Author of Joshua books aims to go 'ever deeper into what Jesus was like.'

Posted: Friday, November 15, 2002

ALTAMONT, N.Y. (AP) -- Joseph Girzone could always tell a story.

As a young priest, he says, he'd share tales about Jesus with rapt high school kids and deliver sermons after taking the pulpit with zero preparation -- totally reliant on the grace of God.

Later came his best-selling ''Joshua'' books, folksy stories about a latter-day Jesus figure who lives in a cottage, carves wood, helps with the dishes and heals people.

At age 72, Girzone's storytelling talent is still bearing fruit. A movie was released this year based on his Joshua character. His novel, ''The Messenger,'' came out in April and this month brings his 16th book, ''Trinity.''

The new book aims to explain the holy Trinity -- a basic mystery of Roman Catholicism. But since it's by Girzone, it tries to shed light on same topics he has grappled with since his sermonizing days: Who was Jesus? How did he think? How did he feel?

''It's a continuous strain in my life,'' he says ''going ever deeper into what Jesus was like.''

Girzone is ruddy-faced with white hair. He is quick to laugh and an animated talker. Telling one story about an old Irish priest he slips into a faux brogue.

He lives for much of the year in a big white house on a hillside overlooking the Albany area. The largely immaculate home -- the exception is his disheveled office -- does double duty as a site for religious retreats he regularly runs with a Dominican nun named Sister Dorothy Ederer.

Girzone grew up nearby in Albany (serving as an altar boy in the same church as another future author, William Kennedy) and went into the seminary as a teenager. After teaching high school in the Bronx, he served as a parish priest in the Albany area.

Back then, his writing consisted mostly of reports and weekly letters in the church bulletin, which proved popular. While priests typically write sermons, Girzone essentially ad-libbed, all the better to let God guide him, he says.

Serious writing came after he retired from parish work in 1981 in the face of stress, high blood pressure and a high risk of stroke.

He was living with his sister Margaret Mary when he wrote ''Joshua,'' a ''what if'' parable of Jesus walking the earth today. Joshua is tolerant of people's weaknesses but intolerant of piety and heavy-handed church authorities. Girzone kept the tale simple.

Twenty-eight publishers rejected it.

''They said these kinds of books don't sell,'' he recalled.

He printed 5,000 copies on his own for $12,000 and began selling them at talks. Sales grew by word of mouth. By 1986, Girzone was spending late nights shipping out books from his home as ''Joshua'' became an unlikely best seller for Waldenbooks.

In 1987, Collier Books issued a paperback ''Joshua.'' It has sold more than 3 million copies and its sequels have sold more than 1 million, according to Doubleday, which has published Girzone's last 10 titles.

The Joshua books can elicit strong reactions. Fans say the books affirm their faith by making Jesus come alive. Critics have called the writing simplistic. Conservative Catholics have criticized Joshua's ecumenical nature and willingness to take on church authority.

Girzone notes with satisfaction that he saw the Joshua books displayed in a window of a Vatican book store.

''I know they're popular over there,'' he said.

The Joshua movie came out in April. In it, F. Murray Abraham plays a disapproving priest. But the quiet, Christian tale was not designed to compete for cineplex screens against blockbusters. Crusader Entertainment's Epiphany Films opted to roll ''Joshua'' out market by market, eventually showing it on 300 screens. The video and DVD were released in October.

Girzone did not write the script and has done little in the way of promotional appearances. He says he has slowed down since an illness a few years ago. His writing sessions, he says, are punctuated with snoozes in his chair.

He says he intends to work as long as he has the strength and has started another Joshua book.

It starts with Joshua walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Since he looks vaguely Middle Eastern and out of place, FBI agents take him in for questioning. What comes next, God only knows, Girzone says with a laugh.

''I have no idea. God has to tell me page to page what to put in next.''

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