A Priest Forever?


Belief

A Memoir

N. John Hall

Frederic C. Beil, $24.95, 256 pp.

_____________
Padre

The Spiritual Journey of
Fr. Virgil Cordano

Mario T. García

Capra Press, $17.95, 287 pp.

The public reactions to Mother Teresa’s letters, which disclose her long experience of doubt and spiritual aridity, underscore that many of us find only incomprehension where others discover something richer. What makes the reactions so intriguing is what they tell us about ourselves.

These two memoirs present the stories of two men who were trained, ordained, and assigned as priests before Vatican II. From there they took divergent paths and arrived at strikingly different destinations-one growing deeper in faith, the other abandoning the priesthood and publicly espousing disbelief.

The older of the two men by fifteen years, Virgil Cordano (b. 1918), a Franciscan priest from California, tells his story to the historian Mario T. García. Cordano recounts his upbringing, the early death of his father, the close bonds among his mother and siblings, and his departure for the Franciscan seminary, hundreds of miles away in Santa Barbara. What follows for Cordano are a dozen years of Marine-like discipline and formal education, culminating in his ordination in 1945. Cordano’s goal was to minister as a parish priest, but once he is ordained his superiors have other ideas for him. They assign him to graduate studies at the Catholic University of America, where he eventually earns a doctorate in Scripture. After he returns to California, he becomes a member of his order’s theological faculty, then its rector, and even a member of the order’s governing board. It is only many years later that he eventually becomes a pastor-a highly successful one at Mission Santa Barbara. Before that, in 1967, I happened to be one of his less-than-illustrious students, straining to understand justification in the letters of St. Paul.

That same year, N. John Hall was deciding to cross the Hudson and begin a new life in Manhattan. After eight years as a diocesan priest in Patterson, New Jersey, he could no longer lead a life of public and intellectual duplicity. Ordained in 1959, he had followed in the footsteps of Tolstoy’s Fr. Mikhail Vvedensky in The Forged Coupon. In Tolstoy’s words, Vvedensky “had run the whole course of a religious academic and therefore had long since ceased to believe in what he preached and professed.” Hall compares himself to the Basque priest in Miguel de Unamuno’s 1933 novel, St. Emmanuel the Good, Martyr. In that story, Fr. Emmanuel confesses to an atheist friend that he has lost his faith but will continue his ministry for the sake of those parishioners who need to believe in heaven. But as Humphrey Bogart finds in The Left Hand of God, posing as a priest even for the good of others can get tougher when beauty enters the picture. After meeting his future wife in Greenwich Village, Hall resolves to leave the priesthood. It was the famous summer of love.

And you can’t but be happy for him. Before meeting the beautiful Marianne Gsell, Hall’s story is pretty depressing: years of tortured scrupulosity, reinforced by a sadistic pastor; a seminary education that stifled both Hall’s emotional and intellectual development; and, finally, the solitary experience of a young priest, overworked and emotionally unsupported. While not as artfully told as Paul Hendrickson’s 1983 Seminary: A Search, Hall’s memoir makes clear why his idealism and heroic acts of the will fail him once he is assigned to parish ministry. Gradually, his über-doubt, which first surfaced in a seminary class meant to prove the existence of God, erupts full-blown and strangles every remaining trace of belief. All that’s left is the likable curate’s drive for personal integrity and fulfillment. Today Hall is a distinguished professor of literature at the City University of New York and a renowned authority on Anthony Trollope.

Back on the other side of the continent, Cordano is experiencing his own boot camp. He describes whipping himself, which was part of the spiritual exercises practiced in his seminary. Like Hall, he recounts the rote classes that passed for theological education and the boredom, rigor, and self-sacrifice required to reach his priestly goal. “I’m surprised I got through [it],” he remarks. “I would not wish my experience on anybody.”

What saves Cordano, both theologically and emotionally, is his assignment to higher studies and his membership in a religious community. His graduate studies open a new understanding of Scripture to him, and with that comes a more mature grasp of faith and spirituality. He admits that without these he might have become an ultraconservative and resisted the changes of Vatican II. He arrives at a new understanding of spiritual discipline: “Instead of denying yourself to begin with, you must first fall in love with God,” he observes. He reads Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Raymond Brown, and David Tracy. Later he welcomes Hans Küng and César Chávez to his seminary, travels to Central America, where he observes the work of the Christian base communities, and, as pastor, fosters lay study and involvement.

Cordano’s real trial by fire comes in the critical years following the council. As theological rector, he attempts to balance the forces for change, the need for continuity, and the turmoil of the 1960s. He is caught in a pincer movement by the conflicting views among his superiors, faculty, and students. Speaking of his fellow priests and faculty who left at the time-some of whom were his vocal adversaries-he remarks graciously: “All of these friars had their personal reasons to leave, and I respect that. These were challenging times for all of us.” But Cordano’s greatest sorrow is his later discovery that some of his fellow Franciscans had sexually molested minors. His compassion for the victims seems genuine; his care for his lost brothers is poignant and searing.

Cordano remains a priest after more than fifty years, in large part because he was able to deepen his intellectual and spiritual grounding, and because, as a professor and pastor, he became friends with a variety of believers and nonbelievers. Looking back, he concludes that “gradually I became much happier and content with my life.”

After eight years as a popular parish priest, Hall followed his heart and his reason to married life and to an academic career. He, too, has found contentment, but as an apostle of nonbelief. His memoir is written to convince others that the only adequate assessment of the human condition is acceptance of a complete and final void. Such an approach ends up being both self-limiting and self-fulfilling.

Published in the 2007-11-23 issue: 

Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

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