PÈRE JOSEPH – Part Two

PÈRE JOSEPH – Part Two of Three

Father Lemieux settled into his role as a cog in St. Brigid’s large, smooth-running machine.  Suburban, active, well-educated, one of the area’s wealthiest parishes, filled with successful, important people.  Though he was saddened to see how little they had in common with his old flock – so many of them at the bottom of the ladder with little prospect of rising.

Immersing himself in his work, Father Lemieux quickly realized what thin gruel his message of kindness and compassion was for these high-powered people.  The bank managers and lawyers, the physicians and ad execs seemed perfectly comfortable living parallel lives – Sunday mornings for pious utterings, the rest of the week for grasping, elbowing, getting ahead.

He called attention to this anomaly, but it was disheartening how few struggling consciences he unearthed, especially as the moral dilemma was so evident to him.  For the most part theirs were the complaints of affluence.  If sin weren’t quite dead, it was fading fast, no longer a serious issue.  For his new people the guilt of choice was an inchoate, panicky fear of falling behind – in position, possessions, status.  Children’s achievement was an especially virulent foil, arousing frantic emotion among the parents, and sometimes irrational behavior.

Ah, the children…privileged offspring, so wise in the ways of the world, their normal anxieties fanned white-hot by advertisers promising a cure for every care, and all so attractively presented.  To Father Lemieux, the children’s lot was all the more poignant because it wasn’t of their making, played for fools by their elders and supposed betters for commercial gain.  He often wondered how far the children of Ste. Anne’s had progressed down this unholy track.

At first, the display at Sunday’s late Masses was irritating, but over time the color and variety grew on him.  Sometimes, waiting to distribute communion, he would wander through the parking lot, reviewing the latest offerings from Detroit and Stuttgart.  The usual funeral homes and restaurants underwrote the parish bulletin, but St. Brigid’s also featured car dealerships – Bob O’Brien’s Luxury Imports took a half-page opposite Crest Cadillac-Olds.  Also represented were the furriers and jewelers of Cherrystone Mall, along with his personal favorite, Claire’s Maison des Poodles.

His pastor’s lukewarm response to Vatican II was disappointing.  True, St. Brigid’s had altered its liturgy – it was more approachable and the stepped-up participation by lay men and women was healthy.  But Father Lemieux found little enthusiasm for the plight of the parish poor or wider social concerns.  Without much support, he assembled a group that met weekly to collect food and clothing for the pariahs of the parish – its failures.  Of them the prevailing attitude was, less said the better.  He quietly lent a hand in a neighboring parish which had taken in a number of Central American refugee families, but for the most part Father Lemieux felt awkward and out of place.  He no longer discussed controversial topics publicly.  As he withdrew his spirit shrank.  The best part of him was no longer needed or wanted.

Humbled by his fall, in the evenings his prayers were often overcome by loneliness and disillusion.  Why didn’t I become a monk, after all?  I certainly wasn’t cut out for the world.  Give them credit, he thought ruefully, my superiors saw that more clearly than I did.

He missed his quiet French people.  From a distance the dark passivity that used to drive him wild seemed almost a virtue against the Irish, the mainstay of St. Brigid’s, many of whom he found garrulous and rude.  These days he had little contact with Ste. Anne’s.  In the early seventies he buried his father and several years later his mother moved in with a sister north of the city.  The other brothers and sisters were scattered everywhere.

From time to time driving through the streets of Ste. Anne’s, he observed the influx of Latinos and Asians filling the vacuum left by the French Canadian exodus.  Signs on bakeries and variety stores were now in Spanish and some other, unfathomable script – Cambodian, he was told.  What difference would it have made if he had stayed, he wondered – his people would have moved on, anyway.

