PÈRE JOSEPH

This story was written a while back and has been shared with a number of people, but this is its first “public appearance.”  Its central character anticipates Pope Francis, though who really could have anticipated this man and his astonishing example?  The story also resonates with scenes from Paul Bernard’s early years in Twentieth Century Limited.  Somewhat longer than most of the stories I’m posting here, it will appear in three parts over the next week or so.  I hope you enjoy it!  All the best, Jan

PÈRE JOSEPH

The priest crossed his legs and sank deeper in the overstuffed chair, staring at the door where he had entered nearly an hour ago.  A puddle on the parquet brought to mind the hurried search for his boots earlier that morning.  They’d better turn up soon, he thought, his soggy shoes warming his feet, if last night’s storm is a sign of the winter to come.

A few hours ago, as he was knocking snow from his shoes after the early Mass, the phone rang.  He caught his breath – at that hour nothing is routine.  A parishioner taken a turn for the worse?  An accident at the mill?  Not this time, for on the line was the Chancellor, number two man in the diocese.  The Bishop wanted to see him at ten sharp, no reason given.  Only after the priest hung up did he realize he hadn’t even asked why.

He put down the Catholic Visitor he had picked up on the way in.  Every Tuesday more copies than his parishioners could ever use appeared at his door, and he’d already spent enough time with this issue.  The priest looked about the room, really seeing it for the first time.  A cord dangling from the receptionist’s ear ran under her desk and back up to a dictation machine.  Several large pieces of furniture dominated the room.  An armoire (office supplies? coats?) stood beside a plush sofa, crimson like his chair.  The priest frowned…except for the crucifix over the door and an outsized photo of John Paul II, this could be any business office, any one, that is, within his limited experience of such places.

The Holy Father gazed over the room from his perch on the wall, his right hand raised as if to bless the fax machine immediately below.  The priest smiled, noting that the office copier was within range as well.  Since when did office equipment rate such pastoral attention?  What about those file cabinets against the far wall?  As he toyed with the idea it seemed less trifling – modern tools for modern work, after all.  Why should these be less worthy than, say, Gloucester’s fishing fleet a few miles up the coast, or New Bedford’s the other direction?  He nodded…the germ of a sermon, perhaps.

The receptionist whom he knew to be Mrs. O’Rourke, mother of several teenagers in the parish next to his, looked up from her typewriter.  “I can’t imagine what’s keeping the Bishop.  He’s always so punctual.”

Sighing, the priest uncrossed his legs.  You’d like to hope for better treatment, he thought, but this place metes out respect according to the recipient, like any other place.  And he knew the entry “Rev. Joseph A. Lemieux” in the Bishop’s appointment book promised neither the prospect of great service to the diocese, nor, any longer at least, risk of embarrassment.  After indulging these speculations he closed his eyes and his lips formed a silent prayer.  Unworthy, such thoughts – be rid of them.

The priest stood and began to pace, hands clasped behind his back.  His slender frame and the long, lean head of his father’s line made him appear taller than his five-feet ten.  The rough, blue-black jowls and chin were also of la famille Lemieux of Providence’s Ste. Anne de Beaupré parish, by way of the Gaspé several generations earlier.  Some years ago as he neared fifty, it happened that the priest’s dark hair turned gray, overnight it seemed, although the flash of white at the temples was new.  His bushy eyebrows, still jet black and formidable in repose, had an odd habit of twitching and jumping about when he was excited, a comical contrast to his usual earnest demeanor.

When he was twelve, this son of an unexceptional working-class family attended a retreat at a Benedictine monastery in Portsmouth on Newport Island, which changed his life, and after high school he opted for the priesthood, choosing the diocesan seminary.  But this brief encounter with the monastic life had inclined him toward simplicity, and against attachment and display.  Ever since, he had worn his hair cropped close, as a sign of commitment.  Time and experience confirmed his belief that self-indulgence was incompatible with service to God and His people, as well as threatening to the personal holiness to which he aspired.  Then as now, in Father Lemieux’s vivid imagination Christ was no mere concept, but a real person, whose saintly example was the only possible model for a man of the cloth, especially one living and working in the world.

Although he was personally content, in the seminary young Joe Lemieux’ demeanor prompted comments from classmates and even some teachers.  As he saw it, if his peers were able to reconcile a worldly bearing with their calling so be it.  His was not the only path, though he knew it to be the secure one, albeit more difficult.  With infinity at stake, what did the opinion of others matter?  Even so, as he took up his priestly duties, Father Lemieux made the effort to avoid attention, but some read his attitude as conceit and took it as criticism where none was intended, the more pointed, they felt, because it involved not merely words but deeds.

