By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published September 6, 2007
Father Griffin, the “John Wayne” priest. Janie, the first love. Sister Ellen, the “cool,” post-Vatican II nun. Johnny, the anguished guardian of his younger siblings.
In “Parish the Thought,” a book by Roswell author John Bernard Ruane, the names may be different but many of the experiences will be familiar to Catholics who grew up during the 1960s and ‘70s.
Beyond the nostalgia is a story of faith, rich in its traditions and beliefs, and which holds a significant place in the lives of many.
While Ruane’s story revolves mostly around his upbringing in Chicago, it also touches on his relatively new faith community in Roswell at St. Peter Chanel Church and one of his story’s heroes, Father Frank McNamee, pastor.
“(Father McNamee’s) not only a very good businessman but a very sincere, devout, spiritual leader; that’s what’s great about him.”
In “Parish the Thought” Ruane chronicles his brushes as an altar boy serving morning Mass with an alcoholic priest and the hard-hearted Father John Griffin, then pastor of his boyhood parish, St. Bede the Venerable.
“You have to understand the generation of priests at that time,” Ruane explained. “There was the Latin Mass said with a wall between the priest and people. Vatican II changed that, and it wasn’t easy for some priests like Father Griffin. He was viewed by most as a pretty mean fellow, cheap, but he managed to build three churches; that’s quite an undertaking. It’s certainly a great deed.”
But primarily a priest should be “an extension of Jesus Christ,” Ruane continued, which is why Father McNamee’s presence in “Parish the Thought” is a point of celebration. “He’s a role model for priests these days.”
Ruane tells the story of losing both of his parents at a young age, his mother a devout Catholic and his father, a hard-working immigrant from Galway, Ireland. The experience impacted his faith.
“The key thing in the book is that it’s a story of faith. I was a very sincere, devout Catholic altar boy, and when I said ‘thy will be done,’ I had no question that God would save my mother. When he didn’t, it shattered me.”
He then stopped practicing his faith.
“It’s very similar to others to be a Catholic growing up and then to have your faith shaken like when my parents died.”
Not until his children were born did he confront the pain of his past.
“(We) wanted to raise them exactly as we were raised, with the same moral tenets. But I had to first accept the fact that my will is not always God’s will. That’s the message. … If you believe in God, you have to accept what life deals you.”
Eight years ago, Ruane, his wife, Char, and their four children moved to Atlanta because of its milder climate as two of their children have cold-weather induced asthma. He does miss “the energy of the city” of Chicago, but appreciates the “very family-oriented place” now called home. “It has a lot of appeal.”
With one child in college, Ruane’s three younger children attend archdiocesan Catholic schools. He is glad they can experience the diversity of this archdiocesan family. “Down here in Atlanta there’s a mix of people, different cultures.” He is not the only Atlantan who returns to Chicago periodically to visit family, however.
“(One year) Archbishop Wilton Gregory was on the plane going to Chicago on Christmas morning,” recalled Ruane, who was able to swap stories with the traveling archbishop. “He’s the nicest guy. It was fun to meet him.”
“Parish the Thought” is Ruane’s second book. In 1999 he wrote “The Earl Campbell Story,” which profiled NFL Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell and described his battle with panic disorder. Ruane’s other writing credits include nine years with the Chicago Sun-Times and a few award-winning plays. For the past 15 years he has owned and operated a marketing communications company. Once with hopes of being a professional athlete (“I tried out for a couple of teams, but throwing 85 miles an hour wasn’t good enough”), he enjoys coaching youth sports in his spare time.
Ruane pointed to his children as the inspiration for writing “Parish the Thought.”
“I was inspired by the fact that I have four kids. Life is different now. It’s more stressful; there are harder demands on them. … In the ‘60s and ‘70s, life was so much simpler.”
He was prompted as well by a desire to document the times of his youth, which were “not just about the hippies and the Vietnam War.”
“The value of the book is for people who grew up in this time period, for them to take a step back … and reflect on their lives.”
Despite the heartache that can come with life and having worked through his anger with God over the loss of his parents, the Catholic Church continues to be his spiritual home.
“I’m glad I found my way back to the church. It’s a wonderful part of my life. I was close to God when I was a kid, and now I found my way back.”
Ruane’s “great hope” is that the book will help others faced with personal tragedy and who are questioning their faith in God “that they may stay strong and can step away and see the greater church community.”
On a recent trip to St. Bede, Ruane saw again one of the parishioners who helped to organize a fundraiser for him and his four siblings after their parents died. Later that day over an Irish radio program Ruane thanked the Irish Catholic community who had supported the effort.
“They saved us,” Ruane said afterwards in Atlanta. “After my mom and dad died, we had medical bills you wouldn’t believe, and we had house payments.”
The benefit, attended by 2,000 people, raised enough money to cover all of the bills and paid off the mortgage.
Ruane now embraces his Catholic roots, as he explains in his book: “Some human beings are always going to find a way to take advantage of a good thing and perhaps even destroy it. But after 2,000 years, the Catholic Church, with all its turmoil in history, still stands. The message lives because the message is good and true, the messenger was sent from heaven.”
“Parish the Thought” is available through local bookstores or by ordering it through the Web site www.parishthethought.com. A percentage of purchases made through the Web site will be donated to a Catholic grammar school fund.