By the mid-seventies, a number of Father Lemieux’ colleagues had left the priesthood.  Several had married, unthinkable until only recently.  It took him a while to recover from a visit to the apartment of his close friend, the former Father Leo Mulcahy – now it was Leo and Marie.  Long repressed memories and sensations flooded back – thoughts of his youth and the girls he had loved in his own chaste way, more intense and agonizing because of the moral constraints which ruled his life even then.  In turn, these memories fed the doubts that arose from the muddle he’d made of his priestly career.  Why not me, he began to ask, thinking of his married friends – for all my sacrifices, what have I accomplished?  My superiors act as if I weren’t alive, these days I don’t even have the satisfaction of their hostility.  Which is worse, to be maligned or forgotten?

After a difficult period of prayer and reflection, Father Lemieux emerged from this episode refreshed and strengthened.  Surely, he thought, these difficulties are a gift from God.  He tries most severely those He loves best.

One Wednesday evening some time later, after his weekly groceries- and clothes-bagging session, one of the volunteers asked if he would join her for coffee, she needed his advice.  Across a table in a nearby sandwich shop, the woman, Carol, remarked how quiet and withdrawn he’d been recently.  He wasn’t ill, she hoped.

It was nothing, the priest replied with a shrug, and anyway, the situation had resolved itself.

Walking back to her car, Carol suddenly stopped and took his hand.  “I hope everything’s all right, Father,” she said, intently.  “You must know how fond we are of you.”

Startled, Father Lemieux looked away, masking his confusion and fright.

That night was torment.  He couldn’t get the woman out of his mind.  Sitting in his room with the New Testament as he did every evening, he turned the pages and tried to read.  She really was quite pretty.  He put the book down and closed his eyes…late thirties, perhaps…never married, I think.

Pretty?  Never married?   He shook his head violently.  What is this, some schoolboy crush?  I closed those doors years ago!  He looked at the Bible shut on his lap and let out a long breath.  What a fool, thinking I’m immune from temptation.  Even Christ didn’t escape temptation.

He knew what had to be done.  There was no choice but to absent himself from these meetings, at least temporarily, remove the source of difficulty.  Avoid the occasion of sin, I’ve always counseled – surely that excellent advice applies to me as well.  In our frailty we often lose a direct confrontation.

As the week wore on, however, the line began to blur.  More complex, these issues are, much more complex than they first seemed.  After all, he reasoned, this work is important, I can’t just walk away from people who need my help.  Furthermore, he thought with some annoyance, who am I to judge this woman?  It’s all in my mind, a product of my imagination.  Surely it was just a friendly gesture, nothing more.  In fact, a parishioner’s concern for her priest is commendable.   Such caring should be encouraged, not dismissed.

But what if there is more?  What if she’s really interested in me…he paused and closed his eyes…as a man?  He smiled and shook his head sadly.  A man.  I haven’t have the faintest notion what that means.

Wednesday came quickly.  As Father Lemieux entered the church hall, as usual the first to arrive, his heart was pounding and his papers shook as he removed them from his briefcase.  People began filtering in.  He waited…waited…finally setting the group to inventory the week’s donations.  He kept an eye on the door but as the evening went on and she didn’t appear, he felt a weight lifting from his shoulders.  How foolish, he thought, walking back to the rectory, so much worry about nothing at all.  By the time he closed the door to his room he was exhausted, disappointed and depressed.

He had just stretched out on his bed when the phone rang.  He rose and padded down the stairs in his stocking feet, lifting the receiver just as the answering machine was clicking on.  “St. Brigid’s,” he said, rubbing his eyes.

“Father Lemieux?”

“Speaking.”

“This is Carol, Carol Hennessey.”

His heart leapt.  “Carol, I…we missed you tonight.” He glanced about furtively.  Suddenly his mouth was dry.

“Sorry, something came up, I had to work late.”

The priest looked at the wall, a framed portrait of Jesus, his Sacred Heart encircled by thorns, drops of blood underneath.  “I want you to know we’re counting on you,” he went on sturdily, “we trust you’ll be there next week.”

There was a long pause.  “I was wondering,” the woman began softly, “I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner sometime.”

