Christopher J. Scalia
The Reverend Donald Kowalczyk—Father Don to his parishioners—had just fallen into a deep sleep, after hours of fitful and uncomfortable attempts, when the knocking on the rectory door woke him. It was Tuesday, Father Rich’s turn to say morning Mass, and Don had hoped to sleep in. His body and head still ached. His clumsy roll off the bed; his delicate placement of the robe around his sore frame; his amble out of his room, down the stairs, and toward the front door, all testified to the strange pain on the right half of his body that had been plaguing him since early the day before.
Greeting him when he opened the rectory’s front door were a steady downpour and the petite figure of Ellen Haas, a regular at daily Mass. The hood of her raincoat cast deep shadows over her gaunt face; she looked like a frail monk.
“I’m sorry to wake you, Father,” she said, “but has this morning’s Mass been cancelled?”
Father Don, no stickler for the black shirt and white collar, still felt ridiculous wearing his robe in front of Ellen. He instinctively pulled the belt and winced when the robe grated against his skin.
“Why do you ask?”
“We’ve been waiting for twenty minutes, Father.”
“Father Rich isn’t there?”
She shook her head. “Just me and the old ladies, Father.”
He recognized the incongruity of a parishioner scolding a priest for being late for Mass.
“Give me fifteen minutes.”
Back upstairs, he shaved, matted down the horseshoe that was left of his hair, and put on his clothes (no time wasted deciding what to wear: black slacks, black button-down shirt, white collar) as quickly as his soreness would allow. He ached as if he’d been thrown down a flight of stairs, and as if to confirm that he wasn’t just sore from that jog over the weekend, he noticed a rash rising above his waist. With every step sending a jolt through his brain, the extra sleep he’d expected seemed more desirable than ever.
Umbrella in hand, Father Don stepped out of the rectory door and into the wet and cold air of the early spring. He shuffled across the soaking parking lot and entered St. Michael’s a wetter, weaker man. His soaked black sneakers squeaked on the floors. In the nine months since he arrived at the parish, the church had usually felt welcoming to him, embraced him in a sense of community. The vestibule—a wide lobby with a tall ceiling—was adorned with CCD students’ pictures of Jesus preaching to girls and boys or watching them play soccer. There were announcements about upcoming parish picnics, reminders about society meetings. The book club was convening Wednesday night to discuss Oprah’s latest pick. The Youth Group was traveling to Wrigley Field next month to see the Cubs.
Even the building’s shape usually comforted Father Don: the aerial photographs of the church hanging near the parish offices showed an elongated oval with pointed ends. A handful of cynical parishioners joked that it resembled a football and referred to the parish as Hail Mary’s. Father Rich liked to joke that it made sense to design a church based on what everyone was really thinking about Sunday mornings.
It was divided from one tip of the oval to the other, one half consisting of the vestibule, parish offices, sacristy, and auditorium, the other half composed of what they called the “worship space” itself. Don liked to think of each of these halves of the Church as an ark on its side. As he sometimes said during homilies, it was a place of refuge from the storm of the outside world, a room where the brothers and sisters of St. Michael’s could join each other in their communal pilgrimage to salvation. A few months ago, Father Don had wanted to joke about this; looking across the pews, he’d said, “But please, no animals allowed.” But he’d flubbed the delivery, dropped the lazy pop fly, mumbling what ended up sounding like a complaint about how loud animals are. He felt as he often did at the pulpit: vulnerable, thrown overboard.
On this wet morning, as he walked—he couldn’t run in his condition—through the vestibule, none of these posters or announcements or shapes comforted him as much as another hour of sleep would have. He draped on his vestments in the sacristy beneath a painting of the parish’s patron saint. Standing on top of Satan, wings spread, in one hand the archangel aimed his sword at the enemy’s head and in the other held scales of justice.
In the worship space itself, a large statue of Jesus ascending with spread arms hung above the altar; a statue of St. Michael, this time vanquishing a serpent, stood in a raised niche on the left-hand side of the sanctuary, behind the chairs for the priest and, when they were there on Sundays, altar servers. Father Don apologized to the handful of women scattered among the pews.
“God bless you for your patience,” he said. There were fewer of the old women than usual, perhaps because of the rain, perhaps because of the wait. Stripped to their bare essentials, Masses on weekdays moved quickly. Father Don was finished in about as much time as it had taken him to prepare.
He resisted the temptation to return to the rectory for more sleep—the rain made that easier on his will—and ached his way across the church and to his office. With First Communion Mass coming up that Saturday, there was plenty of work to do. The two dozen first communicants got much of his attention in the weeks after Easter. For the past several weeks, he’d been making thirty-minute visits to their CCD classes, and he’d be doing the same tomorrow, the final preparations before the big day. It all made Father Don anxious. In class, children were always reluctant to speak around him, which he attributed to the fact that he was naturally reticent and quiet, not one to raise or inflect his voice, even around adults or during sermons. Last visit to the class, when he asked them who Christ ate dinner with, the students were silent for what seemed like a full minute. They only responded when the teacher, Catherine Bartlett, who’d been sitting in the back corner during Father’s visit, watching the proceedings through her large square glasses, broke in with her sweet and encouraging voice.
