Not Your Typical Love Story
In his moving memoir “Vows,” Peter Manseau explores the lives of his parents—a former nun and a priest who married but refused to renounce his orders.
By David Nantais
I once was a Jesuit pursuing ordination, until I fell in love with a woman and had to make the agonizing choice between marriage and my vocation. Leaving the Jesuits was probably the most difficult thing I have ever done; I was treated like an outcast by some of the men who had called me their “brother.” Yet even as I experienced the pain of condemnation and rejection, I rejoiced in the exhilaration of love and the sacred gift of intimacy with another human being.
In his personal memoir “Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun and Their Son,” Peter Manseau has managed to capture the odd emotional cocktail of heartache, fear, and relief that comes with leaving celibate religious life. This is not your typical love story: Manseau’s parents, Fr. Bill Manseau and Sr. Mary Doherty, met when they were ministers in Boston, during the heady days immediately following Vatican II. Both were swept up in the fervor of the late 60s, a time of unparalleled political, social and religious institutional change, and their mutual passion for justice eventually led to a blossoming passion for each other.
Their decision to wed caused a major scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston. The backlash that Manseau recounts in his book is startling—lay Catholics and priests joined in their condemnation of his parents’ union, particularly when, in a protest of the celibacy laws, Fr. Bill refused to resign as a priest. Getting married and retaining his priesthood, he imagined, would certainly be the catalyst for change the Church needed to clear the cobwebs of outmoded tradition from its stale sanctuaries. Somewhat naïve, perhaps, but Bill Manseau, as the book describes, lived and ministered from his heart—a heart that was drawn toward both ordained ministry and an exclusive relationship with a woman.
“Vows” works well on a number of levels. It is a poignant love story with fascinating plot twists, highlighting the complexities of the human condition. Sometimes euphoric, sometimes heart-wrenching, the Manseaus’ love affair is one that has lasted, despite the daunting obstacles that were put in its path from the very beginning.
“Vows” also serves as a case study of the beginning of the demise of urban ethnic Catholicism. As more Catholics moved out of cities across the urban north, church attendance decreased and inner-city Catholic ministers found themselves working with a mostly African American non-Catholic population. Fr. Bill and Sr. Mary embraced these changes with gusto, both desiring to minister to the black community, to which they felt God was calling the church.
A key thread running through “Vows” is Manseau’s account of the Boston priest sex scandal. Without giving too much away, the author illustrates how the explosive chapter painfully affected the lives of the entire Manseau family, leaving him questioning his faith.
Manseau is an exquisite writer. He immersed himself in his parents’ past lives so completely that his descriptions of their childhoods and early life together read like an eye-witness account. As the subtitle indicates, the book is also about his own life, noting that the Church that refused to recognize his parents’ marriage also denied the legitimacy of their offspring. “More precisely,” Manseau writes, “among the many classes of bastardi referred to in canon law (the children of prostitutes, the children of incestuous relations, etc.) I was ‘ex damnato coitu.’ Born ‘from a damned union.’”
It’s hardly surprising, then, that such an unpleasant beginning turned Manseau off to the church at an early age, though his interests in spiritual matters only grew. In college, he studied Hebrew and comparative religion, and he even seriously contemplated monastic life. Though he’s often irreverent, Manseau just can’t seem to shake the “religion thing.” Today he edits his popular website Killing the Buddha—“a religion magazine for people made nervous by churches.”
“Vows” certainly raises the issue of priestly celibacy and the frustrations that this questionable tradition imposes on the faithful. For Catholics like Bill Manseau and me, who dearly desire to serve others in a clerical capacity, the church offers no way to intimately connect with a woman and at the same time fulfill our calling as God’s ministers. “Vows” highlights the painful irony that while the Catholic Church can embrace a positive outlook regarding so many aspects of the world, its attitude toward sexuality is still plagued by a centuries-long battle with dualism that does more to destroy than uplift the human spirit.
Following one’s heart can sometimes put one in conflict with established rules and the people who find comfort in them. As I experienced when deciding to depart the Jesuits, not everyone can rejoice when a Christian follows their true calling to honor their deepest God-given desires. Kudos to Bill Manseau and Mary Doherty Manseau for having the courage to follow their hearts, and to their son, born of a holy union, for having the courage to tell us about it.
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A former Jesuit, David Nantais is director of the “Magis” program for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Midwest. His last essay for SoMA was A Taste of Homelessness.
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