The receptionist looked up and shook her head apologetically.  The priest responded with a rueful smile.  His being here today, this room, this situation, was filled with an irony she couldn’t begin to fathom.

Years ago there had been another meeting with the same man on whom he now waited.  They were the same age, classmates, ordained together, but George Mulvaney was already a monsignor, a man of influence with important responsibilities – among them, clergy discipline.  Father Lemieux shuddered…so vivid, the memory, it could have been yesterday.

At the time he was pastor of the French parish of Ste. Anne’s, the church of his youth, his family’s church since it first arrived in the States.  Assigned right after ordination, he had been an instant celebrity, the local boy made good.  Full of energy and enthusiasm he was, nonetheless some aspects of this first ministry he found intimidating.  It was months before the young curé could accept being called “Father” by people three times his age, then there was the awkwardness of being credited with stature and enlightenment by those who knew him as a child.  But his parishioners’ humor and their wish for his success soon broke the ice.

The area of the city served by Ste. Anne’s had never recovered from the mill closings and job losses following World War Two.  Early in the century, mill work had been the magnet for les émigrés, drawing large numbers from the hardscrabble farms north of the border.  But as they had followed their dreams of a better life, after the war the mill owners pursued their own interests to the Carolinas and further south, leaving a disaster behind.

From his youth, the curé remembered the crowds streaming from the sprawling red-brick Wheeler mill at quitting time, and the Archambault just outside the parish.  But by the time he took up his priestly duties, boarded-up windows, broken glass and weeds in the walkways and graffiti were everywhere.  Unemployment was rife and hope a word without meaning.  With no work some had abandoned the fight and returned north.  Asking around, the curé found only a handful of his boyhood friends still living in the parish.  The lucky ones had fled, many to the military, some with the passport of a college degree.  For most, return was unlikely.

It was the fifties, and smarting from the Korean stalemate the nation was consumed by Communism.  Wandering the corridors of the parish school, the young curé observed the children huddled under their desks, covering their heads against the flash and roar which, it was said, could come at any time.  In the churches, prayers and devotions were offered for the conversion of Russia, whose antagonism was all the more terrifying because its godless center which, it was also said, encouraged all manner of unthinkable acts.

Curiously, in those schoolrooms and churches, little was made of the plight of European Jews in the Second War, and no mention at all of supposedly civilized Christians’ role in that monstrous blot on human history.  During the curé’s own schooling, little had been said about the Holocaust, but some years later when its enormity became widely known he was forced to examine his memory and conscience.  His own inattention he might attribute to youthful ignorance, but a seed had been planted.  People knew!  Even then, people knew!  Why were we not told?

The question haunted him.  When in seminary he discovered the extent of the official Church’s somnolence, following this ragged edge of his faith he discovered the thread of anti-Semitism running though the Church’s history.  For the first time in his life he felt real despair.  He prayed for enlightenment.  When men inflict such harm, why do people of good will stand by?  Then, recovered from his crisis, he vowed that whatever others might or might not do, never would he be silent in the presence of evil.  As his ministry gained confidence, the young curé began in his sermons to speak on the issues of the day, linking them with the commandments and the teachings of Christ.

Offering the first Mass of the morning, consoling the bereaved, bestowing the gift of grace on fresh life, the curé seemed born to the priestly life.  However, his vocation was demanding, and in the presence of pain and sorrow often he was unable to restrain the tears.  Ironically, one of the most joyful occasions was also for him the most troublesome.  As a youth Joe Lemieux had been sociable and well-liked, and upon graduating from high school his choice of career shocked those who didn’t know him well.  Now, joining a young man and woman in marriage, he glimpsed the world he had rejected, of love that touches and can be touched, of children bearing his name.  At such times a profound sadness would overcome him.

But such sorrows were short-lived.  The clouds moved on, reaffirming that this life was indeed his destiny, that he wanted nothing but to serve God and God’s people.  So, instead of loneliness, his evening hours were filled with quiet joy at being chosen for the work of the Lord.

Three years into his ministry, old Father Martin, the pastor for whom he had served Mass as a boy, died unexpectedly.  There was talk that the curé might succeed him but, young and inexperienced, this was out of the question.  However, several years later when the new pastor fell ill and was forced to retire, the curé stepped in, and within the year was confirmed in the position, at thirty becoming the youngest pastor in the diocese anyone could recall.

As the years passed, the people’s love for their pastor deepened.  His leadership was strong and his touch gentle, his life exemplary.  Old men and women reminisced about the time Père Joseph, for that is what they now called him, was a schoolboy among them.  His parents enjoyed a special place of honor in the parish.

