The North American College in Rome, an all-male bastion of Catholic seminarians from the US, provides the setting for this uncritically admiring narrative of evolving priestly vocations. Murphy, a Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist with the Associated Press in Rome, follows the spiritual paths of six seminarians entering the North American College—the New Men of the title—as they unfold over the course of a year. The narrative, based on personal interviews with the students, sets the story of their lives against the looming but deliberately muted backdrop of Rome and the Vatican. The drama of the stories lies in the conflict they show between the calling of a parish priest and the opposing lures of secular achievement, romantic love, or—in the one intriguing case here of seemingly dual vocation—life in a Benedictine monastery. In their self-questioning, some of the students uncover for both themselves and the reader how fine the line can be between the purely self-willed and the purportedly God-given; but whether by authorial design or the students' own omission, their thoughts go oddly unillumined by the Catholic Church's rich intellectual heritage, which seems to play hardly any role in their spiritual lives. By contrast, a whole chapter is devoted to the college's yearly flag football game, and part of another to the grisly story of a school-prankish slaughter of chickens. Perhaps such stories, too tedious to tell about a college fraternity house, gain interest from their seminary context. But secular readers curious about the moral psychology of priestliness, and the vocation to goodness in the modern world, will do better to read the classic work of fiction on these topics: George Bernanos's The Diary of a Country Priest. Murphy wants to show the humanity and dignity of priestly calling; but the mood he favors, in so doing, of sentimental machismo—heartstrings loosened by a can of beer—will appeal to only a limited audience.
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