“Who were Jesus’ friends, everyone?” The answer came easily now—“the apostles,” the class declared, “the apostles!”
Even when parishioners had him over for dinner, their children would barely respond to leading questions from the parents, who looked slightly ashamed for having such impolite children. “Don’t worry,” Father Don wanted to reassure them, “it’s me, not them.”
For most of his career he’d been able to avoid this responsibility of working with first communicants. When he’d been an associate, the pastors he worked with didn’t think of inviting him to participate in developing the first communicants, either because they enjoyed having that duty to themselves, or because they sensed Father Don’s discomfort with it and the discomfort of the children around him. And when he became a pastor, he delegated the job to his associate pastors under the pretense of giving the younger priests a chance to gain experience working with youth. He didn’t have those options here.
When Father Don was assigned as pastor of St. Michael’s last summer, he had been told there were parochial duties with which his associate pastor couldn’t help. Though Father Rich had been at St. Michael’s for several years already, the bishop had been careful to explain that, in accordance with the recommendations of the psychiatric center, he was to refrain from participating in the youth ministry and celebrating sacraments, such as First Communion and Confirmation, which involved young parishioners.
“It is certainly true that Father Wechsler is still capable of administering the grace and love of Christ,” Bishop Stevens had written him. “Nonetheless, it is important that we do all we can to protect him from occasions of sin and I know that you, more than any pastor in the diocese, are capable of showing Father Richard the compassion he deserves and the guidance he requires.”
The letter confirmed an open secret among the other priests in the parish; Father Don still told no one about it. He did what he could to accommodate Father Rich’s recovery and help him renew his vocation.
So it was Father Don who, trying to ignore the fact that the right side of his body felt like it had been subjected to some medieval penitential ritual, prepared for the second-grade CCD class. He tried recalling the questions he’d asked children in previous years and organized a brief way to explain Communion in terms the children would appreciate. He couldn’t read from the Catechism and explain that he could turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ—they’d think he was pretending to be a character from Harry Potter. Unlike the pastor at his first assignment—Monsignor Knox, some 30 years ago now—who had resisted the era’s reforms, talking about the mysteries to no end and kneeling in front of the tabernacle, Father Don knew that people needed comfort, not mystery. And in a town like Wheaton, where Evangelical churches seemed to pile up like snow, Father Don avoided saying things that might confirm stereotypes about Catholics or scare off parishioners to other denominations. He didn’t want people to leave St. Michael’s and explain to their new Bible Study circle that they used to be Catholic until that wacky priest Father Don started talking hocus pocus.
After calling the music director to schedule a time to go over songs for the First Communion, and making sure that the parish Women’s Club was taking care of flower arrangements, Father Don made an appointment with his doctor for the next morning to find out why he felt so terrible. Then he put his head onto his desk and dozed off.
He woke up in the early afternoon, his body still sore and now his neck stiff from the awkward position during his sleep. Back at the rectory, he struggled to take off his wet shoes and slid into the kitchen. Julie Montgomery, the housekeeper and cook, was putting a carton of milk into the refrigerator.
“I was wondering when you were going to get hungry today,” she said. She put the plastic jug on the shelf and closed the refrigerator door purposefully, efficiently. “Father Rich almost ate all the lunch.”
“Did he save anything for me?”
“I’ll scrounge something up.” She wiped her hands and re-opened the refrigerator.
Don found Rich sitting in the recliner, reading the Tribune. He’d turned sixty the year before and would be celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of his ordination in a few months, but Rich barely looked fifty. His skin never paled during the Midwestern winters, and he still had a full-head of dark gray hair. And unlike most priests Father Don knew, Rich hadn’t seemed to put any weight on his lanky frame since his ordination, judging from pictures he had in his office.
Don admired much about his associate. He exuded comfort and confidence in the pulpit and found wonderful ways to connect with the parishioners, to make the Gospel matter to them. Father Don recognized that charisma the first time he heard him deliver the homily at St. Michael’s. Father Rich had captured the congregation’s attention by surprising it, talking about an episode of his favorite sitcom.
“One of my very favorite episodes speaks to today’s gospel story in a very special way,” he said, explaining that one of the show’s characters had a hard time understanding a friend’s beliefs. “And let’s face it, the beliefs were a little strange. She thought that her mother had been reincarnated as a stray cat!”
The congregation’s laughter was transfigured into a profound, respectful silence when Father Rich showed how the reluctant friend’s eventual acceptance of the other’s belief was a Christ-like model of compassion. “Even on this television show,” he concluded, “we see Jesus’ love pouring forth. We see the open arms of God embracing ways and people we don’t understand. But do you know what?” Here he lowered his voice, leaned forward, widened his eyes. “I’m not surprised to see God’s love in a television show. Some people may tell you that that’s an unlikely place to find Jesus, but they’re wrong. Do you know why? It’s because the love of Jesus is everywhere.” He paused and looked across the pews. “Everywhere,” he said, “and in everyone.”
