Msgr Nick Hartery

(creator: Dennis Burke)

Dennis Burke
The Rev Monsignor (Nick) Hartery is 43 years old. He sees himself as "not unhandsome in a life battered way: chiselled Bogart's face, sun wrinkled eyes. But, God, he felt old." He knows he is in the running to become a bishop. "The only thing he had ever wanted to be was a good priest but two years as Chancellor (of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles) with Quinlan, the old arch(bishop), and he got the taste for power." But the new Archbishop Tierney had had him replaced by the obsequious Msgr. Richard Duryea, and Hartery did not like this new regime. "Though he kept all the rules he wasn't a holy priest and he didn't kid himself that he was .... If holiness was a race as St Paul phrased it then he was somewhere in the middle of the pack." While at college, he had fallen in love with Terry, a fellow student who had eventually become Mother Christina of the Sacred Heart Sisters, and he still has much more than a soft spot for her.

Dennis (J) Burke (1932-2009) was born in Los Angeles, California, where he was a priest for eleven years. After leaving the priesthood in the late 1960s ("I had struggled for years with my vow of celibacy"), he married Margie, an ex nun whose religious community had just been suppressed. (She was to die thirty years later from breast cancer.) They had a son, Paul. He became head of human resources worldwide for the Digital Equipment Corporation, co-founder of an international training company, and a management consultant in the Silicon Valley.

He wrote articles for the Washington Post, Commonweal and The Catholic World, and, after failing to get his suspense novels published ("I am not a well-known author because I specialize in unpublished novels"), he self-published the crime novel Clerical Errors (review below). From 1996 to 2006 he worked with prisoners in San Quentin, the most famous of California's prisons, acting as a sort of unofficial chaplain, and wrote the moving book Doing Time: Finding Hope at San Quentin, based on his experiences there. He lived in California with his second wife, Patty. For the last few years of his life he had been suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), a form of motor neurone disease.

Clerical Errors (2007)
Clerical Errors tells how Monsignor Nick Hartery is "promised" an auxiliary bishop's hat by Cardinal Tierney if he makes the scandalous suicide of Danny Hall, a young ex-priest, "go away". Hartery soon discovers that the handsome ex-priest was not only gay but murdered, and that the self-serving Monsignor Duryea, the current Chancellor and his long-term rival, is somehow involved. Hartery, himself still in love with Mother Christina (whom he had known as Terry since college days, although "they hadn't been through the sex thing") and driven by ambition, sets about pursuing the killer, helped by Catherine Yacenda, a Mexican Mystic and ex-nun.

It makes an intriguing story with very realistic characters, set in a background with which the author was obviously very familiar. He too had had to put up with a conniving cardinal, and he too had fallen in love with a nun. And, like Danny Hall, he too was an ex-priest and knew just what it felt like to be rejected by former colleagues. And the nun, whom the author was to marry, had, like the Sacred Heart Sisters in this story, been one of "a progressive community of nuns trying to modernise their lifestyles and dress", who had also been shut down by the church authorities."
"Our sisters are really beyond compromise," Terry tells Hartery. "The real issue isn't modern dress or any of those things .... The real issue is whether the final decisions about women will continue to be made by men."

As you might expect, the background life of the priest is very well described. "Priests were almost immune to death. They anointed it and buried it a couple times a week. But every once in a while a rare strain of it brought them down: the murder of a friend." And it is gay Danny who told his partner, "I'm an outcast. I'm in sin. And I feel so guilty. I can't face God in prayer. I can't talk to my brother priests or parishioners. Because I'm living a lie .... I've got to get away from the priesthood. It's tearing me apart."

When Hartery went to confession and admitted that he had been unable to stop himself kissing Terry in the kitchen, the old priest's response was: "It could have been worse."
"How?" Hartery asked.
"It could have been the bedroom."
But "the priest didn't absolve him of his feelings. They were still there. More alive than ever."

Although much of the story takes the form of a flashback, for once this works really well and it holds the interest throughout. And the characters, ranging from the unscrupulous Durya to the racist cardinal and the oily papal legate are really brought to life, and all their unscrupulous wheeling and dealing seems only too convincing. It may not be a very flattering picture of the upper echelons of the Catholic Church, but you feel that the author knew what he was talking about.

Hartery himself seems a real man, not just a figurehead priest, as when the cardinal illegally imposes a surprise visitation on the nuns and Hartery confronts Bishop Stahl and the two priests with him. "You're finished now, Bishop," Hartley said, suddenly unable to contain himself: the words just popping out. "You are violating canon law."
Stahl's jaw slacked. His mouth opened in surprise. Once you became a bishop you would never have a cold meal or hear the truth again, priests joked. But Stahl had heard the truth this night and it shocked him ." He "looked desperate then he seemed to shrivel under Hartery's stare. He glanced at Sister Alicia and the two priests who were almost cowering now and eager to leave. Ever so slightly the bishop shrugged his resignation then made a bead from the door." As for Hartery, "He wondered what the hell had happened. He had just expelled a bishop and he felt stupid, unholy. For the guilt was going off like an alarm in his head, swirling furiously around inside him - But he had to take a stand for the sisters, Terry's sisters."

Right at the end, Hartery (like the author himself) has to face up to the imminent prospect of his own death. And again, like the author ( as he tells us in Doing Time) he falls back on the one word prayer: "God, he repeated slowly with each breath, God, God, God, until he was in The Presence in some dim, wordless way and all his anxieties and hopes were out of his own hands .... Pride made a man become a priest. The desire to be different, special, superior: a man singled out from men to moil in the business of God. But, like a gravity force, life ground a man down until he learned he was clay. And now, finally, Hartery was resigned to that truth. For the prospect of dying focused a man: made the wall between this world and the next disappear .... He half rose from his bed with a splitting pain in his chest. Punishment for his irreverence maybe that this was it. He was smiling for his mother and all the saints would meet him. All those changed, risen bodies with faces full of glory. And he thought what a crazy time the sixties were, what a crazy time. But it would make sense, he knew, when they all came together at last to make merry in the kingdom."

It is a profound and suspenseful story, and leaves you wondering about the author's numerous unpublished novels. Perhaps they did not share this convincing ecclesiastical background. But this one seems to be written from the heart, and is to be recommended.

There is very little about the author on the web except for a review of Doing Time on the National Catholic Reporter site.

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Clerical Affairs cover
This book was self-published by Xlibris Corporation, who print copies to order.
Doing Time cover
This is a moving account of the author's experiences as a prison chaplain, and also contains some interesting autobigraphical material that I have used in my summary of the author's life.
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