PÈRE JOSEPH – Conclusion

PÈRE JOSEPH – Part Three of Three

Father Lemieux walked stiffly across the room.  Opening the heavy door, he saw a burly, silver-haired man seated at an imposing desk.  Except for a single manila folder the desk was bare.  On the wall behind, two large photographs – John Paul II, hands folded in his lap, the other a panoramic view of his outdoor mass in Boston.  He glanced at the side wall – photos of the Bishop and important personages.  On a sailboat with Jack and Jackie, palming a basketball with Red Auerbach, accepting a jar of jelly beans from President Reagan.

As the priest approached, the Bishop stood and came around the desk, his hand extended.  His simple black cassock was bound with a sash of episcopal purple, wound tight about his ample waist.  A heavy silver crucifix hung from a chain around his neck.  “Joe!  Sorry to keep you waiting.  The speeches went on and on – you know how those things go.”

Yes, the Father Lemieux thought, I know how those things go.  The oversized hand and firm grip brought to mind the celebrated high school athlete, All-State lineman at the Catholic academy across town from Joe Lemieux’ large public high school.

“I used the time well, Your Grace,” he responded impassively, “collecting my thoughts.”

“Good, good.”  The Bishop motioned him toward a crimson velour couch, “and let’s skip that ‘Your Grace’ business, no need for that here.”

The couch was set before a long window overlooking a courtyard.  Cautiously, Father Lemieux lowered himself onto an yet another overstuffed cushion.  The Bishop took up his position at the other end, birds on a wire.  Over his host’s shoulder the priest observed a tree stripped bare by the wind, an abandoned nest in the crotch of two white-streaked limbs.

“It’s been a long time,” the Bishop began.  “You’re well, I trust?”

Father Lemieux stared at the familiar, rugged face.  Since their encounter so many years ago that face had been a symbol of his failure, his loss that no amount of prayer had been able to salve.  The Bishop’s forehead was deeply creased, with wrinkles about the mouth and eyes.  Is that new, Father Lemieux wondered, trying to remember the last time he’d last seen the man close up.

“A touch of the flu last month, Your Grace, otherwise it goes well.”  Ça va bien, he said under his breath.

His host leaned forward, palms on his knees.  “Joe, I’ll come to the point.  I’ve got a problem and I need your help.”

Frowning, the priest shook his head.  “My help?”

“I don’t know how much you’ve kept in touch, but the last few years your old area has gone downhill and so has your parish.  To put it mildly, Ste. Anne’s is a disaster.”

But not as bad as when I was there, the priest thought, a dour look crossing his face.

The Bishop paused, fingering the crucifix which lay against his chest.  A large ring, symbol of his office, dominated his right hand.  “Of course you’re aware we closed the school.”

Father Lemieux nodded.  Overcome with grief and shame he had driven by the boarded-up building a few months ago.

“Thank God for the sisters,” the Bishop went on, “but even they couldn’t keep it afloat, and now,” his eyes narrowed, “now, it seems the parish itself may soon be a thing of the past.”  He pointed to the folder on his desk.  “My staff wants me to close the church,” he looked squarely at the priest, “cut our losses and get out.  I’ll tell you there is tremendous pressure on me to do just that.”

Father Lemieux swallowed hard.  Some inner-city parishes had been divided among their neighbors in recent years, victims of the city in transition, but he never thought Ste. Anne’s would come to that…or worse.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

The Bishop opened his hands helplessly.  “So am I, but that’s the reality.  The old base that gave it such stability is gone.  Your people, les habitants,” his careless intonation grated on the priest’s ear, “a fraction of what they were.  Most of the newcomers aren’t registered with us.  God knows how many are even baptized, we don’t see them on Sundays, and now,” he rolled his eyes, “now we have competition from some fundamentalist outfit down the street.  For the life of me, I don’t know what anybody sees in that sort of thing, but there you have it.”

The Bishop sat back, his hands folded across his chest, steepling his fingers.  He raised the tips to his chin, then looked pensively at his guest who was staring at the ring.  “You never did think much of us, did you, Joe?  The establishment, if I may put it that way.”  He went on, not waiting for a reply, “no, you’re a rebel, plain and simple.  A long time ago you made that clear.”

The blunt words took Father Lemieux aback. “You surprise me, Your Grace.   I’ve never thought of myself as a rebel.”  He paused, “a man of principle, perhaps…”

“Principle?  We’re all men of principle!  Show me one who isn’t!”  The Bishop’s eyes narrowed and he raised a finger.  “But which principle?  That’s the question.”  He waved his hand around the richly appointed room.  “Admit it.  You could never stand this sort of thing, what it represents.”

