Father Steve’s Dilemma

Father Steve’s Dilemma

Chapter One

It had been a grueling day and Father Steve would have given anything not to have been the priest hearing confessions this evening at St. Paul’s. Now, close to midnight, as he lay in his bed staring at the shadowed ceiling, his mind flashed back to earlier in the day when he hadn’t known what he knew now, when he had been on the basketball court feeling the acrid sting of sweat as it ran into his eye, when he’d just been a teacher playing roundball with his students on a weedy patch of asphalt in the gritty inner city of Philadelphia.

Father Steve swiped at the sweat with the back of his hand, maneuvered himself and the ball to the side of the basket, turned quickly and jumped between the bodies, shooting the ball in a high arc. It careened off the backboard and went in amid whoops and hollers.

“That’s the game fellas,” he said, and wiped more sweat from his brow.

“Awww! One more, Father Steve. One more. Pleeease.” The imploring face was covered with as much sweat and grime as his, only this one was black and young—probably all of fifteen.

“I don’t think so, Shorty. Got to get cleaned up for this evening’s confessions, you know.”

“Please, Father Steve?” came the voice of another player.

Father Steve turned to the pixie-faced imp everyone called Micky. There was something about Micky; he could never refuse him. Maybe it was his earnest smile or laughing bright green eyes. Something about Micky pulled at him, made him wink just to coax his gamine grin. It was hard to believe that Micky was a sophomore in college, he had a youthfulness in his features that reminded Father Steve of a Copperfield waif, but his mind was quick, his wit sharp, and the energy he displayed on the court boundless.

“Okay. One more,” he relented, “and this time I’m not giving up any points—you guys are getting way too good.”

Twenty minutes into the game, out of the corner of his eye, he saw André trip and start to crash into Micky. André was nearly six feet tall; Micky almost five—the force of the sudden impact was sure to send Micky reeling. Father Steve dropped the ball and lunged to his left, grabbing Micky to keep him from falling to the hard, cracked asphalt.

With one hand he lifted Micky off his feet, and with the other he protectively clasped Micky’s back against his chest. Then the oddest sensation shot through his arm as he realized the flesh he was grasping was a feminine breast—small, but nicely rounded and full. As the instant jolt of the encounter flashed through his body, he quickly released his cupped hand from her. Removing his other hand from around her waist, he stepped back and stared at her as she slowly turned to face him.

Their eyes met—his questioning, hers glaring. Then he watched as her defiant face turned into an imploring one, and he knew that Micky didn’t want the others to know what he had just discovered.

“Hey, C’mon,” Tyrone called out, “What’s the holdup here? André, you gotta watch those big feet of yours. You almost knocked Micky down! Nice save, Father Steve.”

André threw the ball back to Father Steve, and as he unconsciously caught it, he gave Micky a questioning look then tilted his head and raised a finely sculptured brow.

The game resumed and even though Father Steve’s body was back in it, his head was not. Several times when his eyes met Micky’s, he saw a scared and worried look. Dear God, what a shocking revelation!

He concentrated harder, played with abandon, and soon the game ended with his team the victors, again. As everyone disbanded to find the next distraction that would eat up the time on this late Friday afternoon, Father Steve called to Micky who was quickly making her way through a gaping hole in the wire mesh fence.

“Hey, Micky! Wait up!” he called.

“I can’t. I gotta go,” Micky called back.

“I’ll walk with you,” he called out and grabbed his sweatshirt from an old wooden bench. He jogged over to where Micky was trying to make her escape. Father Steve ducked through the hole in the fence, jogged a few paces and pulled up alongside her.

“So, what’s this charade all about?” he asked.

“What are you talking about?”

“You know darned well what I’m talking about. Why are you pretending to be one of the guys?”

“I’m not,” she said.

“Oh yeah, you could’ve fooled me. In fact, you did, until today.”

She looked at him with resignation in her eyes, and he could tell by the way her body suddenly slumped that she was admitting defeat. “You’re not going to tell are you?”

