In his plaid shirt and cotton trousers, retired parish priest Joseph F. Girzone sits on the wraparound porch of his mountain-top home outside Altamont, N.Y., savoring a moment of silence. The autumn landscape suggests tranquillity in every direction, but peace and quiet do not extend to the telephone, which summons Girzone early and often. “I’m sorry,” he finally tells one caller patiently. “I don’t have a free minute until May.”
Girzone isn’t exaggerating. He has been snowed under by demands on his time ever since a little book titled Joshua, which he wrote and published himself in 1983, turned into an unexpected sensation. The book, a simply worded parable about Christ’s return to earth, continues to sell at the astounding rate of 30,000 copies a month, and has brought Girzone movie offers, some 200 speaking engagements a year, and a program of religious seminars in his own home. This summer Macmillan published a sequel, Joshua and the Children, in which Joshua (Hebrew for Jesus) shows up in an imaginary war-torn country much like Northern Ireland. The book landed on the New York Times best-seller list almost immediately and has held fast there since.
Girzone is delighted with his success, but it wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. He left his Ravena, N.Y., parish in 1981 after a doctor ordered him to slow down and lower his blood pressure or risk a stroke. A quiet life as a writer seemed the perfect next step, particularly since Girzone had published one book, Kara, the Lonely Falcon (it sold some 25,000 copies), and had ideas he wanted to work through on paper. “All through my years as a priest I felt that religions were doing damage to people,” he says. “In the Gospels, Jesus battled with religious leaders who were so rigid that they stripped the joy and freedom from people’s relationship with God. Our religious leaders today do the same things Jesus condemned.”
He expressed his feelings about religious inflexibility in Joshua, the story of a benevolent stranger in a modern American town who infuriates church leaders by attending services of every faith. The book sold slowly at first, but soon orders were pouring in. His parable, Girzone discovered, had astonishing interdenominational appeal. Jews were telephoning him to say Joshua was their favorite book. A Hindu swami in New York, he was told, was urging his followers to adopt Joshua’s teachings. And an Albany innkeeper changed the name of his business to Joshua’s Motel. “When I was writing Joshua, I felt that God was using me. It was eerie,” Girzone says. “But I never dreamed it would have the effect it has had.”
The oldest of 12 children, Girzone says his father, an Albany, N.Y., butcher, and his mother, a housewife, were poor yet ardent Catholics “because life was just too difficult not to be.” For his part, Joseph was only 2 when he was first captivated by the sight of a man “with a big black dress on” and informed his parents that he wanted to be a priest. A seminarian at 14, he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in St. Bonaventure, N.Y., in 1953 and was ordained two years later.
In 1964, after years spent working with street gangs in the Bronx and counseling poor coal miners in Pottsville, Pa., Girzone was assigned to the Albany diocese and went on to serve as pastor of several local parishes. Always something of a maverick, he departed from church discipline when he considered it necessary, allowing divorced members of his flock to receive communion and counseling them to trust their consciences rather than invariably abiding by the dictates of religious law. All but the last of his five books (Gloria: A Diary came out in 1982, Who Will Teach Me: A Religious Handbook for Parents the same year) were published by Richelieu Court, the publishing house Girzone set up in 1981 and named after the 17th-century French cardinal. Each book reflects his humane iconoclasm, but Joshua and the Children, in which Joshua offends a country’s warring Protestant and Catholic leaders by encouraging its children to play together, is perhaps his strongest call for change. “I figured, why not plop Jesus down in the middle of one of those religious conflicts so people can see the irrationality of it all,” Girzone says.
Today Girzone’s rustic 21-room house, where he lives alone, also serves as office space for the mini-industry the Joshua books have spawned. Three secretaries help him keep up with the hundreds of fan letters he receives each month and with the constant stream of lecture requests. The secretaries also remind him, on occasion, to take his blood-pressure medication, for his health has improved only slightly since he was urged to ease up. But Girzone doesn’t plan to slow down, and a second Joshua sequel is already in the works. “Seeing the comfort and peace people get out of my books,” Girzone says, “I want to keep the ideas of Joshua alive.”
—Lucinda Smith, Toby Kahn in Altamont