Confessions of a ‘Sixties Priest: But Probably Not What You’re Thinking!
James M. O’Brien
Reviewed for Reader Views by Richard R. Blake (7/08)
James M. O’Brien continues his memoirs in “Confessions of a ‘Sixties Priest.” Ordained to the priesthood in 196l, after completing his seminary training at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Father James O’Brien’s first assignment was at St. Patrick’s Church in Rockford, Illinois.
Eager to make an impact, blind to his own ambition, O’Brien eagerly assumed his role as the youngest priest in the parish. He also served in the role as teacher of religion at BoylanCentralHigh School. His success with promoting and publishing the parish bulletin led to assignment as staff writer for The Observer, the weekly newspaper for the Catholic diocese of Rockford which included twelve counties in northwestern Illinois.
The regular column in The Observer gave O’Brien the chance to express topics on liturgy, the church, the Bible or any of his current liberal causes. Six months later he was appointed as Assistant Managing Editor of the paper.
This was an era when the Catholic Church was on the threshold of liberalization of Vatican II and the civil rights movement was gaining momentum under the leadership of Martin Luther King. John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president had taken office. Rock and roll energized the music scene. The anti-war effort and anti-poverty programs were being birthed regularly. A cultural revolution was taking place throughout every sector of our society. O’Brien soon became intricately involved in many of these causes.
O’Brien’s journey took a new twist when after a year he was relieved of his journalistic endeavors, transferred to St. Joseph’s Rectory. His assignment included teaching classes at AquinHigh School in Freeport, Illinois.
In June of 1966 O’Brien was given opportunity to take a year of year of graduate work at NorthwesternUniversity in the field of Communications with a special reference in television. During this time, he also served a residency at the St. John Brebeuf church in Niles, Illinois.
The final chapters of the book describe his duties at the Notre Dame of DeKalb motherhouse and convent. The Vatican under the leadership of Pope Paul VI took a conservative view on the opening of the church to the liberal views of the modern world. Father James O’Brien found himself questioning his faith without a cause to work toward. He requested a leave of absence from the diocese.
I felt “intellectually stimulated and challenged” (his words) as I vicariously sat in class with O’Brien under the tutelage of Martin Maloney at NorthwesternUniversity. I empathized with him as he expressed his “divine disconnectedness,” social isolation and loneliness in ministry.
I laughed at his sometimes irreverent humor as he described: spying on the John Birch Society, the clerical oddballs-tales, early morning mass after a late night handball workout, and his detailed description of an “invasive procedure.”
The short subtitled vignettes and stories kept whetting my appetite for the next one. I found myself hurrying through meals, errands, and family responsibilities to get back to “the book.”
James M. O’Brien’s writing is articulate, funny, entertaining, irreverent, engaging and informational. “Confessions of a Sixties Priest” gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the workings of the Catholic Church in the United States in an era that has impacted the lives of Americans forever. Nostalgic and thought-provoking, this is an important book for Catholics and Protestants alike. I found it to be a truly great read.