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Mike MastromatteoJanuary 18, 2024
Via Della Lungaretta Street, Trastevere, Rome (iStock)

Upon receiving the George W. Hunt Prize from America Media and the Thomas More Chapel & Center at Yale University in 2017, the author Liam Callanan discussed how the Catholic faith touches on his work. In his remarks, Callanan suggested that while his more recent work no longer features priests as protagonists, his novels and short stories have been becoming progressively more Catholic over time.

When in Romeby Liam Callanan

336p $28

Anyone who reads his latest release, When in Rome, and who is familiar with his earlier work would be almost certain to agree. A professor of English and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Callanan is now the author of four well-received novels and a collection of short stories.

The central theme of When in Rome is discernment, whether in a religious sense or in the quest for the right path in life.

When in Rome, published in March 2023, focuses primarily on the activities of a middle-aged former nun, Claire Murphy, who by a quirk of fate leaves her native Milwaukee to take up residence with a teaching order of nuns in Rome. As a commercial realtor dealing with higher-profile church properties, Claire travels to the Eternal City to better negotiate the sale of the nuns’ crumbling convent. She is readily taken in by the sisters of the Order of Saint Gertrude, who carry on in their mission with joy and enthusiasm despite concerns about declining vocations and the possible closure of their entire community.

The experience rekindles Claire’s interest in professing vows once again and living out her remaining years as a member of a caring religious community.

The central theme of When in Rome is discernment, whether in a religious sense or in the quest for the right path in life. There is also the subtle suggestion that discernment is not an instantaneous thing but can evolve over long periods of time. This uncertainty about making the right choice is embodied in Claire, who before entering a religious community in Milwaukee had enjoyed a romantic fling with a fellow undergraduate at Yale University.

In the decades between finishing up at Yale and traveling to Rome, Claire not only entered and left a religious community; she also went through a marriage and a divorce, and became mother to a now-28-year-old daughter.

Readers will certainly empathize with Claire as she labors over the decision to return to religious life or pick up where she left off with Marcus, her college love from 30-plus years ago at Yale.

“Something inside her, raw, medieval, specious, wanted to punish her for falling in love with Marcus when she’d been preparing to promise herself to God all along,” Callanan writes. “And something else, just as insidious, suggested that the reason she’d not left the convent path earlier—like five days into freshman year—was because she’d been scared to. Not scared of what God would think—God didn’t ‘think’—but because it was scary to stand outside the door of the life you thought you would lead.”

Callanan is a writer with an intense interest in religious vocation, and while researching this new book, he spoke to several priests and nuns to ascertain how they made their final decisions. This novel also reveals Callanan’s clear affection and respect for religious commitment, especially for sisters. Referring to the religious sisters’ communities in general, Callanan writes: “Claire knew well that there was no more capable class of people worldwide than religious sisters. They ran hospitals and schools and nonprofits. They prayed; they marched; they labored; they served.”

“They braved poverty, misogyny, and a church that could and often did go out of its way to make their lives hard. And their lives were already hard.”

When in Rome is remarkable for Callanan’s use of the female voice to propel the narrative. It’s a technique Callanan had employed to great effect in previous novels, Paris by the Book (2018) and All Saints (2007).

Callanan flirts with cliché in the choice of a title for his new book. But the author makes it work in this case by creating a strong sense of time and place that takes the reader along for the ride. Consider, for example, this lush depiction of the Eternal City’s artistic, culinary and Catholic Church-centered charms: “Claire did not realize that life in Rome would involve such constant reference to theology, history, art history, philosophy, the lives of the saints,” Callanan writes. “It’s strange she didn’t anticipate this, of course, because these things are such constant companions here.”

While researching this new book, Callanan spoke to several priests and nuns to ascertain how they made their final decisions.

Many of Callanan’s ideas about fiction and its powers appear in his essay for America published when he received the Hunt Prize award in 2017. There Callanan describes how fiction engages the reader and often presents truths not readily apparent at the outset. “Fiction teaches us empathy—with characters whose lives lie far beyond our own, or are so eerily similar that they seem identical.”

The author appears to have lived up to his literary prescriptions with When in Rome. Not only will readers experience Claire’s interior turmoil; they might well pick up insights into how reviewing one’s life choices and underlying motivations can be, in a very real sense, liberating. Through Claire, readers come to understand that thoughtful people are always discerning even years after having made significant decisions in the past.

Much of Callanan’s fiction hints at the action of divine grace in people’s lives and how the protagonists come to understand and appreciate its beneficence. While in Rome, Claire casts off uncertainty and regret. She also comes to terms with a Catholic faith that, for many people, creates confusion as to how best to serve God. She realizes the value of contemplation and occasional solitude. Callanan describes Claire’s new attitude with such alliterative, colorful terms as “alone time without loneliness…community with claustrophobia…belief without boundaries.”

The author makes plain Claire’s sense of freedom and relief in the novel’s satisfying denouement: “She doesn’t believe in magic anymore, in divine deals governed by spite, in loneliness as purifying pain.… What surprises her is that [her ultimate choice] has meant receiving so much,” including “companionship, contentment, grace, a faith no longer formed by fear. Peace. She knows peace, is peace, gives peace.”

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