In the 1970’s, the new ideas sparked by Vatican II resonated with younger clergy and laity alike. Father Paul LeBlanc, a popular and effective priest in a Boston parish, is liked both for his personable manner and for his understanding of ordinary human lapses. His superiors, however, view his anti-Vietnam War stance and his waffling over papal infallibility with alarm. As punishment and penance, the bishop assigns him to an isolated beach community.
His duties there are to conduct the mass and to help care for the small flock’s dying pastor, the saintly Father Moriarty. He also occasionally visits the local veterans’ hospital. There is not enough work in Our Lady of Victories parish to absorb Father LeBlanc’s energies, though, and his response is to delve deep within himself. He prays constantly, but cannot seem to reach God in any way. His concern about his own spiritual void so takes over his life that he responds brusquely to those who come to him for counseling, even as he realizes he is failing them.
Whether he is suffering a true spiritual crisis or a predictable reaction to preemptory exile and social isolation is not clear, certainly not to Father LeBlanc, and perhaps not even to the author. But the priest’s agony is clear, and it seems especially selfish in contrast to Father Moriarty’s cheerfulness in the face of physical infirmities and death. Ultimately, the few social ties he has created—and sometimes misused—help pull the young priest out of his despair. Some of these (attractive women) are supposed to be forbidden to him, and others (the indignities of terminal illness when he tends Father Moriarty) are unpleasant. These facts are among the many ironies hidden in this story.
The “miracle” of the title—a young woman’s seeming resurrection from death—has less to do with Father LeBlanc’s inner journey than he himself believes. Nor is the novel’s resolution necessarily an inevitable, or the most satisfying, conclusion. A renewed commitment on his part to social justice would have been just as plausible, and perhaps less ominous for his future moral growth. Still, this spare but elegant novel will fascinate most readers who have ever wondered about the reasons for priestly doubts and defections.