions, whatever they were. “It is a lonely life in Montana. Jack told the archbishop that he had to drive three hours just to have lunch with another priest.”
Corey smirked. “You think that’s the reason—with all this crap going on around the country?”
“Oh, come on, Mulhane,” I snapped. “Jack’s not running from a sex scandal. And do you think if he was, the bishop would shield him? In today’s climate? Jack wants a change. Don’t we all deserve some kind of consolation after twenty years of this?”
“All right, don’t get touchy. I’m sure the archbishop knows what he’s doing.”
In fact, I knew that the archbishop had investigated Jack before accepting him into the archdiocese. It wasn’t unusual for priests to transfer from one jurisdiction to another for various reasons, but prudence demanded excellent references. The bishop of Montana apparently had no reservations about Jack.
“You haven’t even talked to him yet, have you?” Corey said.
“I didn’t get a chance,” I lied. In truth, I’d put Jack in the apartment right next to mine, but I’d left him a note at the front desk instead of waiting to greet him in person. I didn’t want our reunion to happen over luggage and practical questions about keys and thermostat problems. And I was afraid. Maybe I’d discover how deluded I’d been as a vulnerable teenager. Maybe my only experience of love had been a joke. Maybe Jack had never really loved me. After all, I was the one who had finally given in to my urges and gone to Jack’s bed—the week before summer vacation our junior year. I was the one who had kissed him. He hadn’t protested, and he had quickly taken charge in bed, but what did adolescent sex mean?
And even if it had meant something all those years ago, so what? We were kids then. This silly fantasy of mine sprang from a midlife crisis, from years of repression. But I was ripe for a fantasy. I was ripe for being swept off my feet and carried away into the sunset.
“Well, you two should be very cozy,” Corey continued, covering his mouth to stifle a belch. “Canston and Seib, together again at the old stomping grounds. I can see you now, racing each other up the hill to the seminary. Kneeling side by side before the tabernacle in the wee hours. Ejaculating as you pass beneath doorways.” Corey chuckled. “Wasn’t that what you called it? Ejaculating little pious prayers to remind yourselves you were in the holy presence of God?”
“He’s only here temporarily.” My eyes were still on Jack. “Until they rebuild Santa Rosa’s rectory.” A fire had destroyed Santa Rosa’s old mission-style parsonage just a week before Jack was due to arrive.
“Santa Rosa’s still a Spanish-speaking parish,” Corey said. “Where did Jack learn to speak the lingo? It sure as hell wasn’t from old Rodriguez. Two years of classes and he never got us past Hola, qué tal.”
A picture of the jowly, bulbous-nosed Spanish teacher from our high school days popped into my head and made me smile. “Speak for yourself, Mulhane.”
Corey dismissed me with a drunken wave, stood, and wobbled back to the bar.
I was on the verge of rescuing Jack from Reggie, when two more classmates approached him. So I gave up. I left the library and, through a connecting corridor to the main building, entered the chapel. The enormous, square space occupied most of the main building, which was in the center of the six-building complex. Wide corridors, like contemporary cloisters, surrounded the chapel on the lower level, while staff apartments, the library, and other common rooms surrounded it on the upper.
The white, roughly textured walls of the chapel rose to panels of clear, gable-shaped glass. The tentlike roof was intended to recall the Ark of the Covenant, which sheltered the tablets inscribed by God with the Ten Commandments. On bright days, light poured into the wide open space. Pews were arranged on three sides of a hefty altar of red granite sitting high on a slate platform. In the daylight, the chapel was clean and clear as a mountaintop retreat, the blue sky visible above snowy walls.
But the sun had long set when I entered the gallery. And at night, the sound of a cough or footstep echoed in the dark place like the cough or footstep of a lost child. Glowing in a spotlight, the golden corpus of Christ crucified hung on the towering reredos of granite that matched the altar.
