The Homeless Bishop (book review)

Tony Di Mambro

homeless bishop book coverJoseph F. Girzone, Homeless Bishop. Orbis Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1626980082

While this book has no direct references to LGBT issues, it’s certainly relevant to us as Catholics and Christians. This is due to how certain social issues have been addressed by the author, particularly homelessness and the hierarchy, in a genuine, moving and inspiring manner.

In this ‘novel’ (though I wonder if some parts could have been inspired by true events), Joseph Girzone has expertly illustrated the ‘what if’ premise: how the Catholic Church could, would and should be if it was led, emulated and inspired by someone like the extraordinary yet ordinary man at the heart of this story. I believe every ordained and lay Christian would benefit from reading this book, due to the clarity of the expressions of faith shared by the main character, who seems to reach his full and true potential, including tackling corruption while running a parish and empowering the hundreds of homeless people in his area to improve their lives.

The first set of chapters is based in the U.S.A and the other five chapters are set in Italy.

Chapter 1, ‘Charlie,’ introduces us to ‘Charlie’ and Marty, written from Marty’s perspective in first person form, at the beginning of an early morning mass in New York. Marty is distracted by a beggar, called Charlie, also attending mass and decides to follow him when mass finishes. Marty was intrigued by Charlie’s humble behaviour when Charlie was refused communion by the priest, saying “Peace, Father”, before being shoved unceremoniously out of the way by a judge. After Marty saw Charlie sharing food with his fellow homeless friends and chatting with them in a friendly manner, then being welcomed into a respected elderly lady’s house, he became even more curious and waited for Charlie to leave, so he could introduce himself. Marty felt drawn to Charlie’s gentleness, warmth and sincerity, a feeling Marty initially tried to resist. He felt embarrassed that Charlie recognized him, feeling guilty of his previous lack of compassion and understanding of Charlie’s situation, as well as judging his unkempt appearance.

Marty continued to feel curious about who Charlie really was, so after he’d finished his day’s work as a solicitor, he approached the lady who invited Charlie into her home and offered to help Charlie “if he needs anything”(p14). After learning from the lady, Susie Delaney, that Charlie seemed to be well educated, had a slight accent, been shipped to Mexico, wrongfully arrested twice, helped farm workers and taught fellow prisoners how to read and write, Marty wondered “Why can’t I just accept him as a simple, innocuous victim of life’s fortunes, another example of Les Miserables, someone with a story I can’t even fathom?” (p19).

At Sunday mass with his family and Susie, after the priest again refused to give Charlie communion, he heard Charlie saying to the deacon who then gave Charlie communion “Grazie a Dio. Thank you. One day you will be a priest” (p29). When Marty asked Charlie, “Why are you homeless?” Charlie replied, “Things just happened and I found myself in a predicament where I really had no other choice” (p30). Charlie would soon leave the U.S.A. and Marty would “one day understand the mystery of Charlie and know that it was the greatest mystery of all” (p31).

In the second set of chapters, titled ‘Carlo,’ we are introduced to Carlo, a highly gifted young man from Palagiano, near Rome, who entered the seminary at 14 yrs old, ordained at 25 yrs old, then trained to be a Vatican diplomat.  After being made Archbishop of Taranto at 33 yrs old, feeling troubled, he asked to meet the Pope and said, “since being entrusted with many responsibilities, I’m having a difficult time with the honours and adulation people show me, even those who detest everything we stand for. There is something unhealthy about this obsequiousness. I often get the feeling that many good Catholics don’t feel comfortable with the way the hierarchy is treated either. I feel a need to live the way the poor and homeless people live, the victims of injustice and contempt, so I can understand what it is like to be held with such contempt by society, including many Christians. Among my flock are the poor, homeless and anti-clericals who come to me with all their problems, hurts and feelings of injustice. If I am to be a good shepherd after the heart of Jesus, I have to get to know my sheep in real life. I need to feel their pain as Jesus did and respond to them with the feelings Jesus had because he understood the loneliness and the fears and the pain that his sheep were suffering” (p38). The Pope eventually and reluctantly accepts his Archbishop’s mission, though expresses his worries and concerns.

After Archbishop Carlo Brunini (aka Charlie) revealed to Marty who he really was and returned to Italy to recommence his position as Archbishop, he shared with his parishioners in his homily that he had been living as a beggar for 18 months. Carlo soon invited all the homeless people in the area to mass and then a meeting after, to discuss how they could use all their talents to help renovate disused buildings for them all to live in. Carlo then had to tackle the Mafia, who had threatened the local authorities to use the Mafia’s workmen “or there would be nothing done” (p111). Carlo was furious, but successfully channelled his energy into tackling the Mafia, with the help of the Archdiocesan lawyers, by first suing the council for refusing building planning permission, then telling the federal agents with the help of the former council chairman who all the corrupt people were.

This wonderful book continues with many more shining examples of true Christianity in action, including when Carlo helps to look after a ‘family’ of seven homeless children with the help of his cousin Madelena, and especially when Carlo is sent by the Pope to Iran to assist with inter-faith diplomacy matters, due to the high tensions among the Iranian people. Carlo has to deal with loss and the difficult, awkward and uncomfortable subject of forgiveness is articulated with a deft touch of grace, faith and hope, reminding us why we all need to forgive and how to do so.

This book’s final chapter and ending is very satisfying. I don’t want to spoil it by explaining why, but it is mainly because of one of the best homilies I have ever had the good fortune of reading. I hope you’ll buy this book, read it, then recommend it to a friend or relative, whatever their background.