From the Latin vestimentum and the French vêtement, the word “vestments” means clothing, the kind that covers the body, protects it and sometimes intentionally camouflages what is underneath. It also refers to garments worn by members of the Catholic clergy, “men of the cloth,” at church services. Either way—or in this case, both ways—it is the fitting one-word title for this engrossing debut novel by John Reimringer and the insider’s glimpse it offers into the life and loves of a contemporary priest, James (Jim) Dressler, and his struggles with the black garb and white collar of his calling.
As a dutiful altar boy, young Jim Dressler was drawn early to the tried and familiar rituals of the church, “the unexpected sensual fabric of Catholicism,” the Mass that was the anchor of his week, a safe harbor from his tempestuous home, and to the priesthood in the person of his pastor, Father Phil. “I imagined myself like him, robed in white, pure and strong.” That idealism resurfaced in his senior year at college. With an honors degree in history, Jim saw the seminary as “a locker room full of knowledge and power where largeness of spirit and good manners were taught, where a honed mind was valued as much as sports and knowing how to hold your liquor or tell an off-color joke.”
With the support of his devout Granddad Otto and the encouragement of Father Phil, Dressler applied to a Minnesota seminary at a time when those in charge of the education and formation of candidates for the priesthood were especially rigorous in the screening process. Reimringer spares us the details about the vetting, but Jim made the cut even though he carried baggage—a home where daily life involved a brawling, pugnacious father and an active high school sex life with a string of teenage lovers, including a serious sexual relationship with a young woman named Betty Garcia that ended tragically.
Dressler often and sincerely addressed the conundrum about his fitness for the priesthood even after living as a celibate in college. “Does it get lonely,” he asked, “not having a wife and kids?” Father Phil offered the first of a series of evasive and utterly mystifying replies: “Get a hobby.” Yet no one at seminary or among his priest friends did any better. A plausible reason for the lack of straightforward, honest, reliable counsel on the subject is that nowhere in the book do we, or Jim, meet a priest in a healthy relationship with a woman—a puzzling omission on Reimringer’s part, unless he is intimating that such mature experiences and conversations are rare in both actual life and fiction.
Instead we meet pastors like George Martin, totally a guy’s guy, who presided over Sunday night poker games at his rectory, or the seminary’s Father Friedel, a k a Father Fritter, completely clueless about women except for the creepy conviction that they lurked everywhere as sources of sin both large and small.
Far more demoralizing for Dressler was his friend Mick, who contradicted everything Jim wanted to believe was possible. “I nearly quit when giving up women didn’t work,” Mick told Jim. “And then I decided I could have both.” Self-confident, cynical and ambitious, Mick was certain that there would always be room for him and his unscrupulous behavior in a church that harbored hypocrites and even promoted them. He was right. A plum assignment in Rome was waiting after his flagrant behavior was exposed.
Lacking Mick’s manipulative skills, Dressler could not count on such luck. His comparatively minor indiscretion unleashed an eviction from his parish, transfer to a punitive assignment and, mercifully, a last-minute reprieve in the form of an offer to teach history at St. John’s College.
Reimringer opens his story with Jim Dressler at home in St. Paul with his dysfunctional family, biding his time before college opens at the end of summer. He keeps busy with tender visits to incapacitated Granddad Otto, preparations for presiding at his brother’s wedding, explaining to family and friends who inquire that he still is a priest, only on leave, and reflecting on the privileged place he has as a priest in service to the church he loves. Betty Garcia is in town, too. She is now a successful labor lawyer, newly divorced, and her mere presence is enough to loosen the hold of Jim’s clerical collar. Over coffee they face the unfairness of life, the consequences of human choices gone wrong and consider their futures with or without each other.
Unlike its predatory character Mick, Vestments has us wondering whether there might be a place in the church someday for a generous, flawed, gentle, committed man like James Dressler to satisfy two noble desires—one for the priesthood and another for a wife and family. The bittersweet ending of the book says “not now,” and Jim Dressler must make a choice between two loves.
Reimringer knows well the landscape of St. Paul, Minnesota. He knows, too, the landscape of the Catholic Church—seminary mentoring, rectory loneliness, the bonding of men of the cloth—and he writes about these things with a combination of affection and ruthless honesty. He also knows the fragility of the human heart, broken as is the body of Christ at Eucharist, with an embedded promise of healing. We hope for an intense dose of that healing for James Dressler and men like him as we close this book.
Read about other novels featuring priest protagonists.