Far different from Father Don’s own awkward stumbling. Don feared making people uncomfortable by sounding judgmental or critical; he dreaded the sight of people walking out on his homilies, so he tended to speak tentatively. He would rephrase the Gospel for a few minutes, then for a few more apply it to everyday life in basic ways—“How often do we find ourselves in the position of the leper . . . ”—then conclude by leading the congregation in a hymn. Father Don reasoned that anything he had to say would hold their attention for only a few minutes; they would be much more thoughtful if they engaged themselves with a song. He rotated between a handful of favorites, like “As a Fire Is Meant for Burning” and “Lord of the Dance;” he would introduce the latter by explaining that life itself is a very beautiful dance, a joyful arrangement of steps and moves with the people around us and Jesus in our hearts. (A parishioner once asked after Mass whether the song was supposed to explain the Church’s position on limbo; it took Father Don a moment to realize that she was joking.)
So Father Rich’s preaching convinced Father Don that they’d complement each other nicely. And for the first few months, he’d been right. Father Rich had been a great help during the Advent and Christmas seasons, taking the lead in organizing the music arrangements and decorations, helping the new pastor learn the lay of the land. For the past few months, though, Father Rich had been neglecting even his basic duties—missing talks with the women’s group, arriving late for the RCIA meetings. He’d failed to hear any confessions during Lent and virtually disappeared during Easter weekend, leaving Father Don to handle one of the busiest times of year on his own. And then this morning’s Mass.
For all of Father Rich’s charisma and charm, his interactions with Don were brusque and businesslike. If they had meals together, it was by accident or coincidence in the rectory kitchen. When Father Don invited Rich to dinner or to see a movie, Rich had appointments or meetings or plans or errands. Don assumed it was less a matter of personality conflict than simple jealousy or frustration, and he didn’t blame Rich for it. He once explained the situation to Father Jerry, an old friend from seminary.
“He’s bitter,” Don explained. “Just liked anyone who was passed over for a promotion.”
“Maybe,” said Jerry. “Or maybe he knows that you know.” Jerry, like many priests in the diocese, had heard rumors about Father Rich’s history.
“That’s not my fault. Why would he be mad at me about that?”
“Not mad. Ashamed. Embarrassed. You’re the only person there who knows about his past—what we hope is only his past—and so he’s ashamed around you. Around everyone else, he can be who everybody already thinks he is.”
Even if Father Rich wasn’t upset he hadn’t been appointed pastor, parishioners certainly were. Don once overheard a conversation between Rich and a man in the parish offices.
“There’s just a lot of confusion about why wouldn’t be given the job,” the man said. “You’re more experienced, you know our church well, people like you.”
“Stop, stop!” Father Rich had joked. “You’re making me blush!”
Now Father Don dropped onto the sofa across from the television set and closed his eyes. It was impossible to get comfortable on the thing—the pillows were too stuffed and practically forced him off the seat—and usually he’d never be able to nap on it. Today might be an exception.
“Jesus,” exclaimed Father Rich, peering over the paper. “You look terrible.”
“I barely slept.”
As Father Rich rustled his way through front section, Father Don considered how to broach the topic of this morning’s confusion. It wasn’t as if Father Don was a more experienced and knowledgeable priest—he was five years younger, so he would chide Rich obliquely on occasions like this. When Father Rich had failed to show up to hear confessions, Don said, “More people than usual at confession this week,” never “Why weren’t you in the confessional?”
The most diplomatic phrasing he could think of this time was, “The ladies missed you at Mass this morning.”
“Postponed due to rain,” Father Rich laughed.
Don laughed with him, then asked, “What do you mean?” He couldn’t tell if it was an answer or an attempt to change the subject.
“I took a look outside and didn’t see many cars in the lot. So I stayed in bed. I needed the extra rest.”
Father Don opened his eyes—they had been too sore to keep open—and saw that Father Rich had arrived at the sports section. This was becoming exactly the sort of confrontation he had hoped to avoid. If only Rich had forgotten, or had slept through his alarm, or had felt sick himself! Cars or no cars in the lot, he should have gone to the church to celebrate the scheduled Mass. Instead of saying any of this, or cracking the joke he wanted—“I could have used more sleep, too!”—Father Don dodged the conflict.
“Cubbies win?” he asked.
“Sammy hit another out of the park,” Rich said. “He might repeat last year’s performance.”
“When did ballplayers get so big? They all look like they ought to be playing football.”
“The miracles of modern sports medicine,” Rich said. “Sometimes it’s better not to ask.”
