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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 9, 2009
As a writer and priest, Father Girzone has spent a lifetime making Jesus real
By Philippa Stasiuk
ALTAMONT After giving a talk on his signature subject of Jesus to a crowd in Elyria, Ohio, Father Joseph Girzone was approached by a grateful woman. “The Catholics worship the church and the Protestants worship the Bible,” she said to him. “There’s damn few who get to know Jesus Christ.”
Girzone’s eyes twinkle as he tells this story, revealing his sense of humor, which he counts as one of Christ’s own attributes. He’s 78 now and the focus of his life’s work first as a monk, then a Roman Catholic priest, and finally as a writer has been Jesus Christ.
Girzone has lived in Altamont for 20 years on Joshua Lane in a sprawling house that was once the summer home of the Pruyn family. Five years before moving from Ravena to Altamont, he accomplished two extraordinary things: He published his first novel, Joshua, and he lived to tell about it, despite grave heart and blood-related health problems that forced him to retire from the priesthood at age 50.
Joshua’s success was so instant that Girzone was able to pay for the first printing of the book in two months despite being having so little money that he had to make the desk upon which he wrote the book because he couldn’t afford to buy one. Millions of copies have since been sold and the novel and its sequels have been translated into many languages.
The Joshua series is based on the premise that Jesus returns to the modern-day world in the form of an athletic man with walnut-colored hair, graceful hands, and a penchant for table wine. He lives in a shack in the village of Auburn, “an old town, built around the late 1700s, tucked away in the foothills of the mountains.”
Joshua’s simple life as a carpenter piques the village’s interest, especially when strange things not unlike miracles begin to occur. His presence is ultimately seen as a threat to some, particularly the local priest who is suspicious when Joshua’s ecumenical tendencies are revealed after he carves a statue for a Jewish synagogue.
Girzone’s decision to try to write after his early retirement from the priesthood in 1980 came from a self-described “deep-seated need” to write a book about Jesus.
“A Protestant minister asked me why, as a priest, I was always talking about Jesus,” he recalled. “A friend of mine said he had never had one class about Jesus in seminary. I can recall only one class, which was in high school.
“Before the Reformation, all theology was centered on Jesus. Once the Reformation took place, all denominations started writing catechisms, which are the things that the different denominations teach. Now you can be baptized without knowing Jesus. The church is the medium and Jesus is the message but we’ve made the medium the message. I had this need to make Jesus real.”
Interpreting the Gospels’ descriptions of Jesus in order to personalize him has been a theme that Girzone returns to time and again in his books. One example he gives is the Feast of Cana, which is described in the Gospel of John and is the wedding at which John said Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine.
“In Jesus’s time, people started making wine for a daughter’s wedding when she was born. The ceremonies lasted eight days but, when Jesus arrived in Cana three days late, his mother, Mary, told him that the guests had already drunk eight days worth of wine. She must have thought he could do something,” said Girzone.
According to the Bible, Jesus replies, “Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come,” but nevertheless he not only turns the water into wine, but a wine so good that the head waiter proclaims the wedding is brooking tradition by serving the best wine first.
What does this story reveal to Girzone about Jesus? “It confirmed that Jesus felt comfortable with very human companions. He complied with his mother’s wishes and wasn’t shocked at human nature and their very heavy drinking,” he says.
In the quarter century that he has been writing, Girzone says, the most difficult part for him has been the long process of attaining his knowledge of Jesus. He describes it as a puzzle he has put together through studying both scripture and theology.
Girzone began his religious education as a young monk in training at St. Albert’s Seminary in Middletown, N.Y. He describes a rigorous academic schedule that included a wide array of topics philosophy, medieval mystics, meditation, foreign languages, science, and patrology. Patrology is the study of the Greek, Roman, and African Fathers of the early churches who are, according to Girzone, “the bridge between the scriptures and the church.”
Through criticism circulated on the Internet and described by him, it is apparent that interpreting Jesus has made Girzone a somewhat controversial figure among his religious peers. Girzone alludes to the struggle of teaching about Jesus as a priest and says that it “could have created problems with my superiors.”
Other criticisms are more direct, this one from an Internet blog by a Catholic writer and history teacher who writes of Girzone: “Since he ignores certain other elements of the Gospel and adds plenty from his own imagination to the mix, the result is similar to what happens when an amateur attempts to prepare a proven recipe using only half of the ingredients: it’s a mess.”
But Girzone does not apologize for the liberties he has taken in his books.
“It was tempting to write as we were taught, in the theological way,” he said. “I decided to write Joshua as simply as I possibly could but my first critic read Joshua and asked me why the book was so poorly written.” Girzone explains to people that the books were written simply to appeal to all audiences, including the very young and the very old.
In his house on the hill, Girzone is still meditating on the life of Jesus as he was taught to do as a monk in training. He has a book coming out in the fall based on his lecture series, called Sixty-eight Talks on Jesus. On the first two Tuesdays of each month, he gives talks on Jesus for anyone wishing to attend.
Girzone is also writing fiction again, this time with a new character an archbishop being trained by the Vatican for diplomatic work. Shielded in ivory towers, the character is unable to grasp why Jesus made eternal salvation dependant on the better treatment of the poor. He announces to his rather exasperated superiors that he wants to take a one-year sabbatical to become a homeless beggar himself, whereby he ultimately learns compassion.
What follows is a series of plot twists that read like an action novel, including the involvement of the Italian mafia. To find out what happens next, Girzone says, he must first finish the book.