Père Joseph’s personal life was austere.  He ate sparingly, taking an occasional glass of wine at dinner with company.  He had few civilian clothes and, save for working in the garden of the rectory, his only recreation was helping out with the CYO teams.  Seldom did he take a day off and he was never known to have a real vacation.  His old Ford wagon was cluttered with bats and balls, boxes of clothing, sacks of groceries for the poor.  Hard to believe this noisy vehicle with the blue exhaust had ever graced a showroom floor, a gift some years back from the parishioners, as an even more ancient Plymouth expired.

Père Joseph insisted that the French language be taught alongside English in the parochial school and used for church announcements.  This pleased his older parishioners, but irked the more educated and raised eyebrows at headquarters downtown.  In the mid-sixties Père Joseph enthusiastically embraced the reforms of Vatican II.  Simplifying the liturgy was an obvious step and he saw great possibilities in approaching God through one’s neighbor.  He devoured accounts of the proceedings, discussing Pope John’s aggiornamento late into the night with parishioners, arriving bleary-eyed for Mass the next morning.  Weekly sermons on the Council’s work were his way of preparing his people for the changes, a paean of joy for the first cool breezes seeping through the musty Church.

But all was not well.  As Père Joseph saw colleagues jousting for appointments to the wealthier parishes, contending for power and privilege, he became convinced that this gamesmanship reflected poorly on all the clergy and made their work more difficult.  As time went on he withdrew from acquaintances who were swept up in this competition and, increasingly isolated, he became less circumspect in his judgments.  This man of God who wanted nothing more than to pattern his life on Christ’s found critical thoughts invading his mind.  Although he prayed for relief, Père Joseph sensed he was turning into the antagonist he had vowed never to be.  His austerity became more rigid and his tart tongue cost him friends, not only among the rising stars but with colleagues whose only sin was a lack of focus in their priestly careers.

Finally the day came when Père Joseph realized he had become an outcast.  Some of his superiors and peers saw him as a troublemaker, others an oddity.  Indeed, the change in the man was so profound that this reputation privately pleased him.  He knew the common people of Ste. Anne’s, at least, shared his disdain of pomp and display, watching them nod as he took on the high and mighty from the pulpit.  Thus, what began as a compact between this plain man and his God, evolved into the crusade some believed he had intended all along.  Asked if the comments troubled him he smiled and shook his head, saying simply, “consider the source.”

After much thought and prayer, Père Joseph, along with a growing number of the clergy, began counseling leniency on the practice of birth control, believing this was properly a matter of conscience between a husband and wife.  He had known too many families with ten, twelve children, too many women worn to the bone, aged before their time, too many men crushed by the burden of support.  The act of love, he maintained, that supreme consolation for a man and a woman, should not be denied people with so few chances for a happy life as it is.  But Père Joseph insisted on a condition:  God has to be in the picture, or selfishness will inevitably prevail.  He saw the Church’s position on contraception as a disaster, clouding its credibility on the really tragic business of taking life through abortion.

Groping toward maturity, many teenagers distance themselves from church and parish.  But on their way out the door, some of Père Joseph’s young people paused for a second look.  His invitation to join parish councils was novel and, to some, appealing.  Others were attracted to his athletic program.  Over thirty and worse yet, a priest, still they sensed that this man listened, tried to understand what it meant to be overweight and unloved, or fifteen and pregnant.

Alcohol was a problem, reaching even into the elementary school.  To Père Joseph, it was bitter irony that the parents of these children professed surprise and dismay when their example proved more powerful than their words.  Not many yet were involved with drugs, though he knew it was only a matter of time before that scourge made its appearance.

The Saturday night mixers were the centerpiece of Père Joseph’s youth ministry.  Word was, Ste. Anne’s had the best collection of Beatles and Elvis records in the city.  But this officially-sponsored hedonism raised the hackles of parish elders – today’s youth were wild enough, out of control.  The pastor’s job was to restrain and mold, not encourage ferment.  Not so fast, Père Joseph countered – bridges must be built.  For better or worse, the future belongs to the young.

So, even among Père Joseph’s mostly loyal following, his successes bred detractors, and their complaints found fertile ground with his superiors already wondering what to make of this peculiar cleric.

“You’re aware, Your Grace, of the personality cult around the pastor at Ste. Anne’s?” went the whispers.  “Parish discipline is lax, his teachings unorthodox, his counseling liberal to the point of grave error…”  And the books!  The diocesan auditors couldn’t believe what they found.  Père Joseph’s approach had little in common with accepted principles of accounting.  “Nor does he mention the collections,” the auditors complained, “even on those rare occasions when he preaches the High Mass where the congregation is inclined to be more generous.”