“Anyway, there were a number of people expecting Mass. Ellen Haas came over to the rectory for a priest.” Even as he was saying it, he knew that his tone was off—too abrupt, accusatory. It practically invited a defensive response.
“Dear Jesus,” Father Rich mock-prayed, “give that woman a hobby.”
Don started a sentence in defense of Ellen’s contributions to the parish before trailing off into a yawn. He had just closed his eyes again when Julie called him in for lunch.
By Wednesday’s doctor’s appointment, Father Don felt like he’d been delivered a dozen Charlie horses from a demon bully. The mountainous rash had spread to cover his right side from the waist to the armpit and now overflowed with a volcanic pus that had stained his pajama top. The light of the doctor’s office, even the dimmer lights at that morning’s Mass (Father Rich had been unable to fill in for him), shot pain behind his eyeballs. Still, he was surprised by the diagnosis and repeated it to make sure he understood.
It sounded like some ancient ailment, like scurvy, once rampant among pirates and prostitutes before being eradicated by modern hygiene and the food pyramid. Certainly not something that still existed at the brink of the twenty-first century.
Doctor Bryant told him the medical term, too: herpes zoster. It clanked with a strange collision of sexual scandal and ancient faith.
“It’s basically just the dormant chicken pox virus coming back to life,” he explained. “Raised up by stress and age, you could say.”
The chicken pox resurrected—Father Don’s luck. Dr. Bryant gave him a prescription of antivirals and antibiotics.
“I know you’re very busy, Father, but you’re going to have to take it easy for the next few days,” he said.
“Is it contagious?”
“Avoid contact with other people.” He was rising from his wheeled stool and reaching for paper. “Especially children who haven’t had chicken pox or the vaccine.”
“The next few days, Father. You don’t want to risk spreading this. The Gospel is the only thing you should be spreading to your parishioners.”
“No, of course,” said Father Don as he tucked the prescription into the inner pocket of his black blazer.
On the drive home, he considered disobeying Doctor Bryant and celebrating the First Communion Mass on Saturday. That way, he wouldn’t have to call another priest to fill in, and he’d avoid sowing more seeds of conflict with Father Rich, who might be upset that he’d been passed over. Neglecting responsibilities is one thing. Having them taken from you is another, and Don dreaded having to explain to Rich why he was going outside the parish for help.
Besides, from what he’d observed of his associate pastor, his bad habits were dead and gone, distant enough for Don to wonder if, despite the bishop’s letter and the rumors, Rich had ever really been guilty of them. Still, he couldn’t disobey the bishop’s explicit orders. Not that Bishop Stevens was likely to ever find out about the situation one way or another. He had enough to worry about elsewhere in the diocese. Enough on his plate, as Jerry would say, one of the many ways he had of joking about the bishop’s girth.
“Herpes zoster,” Don said to himself, as if it were a curse or an outdated oath, like “Zounds!” or “Alack!”
Even apart from disobeying doctor’s orders and exposing the children to his illness, another convincing reason to absent himself from Saturday’s celebration was that, quite simply, Father Don would love to get out of it. The stress of the preparations; the stumbling through the sermon; the awkward interactions with children and parents. Sometimes Don thought he would have been better off as a monk, celebrating Mass in silence, cloistered and closed off. This sickness gave him a legitimate excuse to avoid something he wasn’t eager to do anyway.
By the time Don was pulling onto the parish’s grounds in his bland tan Buick sedan, he had determined to ask his friend Jerry to celebrate. Jerry was a good priest. Not as charismatic and well-spoken as Rich, but very good all the same. And because Jerry had some idea about Rich’s issues, there would be no need to explain the situation in great detail or betray anyone’s trust. It would be a simple and direct request. And there was little doubt that his old friend would accept, cancelling plans if he had to. The trick was hiding the situation from Rich himself somehow, to delay having to deal with any resentment or jealousy from the associate pastor.
The solution for tonight’s class was more straightforward. Back in his office, he called Catherine.
“I’m sorry to ask this of you. I know it’s short notice, but I can’t teach tonight. I’ve come down with the shingles.”
“That’s just terrible, Father. Will Father Rich be able to help instead?”
“I’d rather not bother him on such short notice,” Father Don said—not quite lying, just not stating his main rationale.
“No problem. I can manage.” Then, trying to sound encouraging, “But the children will be very disappointed that you won’t be there.”
Father Don appreciated the lie. He called Father Jerry next and got the machine.
“Hello, Father Jerome,” he said with faux-formality, “it’s your friend Father Donald. Will you please call me back at your nearest convenience? I have a somewhat urgent and time-sensitive favor to ask of you. Thanks, talk to you soon.” He began returning the phone receiver to its base until, fearing that he may have overdone the insincere pose, he returned it to his face and added, “Hope you’re doing well.”
Then to bed. Blankets over his head to hide from the stray light that seeped through the closed blinds, he must have looked like a frightened child hiding from something lurking in the corner of his room.