The chapel had lost the magic of my high school days, when boyish camaraderie filled it. No matter how many retreats for old women I’d led here over the years, it would always rightfully belong to the ones who would never return: long-haired boys strumming guitars and banging tambourines at folk masses. It would always belong to me and Jack, freshly showered and smelling like soap after running ten miles in cross-country training, whispering together a litany of the Blessed Virgin, our elbows touching on the pew.
Sitting in the darkness now, the scent of candles lingering from mass, I felt numb instead of nostalgic. I felt tired and defeated and idiotic for hoping that Jack would come running after me. We were middle-aged priests who’d staffed a hell of a lot of parishes. We’d married scores of young couples, visited scores of sickbeds, and buried scores of the dead. We’d listened to every conceivable sin in the confessional, endured every conceivable parishioner complaint and parish faction. We’d sent straying husbands back to their families and even straying gay lovers back to their partners. Or at least, I had. Who knew how orthodox Jack had remained?
And with every gay couple I’d come across in parish ministry—and the numbers seemed to grow over the years—I resented my lonely, celibate life in a church increasingly hostile to those it considered disordered. I fantasized about sharing my life with another man—before it was too late.
Chatter in the corridor suddenly broke into my thoughts. It was dinnertime. I had no appetite and was in no mood to join the others in the dining hall. I decided to go up to my room. As I stood to leave, I heard someone behind me call my name.
It was Jack.
I turned and watched his shadowy form advancing. He genuflected before the tabernacle and came to the front pew where I sat.
“Corey said you were looking for me,” he said, towering over me. “Why did you disappear?”
I shrugged, not knowing what to say.
“I need some fresh air,” he said. “How about a walk?”
We got our coats and strolled out beyond the handball and tennis courts on the southwest side of the buildings. We made small talk along the way. Only an inch of snow lay on the ground, and the moon was high and bright. At the top of the hill at the western edge of the property, Jack lit a cigarette.
“When did you start smoking?” I was surprised that the self-disciplined Jack had succumbed to such a habit.
“A while back, during some parish crisis. I needed something to calm my nerves.” Jack pulled up the collar of his pea coat. “We’re on the old cross-country course. I remember this fence.”
A split-rail fence demarcated the boundary between St. John’s and a neighbor’s farmland. Cows used to graze there as we sprinted by. But it had been years since the pasture held cattle.
The area around St. John’s was mostly rural, with little towns like Bonner Springs and Basehor and Piper dotting the farmland. But downtown Kansas City was less than fifteen miles to the east, and the suburbs were gradually spreading and the city steadily incorporating more of Wyandotte County. Everyone knew that this idyllic setting was destined to vanish.
As we quietly walked along the old track, I pondered the idea of the steely Jack needing to calm his nerves. I’d always been the self-conscious worrier, and Jack had ordered me to renounce my perfectionism, as though someone could do that with a flick of a switch. As though Jack had ever needed to worry about perfection.
“The place looks different.” He nodded toward the buildings. “With all the remodeling.”
“I guess,” I said. “I’m used to it now.”
“I think it’s a shame.”
“It’s a new world,” I said. “Who wants to go back?” I meant go back to the days when I had stifled my feelings for Jack. But how could he know that? He didn’t respond to my comment.
We talked about where we’d continued our seminary studies after St. John’s. Jack was impressed that I’d gone to Rome for theology. He’d ended up at a conservative seminary in Indiana. After ordination, he’d volunteered to work in a mission in Monterrey, Mexico. That was where he learned Spanish. He said his time there was the happiest period of his life. He worked five years at the mission before returning to a parish back in Montana.
When we came to the two-lane road that led to the entrance of St. John’s, we turned back, cutting across a field of unspoiled snow. The bell tower shone in the moonlight, a quarter of a mile away. The tower was formed by three slender white panels joined on top by arched crosspieces, creating an elongated, vaguely Gothic frame. The shape was repeated in the tall window moldings running in a continuous series around each of the seminary’s six flat-roofed buildings, which were joined together by cloisterlike corridors. Along with the central building, the dorms on the south, and the dining and recreation building on the west, there were two large buildings on the north that housed the diocesan offices and an auditorium.