That much was true.  Père Joseph always offered the first Mass of the day – for the widows, bulky or frail in their cloth coats and oxford shoes, for those who labored all night at the hospital or the firehouse, for those who rose early to open their shops.  When he did appear at Sunday’s eleven o’clock it was to distribute communion, not talk business.  That he left to his assistant pastor who, he said, had a better knack for such things.  A good portion of Ste. Anne’s weekly collections was quietly dispensed to needy families but, contrary to common practice, Père Joseph refused to publish a list of parishioners and the amounts they gave.  It is an odd charity, he maintained, that pits a man against his neighbor.

The oil company, groceries, plumbers, other tradesmen, he cajoled into forgiving debts.  A few parishioners down on their luck were always in residence at the rectory while Père Joseph found them jobs and somewhere to live.  They cleaned and painted, washed windows and shoveled snow.  But bottom line, Ste. Anne’s books were a disaster, its contribution to the diocesan fund appeal always too little, too late.  As for managing the parish, the auditors concluded, Père Joseph was less an underachiever than a non-participant.

The last straw, however, was Vietnam.  In his life Père Joseph had known only one Vietnamese, an older priest who returned home after the French defeat at Dienbienphu.  They corresponded regularly, and through his friend’s eyes Père Joseph came to know the unhappy results of America’s deepening entanglement.  In 1968 the letters stopped.  After a year of fruitless inquiry, Père Joseph’s fears were confirmed – his friend had been killed in an air strike on a rural village.  It was time to speak out.

For weeks he labored over his text.  It grew to a set of sermons which would hold Vietnam up to the Church’s teachings on Just War.  He would measure the effect of modern weaponry on civilian populations and evaluate the flimsy self-defense argument.  He would find America’s adventurism misplaced and immoral.

But there was a problem.  With its large emigré population, Ste. Anne’s was staunchly patriotic.  Père Joseph knew he would offend his old soldiers, their memories of battle dimmed and mellowed with time.  Inevitably he would need to attack his parishioners’ unwavering faith in their government.  But worst of all was the Faustian bargain at work in the parish, the nation.  The swift current of better times was sweeping everything along in its path.  War meant demand for clothing, for precision parts and tools.  Two mills had reopened and the machine shops were thriving.  Parishioners years down on their luck finally had a paycheck every week.  The merchants were ecstatic.  Goods fairly leapt off the shelves.

Père Joseph agonized.  Should he speak his conscience?  Or remain silent, let events take their course, let his people enjoy this deserved respite from hard times?  Then, one evening at prayer, as he meditated on the Church’s impotence during the Holocaust, the old shame and anger flooded back.

Even his staunchest supporters were dismayed.  After his first sermon to a stunned congregation, a friend close to the Bishop warned that complaints had been received.  Père Joseph thanked him for his advice.

The second sermon provoked a front-page article in the Providence Journal.  Alarmed, his friend called again.  The Bishop was personally looking into the situation.  The third and last sermon brought an official letter.  Henceforth, Father Lemieux was warned, he would avoid political topics.  Into the wastebasket it went.

That might have been the end of it, but soon he was voicing support for the parish’s handful of conscientious objectors and the young men who had fled to Canada.  Now he was reviled even more harshly than they.  Families had lost sons to Vietnam, went the attack, and more would die unless our fighting men had our full support.  This time Père Joseph had gone too far.

The blow fell in the very office where he now waited.  “Your pride and willfulness will not be tolerated.  We can no longer permit you to hold a position of influence.”  The face of his Monsignor Mulvaney, his classmate, was stern.  “I must remind you, Father, order and discipline among the clergy is not optional.”

No mention was made of Père Joseph’s accomplishments.  They paled against his poor management, against the Church’s need to speak with one voice.  “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church,” the Monsignor intoned.  “That’s where it starts, and that’s where it ends.  The Church has no room for free spirits like you.”

He would be relieved of his pastorate and transferred to a suburban parish, not even as assistant pastor, but a lowly curate.

Père Joseph had prepared himself for the worst.  His back was already bowed to accept the blow.  “Perhaps you’re right.  It’s not good to stay in one place too long,” he said, then fell silent.

Puzzled, the monsignor drummed his fingertips on the desk.  “That’s all you have to say in your defense?”

Père Joseph thought for a moment.  “Better that we get on with God’s work, whatever form it may take.  What I think is of no consequence.”

A few parishioners wrote angry letters, a delegation appeared at diocesan headquarters demanding an appointment with the Bishop but were shunted off to Monsignor Mulvaney.  Those with influence who might have taken Père Joseph’s side did not.  Indeed, they were pleased the irritant had at last been removed.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

 

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