Numbed, he held the phone to his ear…the holy picture was going in and out of focus.  As he stared it became smaller, retreating into the wall until it disappeared altogether.  “Why, ah…yes,” he heard himself saying, “yes, I’d like that very much.”

“Would this Friday be all right?  At my place?  But if you’re busy…”

Commitments…I must have commitments…if I do I’ll cancel them.  He swallowed hard.  “That would be fine.”

“My building, the red brick apartments at Walnut and Ashby, you know, on the corner?  I’m number twelve.”

“I know the area.”

Another silence.  “Well, I guess I’ll see you then.  About seven?”

“Yes…seven.  Number twelve.  Thank you.”

He replaced the receiver gently.  Her voice continued ringing in his ear…no, not a voice, a bell.  So he’d been right after all.  Slowly, he climbed the stairs and at the top he turned.  Jesus was staring at him as if nothing had happened.

That night he slept soundly.  He dreamt of his family’s house, the room he and his brother shared until Marcel went into the army, the baseball posters, his airplane models, cold winter mornings and the smell of bacon frying.  All this came back to him.  When the alarm rang at five forty-five he sat bolt upright.  He had no idea where he was.

The tone for the day was set when he snapped at his server, slow to bring water for his fingers after offering the bread and wine.  Then a shouting match with the nun who ran the parochial school, some stupid point he insisted on.  Mortified, he apologized immediately.  The whole day he was distracted, replaying that conversation. Dinner.  You and me.  Yes, I’d like that, I’d like that very much indeed.  He flushed and his face grew warm.  What could I possibly have been thinking?  After toying with his evening meal, he stepped next door to the church and led a small group of the faithful in a desultory praying of the rosary.  An hour of aimless wandering around the rectory and he decided to retire to his room.

Did I bring this on, he asked himself?  Something I said, some signal of mine received by another lonely person?  What could it have been?  At any event it is my fault, he thought, closing his eyes, and what a coward I am to blame her.  That evening, Father Lemieux knelt beside his bed and prayed, burying his face in his rough wool blanket.  He could not, would not permit this…this farce to continue.  He pleaded with God to forgive him, accept his atonement.  When he looked up, the blanket was damp from his tears.

For a long time the priest lay awake.  He felt unclean.  Even after all this time, how near is the path not taken, how sweet that first step.  And at the end of that path, an unknown, intriguing world, its only certainty the steep price to enter.

Forcing his eyes shut, he began to pray.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.  He thought of the great saints, their trials and weaknesses, their penances…their penances.   Throughout his priestly life, at times of distress an idea sometimes came to him, a frightening idea.  He had never acted on it.  Sitting up he looked around the room…dark except for the crack of light above the window shade from the street lamp outside.  He turned on his bedside light – eleven-thirty five by the clock on his bureau – then turned it off.

The bureau.  He rose and crossed the room…of course, the bureau.  The bottom drawer held his few treasures and things he seldom used.  He felt around for the coiled leather belt and big buckle, a gift from one of his nephews, now grown, with children of his own.  He ran his fingertips across the cool, coarse brass, visualizing the engraved cowboy and horse, remembering the face of his nephew, so excited by the gift.  Little good such a thing is to a priest, he thought grimly, at least the kind of priest I’ve become…but perhaps it has its use.  As he lifted the belt by its end it uncoiled, the buckle hitting the wood floor with a bang.

Eyes now used to the dim light, he loosened the top button of his pajama shirt, then undid the rest.  He removed the shirt, laying it carefully across his bed.  Running his thumb over the sharp metal horn on the back of the buckle…such foolishness, he thought, shaking his head, but perhaps the fool is closer to the Lord than this weak man of God will ever be.  He grasped the end of the belt and sighed.  Suddenly he lifted his arm and swung the buckle up and over his head.  It thudded off the ceiling and struck his forehead a glancing blow.  Startled, he rubbed the spot.