He looked at her, a frown creasing his brow. “That depends. Why don’t you want anyone to know you’re a girl?”

“It’s safer to be a guy.”

“Well, I can’t argue with you there, but why is it necessary? Do you feel threatened?”

“Not anymore.”

“Who threatened you?”

“Nobody here. Not since I moved out of the dorm last year.”

He knew that Micky was a student at St. Paul University. In fact, she was one of his students—one of his better students. “Elaborate for me if you would please, Miss Roberts. By the way, I never looked at your student profile. Is your name really Micky?”

“It’s Michelle. My nickname used to be Missy. Last year I was Missy Roberts, and I almost got raped in my dorm room—more than once.”

“Did you tell anybody?”

“No. It wouldn’t have done any good, and it just would’ve made more trouble for me.”

“So, for your sophomore year, you decided to become Micky. Micky the guy.”

“Hey, don’t knock it! Being one of the guys not only keeps me safe, it gives me a whole new view of the world.”

Father Steve reached down and fingered Micky’s cropped blonde hair. “So, you cut your hair,” he stepped back and surveyed her, “bound your breasts in a tight-fitting sports bra and stopped shaving your legs and underarms.”

“Oh, that’s not all.”

“Oh?”

“I’ve learned to belch, spit and cuss with the best of ‘em.”

He laughed with a deep throaty chuckle.

“Which restrooms do you use?”

“The men’s, but I always use a stall.”

“So you feel safer with your pants down in the men’s room than you do in a coed dorm?”

“It’s a small price to pay to be left alone.”

“So where do you live now?”

“On campus.”

He sensed that something was not right, her answer was too vague.

“Where?”

“The Hill.”

“Where at The Hill?”

“The fifth floor.”

“There is no fifth floor at The Hill.”

“The second one then.”

“Micky, where do you really live?”

She hesitated before blurting out, “All right, in my car.”

“I thought as much.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, you just seem down on your luck. That, and the fact that I got a slip in my box that said I needed to send you to the finance office the next time you came to class.”

“They must be looking for my tuition payment.”

“Do you have it?”

“No, not all of it. Not yet anyway.”

“Do you have a job?”

“Sort of.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“The Admin Office has jobs for me every now and then, and I do some yard work for one of the science professors.”

“Well, that certainly can’t add up to much.”

“Things’ll get better, they always do.”

“Where’s your family?”

“I wish I could say I knew, but I don’t. As soon as I turned eighteen, my dad and step mom sold the house and bought an RV. That was two years ago. I’ve had two postcards since, one from Scottsdale and one from Hoover Dam. But I’ve basically been on my own since my dad remarried; my step mom and I don’t get along very well.”

“Where’s your mom?”

“Oh, she died. Took too many pills, I think.”

“Wow. You’ve had a rough time of it, haven’t you kiddo?”

“Not any rougher than a lot of other people I suppose. It’s not too bad. Two more years and I’ll have my certificate and then I can teach. I can buy a house and groceries and a big ol’ black German shepherd.”

“So you can be Missy again?” he asked with a wry smile.

She smiled back at him and nodded, and the beauty of it momentarily stunned him.

He looked at her closely then, seeing her for what she really was, a young woman. A little sprucing up, a feminine haircut and just a bit of makeup and she’d be a petite knockout. She was slight of build and even though she couldn’t be more than five feet, it seemed she was all arms and legs in her basketball shorts and jersey. She probably had some nice hips under all that loose clothing, but he was sure she dressed so it wouldn’t show.

“Well, we’ll have to work on getting you a sex change operation.”

“What?”

“Getting you changed back into a girl.”

“I like the way things are for now.”

“They can’t stay that way, you know.”

“I know. I want to make sure they put the right name on my certificate. And when the chancellor shakes my hand, I want a picture that I can show my dad whenever he surfaces.”

