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Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son Paperback – October 17, 2006
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Peter Manseau's deeply personal memoir is a meditation on family, church, faith and self. Oh, and God too. The story of rejecting the faith you are given, only to embrace it again in some form (or at least make peace with it) may seem familiar, but lost within the loving detail of Manseau's writing the reader discovers it anew. A spirit of tenderness and generosity permeates the pages of this story, but always leavened by unflinching honesty, the salt that keeps the flavor from the first page to the last. Manseau brings us into his sense of wonder as he traces the journey of his priest-father and his nun-mother who, if they had stayed true to their initial calling into the Catholic church, would have ensured he and his siblings never came to exist. Vows also brings us into the strong Boston Catholic culture of half a century ago, and near its end we find an unexpected left turn into the very heart of the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman church in 2005. But however intrinsic to the book these elements are, they only inform the story, and never overwhelm it. Primarily, as he traces the journey first of his parents, and then himself, we are left with a sense of joy over seeing how life itself tends unruly and writes its own story while we are busy making our plans. And though religion itself is on every page of the book, in forms both personal and institutional, the heart of the book is its humanity.--Ed Dobeas --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
The title says it all: a twin set of Catholic dreams and ideals gone awry—or holding fast, depending on what angle you're looking from. Manseau's memoir returns to the 1950s, the early years of his parents' devotion to the Church, and their eventual straying. Lawlor gives a solid reading of Manseau's story, which aches with the tenderness of a son's love for his parents. His voice occupies only a small range, shifting slightly to indicate emotion, affect or the speech of others, but adequately gets out of the way of Manseau's narrative. He chooses not to attempt the inimitable Boston accent of the book's characters, for the most part, wisely leaving the sound of their true voices to his listeners' imaginations. Lawlor stakes out a tone part nostalgic, part removed and part regretful, nicely duplicating the feel of Manseau's book and its conflicted feelings about the Church that so thoroughly dominated its protagonists' lives.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
The author's description of how each of his parents, Mary Doherty and William Manseau, came to their initial vocational choices is intriguing, products of the contemporary Catholic zeitgeist of Boston and its attendant pathologies. My sense throughout is that his future mother, Mary, was a more observant and detached chronicler of her early years and later formation. Perhaps this is to be expected, as she was one of the many victims of clerical abuse. Her particular case is painstakingly detailed in the diocesan records inserted in the appendix, but in the narrative itself her teenaged sufferings and physical violation are told with the deeply unnerving twist of a Hitchcock tale. She entered the convent in 1958 out of high school. Wounded as she was, religious life brought some measure of safety, if not healing, for a time. A decade later she would eventually leave the convent, not in a fever of lust or a loss of religious faith, but with the growing realization that the Church--or at least her garden patch of it--was something of a rigged game, and she had had enough. Her sensitivity to subtle institutional abuse remained keen.
Her future husband is portrayed as more focused, single-minded, and idealistic. Likewise entering the seminary after high school in 1953, he progressed through Cardinal Cushing's clerical mill as a straight arrow until in his later formative years he describes through his biographer/son an awaking or radicalization from his exposure to the writings of Hans Kung and other new breed theologians, which he perused surreptitiously as seminary librarian. Ordained in the early 1960's the elder Manseau embraced Holy Orders intensely as a servant of the people, soon to discover that this would put some distance between himself and many of his colleagues, and eventually to conclude the priesthood of his visions would be best lived in conjugal context.
The Senior Manseau, like many priests of his day who married, never formally disengaged from clerical status through laicization and lived off the Christian ministerial landscape in mostly Protestant settings, while working feverishly in networks of married priests such as CORPUS for a change in Church discipline. His wife, for her part, desired the traditional supportive faith of her childhood and viewed her husband's quixotic search for ecclesiastical recognition with resignation, and later with some frustration as the family's primary bread winner. She hosted the liturgies and barbecues of her husband's colleagues and their families on Saturday nights, while attending Mass at the local parish the next morning and putting her children through CCD.