The simple, classic beauty of the place had won my heart the moment I set eyes on it at the age of thirteen, the child of a shabby, working-class neighborhood—unlike Jack’s suburban professional clan.
“How is your family?” I said. “They still in Billings?”
“Fine,” Jack said, quietly. “They’re all just fine.”
“They must hate to see you move away.”
Jack lit another cigarette and blew a stream of smoke into the cold air. “It’s God’s will.”
My heart sank. The old stern piety still possessed him.
We made our way up the long drive to the entrance. Inside the front doors, Jack asked me to say a rosary with him in the chapel.
“I don’t think so,” I said, pulling off my knit cap.
“Just one decade. Ten Hail Marys. For old time sake?” Jack grinned adorably.
I couldn’t resist him. I followed him a short way down the front corridor and into the chapel. We knelt in a back pew. In his deep, grave voice Jack recited the first half of each Hail Mary and I chimed in with the rest. The rhythm of our voices brought back the old feeling of my oneness with him. But spiritual communion was no longer enough, if it ever had been.
When we’d finished, we sat quietly in the pew.
“Just like it used to be,” he said.
“I thought you forgot.”
“Never.” Jack laid his hand on my thigh. “I want to show you something. Come up to my room.”
Telling myself not to misinterpret his touch, not to hope, I followed him out of the chapel, up the front stairs by the entrance, and down the hallway that ran along the west side of the chapel. Like all the old faculty apartments, it consisted of a living room and a bedroom with a bath. In his living room, furnished with commercial-looking armchairs and a sofa, the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves held only two stacks of books and a few bottles of liquor. A canvas backpack and a full ashtray sat on the desk next to a glowing lamp. In the adjacent bedroom, a couple of bags sat on the floor by the bed, and some shirts hung in the open closet.
“Sit down,” Jack said, dropping his coat on a green armchair. “You want a drink? I’ve got some Jack Daniel’s. No ice, though.”
Taking off my coat, I sat on the sofa and accepted the tumbler of bourbon.
Jack dug a thick manila envelope out of the backpack, dropped it in my lap, and sat next to me with his drink. “Go ahead,” he said. “Open it.”
When I dumped the contents on the glass coffee table, I immediately recognized my own handwriting on the folded notebook paper. “You kept my letters,” I said, incredulous. I’d written to Jack for a whole year after he’d left St. John’s. In the letters I’d told him I couldn’t stand to be away from him. I couldn’t stand not to hear from him. I apologized for making him sin that night. I said it was okay to love each other, wasn’t it, if we stayed pure? I sent him prayers I’d composed just to show how pure I could be. I wanted him to say he loved me. But I might have settled for any word at all.
“I kept every one of them,” he said.
“But you never answered them. You never returned my phone calls.” Jack didn’t come back to St. John’s for senior year. In one of my attempts to reach him, his mother had answered the phone and told me he’d transferred to a high school in Montana.
“How could I? It was wrong. What we’d done. That’s what I thought.”
“So, it was just the sex? You’d committed a sin.”
Jack shook his head. “It was being in love.”
“Can you blame me? Take a look.” Jack pulled a photo from the pile of letters. It was a picture of me at seventeen, stepping into red sweatpants after a cross-country race on the St. John’s course. Broad-shouldered, skinny, and long-haired, I was smiling my usual crooked smile at the camera. “You looked like a young Brad Pitt.”
“You think so?” Flattered, I took a swig of bourbon.
Jack nodded emphatically. He tossed back his own drink and refilled our glasses. His evening beard was heavy. I wanted to stroke it.
“Have I changed a lot?” I ventured. “Aside from gaining thirty pounds and a wrinkle or two.”
Jack smiled and ran his fingers through my now short hair. “You’re still beautiful.”
“I still love you,” I suddenly blurted. “I know it’s crazy. But here we are at St. John’s again. It’s like you never left.”
“That’s how I feel. That’s how I knew I’d feel coming back.” He leaned over and pecked me on the lips. Then he kissed me deeply.
I wanted him to swallow me. Or maybe I wanted to swallow him.
“Can we go to your room?” he whispered. “My bed’s covered with boxes.”
Groggy and excited all at once, I led him next door to my apartment.
Looking back now at our first night in bed, I realize that I should have known something was wrong. Something beyond Jack’s eventual explanations. The way he wrestled me to the mattress, shoved my body this way and that, forced me on my stomach and rammed himself into me—barely waiting for me to hand him the lube that I kept in the nightstand for my own needs. And then the moaning after he was spent—like a wounded animal—and the tears I felt on my neck.
Maybe I should have suspected something, but I was already caught up in a dream that seemed too good to be true. Nothing about it seemed possible. So I wasn’t in a position to separate what made sense and what didn’t.
Besides, I was sixteen again. And I knew nothing of sexual relationships, let alone strange sex. I’d had guilty fantasies over the years, but I’d kept my celibacy vow, partly by telling myself I wasn’t deprived. After all, I’d told myself, I had experienced love—albeit in one fleeting moment.
And on the night of our reunion, I wanted to read his roughhousing as a sign of his passion for me. As it was—at least in part.
Copyright © 2007 by Michael Schiefelbein. All rights reserved.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Father Chris is reunited with his boyhood friend, Father Jack. They quickly become involved in a closeted sexual relationship. Chris finds that Jack is hiding some very dark secrets from him, and through all that Chris tries, he is not able to help Jack or their relationship. The Archbishop is on a hunt for all homosexuals in the church and forcing them to leave, based on his strong belief that this will avoid any further scandal and embarrassment to the church, after a shock that Father Eddie committed suicide. To make matters worse, a young boy Danny is playing both Chris and Jack to his will. Michael S. is a great writter. I love everything that he has written and can't wait until his next novel. I devoured this book and could not put it down.
When I first heard that he was writing a none vampire book I was disappointed but got the book as soon as it was available. Let me tell you this, I was not disappoint. This is an excellent read and I found myself enthralled with his characters here more so than in his Vampire novels. I kept putting off - as long as I could with only 15 or so pages to go- getting to the end because I didn't want it to end. I definitely recommend this as a suspenseful, mysterious, and heart-string pulling read. Thank you! ^_^ - Priscilla W.
When they were sixteen years old seminary students Chris Sieb struggled to hide his attraction to Jack Canston. He succeeded as no one knew how much he wanted to give up his body to Jack instead of the Lord. For the next twenty-five years Father Chris Sieb hides in the closet his gay feelings as he never acts on them. Currently Chris lives in Kansas City where he successfully runs the St. John's Diocesan Center. However, Father Jack Canston has come to see him. Both feel the incredible attraction that makes Chris wonder whether he needs to give up his priesthood as in his heart (and loins) he fails the Christ. Both are stunned by the recent suicide of Father Eddie Gerhardt, who killed himself over his guilt closeted homosexual feelings that made him believe he was not pure for the Christ. Now Chris and Jack must confront what Eddie refused to face, can a gay preferential individual be a good Christian priest especially of they adhere to the celibacy vow? --- Leaving his vampires behind, Michael Schiefelbein provides a powerful character study that digs deep into human psyche with the conflict between personal needs and desires vs. religious beliefs. As the suicide of Father Gerhardt affirms these are not necessarily compatible. Chris and jack struggle with their sexual preference, which is a double sin as their celibacy vow is under assault and being gay in their minds makes it even more of a transgression. BODY AND BLOOD is a superb look into faith when the human desires are in conflict with the heavenly requirements. --- Harriet Klausner