The sad twinge he heard in her voice made him look hard at her. How could anybody abandon this sweet kid? And what was worse, how was it that the approval of her father was still so important to her after he had deserted her? As far as he was concerned her father didn’t deserve any consideration, and certainly he didn’t deserve the wistful tone she had in her voice. But he saw the same thing over and over again when he counseled dysfunctional families. Family was family and no matter how bad they were—they were yours, and the desire to be accepted by your parents was universal—no matter how much they didn’t warrant a child’s adoration.

“Are you any good at making beds, scrubbing floors and the like?” he asked.

“Could be. I can learn to do just about anything. Why?”

“We’re looking for someone at the rectory. Someone who can do some cleaning, the laundry, and occasionally cook when the parishioners’ casseroles give out.”

“I could do that.”

“Come by tomorrow afternoon and see the Monseigneur. I’ll give him the low down.”

“Thanks!”

“You’re welcome. Hope it works out,” he said as he turned to go in the opposite direction.

“Father Steve?”

“Yes?”

“Do I show up as Micky or Missy?” she asked with chagrin, a crooked smile brightening her face.

“Do you want a place to sleep also?”

“That would be nice.”

“Then you might want to be Micky for a little while longer. He smiled at her and winked, “I’ll keep your secret as long as I don’t have to lie.”

“Thanks. I wish I didn’t have to either. But it’s not really lying, if nobody asks.”

“No, it’s not. It’s deception though, and that’s not good.”

“Maybe I’ll see you in confession one day.”

“Gosh, I almost forgot!” He glanced at his watch. Thirty minutes ‘til confession, and he still had to shower and shave. He turned toward the rectory and began jogging. He was cursed with a five o’clock shadow that made its presence known around two in the afternoon, necessitating two shaving regimens on most days—certainly on Sundays when most men were able to take a day off from it entirely.

The young priest bounded up the red brick steps and ran through the arbored walkway to the rectory adjoining the cathedral. He didn’t notice the man sitting on the wrought iron bench in front of the impressive front doors to St. Paul’s old gothic cathedral.

The grizzled man sat shrouded in the shadows of the late afternoon sun as it fought to penetrate the leafy canopies of the stately oaks lining the walkway. He looked up when he heard the echoing staccato of someone running and watched as a young man hurriedly opened the door and entered the rectory. The homeless man’s thoughts were on St. Paul’s and when he’d been a youth there so many years ago.

I rang the bells and I never missed, not even once. I was there every time they called, all my times and all their times, too. All the times they couldn’t drag themselves out of bed because of the whorin’ they did the night before. What hypocrites! They were the elite—the altar boys of St. Paul’s. They were supposed to be so pure, so pious. But they weren’t—they were just like all the others. Nasty and naughty while they fooled their parents and even the priests. But they never fooled me. I knew. I knew exactly what they were doing. I knew because I used to watch them. I used to watch them take those girls with their short, blue pleated plaid skirts and their tall gray knee socks tucked into black and white saddle oxfords with their starched white collared shirts—I used to watch them as they took them into the back seats of their cars and kissed them and stroked them until the girls let them take off their shirts and even their pointy-tipped bras. Yeah, I watched them as they scooted skirts up those smooth, bare thighs. I even watched them as those bad Catholic girls let those altar boys into their bodies, their virgin crevices yielding to those rutting, arrogant pricks. They were being fucked and I saw it all. But I knew that one day I would get my reward. I would have a virgin, not some slimy slut. But a virgin. One saved just for me. Like Mary was saved for Jesus. Joseph was her first, but he didn’t get to have her tight. My virgin will be tight. Tight, tight, tight. And she will exalt in me.

The man stood and shuffled into the church.

As Father Steve ran through the double doors leading to the rectory, he waved to one of the parishioners pruning the hedges that lined the brick walkway. “Hello Mrs. Reynolds,” he called out. “Nice of you to lend us your green thumb this afternoon.”

“Hi Father Steve. The Lord told me these hedges needed some trimmin’, so here I am.”

