Sapienza, Salvatore. “Seventy Times Seventy, Lethe Press, 2008.
Catholicism and Homosexuality
“Seventy Times Seven”, Salvatore Sapienza’s first novel explores the Catholic religion and homosexuality. The main character is a Catholic brother and a teacher and his story is told by a real life former brother and an openly gay man. It is set in the early 1990s and we find Brother Vito Fortunato close to his final vows as a brother in the Catholic church. He is torn between his spirituality and his gay sexuality. While teaching catechism, he struggles with his own issues of forgiveness–forgiving Mother Church, forgiving the homosexual community but most of all forgiving himself. Yet there was that summer when he volunteered at a San Francisco AIDS center and fell in love with Gabriel, a recently divorced landscaper, and this has caught Vito between sexual identity and his personal idealism. It takes him on the path of attempting to change the views of the church on homosexuality and Aids.
Sapienza, himself, is a former Catholic brother of the Marist Order who taught high school English. He worked alongside Father Mychal Judge, the chaplain to the New York Fire Department who died in the 9/11 attacks. Included in the book is Sapienza’s essay on his experiences with Father Judge.
The title for the book comes from the Biblical passage that Jesus taught us to forgive those who have wronged us “seventy times seven times.” While Vito teaches this ideal of forgiveness he realizes that he must also adhere to this adage. How does one integrate his religious beliefs with his sexual desires? And this is what punctuates the novel all the way through. He does this by not only using quotes from Scripture but with song lyrics from Madonna and Prince–two artists who merged these two worlds both provocatively and in a groundbreaking manner. Alongside that problem Vito also struggles with an idealism that drives him to change the ways of the Church.
Vito yearns for a quiet gay life–one of more than pride parades and bars. He wants to celebrate his desire for a same-sex meaningful relationship. His candor is real, yet delicate and his prose tells the story of salvation. There are twists and turns and the reader is engrossed from start to finish. And the story is moving, touching those parts of the gay psyche that makes us proud that Sapienza has bothered to write his story. The book took me to places I have never been and the prose made the trip a pleasure. The conflicts are real, present, and important. This is not a book about religion but about the dignity of man. The insight that the book gives, allows us to embrace ourselves and is this not what the spirit tells us to do?
When I first began reading, I thought that I would be reading about a closeted priest who in his struggles to accept himself led a life of pain and shame. But I was wrong. Being gay is not the struggle here. Rather it is the incorporation of his sexual nature to his spirituality. The men Vito meets denounce religion, just as the Church does homosexuality. The period in which the novel is set was that time when sexuality and spirituality were juxtaposed. Many went dancing shirtless at night and to church the next morning. Sexual beings could also be spiritual–there is no mutual exclusivity here. One would think that a book of this nature would be a heavy read but it is far from that. It is a delight and shows us that faith in the human spirit can rule out any adversary.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. When I finished it, I felt renewed and cleansed and that I had just read a really fascinating book. We have had so much about the abuses of the Catholic church that to me it was a special treat to read about someone who knowingly and consciously went against it. Although one man can’t do it all, one can crack the door open.