Fr Michael Brisson, LC

Why did a priest write a novel about the Mafia, Confession, and Providence?

“The unique advantage of fiction,” says Fr. Michael Brisson, LC, author of Death in Black and White, “is that you can plumb the depths of human experience in a way that allows the reader to grapple with issues freely, if you do it right, without feeling lectured to or cajoled.”

Art can be a tremendously effective means of communicating theological truths. We have seen this over the centuries and across millennia, and it is no less true today. In recent years, there has been a surge of talented Catholic novelists, who have expertly wielded their pens and crafted beautiful, engaging stories, which also communicate important elements of our faith. Many of these novels have been published by Ignatius Press.

Fr. Michael Brisson, LC, is the author of the new novel Death in Black and White. The novel follows Fr. Christopher Hart, a young priest and newly-minted pastor in New York, who is unwittingly drafted by the mob to hear the confession of a man slated for execution. Dramatic, funny, suspenseful, and heart wrenching, the book is a fantastic tale of sin and contrition, of the beauty of God’s mercy and the sacrament of reconciliation, and the crosses and joys of the priesthood.

Fr. Brisson recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his new book, the importance of seeking God’s mercy, and how fiction can be a fitting vehicle for conveying theological truth.

Catholic World Report: How did the novel come about?

Fr. Michael Brisson, LC: I lost a bet … just kidding. But I was challenged. I was having dinner with two confreres, one of them a published author. The author asked, “So, Father Michael, when are you going to write your book?” Then the other one chimed in: “Yeah, you’re a good writer, you should write a book.”

I hemmed and hawed a bit, said something about not having anything to say, and went back to eating my pork chops. But they kept at it, and I couldn’t help but think about the parable of the talents and what happened to the guy who tucked his talent under his mattress instead of putting it to work. (Actually, I think he buried it.)

That night I went to prayer, and an idea came to me. At dinner the next day I said, “I’ve got it. I know what I’ll write.” I explained that I couldn’t see myself writing a spiritual work, but I can tell a story. I’d write a series of short stories, vignettes on my life as a priest. At least, that was the plan.


That summer I went on vacation with some friends in the mountains and started to write. I wrote a story about this elderly woman I had met once—changing the names of course. She’d been married for sixty years to a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia with whom she had raised four children—a beautiful witness to love and fidelity.

Then I wrote a fictionalized account of another true story: A priest gets a call one night. The caller says, “I’ve got someone who needs last rites.” The priest asks for an address, but the caller says not to worry, he’ll pick him up. He takes the priest to a farmhouse where he finds a young man who’s about to be executed by the mob. The young man didn’t do anything wrong. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—he knew too much. Sorry, kid. Just business.

But in my version it’s not a farmhouse, it’s a room above a restaurant in New York. And it’s not a kid, but an older man. Much to my surprise, the man that jumped from my imagination onto the page turned out to be the son of the elderly woman from my previous short story. Suddenly I had an inciting incident that sparked a story that took 100,000 words to tell.

And that’s how it all began. Three years later, I have a novel about a young New York priest who becomes the unwitting confessor to the mob.

CWR: The book is a page-turner and is very entertaining. But it’s much more than that; it is a beautiful tribute to the priesthood, and priests as ministers of God’s mercy. Why do this through a sort of noir story, rather than simply a book about mercy?

Fr. Brisson: Part of the answer is in the previous answer. I’m a storyteller, not an academic. I’ve been writing creatively since I was a kid. When I was a teenager, in the summers, I’d come home from my job making pizzas at Domino’s, turn off the lights in my room, and sit in front of my computer till three in the morning writing short stories. Today, since I have a day job, I have to do all of my writing in my free time (usually a couple of hours on weekends, on vacation, or when I can’t sleep). I don’t think I would have persevered writing a non-fiction book about mercy or the priesthood or divine Providence. I wouldn’t have stayed motivated enough to dedicate my precious free time to it.

Another part of the answer is in how you phrased this question. For you it’s a book about mercy—and it’s definitely that. But for me it’s about Providence. Without spoiling anything, the protagonist is instrumental in bringing the most unlikely soul back to the Lord, and it’s not because he worked out an ingenious strategy. Rather, Providence allows him to hell and back, and while in hell he latches onto a fellow sinner and brings that person back to God. In fact, much of what my dear protagonist attempts to do on his own accord goes terribly awry.


The unique advantage of fiction is that you can plumb the depths of human experience in a way that allows the reader to grapple with issues freely, if you do it right, without feeling lectured to or cajoled. The story will, hopefully, speak to what the person needs, and he or she is free to respond. If done well—that is, by telling a true story (true in the metaphysical, not factual, sense) and by not dressing up your preaching as a story—the reader’s imagination and values are formed almost unconsciously. Certainly there are themes: mercy, forgiveness, redemption. Those are all there. But each reader will take something different from it.