A smile appeared at the corners of Father Lemieux’ mouth.  “In your words, Your Grace…George…what exactly does this represent?”

“Why, the service of God, of course.”  The Bishop chortled, “and you, even you, must admit this approach has shown a fair amount of staying power.”  The Bishop sat back, his face relaxed.  “But seriously, Joe, you’ve seen it – these days people are looking for something else, something they can identify with, be proud of.  How to reach them with our story, that’s our challenge today.”  Again he looked about the room.  “Style, appearances, call it what you will, these things do matter.  Folks down on their luck, ordinary people, they want us to be there for them.  The others, those who’ve made it big, they’re smart enough to fend for themselves – just ask them, they’ll tell you.  But the reality is, results alone aren’t enough, you need to look like you know what you’re doing, too.  Take that storefront next to Ste. Anne’s…Evangelical something or other – who’d want to get involved with a shabby setup like that?”

Father Lemieux thought a moment, then shook his head.  “I suspect Our Lord would be more at home in that storefront than in here,” he said quietly.

The Bishop leaned forward.  “See, there you go!  Centuries out of touch when we first met and you haven’t changed a bit!”  His face became animated and he jabbed his finger at the priest.  “Answer me this.  If you had to be in New York tomorrow on Church business, how would you get there?

“How would I get there?”

“What’s so difficult about the question?  How would you get there?”

“Well, I suppose I’d drive.”

“Exactly.  Or take the train, or fly, but would you go by donkey?”

Father Lemieux looked puzzled.

The Bishop placed his hands on the desk.  “I rest my case.  Next question.  Suppose Our Lord appeared to us right here in this room, and suppose He asked you how to reach people in the last part of the twentieth century.  What would you tell Him?  Would you say, ‘Lord, I know a building next to this pizza place, the rent’s reasonable.’  Is that what you’d say?  Of course not!”  The Bishop spread his hands. “But what would you say?  How would you advise Him to get His message out?”

Father Lemieux opened his mouth but the Bishop barged ahead.  “Why, you’d tell Him to get on television, of course!  Of course, that wouldn’t be the only thing you’d say, but don’t kid yourself, it’d be a big part of it.  And what a communicator He’d be, too, an absolute master, just like He was in His own time.”  The Bishop smiled.  “Don’t you see, Joe, these days just standing up in church isn’t enough.  You’ve got to do more, a lot more.”  He nodded at the photograph of John Paul and the huge crowd.  “The Church has to use all the tools, and believe me, that takes organization!  And money!”

“You may be right, George,” Father Lemieux replied evenly, “but I’ve always believed what really matters is the Lord’s life, His example.  As you put it, His style.  That’s the power, that’s what has endured.  The rest?  Display, that’s all – technique and display.”

The Bishop shook his head.  “Unfortunately, delivering that glorious message is much harder than it used to be.  Don’t you see, Joe, the Church’s genius is that it adapts.  It takes the best of this godless world and turns it to its own use.  Did it in the fourth century, did it in the fourteenth, does it today.  Only difference is the details.  You may think you’re unique, Joe, but believe me, a lot of people would like to crawl in that time warp of yours and come out in a simpler time.  God knows, I would.  You think I look forward to the speeches, the appearances, the politicking day after day, night after night?  Ah well,” he said wearily, “if you think so, others probably do, too.  Maybe I’m not doing such a bad job after all.”

The priest was smiling and shaking his head.  The Bishop looked at him.  “What is so funny, if I may ask?”

“It’s not funny,” Father Lemieux responded, “it’s sad, it’s terribly sad.”

The Bishop’s eyes narrowed.  “Meaning?”

“Meaning I’m agreeing with you.  You see, I agree with you, after all.  I am a rebel.  As Christ was a rebel, so am I.”

The Bishop slapped his knee with his hand.  “My friend, you are more deluded than I ever suspected, daring to compare yourself with the Son of God!”

Father Lemieux shook his head.  “If I thought I were anything but a pale shadow of Christ, yes, that would be the height of folly.  But to try?  For all of us to try?”  His eyes burned, “why, that’s the whole idea!”  He waved his arm about the room.  “Our principles are cheapened when they are so convenient, when they produce such luxury.  His message is lost when we let that happen.”

The Bishop reddened.  “You would condemn the Church because it’s part of the real world?  Because it tries to be effective?  Come on!  That’s a counsel of failure, a loser’s philosophy!”

Father Lemieux shrugged.  “No doubt that explains why you are here, Your Grace, and I am where I am.”