When he woke up well past dinner time, there was no sunlight to come through the blinds. Julie was long gone, so he went into the kitchen to see what he could scrounge up. Bless her heart: she had made him chicken soup, still simmering on the stovetop. He filled himself a bowl and went into the living room.
Rich was sitting in the leather recliner, watching a movie on the VHS player.
“On the Waterfront,” he said.
“Believe it or not, I’ve never seen that one.”
“You’re kidding me. ‘I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody!’ Get comfortable—it’s a helluva film. I try to watch it every year.”
Father Don considered going back to bed before deciding that he needed a rest from resting and got as comfortable as he could on the sofa.
“Wait, you can’t get comfortable there,” Rich said. “Let’s switch.” Closing the recliner, he shooed Don off the sofa. “Mrs. Montgomery tells me you’re sick.”
Don confirmed as he eased into the recliner, trying to steady the bowl of hot soup.
“She said shingles—is that possible?”
“I’m afraid so,” Don said. Hoping to redirect this line of questioning, he pointed to the screen—Rich had paused the movie—and asked, “What’s it about?”
“The power of faith. Redemption. What are shingles, anyway?”
“Doctor Bryant said it’s the reactivation of the chickenpox virus. Apparently the virus lays dormant.”
“Lazarus pox!” Rich laughed at his own joke, then asked whether it was contagious.
“Not if you’ve had chicken pox.” Don didn’t have much of an appetite, and the hot bowl was hurting his lap, but he was too tired to return to the kitchen for a plate.
“What did you do about tonight’s class?” Rich asked. It was a loaded question which Don translated as, “Do you trust me?”
“Catherine has it under control.”
“Good. And don’t you worry about your Masses this week. I’ve got them covered.”
“Thank you,” Don said. “I’ll need the extra sleep tomorrow especially.”
“Your associate pastor, at your service.” Then, as if it were a given: “And I’ll contact Catherine to go over plans for Saturday.”
“That’s the First Communion Mass, isn’t it? You’ll probably be better by then, will you?”
Father Don’s sore muscles tightened at the sign of conflict. “We’ll see,” he said. He only needed Rich to believe him long enough to delay a decision or a confrontation.
“A lot of those kids probably haven’t had the chicken pox,” Rich said. “You can’t put them in a situation like that.”
Don was getting the feeling that he’d been ambushed.
On the screen, Karl Malden spoke stiffly, using terms Father Don hadn’t heard in decades: You think I’m just a gravy train rider with a turned-around collar!
“That’s how I imagined this life,” Father Rich said. “Making a difference. Serving people.”
Even though Father Don had never heard Rich express anything resembling doubt or vocational turmoil, and conscious of the possibility that he was being manipulated, he couldn’t help being struck by his colleague’s note of sadness, his hint of hopelessness.
“Of course you can,” Don assured him. “You do it every time you celebrate Mass.”
Father Rich frowned, still looking at the images on the screen, black-and-white like clerical shirt and collar. “I had more power when I was an altar boy,” he said.
Father Don, too, directed his gaze toward the television. “You’re still very important to the parish,” he said evenly.
“That’s nice of you to say.” Father Rich emphasized say, as if words were all Don offered. “But if it were true, you would have let me teach tonight’s class.”
Don leaned over to try another spoonful of his cold soup. The yellowed liquid made him think of the pus from his rash.
“That wasn’t really my decision,” he whispered. “That’s something the bishop decided months ago, when I first got here. Before that, even.”
Father Rich let out a long breath in frustration. “When the disciples tried to keep children away from Jesus, He scolded them. ‘Let the children come to me. Do not prevent them.’ Yet Stevens, in his infinite wisdom, doesn’t allow me.”
Don saw truth in Father Rich’s interpretation: priests, like Christ, were called to serve children. They were called to serve everyone. He could also see that his associate, denied this service, was in danger of falling into the deadly sin of despair. But then, Rich had been given a chance to serve children, and look what he’d done with it.
Too tense to clearly express what he was thinking, Don instead offered a cliché. “We all have crosses to bear,” he said.
They watched the movie in silence for a couple more minutes before Rich said, “I don’t mean to sound like I’m happy that you’re sick, but I see it as a blessing in disguise.” He stood from the sofa and stretched. “Well, enjoy the rest of the movie. I should get some sleep if I’m covering your Mass tomorrow.” He laughed. “I’m always covering your Mass.” He was still chuckling on his way out of the room.
Don said nothing. He wasn’t sure what he could have done differently to have avoided that situation—he couldn’t really call it a conflict. It was a route. Rich had usurped his authority, and Don had done nothing to resist. And what could he do now? Asking Rich to back down would make everything worse; Rich could say that Don raised his hopes, that he’d gone against his word. Don had been a coward, perhaps, but the alternative now would be to be a traitor.
Don continued watching the movie by himself. Malden gave a stirring speech to the dockworkers: How can we call ourselves Christians and protect these murderers with our silence? Don dozed off for a bit but awoke in time to see Brando, confronting the mob boss, get bloodied up.
