Ralph McInerny (1929 - 2010) was a first rate scholar and a popular author. From 1955 until his retirement, McInerny was Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame University and was the author of over twenty non-fiction books. As a popular author, McInerny was the author of over seventy novels. Today, he is best known as a mystery writer, being the author of the popular “Father Dowling” mystery series.
The author biography in the back of the book under consideration says “Ralph McInerny has written several novels, including The Priest, which find their themes in the groves of academe and the often comic, sometimes tragic, commotion that plagues the post-conciliar Church. He is also the author of the very popular Father Dowling mystery series.”
Connolly’s Life (1983) was definitely written as an excuse for Professor McInerny to discuss the “commotion that plagues the post-conciliar Church.” Michael Connolly is a priest and dissident Catholic theologian who has presumably just died in the crash of a commercial airliner. The novel is narrated by Jim Clark, a former classmate of Connolly’s at a minor seminary in Wisconsin and one of Connolly’s best friends.
Clark dropped out of seminary and joined the Marine Corps while Connolly continued his seminary studies and became a priest. As a professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Connolly has become a theologically liberal theologian who writes and teaches against the official teachings of the Catholic Church on issues of faith and morals.
The novel is written in the first person and is narrated by Clark, who is currently living in Rome while he writes adventure stories for boys and cavorts with Maria, his young college age girlfriend. Clark has just gotten word that Connolly has died in an airplane crash and is making plans to fly to the U.S. to attend the funeral. We find out that Clark had been married to Nancy, a former Franciscan nun, who left the convent during the tumultuous 1960s. After the death of their young son, Clark’s marriage to Nancy began to fall apart. Clark is sent to Rome to cover the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council as a correspondent for Alleluia, a progressive Catholic periodical. While Clark attends the council sessions, Nancy stays in their apartment in Rome and paints. Connolly is also in Rome reporting on the Council for the liberal Catholic press.
One day when Clark comes home early, he catches Connolly leaving his and Nancy’s apartment. Convinced that they are having an affair, Clark abandons Nancy in Rome and leaves for the States. Rumor has now reached Clark that, despite his vow of celibacy as a Catholic priest, Connolly is a regular over-night visitor at Nancy’s apartment in Washington, D.C.
Leaving Maria in Rome at his apartment, Clark travels to Washington. Unable to find a hotel room, Clark is forced to stay with ex-wife. Clark then flies to Wisconsin where he attends Connolly’s funeral on the grounds of the former Catholic seminary which has now been sold to Fundamentalist Protestants. After visiting Connolly’s sister who is a cloistered Carmelite nun, Clark flies to New York to meet with his agent who tells him that there is no more market for the kind of adventure stories for boys that he writes.
Thinking that he has merely misplaced them, Clark is unable to find his passport and credit cards. Traveling back to Washington, Clark checks into a seedy hotel room and goes back to see Nancy who tells him that Connolly is not dead and that he has been to her apartment.
Unable to get in touch with Maria, Clark telephones her mother who tells Clark that Maria is very sick and in the hospital. Rushing back to Rome, Clark finds out that Maria has lied to her parents by telling them that she was sick in order to get her father to send her more money. Instead Maria’s father has come to Rome to check on her. Clark meets Maria’s father who is Clark’s age or a little younger.
Clark is confronted by Austin, Maria’s former boyfriend. Austin is mentally unstable and threatens to kill Clark if he doesn’t leave Maria. Austin repeatedly makes threatening phone calls to Clark’s apartment and confronts Clark on the street where they engage in a fist fight with Clark getting the best of Austin.
Meanwhile, Clark is trying to re-invent himself as an author and write a mystery novel. Furey, a right-wing traditionalist Catholic, offers Clark a $20,000 advance to write a tell all biography of Connolly. Not really wanting to accept, but desperate for money, Clark accepts the advance. Clark then runs into some old friends, an English couple named Ian and Milly. Ian and Milly own a house in the Italian countryside. A ruined medieval monastery is located on the property. Ian and Milly invite Clark to move there and write while they are out of the country.
Clark moves to Ian and Milly’s country estate and gets to work on his biography of Connolly. Coming home one afternoon during a pouring rain storm, Clark finds the guest house where is living ransacked and then the tires on his car are slashed. Shortly after this, Connolly shows up.
Connolly explains to Clark how he "died." Connolly tells Clark that, wanting a drink before getting on his flight, he left the gate and went to the airport lounge. He left his carry on bag in a chair at the gate his flight was leaving from. At the bar, a woman suffered a seizure and collapsed asking for a priest. Connolly has not worn a clerical collar in years and was dressed in a suit and tie. He tried to administer the last rites to the woman but could not remember any of the prayers. Finally, he was pushed away from the woman by others to make way for the airport chaplain.
Overwhelmed by the feeling that his priesthood has been a sham and a lie, Connolly forgets about his flight and checks into the airport Hilton. Going back to the Gate, Connolly discovered that his bag was gone but someone else’s bag that looks the same was still there. The next morning, Connolly turned on the television news and found out that the flight he was supposed to be on crashed and there were no survivors. Apparently, the remains of the passenger who accidentally took Connolly’s bag was identified as Connolly.
Connolly now becomes a penitent. He begins to say Mass everyday in his hotel room and anonymously attends Mass at the airport chapel. He comes to the realization that all of his erudite theological writings are empty and that he has abandoned the simple, true faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which he once believed in.
“I no longer ask myself what the Church should do in the modern world or how me must learn the lessons of modernity. . . . I do not think of liberal or conservative positions on this or that. The underground chapel makes such contrasts puerile. Why do people go down there? To receive the body and blood of Christ. Why? Because he died for our sins. And rose again from the dead on the third day. My writings are a mockery of their faith.”
Connolly visited Nancy in her apartment where he found Clark's passport and credit cards. He has been traveling using Clark's passport and paying his way on Clark's credit cards. Connolly tells Clark that he wants to stay dead and buried so that he can pray in privacy. Clark suggests that Connolly stay at the ruined abbey and act as Ian and Milly’s caretaker.
The ending of Connolly’s Life is predictable melodrama. Clark finds his young girlfriend, Maria, swimming in the pool in her bra and panties. Even though Clark repeatedly claims that he wants to get rid of Maria, he almost immediately jumps in bed with her. Clark sees Maria’s crazy former boyfriend Austin. After telling Connolly to be careful, Clark and Maria take off on foot for the nearest village. After reaching the town, Clark puts Maria on the bus back to Rome and gets a taxi ride back to the estate. Mistaking Connolly for Clark, Connolly has been murdered by Austin. Rather than calling the police and inviting a lot of unpleasant questions, Clark buries Connolly out at the ruined monastery. Nancy flies to Rome and is met by Clark who drives her out to the Abbey. Clark convinces Nancy that Connolly truly is dead. Nancy now believes that Connolly appeared to her after his death. The novel ends with Clark and Nancy by the pool overlooking the ruined Abbey and Connolly’s grave.
Long out of print, Connolly’s Life is really only of interest to those who are interested in the history and politics of the Catholic Church. Professor McInerny loved the Catholic Church and was deeply disturbed by the turmoil in the Church in the years following Vatican II. McInerny was a good writer and this novel is fast paced and well plotted. Connolly’s Life is a good “Catholic Novel.” The Bad Catholic gives Connolly’s Life three and a half crucifixes.