Father Peter Wagner

(creator: J Stephen Russell)


John Russell
Father Peter J Wagner was a 48-year-old who had been a "respectable" priest for 22 of them. At the start of this story, he is "acting pastoral administrator" at St Kevin's Catholic Church on Long Island.

He had previously spent the first five years of his priesthood as an assistant at St Anthony's in Huntington where "the teenagers idolized him, with his long hair and beard; the ladies' club wanted to mother him .... and the schoolkids thought he was really swell." Peter found that he loved to preach but was also quite prepared to take on all the boring book-keeping that his pastor preferred to avoid.

His bishop had then sent him to St Ursula's in Westbury to save a parish that was "graying. The school was shrinking, laying off lay teachers and desperately trying to stay open", and everything was hopelessly old-fashioned - and there was nothing that the pastor, who had been there for thirty years, seemed able to do about it. Many people in the district were Spanish-spealing immigrants so, over twelve years there, Peter once again did what he could with the church's finances and tried to help transform "a cranky old-world parish to a vibrant, teeming, chaotic iglesia con salsa", although, when it came to the new congregation, he found he couldn't really "preach to them and joke with them because he had too little Espanol and too much self-consciousness".

Then he was sent to St Kevin's where, thanks to five years hard work, he had again saved the church's finances, and hoped to take over from the dying monsignor - but the bishop had other ideas. The Cause is essentially the story of his self-discovery. He is an interesting and totally convincing character whose sheer determination makes him an effective detective. As a nun assures him, "You have a gift for detective work".

J(ohn) Stephen Russell was a native of Baltimore. He was awarded a BA at John Hopkins University, followed by a MA and then a PhD. He has been a member of the Hofstra University (Long Island, New York) English Department (where he is now a professor) since 1983, except for the period 2000-2007, when he helped establish and then served as the first Dean of Hofstra University Honors College.

His specialization is medieval culture, especially Middle English literature, philosophy, and music. Two of his books deal with medieval English poetry, most recently Chaucer and the Trivium. He is also the author of numerous articles and reviews on writers including Augustine of Hippo, Dante, Langland, the Pearl-Poet, Thomas More, John Skelton and others. The Cause (reviewed below) is his only venture into crime fiction. He tells me that, "I came to write The Cause after some thinking about two different things: on the spiritual level, the dynamic idea of holiness and how we hunger for it today. And on the level of entertainment, how interesting it would be to write a story about an unwilling, rather ordinary ìdetective." A second book with many of the same characters was, in May 2012, at a very early stage of preparation.

The Cause: A Story about Holiness (2009)
The Cause: A Story about Holiness starts in 1995 with an anti-abortion protest in Hempstead (Long Island), New York, when a pro-life protester, Lucy Maria Cuccio, is shot dead. The crime is investigated by the police but never solved.

Five years later, the Bishop of Long Island decides to begin a causis or cause, a set of preliminary investigations which could lead to Lucy Cuccio becoming a saint. To lead the investigation, he chooses less-than-enthusiastic Father Peter Wagner. Along with his team (that includes the lively, down-to-earth and skeptical Sister Mary Pat, who is the formidable Director of the Diocesan Office of Social Justice, and the pro-canonisation leader, the credulous Dominick Moro) Peter quickly discovers how impossible it is to know another human person, especially one who can be known only through blurry photos, scattered remnants, and foggy memories. Who shot Lucy Cuccio and why? If she were killed because she was a pro-life activist, then she is a martyr for life, a saint, but, if she were killed by a stray bullet or by an old boyfriend, she is simply a homicide victim. As they dig deeper, Father Peter and the others catch the attention of those responsible for Lucy's death, and these persons take various steps to discredit or stop the saint-hunters.

Peter is often far from self- confident: "I'm (just) a snob, a skeptic, and an accountant", he thinks. But, as he discovers more and more about the apparently unattractive Lucy, he starts to realise that if he "had once felt that Operation Lucy was somehow beneath him (and he had), he now felt that he was the unworthy one."

Even his sermon to "junior high schoolers" holds the interest. "It was fun to preach to them, Peter thought .... He had learned a
long time ago to keep it simple, short, and light .... Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em think. Be contemporary: connect the faith with happy, positive things and make them glad they came." But even then, things can go wrong, as when Peter was in the sacristy, about to change out of his robes, when Sister Alice, the school principal, knocked on the door and asked, "Could I see you for a moment, Father?"
"Sure, Alice," Peter said, with his purple chasuble over his head, "just let me get out of these clothes."
Then "Both of them heard the noise and it was unmistakeable. A hundred or so 12 year-olds' loud laughter and at least one horse whistle, followed by several desperate 'shushes'. Sister looked startled and then aghast. Then it hit Peter; he hadn't turned off his wireless mic and the seventh and eighth grades had some lurid image of his "getting out of these clothes" in front of the principal." It all makes lively reading.

All the characters, both saints and sinners, are convincingly described, as are locations such as the battered women's' home, Nazareth House, with its "plain but immaculate rooms" where, after being reluctantly admitted, "Peter began to feel a hint of the energy of the place, the power of a small, tenacious, even embattled little community" where the mere fact that he was a man "made him feel like an intruder" - but it was here that Lucy had once worked so he was determined to leave no stone unturned. And in the end he is convinced : "Lucy Cuccio was surely a good person - better than I am", but he still has to ask, "Was she any more than this?"

Peter sometimes thinks he is "a priest in name only. He fussed over his sermons while sleepwalking through the sacred liturgy of the Mass. He craved approval, loved the little jokes and the compliments on his oratory" but "he knew he had failed". He began "to think that the whole saint business, maybe even the whole business of the church - and that was what it was, baby: a business - was an empty relic of more believing times." But towards the end, he can pray, "Holy Mary, I feel stupid and empty. I know now that my life as the accountant-priest was a fake, and I know now that I have been given a new chance, a chance to serve in a real way, a chance to be genuine." And a genuine credible human being is certainly what he is. "Lucy's life had given grace: her cause had transformed him from a mediocre middle manager in a Roman collar to a person with a purpose." It is a convincing story that (despite some occasional odd Kindle spacing), I can really recommend.

There seems nothing about the author on the web beyond mentions of his university career and academic publications.



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The Cause
The book is self-published and only available on Kindle. It is amazingly cheap, another reason for recommending it, although it could do with a more catchy title.
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Holmes