In his bed the next morning, Don remembered being bothered by something the night before but couldn’t recall precisely what it was. He gradually recalled and shook in his head in regret, as if he were remembering a careless, drunken remark he’d made.
Mrs. Montgomery knocked on the door. “Phone for you,” she said from outside of the room. “It’s Father Jerome.”
Don reached over to his nightstand and plugged the cord back into the phone base—he had unplugged it the day before so he could sleep without interruption.
“Sorry I missed your call,” Jerry said. “I was busy ignoring you.”
Jerry’s voice came through thick over the phone; Don could practically see his burly neck spilling over his band collar.
“Very funny. Anyway, it’s moot now.”
“Really? You sound like you still have a problem.”
“I’m sick,” Don said.
“You sound terrible.”
“Better than I look.” Don noticed that the shirt he had slept in was stuck to his rash. His flesh was becoming a bricolage of the mustard yellow of pus and the pink of Calamine lotion.
“That’s not ever saying much. What do you have?”
Don answered; assured him that yes, he had said shingles; described the symptoms; and then—foolishly, he knew, even as the words were coming out of his mouth—explained the inconvenience of the timing.
“Here we are with First Communion coming up, and me having to stay away from kids.”
“Well, that has to be a bit of a relief for you,” Jerry joked. And then the sincere offer that Don feared: “Anything I can do to help?”
“Not anymore,” Don said, sighing. “It’s covered.”
There was a light pause; Jerry was adding it up.
“You’re not letting Slick Richard celebrate First Communion, are you?”
“I have it covered.” This time, less confidence.
“You are, aren’t you? Why would you do that?” Jerry’s voice, momentarily shrill in disbelief, put Father Don out of sorts. He’d expected something calmer, more reserved, not so clear in its condemnation, as one would offer in the confessional.
“I’m not really sure,” Don said. “I was going to ask you, but Rich sort of swept in.”
“Of course he did. What are you going to do?”
Don decided to attempt a different tactic. “I’m starting to think that—I don’t know, maybe this is for the best. He’s better around people than me—don’t laugh. You know what I mean. He’s a people person. Stop laughing. People actually listen to him.”
“I wish you were listening to yourself right now.”
“I think Rich needs this. He’s losing his faith. He’s losing his . . . focus. Imagine being cut off from so much of what makes the priesthood the priesthood.”
“If you’re looking at it as a punishment, then I can see why you’d want to give him this chance. But it’s not just about that. It’s also about protection. Making sure he’s not put in that situation again. You were going to ask me to fill in for you, right? Well, why not let me do that? It’s not too late.”
“It is, though. I’ve already said Rich can do it. I can’t go back on my word. And anyway, imagine how that would look,” he said, “having someone else lead the celebration when we have a perfectly good associate pastor?”
“You know what I mean. As far as the parishioners know, he’s perfectly good. Not having him do this would just draw more attention to the situation, start more rumors.”
“That may be true. But in this case, the rumors would be accurate. It seems to me you’re just trying to rationalize this.”
“Let me put it this way,” Don said. “‘How many times must I forgive my brother? Not seven times. Seventy times seven times.’”
This was one of Don’s favorite scriptural passages. In his sermons, he explained that Jesus didn’t mean 490 times, but every time they sin. “We don’t keep track of how many times people hurt us,” he’d say. “We don’t keep lists with names and numbers. We just never stop forgiving.”
“Yes, I know,” Father Jerry said. His voice was becoming strained, impatient. “And ‘let he is without sin cast the first stone.’ And you have some people saying that with the shortage of vocations, we can’t afford to throw priests out. Or we can’t afford to damage the reputation of the Church by publicizing these scandals. We sound like a bunch of politicians.”
Don winced as he peeled his shirt off his rash.
“It seems ridiculous to think that he can’t be trusted in public for an hour,” he said.
“I’m concerned about what happens after the serpent’s in the garden. Once you’ve made him such an important part of these kids’ lives, what then?”
“But he already says Mass. It’s not like they’ve never seen him.”
“But this Mass is especially for children. That’s the point!” Jerry was practically bellowing, like some hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. “And we know that he can’t be trusted with them. We shouldn’t let him, or the children, think he can.”
Father Don didn’t respond immediately. It didn’t really matter what Jerry said. Don couldn’t possibly renege on Rich.
“Let me put it this way,” Father Jerry resumed. “All those passages you like to quote about judging not and always forgiving, they’re from Matthew. That’s the same gospel where Jesus yells at the money-changers and throws them out of the temple. And it has all those parables with the impatient masters. And the angry kings, and the selfish girls. And all that wailing and tooth-gnashing.”
“Great idea—I’ll just throw Father Rich out of the church.”
“What I mean is sometimes you need to be unpleasant and even mean. ‘Here pity lives the best when it is dead.’ Dante.”
