You may remember that a few months ago, I reviewed a Peter Manseau book called Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter. You many also remember that, after meeting him, I was thoroughly enchanted by this soft-spoken man with a talent of gracefully weaving disparate words and concepts together into blanket that you want to snuggle into on a cold day. This particular talent, that of blending the dissimilar, is almost the subject of his book Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, a heartbreaking look into the lives of two people who refuse to choose between reaching for a more spiritual plane and raising a family.
Vows is a sweeping memoir that endeavors not only the history of a family, but also of the Boston Catholic Church and the city of Boston itself. Manseau shows us that these three elements—the family, the Church, and Boston-- could not exist independent of each other. Without the Church, neither of Manseaus would have begun their religious journeys. Without the rough areas of Boston, neither of them would have met. And without the family, the Boston clergy would never have been forced to take a look at the centuries-old practice of holy celibacy.
Manseau’s book made me look at Catholicism as I never had before. For a Jew, I thought I was pretty educated about the history and practices of the Catholic Church, having spent more time at mass than at synagogue throughout my time in college. Yet Manseau opened my eyes to the rather mundane reason for priestly celibacy (it’s easier to maintain control of the Church when you don’t have to apportion bits of it to a priest’s heirs), how the child abuse scandals of the Boston diocese affected Boston Catholics, and to the fact that there are far more married priests than you would expect.
Vows is proof that you can find a touching beauty and devotion to a religion, yet still push for improvement and basic human rights. No matter how poorly the Church treated the Manseaus, they continued to worship with the zeal of the truly religious and so find faith in humanity in the basic tenets of their belief. If only all of us could work to truly change things that have potential, instead of throwing our hands up in disgust and abandoning it all together.
Author's Note: I should tell you that I wrote this review before this global scandal about abuse within the Catholic Church struck. Vows actually covers quite a bit of the Boston abuse scandal (it affected the family in ways I won't mention here) and how the training of priests affects the young men sexually. If you want to gain some context for the stories you read in the news, I suggest that you pick up this book.