She watched him as he ran up the steps and disappeared into the rectory. He also told me that you’ve got the best physique on a man that I have ever seen. What a waste of male virility, she thought as she went back to her clipping. A widow in her forties, she was always trying to work her way into Father Steve’s good graces. Surely, one day he’d topple off his ever-so-righteous white horse and need the companionship she was constantly hinting at, covertly of course, since neither one would want the censure of the church.

To her way of thinking, he was just about everything the male specimen should be. Tall, well built, Sicilian in ancestry from his mother’s side, which gave him his natural dark coloring and thick black hair. English on his father’s side, provided his light piercing eyes and graceful mannerisms. And smart—hell, half the time his students didn’t know whether to call him Father or Doctor. He had a doctorate in Theology and a masters in European History, which is what he taught at St. Paul’s Catholic University just a few short blocks away.

She knew a lot about Father Steve. She knew that he couldn’t sit still; that he was always doing something. When he wasn’t serving mass, teaching, instructing the altar boys, giving marriage classes, counseling, hearing confessions, performing marriages, presiding over funerals or visiting the sick, he was playing ball with the city’s kids or running around the immense church parking lot. It seemed he was always attending to the parishioner’s needs, all of them—except hers.

Her needs never seemed to coincide with his, and lately she found herself wondering if perhaps he might be gay. She had heard that many Jesuits were that way; who knew what happened during four years at the seminary?

There’d been many a time that she’d dolled herself up and paraded herself in front of Father Steve with the lowest décolletage that Christian propriety would allow. But all he’d ever said was, “You must be cold, you have goose bumps on your arms.” Did it ever occur to him that her goose flesh was solely because of his nearness? Oh, no. He was way too pious. Either that, or immune to her charms—which she was loathe to believe—lots of men wanted her. Sure, she was slightly more than ten years older, but she was still a fine looking woman, and she knew it.

One hot summer night, when she and Father Steve had been seated across from each other at a pot luck dinner, she had purposely dropped her napkin under the table. When he chivalrously ducked under the table to retrieve it for her, she had met him under the table and given him an eyeful by casually letting one of her spaghetti straps fall off her shoulder, completely baring one voluptuous breast. But did he respond the way any able-bodied, full-blooded male should have? No, he didn’t. He had simply taken his fingers and pulled the strap up for her. He hadn’t even let his fingers linger on her shoulder. . . not even for a second. The next thing she knew, he went to the podium where he started calling out the numbers for bingo. One day—one carefully contrived day—she’d catch him in a weak moment. And it would be worth it, of that she was sure. A man just couldn’t look that good and not know his way around a woman’s body.

Father Steve shaved standing in front of the bathroom mirror with a towel draped around his waist. As he dipped the soapy blade into the basin, he thought about Micky and that one touch that had branded itself into his skin. He dropped the razor into the sink and looked at the palm that had grasped her breast. He could still feel its shape and visualize exactly where her nipple had pressed into it. He had to fight to control the sexual urges that welled inside him. Why was that little snippet causing him so much anguish? Determined to put her out of his mind, he reached for his aftershave lotion. The painful burn of the scented alcohol as it came into contact with his freshly abraded skin erased her from his mind, for the moment.

He went into his bedroom and donned one of his black frocks, attached the Roman collar, and slid his bare feet into soft, leather cordovan loafers. He always got grief from the Monseigneur whenever the benevolent old man looked down and spied Father Steve without any socks. But the old pater did listen to his reasoning when Steven insisted that no one would ever see his feet from the confessionals. Father Steve smiled when he thought about how shocked the old cleric would be if he ever found out that his young, fledgling ecclesiastic rarely bothered to wear any underwear under his frock either. It was just too darned hot under there. He went down to the kitchen to grab a quick glass of orange juice before heading over to the church.

On his way through the cool, darkened hallways, he thought back to the first event of the day that had unsettled him and left him feeling melancholy. It had been the catalyst that made him seek out the strenuous exercise of a late afternoon pick-up basketball game to release some tension.

