In Gregory Alexander’s novel, “The Holy Mark: The Tragedy of a Fallen Priest,” Joseph Broussard is a lot like other boys growing up in New Orleans in the mid-20th century. He comes from a large Catholic family, he spends free time exploring with his cousins and he develops both rivalries and alliances with these other children that foreshadow his future.
The only obvious difference between Joe and his cousins is the “holy mark” on his scalp, or “segno sacro” as his Italian grandmother calls the red, chalice-shaped birthmark. To her, it is a sign that Joe is destined to become a priest, an ambition she has long harbored for one of her male descendants. But as the story unfolds, the reader comes to understand that the birthmark represents something chillingly sinister rather than holy and divine.
Alexander writes with pinpoint accuracy about the world that Joe (later Father Tony) inhabits, having experienced much of it himself. The author was born in New Orleans, lived here most of his life, and had an Italian great-grandmother who never learned to speak English. He attended Catholic schools and, after earning degrees in psychology and English, taught for 12 years at Cabrini and Jesuit high schools. Alexander’s life experiences have offered him a vantage point from which to observe first-hand the complex relationships that can sometimes arise in large families, as well as the political inner-workings of the Catholic Church.
More important to the theme of the novel, however, is the psychological portrait he paints of Father Tony, the “Fallen Priest” referenced in the novel’s subtitle.
Father Tony casts himself as mistreated by the Catholic hierarchy and grossly misunderstood, a priest following “in the footsteps of Jesus.” Moved from post to post because of his improprieties with teenaged boys in his care, he blames the politics of the Church, the rivalries in his family, and everyone but himself for his situation.
In his narcissistic world view, the Church and his conniving family are the ones responsible for his fate.
“Can we hate the sin and yet love the sinner?” At a critical point in the novel, Father Tony poses this question to his young wards at a center for disadvantaged youth. It’s the same question readers will struggle with throughout Alexander’s book.
Maybe we can. But Father Tony’s self-deluded rationalizations of his “ministry” to teenage boys make it nearly impossible.