The Bishop in the Old Neighborhood—the fifth Bishop Blackie Ryan book by prizewinning priest, sociologist, and author Andrew Greeley—is rich in Christian themes: primarily the healing power of confession and forgiveness and the sacred power of love. Early in the novel, O’Donnell goes to a retreat where he comes to terms with the fact that he bullied a young Sicilian girl when he was in grade school. He finds her, confesses, apologizes, and asks forgiveness. Because she recognizes his sincerity, she forgives him and in the process feels the first flushes of love. By asking forgiveness, O’Donnell opens himself up to true love that is spiritual in nature.
The themes of confession and forgiveness continue throughout as the elderly Tim O’Boyle confesses to arranging the deaths of the Chicago teenagers during the summer of 1944. Rebuffed by the beautiful Annie Scanlon, the young naval lieutenant O’Boyle arranged for her and her friends’ deaths under the pretext of safeguarding national security when the youngsters stumbled across the secret military installation. He has lived a life of horrific guilt that led to his adopting Marshal, the younger brother of one of his victims, as his son. Tim O’Boyle—in the end relieved to be found out—abjectly confesses his sin and finds forgiveness and redemption.
Greeley, a professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona, interweaves these spiritual themes of forgiveness and redemption into highly readable, entertaining fiction. Side plots—such as that of the love affair between O’Donnell and Datillo—advertise the importance of other Christian themes, here the need to gain perspective on physical and spiritual love: Blackie acts as O’Donnell and Datillo’s spiritual adviser when they call on him for help navigating their physical and spiritual longings. Both fear making a commitment to marriage (having seen their friends suffer severe consequences), but Blackie asks the right questions and provides them with the confidence that what they feel is real love that will grow and mature into a truly intimate, lifelong bond.