Returning from teaching a morning class about the Renaissance, he’d found a letter on his desk in his combination bedroom-study. On close inspection, he found that it had been forwarded several times until it had finally reached him here, in care of St. Paul’s Catholic Church. It was addressed to his deceased mother. He remembered the shiver that had gone through him as he’d read her name.

Using a letter opener, he had torn the top open and extracted a single-folded sheet of paper. Typed in the center, under the letterhead of a bank in Philadelphia, were these words: “Dear Mrs. Tyndale: Your ten-year Certificate of Deposit has matured. Please advise us as to whether we should reinvest it in another certificate program or hold it out for distribution.” A Mrs. Shirley Jacobsen, the bank manager, had signed it.

When he had called the number printed on the letterhead and spoke with Mrs. Jacobsen, he was informed that his mother had opened the account in both her name and his father’s two years before she died. The application form noted that the money and its subsequent earnings were to be designated as a tax deferred annuity. At maturity, three months ago, it had a value of $266,873.86. As the only heir to their estate, it was his money now.

His and the church’s if he chose it to be. His and the church’s if he continued his vow of poverty. He had put the letter back into its envelope and tucked it into the top drawer of his desk, then changed into sweats, grabbed his sneakers, and ran at a breakneck pace all the way to the basketball courts several blocks away.

It was just too much to deal with right now, a quandary he didn’t want to have to think about. He did wonder how his mother had managed to come up with so much money to invest just months before Kelly’s lavish wedding though. His father had been a prominent dentist, but his parents had never acted as if they’d had money to spare. But they must have. They’d had a fine house, bought new cars every few years, and always kept their children in parochial schools. And, as far as he knew, they had never failed to pay the tuition payments on time, even when he had gone on to college. Yes, now that he really thought about it, there’d always been money, at least until that fateful day. After that horrible day, his father had never worked again.

Six hours after having read the unsettling letter, he opened a connecting door, walked into the solemn, incense-tinged church with its eighty-foot high beamed ceilings and imposing stained glass panels depicting the stations of the cross, and stopped to genuflect in front of the altar. He walked alongside the empty, heavy oak pews to a side aisle and ensconced himself into the center of three intricately carved confessional boxes.

After a few quick prayers, he slid open the screen and whispered, “Yes, my child?”

He was greeted by a gravely voice that pronounced the standard response, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been six weeks since my last confession. I have missed one holy day of obligation, I have had cross words with my husband, and I had an evil wish for my mother-in-law. I have lied about something and because of that lie, I have had to lie several other times.” And so it continued for an hour. He listened, he commiserated, and he doled out penance. There was a lull for a few minutes and he wasn’t sure if it was time for hearing confessions to be over with; he had forgotten to replace his watch after his shower. He could start to feel his legs stiffening and was wondering just how much longer he’d have to remain seated in this dark, closet-like box, when he heard someone open the door to one of the boxes beside his. He heard someone settle into the seat in front of the closed screen. He slid his screen open, permitting a vague outline of a man. He could hear raspy, deep breathing and smelled the strong odor of whiskey and tobacco. He turned his head and drew in a deep breath before moving closer and facing the screen. “Yes, my child?” he asked.

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned . . . It’s been eight years since my last confession and there’s not much that I’ve done right since then. I have just started coming back to m’ faith, and I wanted to make a clean breast of everything. First off, I’m an alki, and I’ve done some coke now and then, but the things I reckon me ‘n God’ve got to talk about are my molesting . . . and once, I committed murder.”

“I see,” Father Steve was shaken, but kept his composure. “Are those things in the past, you’re not doing them anymore?”

“I drink some now and agin, but I try not to let it get away from me. I don’t do no drugs no more, and it’s been four years since I messed with a kid. The murders were eight years ago.”

“Murders?” Steve asked, accentuating the pluralness of the word.

“Yeah. A mother and her daughter. Her mother caught me with the girl and I panicked. I killed ‘em both.”

Steve’s heart froze in his chest. He didn’t even know how he managed to get the next words out, “Where did this happen?”

