Make no mistake, Father Tierney Stumbles is a brave book that takes on not only the Catholic priesthood, but the subject of HIV positive priests—a topic with a multitude of fascinating aspects, even for a dyed-in-the-wool atheist. And it is a much needed book because it addresses issues many people haven’t thought of. I just wish it had been a better book.
Well-respected, handsome Father Joe Tierney is diagnosed as HIV positive after a fling with a young man, facing not only the implicit horrors of the disease along with its social and personal implications, but the loss of his parish and stature in the Catholic community. And his timing is lousy as well—a local reporter has just caused a commotion by publishing an article about AIDS among the city’s priests. Does Father Tierney bear these burdens stoically alone, keeping silent as an investigation goes on around him? Or should he come out publicly, putting a very human face on the problem? And if he comes out, what happens next?
Father Tierney Stumbles has some marvelous moments of poignancy and some heart-wrenching truths, especially in the scenes that take place in a secretive discussion group of HIV positive clergymen, where all bare their souls and share useful medical information. The plot also balances the personal aspect with just the right amount of church intrigue, not bogging down as Father Tierney (and his boss, Bishop Healy) make their respective decisions.
It’s the character of Father Tierney that I have some trouble with. He is lightly sketched rather than well-drawn, the most obvious flaw being that why he has stumbled is never dealt with in any depth. I understand that he has stumbled, but knowing why—what was missing from his life or from his faith that made him seek out the younger Kenny—would have helped me with not only how he reacts to his diagnosis but how he proceeds from there. Even more details as to his family life would have helped. We get to see the pieces of this puzzle, but we never understand how they all fit together.
Shekelton is far more successful with Angela Roth, the diocese’s PR and communications person and Pascal LaVigne, Tierney’s best friend. These characters are more realized, not suffering from the muddied telling instead of showing that troubles Tierney for me. Still, the entire book has an oddly distanced feel and seems to have little passion considering the intensity of the subject.
The problem with this is that these two are not the main character. It’s Tierney the book is named after so, ultimately, Tierney must be final yardstick by which it’s judged. And it falls short of the mark. Still, if you’re interested in the Catholic church and its reaction to the subject of gay priests, you might find this worthwhile.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler