How American Catholicism Was

THE EDGE OF SADNESS. By Edwin O’Connor (Loyola Press [Loyola Classics Series], 3441 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago, IL 60657, 1962/2005 reprint), 640 pp. PB $13.95.

Once upon a time, before the priest scandals, Catholicism in Boston was rampant with good ol’ Irish “Cat’lics” who looked at religion as an extension of their everyday lives. Families were proud of the priests in their ranks, all went to Mass daily, and all was right with the world.

This is the world of Edwin O’Connor’s Edge of Sadness. Reading this book brought me back to the San Francisco of my youth where, up until the mid-70s, San Francisco hosted a vibrant Catholic parish every two miles staffed with a handful of priests, a convent full of nuns and a parochial school. Back when Catholics were known by their parish, and thus their ethnic background—the Irish went to St. Cecilia, St. Brendan or Holy Name, the French went to Notre Dame and the Hispanics went to Mission Dolores. Back when priests and nuns received deference and support for their vocation. This book brought all that back to me.

But the thing that makes this book worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 1962 is the fact that O’Connor’s story is ageless. The characters are drawn from humanity, painted with the author’s word-brush so lovingly and carefully that by the end of the book you know each of these folks intimately. And, you like them, in spite of their less-than-virtuous actions.

The story centers around a native Bostonian priest, Father Hugh Kennedy, a recovering alcoholic who guides us through the joys and troubles of his life in late 1950s Irish Catholic Boston. Seeing all through the eyes of this humble pastor, the reader is introduced to wealthy first-generation Irish folks who made it big in America, political hopefuls, fellow priests and “outsiders” such as his Polish curate and a non-Irish, non-Bostonian bishop. The prejudices unveiled are humanely drawn; there’s something redeeming in every character, something that Father Hugh finds regardless of their overt actions. Through the book winds a thread of Father Hugh’s own self-examination, a thread that is tested and strengthened by every encounter—encounters which led Father Hugh just to the brink of despair, to the edge of sadness.

This book, although a hefty 600-plus pages, grips the reader from the first page. It reads quickly and elegantly as the humor and pathos of Catholic American life transcends the era and location in which the story is set. This book is a great read because it shows how American Catholicism was and how it can still be; how the Church is run by humans (who sometimes make mistakes) trying to minister to humans (who sometimes make mistakes)—all with God’s grace and beneficence helping us through. Loyola Classics has added ten provocative questions to the end of the book for the edification of the reader or to facilitate discussion within a book club.

This book, aside from taking me down memory lane, reminded me that in spite of the priest scandals and the well-documented troubles with American Catho1icism—troubles that can be laid to the accounts of both the religious and the lay people—the American Catholic Church is made up of humans, all created in God’s image and likeness and that it is my job (and that of every Catholic) to look on old friends and new acquaintances with the same charity I expect from each of them.

Mary C. Gildersleeve
Greenville, S.C.

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