He turned the buckle this way and that, then slid his hand down, shortening the leather strap.  Again he wound up and swung the buckle in an arc – this time it cleared the ceiling and struck him in the ribs.  Quickly, he whipped it around again – it made a sharp pain and he wondered if it had cut the skin.  Once more and the flat side smacked his back harmlessly.  Next time it missed altogether.  Frustrated, he leveled his shoulders and took a deep breath.  The next blow was by far the best, the spike striking his back and unmistakably piercing the skin.

Doggedly, methodically he kept on, accepting the failures with equanimity – many more than the successes, a necessary part of the plan.  Pause, tense…explode.  Pause, tense…explode.  After a while the priest’s mind shut down and he felt no more pain, but from time to time a number floated across his mind…eighty-five…two hundred twelve…four-fifty.

By five hundred his arm ached but he kept on until his shoulder, numbed, could do no more.  He dropped the belt on the floor and fell face-down across the bed, instantly asleep.

When the alarm rang, he sat up, wide awake, and looked around.  The bedsheets!  Covered with blood!  A wave of embarrassment swept over him.  Of course they were stained – how could they not be?  He peered in the bathroom mirror, craning to look at his back and shoulders – a mass of welts and cuts.  He shuddered.  Wetting a towel he patted the parts of his back he could reach, moaning at the pain.  Late…no time to do more.   After shaving, he gingerly pulled on a clean undershirt, then a second, before donning his collar and vest.  He rolled the soiled bedsheets into a ball and shoved them in far corner of the closet.  After Mass he would change the bed before the housekeeper made her rounds, wash the soiled linens himself later.  No one would ever know.  He prayed God to receive his offering with favor.

During Mass he was unusually calm, feeling the presence of Jesus more strongly than in years…as if He were standing beside him.  The brief homily he invented on the spot – Christ’s sacrifice prods the sinner to seek God’s forgiveness.  At the Consecration he could barely raise the host and chalice but, he thought with a smile, today someone else is lifting my hands.

Removing the mass vestments, Father Lemieux thought of the morning ahead.   Housekeeping can wait.  His mind was clear, he knew exactly what to do.  Avoidance will be the strategy, deflection the tactic and not a hint of accusation.  He returned to the rectory and over a cup of strong coffee, lifted the hall phone and dialed the woman’s number.  Thankfully she was still there, just on her way out the door.  “Carol,” he said calmly, staring at the Sacred Heart, “I’m sorry but I won’t be able to accept your invitation…”  She began to reply but he kept on, “…but you gave me an idea.  I’m going to bring supper for our group next week.  I should have done this a long ago, you’re all so generous with your time.  Would you mind calling everyone to let them know?”

So Father Lemieux did not quit the group.  He continued to see Carol Hennessey across the piles of clothing and groceries.  It was as if nothing had happened, almost  – for when their eyes met he sometimes thought he saw a different look.  Embarrassment?  He hoped not.  Disappointment?  He couldn’t say.  What he did know, his spiritual armor now had a new layer,  though there was a small, happy place in his heart, also new, for he was grateful someone might still care.

As the eighties rolled along, the nation’s economic health worsened.  For a time the privileged areas of its cities and suburbs seemed immune.  St. Brigid’s was typical, viewing joblessness as an oddity, a mark of shame.  But the malaise couldn’t be stemmed, and soon everyone was talking about the unthinkable.  This neighbor laid off, that family on welfare, for the first time in her married life Mrs. So-and-So looking for work.  Among Father Lemieux’ parishioners an awful realization had set in – any of them could be next.  A cynical new expression was making the rounds:  Downsizing.

Ironically, with hard times, Father Lemieux’ ministry came alive.  Victims of the system they had championed, parishioners sorting through the debris turned to him for solace and advice.  He hoped his campaigns against selfishness would not be resented, and prayed for the grace to avoid cynicism.  It did fascinate him that, as incomes fell, the demand for his services increased.  Once again, Father Lemieux found himself in the mainstream, surrounded by human tragedy.

A buzzer rasped.  The receptionist put her phone down and smiled.  “The Bishop will see you now.”

{TO BE CONTINUED]

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