“A little house over on Lorisdale.”

Steve never heard the rest of the man’s diatribe about how sorry he was and how scared he’d been when the drugs had worn off. How he’d packed up all his things and moved to Oregon to live with his sister. How he’d been terrified the whole time he’d lived there, expecting each knock on the door to be the sheriff.

Steve heard the man, but his mind only absorbed the words then slowly discarded them all as only one thought prevailed and stayed, screaming into his numbed mind. This was the man who had murdered his mother, and Kelly, his sister. This was the man who was raping Kelly when his mother walked in on him in the basement of their house on Lorisdale Lane. This was the man who had bashed both their skulls in with a monkey wrench. This was the man who had driven his father insane.

Steven had been the one to find them when he came home from his college classes late that afternoon. There was blood everywhere and Kelly, twitching on the floor, had still been alive—unconscious, but alive. She died the next day in the arms of her fiancé without ever having regained consciousness. There was evidence of the rape but a negligible amount of semen, which led the investigators to believe that the rapist had been interrupted before or during ejaculating.

Four long years later, they finally shelved the case; there just weren’t any clues. The wrench from his father’s workbench was missing, and there were no fingerprints. The footprints they found in the back yard where a man had hopped the fence had been no help. They were too nonspecific. Buy-em-at-any-dime store work boots, they could have been anybody’s. There might be something they could find today, with all the new technology, if the crime scene had been left intact—but it wasn’t. As soon as everything had been cleaned and painted, his father had listed the house. It finally sold two years later at a substantially reduced price.

His father never recovered. Each day he grew worse. He told Steve at least a hundred times that if it weren’t for his faith, he would have committed suicide; but he didn’t think anybody would pray for his soul, so he knew he couldn’t. When the case was closed, he had crawled into a tight shell and refused to talk to anybody. Instead, he just gave up and drank himself numb both day and night. He ended up in a nursing home thirty years too soon, broken and psychotic, before finally succeeding in taking his own life via the alcohol. He couldn’t do it directly. Oh, no, that would have been an unforgivable sin.

And here, in front of him, was the man who had caused all this to happen. The man who had taken away his whole family and started a chain of events that had forever altered his own life and the plans he’d had for his future.

He’d had plans to get a doctorate in European History, find a small university, get a professorship, earn tenure, fall in love, take a wife, and raise a family. Instead he was forced to switch his doctorate to Theology, enroll in a seminary and become a priest. All because his father had managed to convince him that he needed to pray for his mother’s and sister’s souls, and that the prayers needed to come from a loftier source, someone closer to God. And because Steve needed to find a way to get some peace, he had reluctantly agreed and accepted his new role. He agreed to be their intercessor, to pray and to instruct others to pray on their behalf, to move their souls from the jaws of purgatory into the gates of heaven.

Behind the screen was the man who had altered the course of his life.

“Father? Did ya hear me? I said I plan on gettin’ real active with the church again. I’ve prayed hundreds of Hail Marys and dozens of rosaries, but I know the penance is up to you to decide.”

Penance? He was supposed to give this man penance, when every fiber in his body was screaming for him to reach through the screen and rip his throat out? An eye for an eye! That was scriptural. The words, “Turn the other cheek,” came to him also. Turn the other cheek? No! No! No way!

He didn’t know what to do. He had to think. He had to reason this out. God, what was he supposed to do?

“My penance, father?”

“Yes. I’m thinking. Your sins require a moment of thought.” What if this man had truly repented? As a priest, he was honor-bound to forgive him. As a man, he simply could not. After several moments, he said, “Your penance will be more than just prayer.”

“I know. Now, I don’t have much money, but I got skills. I can build things.”

“Yes, yes that’s good. We can use a man like that around here. There’s always something that needs to be done. Are you in counseling now?”

My God, did he really want this man hanging around his church family? He thought of all the children in the parish—all the Catechism classes he taught on Saturday mornings, all the children who attended mass every morning before running across the street to the parochial school at St. Paul’s. Yet, he didn’t want this man to simply disappear, never to be found again, not without knowing who he was. He wanted him arrested. He wanted him in jail. No—he wanted him to die!