A heavy silence fell over the room, each man avoiding the other’s eyes.  Finally, the Bishop stood and walked back to the desk.  He turned, arms folded, wrapped around the file folder pressed to his chest.  He took a deep breath.  “Joe,” he said, a severe look at his face, “listen to me.  I say, can you still listen to me?”

The priest nodded imperceptibly.

“Why I brought you here today – once, long ago we both set out on a journey…”  He exhaled loudly, fixing the priest in his stare.  “Ah, hell…I’ll give it to you straight.  You’re going back to Ste. Anne’s.  You have six months to turn that place around.  If you can’t, it’s all over.  Do you understand?”

Father Lemieux’ mouth dropped open.  “Me!  Of all people, me?”  His eyebrows bobbed wildly.  “The priest who can’t do anything right?  The priest who fouls up everything he touches?  Those were your very words!  Or have you forgotten?”

The Bishop sat back against the edge of the desk.  “I wondered if you’d bring that up.”  Then he began to smile.  “You know, Joe, at least there is one thing we can agree on.  You were one lousy manager.”

The rebuke stopped Father Lemieux short.  The Bishop observed the shock on the priest’s face and he began to laugh, a deep, hearty laugh that rumbled on.  Father Lemieux tried to contain himself but he too sputtered then burst out laughing.

After a moment the men regained their composure, Father Lemieux taking out a handkerchief and wiping his eyes.  “So, well…I don’t understand why you want me to take on this…this job you say is impossible.”

“It’s very simple.  I don’t want to lose those people.”  The Bishop tapped his folder.  “If I split the parish up, no matter where I put those Hispanics and Asians they’re going to fall in a crack and disappear.  My other pastors are pushed so hard, nobody can give them what they need.  Don’t you see?  Their only chance is if we can keep the parish together.”

“Ah,” Father Lemieux, nodding, “I understand.”

“What I’m saying – it’s so bad, Joe, I’m talking missionary work – it’s a major reclamation project.  Maybe too major – it may already be too late.”

“But the finances, the books…”

The Bishop slapped the folder with his hand.  “Don’t you understand anything?  Get it through that thick Canuck skull of yours, if we don’t reach those people and fast, there will be no books!”  He leaned forward. “Look,” he said gently, “go there.  Show those people an example, your Frenchies, too, whatever’s left of them.  Get out on the street, listen to what they’re saying.  Find out what they’re worried about, make them see the Church wants them.  In other words, be a priest!

Father Lemieux was silent a moment.  “Do I have a choice?”

The Bishop tossed the folder back on his desk.  “None at all.  You start Monday.  The acting pastor, Frank Alves, he’s young but he’s a good man.  Trouble is, he’s drowning trying to do everything himself.  Bring him along.  If you can pull off this miracle, I want him ready to take over in a year.  We’ll carry you financially six months, then see where we are.  If anywhere.”  The Bishop’s face softened.  “You know, Joe, I have to admit, some things you did pretty well, in your own peculiar way, that is.”

Father Lemieux nodded.

“In fact, in some ways you were ahead of your time.  Otherwise, well, you were a royal pain in the ass.”  The Bishop put his hand on Father Lemieux’ shoulder.  “I leave you to figure out which is which.”

Dazed, Father Lemieux left the building, his mind in a thousand pieces.  This will take time to sort out.  I need to step back, think.  After so many years, what can I do?  How will I deal with these people?  I don’t know a word of Spanish or anything else for that matter, but there is no time.  Though perhaps that’s for the best.  They’ll have to take me as I am.

The priest walked slowly to the parking lot behind the Bishop’s house.  Reaching his car he paused, patting its scratched, discolored top.  “Well, old friend,” he said, “where we’re going we won’t stick out so much.”  He slid behind the wheel.  Grasping it with both hands, he said softly, his voice quavering, “we’re going home…at last, we’re going home.”

Standing at his window, the Bishop watched the battered vehicle disappear in a plume of blue exhaust.  So it’s Père Joseph again…or should I say José?  Desperate times call for desperate measures…he shook his head and smiled.  What have I got to lose?  And when you come down to it, who’s to say who was right and who was wrong?  What matters, the Church is still here…in spite of us all, it’s still here.

The intercom buzzed.  “Representative Crowley on three, returning your call.”

The Bishop dropped heavily into his smooth leather chair.  The stabbing pain from a few nights ago was back.  He closed his eyes and sighed, grasping his crucifix and chain, opening and closing his hand on the cool metal.  Then he kissed the cross, released it, and sighing deeply, picked up the phone.

“Eddie!” he barked, “how the hell are you?  What’s my favorite congressman up to today?”

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