Pittsburgher's 'Last Priest Standing' raises cup to challenges of priesthood
Three young men are out drinking beer. They share complaints about a common job and get into some mild trouble with the law.
That might sound like a typical Pittsburgh work of short fiction, except for the characters' jobs — they are all priests.
In “Last Priest Standing,” Richard Infante fulfills his other life calling. He was a disciple of William Faulkner while studying creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh — then “answered the call” and raised his Catholic faith to a vocational level.
After years of quiet service as pastor of Our Lady of Grace in the South Hills, Father Infante has become Author Infante. The lifelong Pittsburgher's “Last Priest Standing” recently became the first book published by Pittsburgh's Lambing Press.
Why this collection of stories for its debut?
Mike Aquilina, founder of the fledgling press, was fascinated by Infante's subject matter. The priests of the stories, Aquilina writes in the book's introduction, are “unmistakably male, and they're all too human. Yet they have a difference, and it's the special gift of the author to let us see it from the inside.
“He manages to reveal something of the mystery without sacrificing any of the mystique.”
The careful reader — or one informed by Aquilina's introduction — will note that the each of the seven stories of “Last Priest Standing” touches on a Catholic sacrament: Baptism, confession, communion, confirmation, orders, matrimony and anointing (also known as last rites).
Tales of sacraments might sound dull, but “Last Priest Standing” is hardly didactic, instead using action (young priests battling floodwaters to save a family), comedy (a chubby guy making a clumsy proposal — and his longtime girlfriend ignoring it) and, above all, conflict.
Infante follows his literary hero's advice, citing as inspiration Faulkner's “the human heart in conflict with itself” Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
“Last Priest Standing” does not shy away from the most torturous conflict of modern Catholicism. Though none of the priests in the stories are abusers, the topic is often on their minds.
“It was not so much important to address as necessary,” Infante says. “For any priest in North America over the last 25 years, this is hard not to have on your mind — because of the horrible nature of the crime.”
Most of the stories in “Last Priest Standing” have been previously published, the author explained from a modest office that features a chessboard, a Roberto Clemente-in-action photo and a crowded bookshelf (“The Birth of the Messiah,” “Book of Blessings”).
While talking to a visitor, Infante was constantly interrupted — questions about scheduling, where a choir practice was to meet, details about upcoming funerals …
“It's more like a marriage than a job,” Infante says of his rarely-off-the-clock career.
“With my busy schedule, I cannot write regularly,” he says with a smile. “I have to use my vacation time for writing.”
He says the turnout of 100 to hear a recent “Last Priest Standing” reading in Bridgeville was pleasing — and disorienting. After the reading, audience members talked to him as if he were a character in the book. “This is all fiction,” he says. “The stories really aren't about me.”
Even so, the tales give an intensely personal exploration of the vocation, with details of the charms and challenges of the priesthood.
In the story “Fields of Grace,” two priests — a veteran and his younger nephew — have an ugly argument that ranges from religious views to family matters. After reconciling, “they talked about how seminary life had changed so much in a generation, and they exchanged stories of their priestly lives, stories of babies wailing during homilies, couples fighting at wedding rehearsals, anointings in the emergency room, ushers forgetting the second collection, the hard funeral of a young father or mother …”
With days like that, no wonder the characters in the book occasionally drain an Iron City and ponder if they are up to this most challenging job.
For all the inner turmoils, the priests in this book share the view of one, who after much soul wrestling decided, as Infante writes, “He knew that he would raise the cup of mercy, he would, again, labor in the fields for that harvest of souls that awaited him, awaited a priest of God.”
Tom Scanlon is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.