“I was in counseling until just recently. My sister passed, and I’ve just moved back into the area.”

“Well, there’s a lot of work you can do around here. Call the church secretary and tell her you want to help out and get back in counseling. I’ll leave a number with her for you. Ask her for Father Bryant’s number over at St. Matthew’s, he does counseling for child molesting. And say one Act of Contrition daily as well as a rosary for each of the souls you took for as
long as you live.”

“Am I forgiven, Father?”

“God forgives you.” But I don’t.

When the man left the confessional, Father Steve quietly opened the door and left the confines of the priest’s enclosure. He watched the gaunt, grizzled man from behind a large round pillar. He didn’t think he’d ever seen him before, but it was hard to tell without seeing his face. As the man turned he saw his profile, and he knew he’d never forget that face. The face of the man who had taken a virgin against her will just days before her wedding and then slaughtered two innocent women to hide his crime. No, he’d never forget the face of the man who had raped his sister and murdered both her and his mother.

Sitting at his desk late that night, he tapped a pencil against his lips as he thought things over. Then his blood began to boil. He shot up out of his chair, shoving it back so hard that he had to grab it just before it fell to the floor. One-handed he slammed it down hard enough that he heard the wood crack. Shoving long fingers through his thick hair, he began to furiously pace. Sweat began to bead on his brow while his thoughts overwhelmed him. He was wrestling with the images of his mother and his sister sprawled in puddles of blood on the basement floor. How was he supposed to deal with this?

He thought this time that God had given him more than he could handle. His vows dictated that he forgive and accept this man back into the fold, but there was no way he could do that. No way!

Right now, it was everything he could do just to keep his hand from picking up the phone and turning him in. This was the man they had looked for for so long. This man deserved to be punished! And he didn’t want to wait until it was time for him to sit before the throne and be judged. He wanted him judged now! Judged, found guilty, and executed. He was slime. As far as he was concerned, the man was not one of God’s children; he was the spawn of the Devil!

Years ago, he had been told that the strongest expletive in the Bible was, “The Devil take you.” They were certainly not the strongest words coming to his mind right this very minute.

Words of scripture reeled at him—words of compassion, words of forgiveness, words of deliverance. Things he had been taught over and over again, that had been drilled into him ad nauseam. Just who was he in the grand scheme of things? Who was he to determine this man’s fate?

He couldn’t disclose a confession, no matter what was confessed. It was more than just his job, it was a solemn oath—a promise that he had made.

But he couldn’t keep this to himself either. He ran his hand through his hair, tugged it hard with frustration, and gave a great, exhausted sigh. Could he go to someone higher up? The Monseigneur perhaps? No . . . his vows precluded that, he couldn’t go to anybody. Well, not anybody mortal anyway. He jumped up and grabbed his robe. It was after midnight, and he knew no one else would be up. God wouldn’t mind if he came to talk to him with his pajamas on. He went down to the church and sat in his favorite chapel, the one that faced the statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by hundreds of now unlit offertory votives.

For hours he knelt, deep in prayer and lost in thought. How long he stayed there, he could not say, but he knew that nothing had been resolved when he finally stood up. His knees ached, and he was still confused, agitated beyond belief and uncertain what his next move should be. But one thing he did know. He knew that as much as he enjoyed the children and the parishioners, and as dedicated as he was to his faith and performing his duties, he was no longer cut out to be a priest. He just didn’t have it in his heart to forgive such a grievous sin. Not that it was his job to do the forgiving—that was God’s. But what if he couldn’t intercede for this man? What if he couldn’t stand the thought that one day all would be forgiven as if nothing had ever happened?

And now, now as he lay in his bed during the darkest part of the night, staring at the ceiling, he felt more alone and more confused than he’d ever been in his life. A fitful rest followed, interrupted a few hours later by the buzzing of his bedside alarm.

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