Given that the biographer is the couple's son, there are some understandable gaps in the narrative. We learn little of what brought this couple to seek sexual intimacy. Having walked away from the security of the clerical life, it is never clear if the marital transition brought the elder Manseau what he was looking for. Sadly, the author's father seemed to suffer from bouts of intolerance with his son's own intransigence and rebellion on matters of faith. After three children and several decades of marriage, William Manseau's chief passion seems to be canonical recognition of his status on his terms under later bishops Lennon and O'Malley. [Clericalism under any other name...?] Mary Doherty Manseau, on the other hand, chooses to address the genuine dragons of her existence in a fashion that is equally painful and satisfying to read. The author's own search for religious meaning under such unusual parentage is itself an intriguing part of this account.
There is considerable historical value to this work in the light of subsequent developments in recent Church history. In the first instance the reader gets a glimpse of Catholic mores and culture in mid-century Boston and probably other well established sees in the Northeast. Both the priest and the nun are the products of their time, reinforced by the strength of parental devotion and regrettably at times parental passivity or lack of common sense. Both of these young Catholics are profoundly influenced by the personnel of their Catholic Church. It is up to the reader to assign guilt as one sees fit for the shortcomings of the priests in this family history, and Church leaders whose gifts in that age did not include detachment.
Secondly, it is impossible to digest this work without thoughts about a married priesthood. I have to give credit to the author for his remarkable restraint on this question. As the son of a married priest [canonical questions notwithstanding] he lays out for our consideration the problems that any man or woman--consumed by vocational passion--will inevitably encounter in attempting to serve two distinct sacramental vocations with distinction. Perhaps given his own vocational discernment process and its outcome, the son has indeed learned an important lesson from his father's pilgrimage.
The first years of training demanded blind obedience to the rules of the religious orders without any questioning from the canidates. There was not this great "welcoming" activity by other religious but one of silence and internal prayer. Idle talk was discouraged and movements about the buildings had to have a purpose.
The book details the love that two indiviuals had not only for each other but in doing God's work outside the religious house. They drifted apart from the church for religious restrictions did not encourage the long hours working with youth or persons in need of help. They realized that to do God's will they must separate themselves from religious life.
There is a theme throught that the priest still had a longing for being an accepted member of the clergy and goes at great lengths secure or acknowlede his status with church leaders.
A must read book that delves into the mind of clerical thinking, personal ambitions and conflict with authority.
Manseau's memoir was one of the thirty or so primary texts I read for my thesis on the spiritual lives of Catholics in their twenties and thirties. While many in this sample were well-written, few were as pleasurable to read as Vows. And no other matched it in potency.
In spite of his ostensibly hallowed provenance (as the son of a priest and a nun), Manseau's story turns out to be one told by contemporary young adult Catholics from all over the U.S. (though the bleak Boston backdrop adds a certain pathos to this one). It is the story of a developmental journey from childhood enchantment with the faith, to distance and disillusionment in emergent adulthood, to a post-critical revisioning of one's Catholic heritage in young adulthood.
For anyone who is interested in the faith lives of contemporary young Catholics, or who simply enjoys reading powerful spiritual autobiography, Vows will not disappoint.
This is no attack from the outside. Manseau is not an iconoclast for the sake of iconoclasm. Rather he tells the story of the love of his parents and their love of the Church, loving it so much they needed to betray some of its historical dictates in the hopes of creating something even more profound.
It also portrays the complexity of the 1960's as period in which individuals were exploring opportunities to make institutional changes through thoughtful, intellectual challenges. This view is often lost among the clichés of flowerchildren and stock footage of Woodstock.
And lastly, Manseau also pulls off a neat trick, managing to be funny and irreverent without ever losing respect for his subject. Who would think that you could refer to St. Augustine as "Mr. Singing-Farts," with all the honor and esteem due a Doctor of the Church?
It is an exceptional work.