'Joshua' keeps on preaching

The doctor's verdict was blunt and he didn't want to quibble about details.

The patient's heart and blood were in terrible shape. He was working too hard and the stress was about to kill him. The doctor said he should quit his job -- immediately.

But the 50-year-old patient was a Roman Catholic priest.

"I thought I had, maybe, a year," said Father Joseph Girzone. "I remember thinking: What do I want to do before I die? What is it I need to say? I decided I wanted to write a book about Jesus. I wanted to write a simple little book about the Jesus that ordinary people met and loved, the Jesus that Jewish people saw walking down the street."

That was 20 years ago. The book was called "Joshua" and it became a surprise bestseller, with many sequels. Now "Joshua" is poised to visit movie theaters.

Girzone is alive and well. Still, his once-fragile health plays a role in this story. Because the priest felt he had nothing to lose, he poured his feelings about the modern church into a "parable" based on a simple, but risky, concept: What if Jesus quietly returned and set up a wood-working shop in a small American town?

Then the questions kept coming. What if Joshua visited Northern Ireland? What if he set up shop in the inner city? What if he returned to the bloody Holy Land?

Most of all, Girzone kept asking a question that infuriated many: What if Christreturned and started prying into the affairs of the Catholic Church and otherflocks, as well?

"I want Joshua to have a strong, prophetic voice," said Girzone, who works through offices and retreat centers near Albany, N.Y., and Annapolis, Md. "I want Joshua to point out where his church has gone wrong and to help put his people back on course. ...

"If Jesus came back today, I think he would be very critical of those who abuse their teaching authority. I think Jesus would fight against secrecy and corruption."

Those are loaded words, especially right now.

Joshua doesn't just touch souls -- he critiques Vatican dogmas. He doesn't just heal the blind -- he captivates Jews with his teachings on the Trinity. He doesn't just raise the dead -- he counsels angry Catholic clergy.

"If my father has not given you the gift of celibacy, that is his business," Joshua tells a tired, dispirited priest in the first novel. "The Church must respect the way the Holy Spirit works, especially in the souls of priests, otherwise she will destroy her own priesthood. What Jesus has made optional, the church should not make mandatory."

This scene does not appear in the Christian-television-friendly film that opens April 19 in selected theaters, mostly in smaller Heartland and Bible Belt markets far from the long knives of major-media critics. "Joshua," the movie, omits many scenes in which Joshua judges the actions of specific brands of clergy and churches.

Girzone said the movie had to be careful not to offend too many viewers. It is also strange to see a movie that focuses primarily on Catholic characters, yet clearly -- with its cheerful style and pop-gospel music -- is targeting evangelical Protestants.

"It is hard to capture -- on film -- someone who is gentle and loving, yet powerful and prophetic," he said. "Being un-offensive is not the same thing as being holy."

Yet the film hints at Girzone's main theme, which he believes is at the heart of many struggles in Catholicism and other churches. Love, he insists, must never be confused with law. Here is how Girzone puts it, speaking through Joshua in a confrontation with his Vatican inquisitors at the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrines of the Faith.

"Religion is beautiful only when it is free and flows from the heart. That is why you should guide and inspire but not legislate behavior. And to threaten God's displeasure when people do not follow your rules is being a moral bully and does no service to God. You are shepherds and guides, but not the ultimate judges of human behavior. That belongs only to God."

To which millions of American Catholics and Protestants will now say, "Amen."