CWR: The sacrament of Reconciliation is at the heart of the book. No one is immune to sin, and everyone needs to seek God’s mercy. Why is this important for us to understand?

Fr. Brisson: Big question. I could write a book about that … oh, wait.

Seriously though, as I think about how to approach this question, so many ideas hit me. Let me just say this: God’s mercy is the antidote for the poison in our soul. And it’s free and inexhaustible. If we think about who God is, it makes sense. God is love. It’s not just what he does, it’s who he is. God is also infinite. So, God’s love is infinite. For that reason it’s impossible for our finite minds to comprehend the depths to which he loves us, and how ready he is to forgive us for anything as long as we’re willing to ask him to forgive us.

Shame is the subtle poison in our souls. How often we go through life thinking God is disappointed in us. With every failure, every sin, every time we mess up we think God is that much more disappointed with us. Why wouldn’t he be? I’m disappointed in myself. And because we think he’s disappointed in us we don’t pray. How can I possibly talk to God after what I did, we think. But then one day a loved one gets sick or we’re in an impossible situation, and we want to pray. But we feel ashamed because we haven’t spoken to God is so long, and we haven’t spoken to him because we did what we did. Who am I to ask God for anything, we think.

The problem is we imagine God to be as stingy as we are. Understanding God’s love and that his willingness to forgive us is unfathomable is the antidote to the shame we carry. We need to be humble, ask for forgiveness, accept his mercy, and continue forward with confidence.

CWR: How has your own priesthood prepared you to write this book? I’m not suggesting you ever heard the last confession of Mafia victims, but did you know priests like Fr. Andrew Reese? Or did you develop a particular appreciation for the sacrament of Reconciliation, or anything like that, that prepared you to write from your own experience?


Fr. Brisson: The book is born from the adventures I’ve had as a priest. Though I should hasten to say the protagonist is not me. I’d like to think I’m not as naïve as he is, and I’ve certainly not seen as many movies as he has. But most of his experiences come from experiences I’ve lived or that priests I’ve known have lived—even some of the Mafia stuff, and especially confession. I love hearing confessions. The bigger the sins, the better. I love saying those words: I absolve you. I love watching the joy on the face of the big sinner, the one who hasn’t been in fifty years, the one who has been carrying that burden of sin around, never able to fly. With a few words and the sign of the cross he is unfettered and lifting off the ground, tears of joy streaming down his face. What could be better?

And, yes, I’ve known priests like Fr. Andrew Reese. He’s actually the combination of three different priests I know, but I’ve tweaked the contrast settings…accentuating the narcissistic tendencies.

CWR: Tell us a little about Fr. Hart’s movie fixation. Is there symbolism in this choice, or is it just a fun additional character element?

Fr. Brisson: No, the classic film leitmotif isn’t symbolism. It’s mainly for characterization and to give the book a little ambience. For some reason, in the early chapters I found myself making references to some classic films like Going My Way, Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita. Then it just became a thing—and really fun. I think Catholics tend to be a little nostalgic anyway, so it’s good for the market. Or maybe that’s just me.

CWR: You are a priest of the Legionaries of Christ, a congregation which has had its own high profile struggles with sin. Does this play a role in giving you insight into how God’s mercy works in our lives?

Fr. Brisson: This is an important question. I was ordained in 2009, the same year the revelations of our founder’s sordid double life came to light. This was a bombshell that left plenty of shrapnel wounds on those of us near the explosion.

However, while I was in the vicinity of the blast, I was slightly removed since I didn’t have a personal relationship with the founder. He had been presented to us as an outsized role model—a living saint, so we thought. You can imagine how we all felt when we found out the truth. We were devastated. But strangely, through this experience, we felt God’s mercy through his Church. The Holy Father and the priests and cardinals he assigned to help us move forward was a tremendous act of love and mercy. Christ through his Church has accompanied us in our process of renewal and healing, as well as coming to grips with the truth and seeking justice. We can say with the psalmist: “The Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). I suppose that sums up the experience.


CWR: What do you hope people will take away from the book?

Fr. Brisson: In addition to hoping they have an enjoyable experience that lasts long after the final chapter, I hope they are renewed in their belief that God is always ready to forgive you as long as you ask for it, no matter how many times you mess up. And even in your sin he can use you to bring about a greater good.

I hope people realize there’s hope for everyone. We often see people in a specific moment in time, like a photograph. We don’t know their futures. The person we think is the worst person in the world now, may end up converting and founding a halfway house that becomes a refuge for the mother of someone who will one day discover the cure for cancer. We never know. And we shouldn’t try to figure it out. We just need to do God’s will as it’s presented to us in the moment, and let God be God.

For a priest reading this book, I’m hoping he sees that even if he’s not able to accomplish what he thinks he’s “supposed to,” God will still use him to accomplish his will. In other words, while we go after what we think is God’s will, he is using us to work on what really is his will. A lay person might get that too, but I suspect it will hit home more for a priest.

Written by Paul Senz for the Catholic World Report

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