In “Seventy Times Seven,” Saugatuck author Salvatore Sapienza writes about a Catholic brother torn between taking his final vows and accepting his sexual orientation. Sapienza, a former Marist Brother in the Catholic Church, talks with Managing Editor Jillian Bogater about how his first novel parallels some of his own life experiences.
BTL: What motivated you to write your first novel?
Sapienza: I began writing about my experiences as a religious brother in the Catholic Church mostly to help me make sense of that time in my life. While running the B&B in New Orleans, my partner and I would host writers for a gay literary festival each year, so I got to share my writing with quite a few published authors. Their advice and encouragement motivated me to continue writing my story.
BTL: You and the character Brother Vito have many shared life experiences. How much of “Seventy Times Seven” was inspired from personal experience?
Sapienza: I know it’s been said that all first novels are autobiographical, and, yes, Vito and I do share a lot of common personality traits. I decided early on, though, that I did not want to write a memoir for my first book. Writing it as a novel gave me a certain amount of freedom and the ability to adapt certain situations for symbolic or narrative effect. I wouldn’t have
been able to do that as effectively with a memoir.
BTL: How are you and Vito alike/different?
Sapienza: Vito shares the same naivety I did when I entered religious life. We both thought we could make a difference in helping to bring the Church into the 21st century. Like him, I also did not struggle with coming out and was open to my religious order about my sexual orientation. Despite our similarities, though, many of the sexual situations Vito finds himself in in the novel are totally fictitious, which is something I’ve had to explain
over and over again to friends and family!
BTL: The sense of duality is a constant theme throughout the novel. Talk about how that relates to the Catholic Church and to the process of
Sapienza: Like many gay Christians, Vito struggles trying to reconcile his spirituality with his sexuality. The gay men he associates with denounce
the Church, just as strongly as the Church denounces them. Vito never feels
fully accepted in either world, which is something I think most gay people
of faith struggle with. In many ways, we’re forced to choose one over the
other or else face the wrath from both sides. It’s why I make reference in
the novel to artists like Madonna, who merge spirituality and sexuality in
their work and force us to look at things in a new light.
BTL: Tell me a bit about your time with Father Mychal Judge (the gay priest who died in the Sept. 11 terror attacks), and the essay you wrote for “Remembering Father Mychal.”
Sapienza: The recent documentary on Father Judge, “The Saint of 9/11,” really captures the powerful impact he had on such diverse groups of people. Whether at a black-tie benefit or in a homeless shelter, he had such an easy
way of connecting with people from all walks of life. Macho firefighters
and flamboyant gay men equally embraced him as one of their own. In the
book, I write about my experiences of working with Mychal in forming the
first Catholic AIDS organization in New York City. We faced a lot of opposition from both the Catholic Church and the gay community, each of whom
were distrustful of our dual alliances. If there was ever anyone who personified Vito’s hopes and dreams for the coming together of the gay
community and the Church, it was Father Judge.