“That sounds extreme,” Don said. He was thinking about an incident from midnight Mass during his first year as a priest. A high school student who had received communion in his hands was heading toward the exit without having put the host into his mouth. Monsignor Knox, fearing the kid planned on performing some sacrilege, called out for the boy to stop. When the kid kept going, the priest left the sacristy, ran down the aisle, grabbed the boy by the shoulder, seized the host from him and put it in his own mouth. Don knew some priests thought this was a heroic act—perhaps Knox had prevented the boy from celebrating a Black Mass. But Don thought they were being paranoid and considered Knox’s act itself too aggressive. Such conflict was never appropriate in a church.
“Don’t pity the wrong people,” Jerry was saying. “And don’t let him bully you into making a decision you have to spend this much time talking yourself into.”
The unexpected confrontation inflamed him; when he hung up, Father Don’s entire body felt as warm as his rashes. There was some shame mixed in, too. Don had foolishly hoped to convince his friend of an argument he didn’t even believe himself. Instead, Jerry had only reinforced his fears. Jerry, who was comfortable with such confrontations, was probably yelling to the closest person about how foolish Don was being.
Friday was a day of rest. Don slept late, read the newspaper, and prayed the office in his bedroom until, growing restless, he decided to take a walk across the parking lot to the church hall and see the decorations for tomorrow’s post-Communion party. Though he wouldn’t be celebrating Mass the next day, he still wanted to supervise the events to make himself more a part of the community.
Stepping outside, he immediately retreated back into the rectory to find his old sunglasses buried in the top shelf of his closet. Even with them on, he trudged across the parking lot with his head down and eyes squinting. Don felt ridiculous, like he was a black-clad vampire pained by the sun.
The bright vestibule brought little relief. With his sunglasses still on, Don shuffled past the bulletin board art and community announcements and headed in the opposite direction of the worship space—which he hadn’t set foot in since Tuesday morning’s painful Mass—toward the parish offices and into the auditorium.
It was dimmer in there and Father Don had an easy time making out the gaunt figure of Ellen Haas, who was hanging white and blue streamers across the wide room with a larger woman whose name Don couldn’t remember. Banquet tables were covered in blue and white plastic covers. They had already hung a banner that announced “Congratulations!” in bold blue letters. Catherine was also there, blowing balloons that fit the color scheme, her trademark square glasses on a nearby table so they wouldn’t get in the way of her work.
The women all stopped what they were doing once they saw him. “We didn’t expect to see you today!” Ellen said.
“Just thought I’d check up on the progress,” he said, taking off his sunglasses. “It looks great in here.”
The room’s tiled floor had been cleaned earlier in the week and gave off a strong anti-septic smell that reminded him of a hospital room. He wished there were a bed nearby he could
“Father, have you met Barbara Evans? Her daughter Amanda is receiving her First Communion tomorrow.”
Don raise his hand to wave in lieu of extending it to shake. Whereas Ellen’s gaunt face could serve as a memento mori in certain light, Barbara’s was round and red. She had a weak smile and feathered black hair.
“You look very tired, Father,” Barbara said.
“Barbara!” Ellen scolded. “Father has shingles.”
“No kidding? My older sister had that a few years ago,” Barbara said. “It was awful—she had a rash for days.”
Father Don nodded. “That sounds like shingles all right.”
“Here, Father, have a seat!” Ellen urged, bringing a metal fold-out chair to him.
He thanked her and sat with the exhausted purpose of a man who’d been walking miles. To get his tired mind off his pained body, he asked, “Can I help you ladies with anything?”
“Bless you Father, but no,” Catherine said. “I think we’ve got things under control.”
“In the past we’ve gone with a pink and blue color scheme,” Ellen explained. “But this year we decided on white and blue. Classier, don’t you think?”
“Very nice,” Don said. “Catherine, is everything coming along for Mass?”
“Oh yes,” Catherine said, stretching an uninflated balloon. “I met with Father Rich yesterday to go over the details. And I think the children have finally perfected their routine.” She’d been working for weeks on teaching them “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” accompanied by a series of hand gestures that she had choreographed. The plan was to have them stand at the foot of the sanctuary to sing it after Communion itself.
“It’s going to be lovely,” she said. “I’ve asked Father Rich to join them at the end of the song. That way, parents can take pictures of him with all the children—the First Commun-I-Cans. That’s what Father Rich calls them. Don’t you just love it?”
“Perfect,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound concerned.
“Tell him your idea about the recessional,” Barbara urged.
“I nearly forgot,” Catherine said. “Just before the final blessing, I thought it would be lovely if Bobby Sanderson and Sandra Chung brought a bouquet of roses for Father Rich. As a thank-you for his help.”
“How beautiful,” Don said, working hard to express enthusiasm. “I’m so sorry I’d be missing it.”
The women responded with what Don knew was fabricated sympathy.
“Oh, we do too, Father,” Ellen said. “It’s such a shame that you have to miss your first First Communion here.”
