Saturday, July 6, 2002

Book review: ‘At the Crossroads’ by Frankie Schelly

Book cover: "At the Crossroads" by Frankie Schelly
 In my review of The Compassionate Rebel — Energized by Anger, Motivated by Love, I mentioned Vincent Rush, a Catholic priest who, in 1968, advocated to his parishioners the supremacy of conscience over Church prohibitions against the use of birth control.

The dichotomy between individual conscience and religious doctrine is at the crux of At the Crossroads (FireSign Exclusives, 2001), a novel by Frankie Schelly.

The novel concerns four nuns — Vivian Tiamet, Mary Ruth, Kimberly and Sister Dominic — who are members of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and operate a Catholic school and convent in Sleeder, Ill. All of them, during the course of the novel, face difficult choices between obedience and personal belief.

The book is positioned as a story of conflict between Church teachings and feminist values, but I think this is unnecessarily limiting. The issue of acting according to one’s free will transcends any one particular social movement or ideology. Likewise, Schelly’s book has much to offer to people outside of the target readership that is suggested by its promotional focus.

Schelly told me that her book has been made even more pertinent in view of the priestly power abuse scandal. Certainly, each day seems to bring new revelations of financial mismanagement or ongoing sexual transgressions by priests with the collusion of superiors through reassignment from parish to parish.

Fallout from these acts has had a ripple effect that transcended immediate victims to encompass entire communities — of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

I never expected to see a former mentor of mine brought to trial and convicted for sexually molesting minors. I didn’t expect the number of professed victims that spoke up during the trial. I didn’t expect to hear Father Don Kimball say, on national television no less, that he hadn’t taken his oath of celibacy seriously. And I didn’t expect the doubts that would arise about Father Don’s past behavior to me, given what emerged during trial testimony about his ”grooming” of victims.

Repercussions in the Santa Rosa Diocese didn’t just affect me, however. In 1999, the diocese’ assorted financial troubles forced the closing of the Holy Family Catholic School in Lakeport. But I rather think that its loss was a “fortunate fall,” as Milton of “Paradise Lost” fame put it. As the “Good Shepherd Ecumenical Academy,” the school now has the resources and energies of several Christian denominations behind it.

Certainly, these experiences made it easy for me to relate to the drama presented in Schelly’s book.

If there is one flaw in this novel, it is that Schelly — who attended women’s Catholic high school and college — occasionally makes references to events and doctrines in the Catholic tradition that may not be readily understood by a larger readership.

For instance, “Vatican II” is the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which opened in 1962 under Pope John XXIII and was closed by Pope Paul VI in 1965. Its task was to determine ways in which the Church could present itself to modern-day society.

Likewise, when Kimberly tells her friend Brenda that the pope has a “loophole” through which he can reverse the Church’s ban on birth control, I could only guess, after researching the subject, that she was referring to the findings of the Birth Control Commission, which was established by Pope John XXIII and met from 1963 to 1966.

I realize that for Schelly to have provided a lengthy explanation for every reference to Catholic tradition would have weakened and burdened the narrative structure of her story. Still, unless I didn’t read the book carefully enough, I found my lack of familiarity with these events to interfere with my ability to fully comprehend Schelly’s references to them.

Altogether, At the Crossroads presents an intimate look at four women’s struggles to reconcile free will with Church teaching. Their individual journeys lead them in startling and unexpected directions that present for compelling and thought-provoking reading.

Published June 6, 2002 in the Lake County Record-Bee