Linden MacIntyre's Christian soldier slogs on

  • August 25, 2009
{mosimage}The priest as a hardworking assassin just doing his job, eliminating child abusers and perverts from the priestly ranks, is not a very likely starting point for a serious novel about a man in middle age struggling with meaning in his life. Award-winning CBC journalist Linden MacIntyre makes it work in The Bishop’s Man .

It’s been 21 years since the Mount Cashel Orphanage scandal erupted — the first of a long series of awful stories about sexual and physical abuse of minors by Catholic priests and vowed religious. While David Harris’s Unholy Orders: Tragedy at Mount Cashel did the journalistic job back in 1991, it has taken this long to get a thoughtful treatment of the post-scandal church in a novel.

MacIntyre’s protagonist in The Bishop’s Man isn’t the sort of assassin with a gun in his pocket. But he learned the psychology of his trade from a Honduran policeman and assassin, a man who did do the job with a bullet to the brain. Fr. Duncan MacAskill, the bishop’s man, is known among his brother priests in Nova Scotia as the Exorcist and the Purificator.

His job is to make offending priests disappear with a complete absence of publicity, fuss and lawsuits. He visits priests who have got their housekeepers with child, who have groped young boys, who have left a string of victims across a series of Maritime parishes. He carries with him a one-way plane ticket to Toronto and an appointment at a treatment facility. Pretty soon the priests are living anonymous lay lives somewhere far away.

{sa 0307357066}This work has not been good for MacAskill’s priesthood. The other priests he meets are a bit stand-offish, or they are the kind of priests no one wishes to meet. His bishop is a paranoid politician and a bit of a buffoon.

What was good for MacAskill’s priesthood was the two years he spent in Honduras, discovering how the beatitudes matter in the lives of desperate people.

When he finds himself back in his tiny hometown of Creignish, masquerading as a parish priest after years of a vague posting at the university, MacAskill finds himself alone wondering what happened. What happened to the urgent reality of the Gospels he saw in Honduras after 20 years of fixing the bishop’s problems in Cape Breton? He takes to drink.

The hard part about writing the novel was imagining himself into the life of a priest, MacIntyre told The Catholic Register recently.

“The success or failure of a work of fiction depends to a certain extent on the authenticity of the voice,” said MacIntyre. “It’s always difficult to imagine your way into anything you’re not. And I am not a priest.”

Like any good journalist, he researched the subject. Before he was ready to go to press, he sent the manuscript to a friend, now married, who had been an active priest for 25 years.

“I told him... I just want you to listen to the voice. If you hear your friend the reporter talking, then this book isn’t going anywhere,” said MacIntyre.

The friend told MacIntyre his priest was believable — a man with human flaws, struggles, doubts and courage.

“I care about a lot of the priests,” MacIntyre told The Catholic Register. “I mean, priests are like soldiers. They’re on the ground dealing with combat. I’ve got less sympathy with the generals.”

MacAskill’s bishop is not portrayed in a positive light.

“If you have to have a villain it is more the personification I have created of a bishop,” said MacIntyre. “I have never known a bishop like this, but I suppose if you made a composite of a number of people you would get this.”

But the bishop doesn’t take up a lot of space in the novel, and MacIntyre isn’t interested in simply assigning blame.

“One of the things I did not want to do is adopt a simplistic approach to a very complex problem, like sexual abuse,” said MacIntyre. “We never fully understand causes and we never fully understand effects. It’s dangerous in either form — either journalism or fiction — to pretend you know outcomes, or to pretend you know with any absolute certainty causes. Because they’re very amorphous, murky and complex.”

That leaves MacIntyre with the dynamics of a mystery tale. All sorts of crimes have been committed. Who committed which ones is not the central question of the novel. But MacAskill wants to know how we live on after we know that the sin we have encountered is part of us — that we are part of a world of victims and victimizers. That’s the mystery.

“Unfortunately, we labour on in an unfolding dynamic where people victimize other people.” said MacIntyre. “The fundamental message of the Gospel should have cured us of that by now, a couple thousand years on. It hasn’t. And that’s not because of anything that was missing from the message. I believe it has to do with the way the message has been handled.”

Having grown up in the parish library, and in a Cape Breton culture that lived on stories, MacIntyre has chosen to tell a story that won’t be easy reading for people who put their trust in the church. But MacIntyre isn’t unsympathetic.

“My 93-year-old mother, I used to razz her all the time about the superstition,” said MacIntyre. “And she stopped me one day, and I’ll never do it again. She said, if I didn’t believe literally in a hereafter I would not want to live another minute. I realized that faith is a gift.”

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