“The bright side is that Father Rich will get to participate more,” Barbara said. “He’ll be just great with the children. I don’t know why we didn’t think of this sooner.”
“Isn’t that like the fortunate fall you talked about in your Easter sermon?” Catherine asked.
“I guess you could see it that way,” Don allowed, flattered she’d remembered, even if her understanding was a bit off the mark.
“How do you feel, Father?” Ellen asked.
“Getting better. Slowly. I’m looking forward to getting over it. Have you ever had poison ivy? It’s like a combination of that and a terrible migraine.”
“My sister was just miserable,” Barbara said. “And she had complications, too. Even when the rash was gone, she still had pain where the rash had been. That lasted another few months.”
“Really?” Father Don asked. “Doctor Bryant hadn’t mentioned that.”
“Goodness,” said Catherine, “that sounds just terrible!”
“It was,” Barbara said. “When you’re a child, people say that you can only get chicken pox once. But it may just be lurking in your skin and waiting to get you sick later. You just never know.”
“Just terrible,” Catherine repeated.
Father Don nodded. He looked up to stare at the blue letters of the banner before the combination of the florescent lighting and sunshine through windows hurt his eyes and he gazed back at the shiny tile floor.
The antiviral medication, the antibiotics, the pain relievers didn’t help Father Don sleep that night. He imagined his rash leaking out of his body, then retreating back into it, not cured but hibernating. He half-dreamed, half-imagined Catherine Bartlett arriving at the rectory door in the morning, her face shadowed by a raincoat’s hood. She asked him, as if she were asking her students, “Who deserves your mercy more?” He imagined Christ in the temple, casting out the merchants for corrupting the sacred place. A child yelling at him, “You’re just a gravy-train rider with a turned-around collar!”
By dawn he had made his decision and he was wide awake with the day’s first frenetic birds but stayed in bed, contemplating confrontation. He was still awake in bed when the cars arrived for the First Communion Mass. Doors slamming and heels clicking across the parking lot, voices calling to hurry. He heard Father Rich leave the rectory, call out welcomes to parishioners on his way into the church—so happy, so comfortable, and everyone the same with him.
When the parking lot was silent again, when he knew that he could wait no longer, Father Don pushed down his sheets. He struggled into his clericals, down the stairs, out the rectory, across the parking lot. He felt like he’d been underground for days: the light still hurt his eyes, his body moved as if it had forgotten how. When he finally made it to the sacristy to drape himself in his vestments, a child was reading from Scripture. The first reading. Father Don still had time to make the sermon.
Father Rich was reading the Gospel from the pulpit below the rising Christ. Don walked down a side aisle to be as innocuous as possible, between the pews of families with cameras, boys like little men in their dark suits and over-combed hair, girls in their white dresses like brides. He was not noticed.
Baskets of tulips surrounded the ambo and the altar. The choir and guitarists and flutist were seated to the side. Father Rich spoke confidently with his warm voice until Don reached the sanctuary. He looked at Don with confused and narrowed eyes and what seemed to be a flush beneath his preternatural tan. Father Rich stumbled on the sentence he was reading but recovered and eased back into his conversational voice. Like the rest of the congregation, Father Don stood during the Gospel, but he did not sit when Rich finished reading. He walked toward the pulpit and approached Rich, who smiled but otherwise looked confused.
“Father Don, raised from the dead!” he said to Don and the congregation. “This is a pleasant surprise.” The congregation laughed meekly; Don may have heard a hand clap. Father Don blessed Rich with a sign of the cross and said, “Thank you, Father Rich.” He worried that Rich would ignore this signal to return to his seat, forcing Don into some act of aggression that he was unprepared to make. He remembered Brando being overwhelmed in the film the other night.
For a moment, Rich appeared to be considering his options, ways he could wave off the pastor and deliver his own homily—to force Don to live up to his end of their agreement. But, to Don’s relief, Rich simply tightened his smile and walked toward the chairs to the side of the sanctuary, between the altar servers, below the statue of St. Michael.
Father Don’s relief was fleeting. As he ad-libbed a halting sermon about sharing a meal with a dear friend even after he has left the world, the burn of embarrassment aggravated the heat of his rash. The boys in their clip-on ties and the girls in their miniature gowns stared at him with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. He could almost hear the parents saying to him, like everyone else the past few days, “Father—you look terrible.” They shifted in their pews, yawned with wide mouths, until he led the choir, musicians, and congregation in “I Am the Bread of Life.”
When the Reverend Donald Kowalczyk returned to his chair for the Creed, Father Rich was already walking out of the nave. The whispering and murmuring during the prayers of the faithful told Father Don that the congregation was confused and awaiting an explanation, one he could never give. During Communion itself, as he placed the Host in the children’s hands—their admiring parents taking pictures from the pews—the communicants approached him cautiously. They seemed afraid of this sick and tired man who might infect them with his disease.
Christopher J. Scalia is an English professor turned public relations executive.