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Authors: Ralph McInerny

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective

Prodigal Father

BOOK: Prodigal Father
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For Vaughn and Carole McKim
Moonlight softened the contours of the maintenance shed and lent an eerie opacity to the glass panels of the greenhouse. The line between nature and art blended, natural growth and the works of man fused in the altering light. Nocturnal life went on, a whirring racket emanating from the shadowed trees and hedges. An owl interrogated the night.
Paths reflecting the pale light, moons to the moon, linked shed and greenhouse with the lodge beyond. And with the grotto, where votive lights flickered in the hollowed rock. Our Lady opened her arms in a perpetual offer of help. All tenses seemed present there, permitting a glimpse into the future of these coordinates in space:
 
Strange primal sounds come from the maintenance shed, animal grunts, the toppling of tools that ring when they strike the concrete floor. The door of the shed bursts open. A single figure appears. He staggers along the path, nearly falling several times, righting himself, pushing on. When he comes to the grotto he all but collapses on the prie-dieu before the shrine. He falls forward as if in prayer. The ax handle emerging from his back glows in the moonlight.
There is one thing I ask of the Lord, for this I long, to live in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life.
—
Psalm 27
 
The old priest came slowly down the long drive from the main building to a predestined point, then turned and looked back with the eyes of youth. From where he stood, the veranda was visible, and the great double doors of the main building above which the grand facade rose four stories. Atop the dome, catching the morning sun, was the gilt statue of St. Athanasius. His creed had once formed part of Sunday matins in the days when the Breviary was still said in Latin, the language in which Father Boniface himself still said the daily prayer of the Church. This June day might have been a long-ago summer, with classes over, the seminarians dispersed, long indolent months stretching hot and humid before him until September brought another school year, and the familiar routine of teaching Virgil and Cicero. Birds twittered among the trees. Except for the constant hum of traffic on the interstate, the scene was as it had been when he was a boy here, learning rather than teaching Latin, preparing as he had thought to take his part in the far-flung work of the Order. But he had been destined to live
out his priestly life where it had begun, watching his classmates go off to their assignments at the two parishes in Chicago, the retreat band, the high school in Cicero, or the missions in far-off Africa and Central America. Generations of his students had also gone forth, but he had remained, witness of the decline and fall of the Order of St. Athanasius.
I alone have escaped to tell you
. That recurrent line of the servant returned to tell Job of his losses—cattle, family, worldly goods—had become his motto. Or
I, Tiresias … .
T. S. Eliot. He had come almost to cherish the melancholy sense of dissolution. The church tower rang the half hour, two musical phrases, mechanically operated now as it had been for years. Once a student had been assigned as bell ringer and pulled with living arms the thick rope that measured out the hours and days and years. The bell seemed to toll for young Conrad, a fourth-year boy, who long ago had hung himself from that rope in a fit of adolescent despair, dying to the cacophonous clang that had awakened the school in the middle of the night. The lips of the old priest moved in prayer for his long-dead classmate. And for his dying Order.
The decline had begun in the late sixties, in the wake of Vatican II, the ecumenical council, that had been summoned by the saintly Pope John XXIII with effusive optimism in the early '60s, inveighing against the prophets of doom who could not, as he did, see the world and the Church with the eyes of hope. As a young priest, Boniface had felt his pulse stir to the pope's call for renewal, for a new springtime of the Church. Religious orders were to find anew the purpose for which they had been founded. But John XXIII died, the council went on for several years, and what had begun in hope soon took an unexpected turn. Religious men and women deserted the life they were meant to renew, priests
were laicized, the student population of this place dwindled as the Order of St. Athanasius, like so many others, lost its moorings. The rector of the seminary ran off with his secretary, applications for laicization became more numerous than new vocations, soon Latin lost its central role in preparing young men for the priesthood, and a species of English reduced the liturgy to banality. Boniface had lived through all that. For several years he had been the caretaker of the Order. There was only a handful of priests left at Marygrove, all but one older than himself. In the 1970s, the American branch declared its independence of the mother house in Turin. The missions were abandoned, they no longer had the men to staff the parishes in Chicago, and soon all that remained was the seminary on its magnificent grounds west of Chicago. But thin wisps of hope had lately risen in Boniface's soul.
A half year ago a stranger had asked to see him, or so he was told, but the man who stepped into his office was no stranger to Boniface.
“Nathaniel?”
“No one has called me that in thirty years. When I asked Father Joachim who was in charge he didn't recognize me.”
“I remember you as Richard Krause as well.” A boy who had a gift for Latin but who was to become an angry advocate of the vernacular.
“Arma virumque cano,
Richard said and the remembered words made him seem again the boy in the front row who was always ready with the day's passage and exchanged a pained and knowing look with Boniface when one of the others stumbled through the stirring lines of Virgil. Now they announced his own homecoming.
Later it seemed to Boniface that he had been apprehensive even then. It should have been an occasion for joy, a lost sheep returned, perhaps the harbinger of others.
“I want to come back.”
“Didn't you marry?”
“My wife died.”
“What have you been doing all these years?”
“I became a financial advisor.”
“Many went into counseling.”
“I was a counselor in a way.”
Richard went on to say that he had lived on both coasts, he had prospered, there were no children of his marriage. Nor had the former Nathaniel come unprepared to plead his case. Boniface must have read of former priests wanting to return. Twenty percent, it was said. Nathaniel was full of such lore. He had made inquiries at the chancery downtown, had spoken to someone. The cardinal himself was a member of a religious order, as so many new bishops seemed to be. Good things had happened in the archdiocese in recent years, but the signs of restoration had nothing to do with the Order of St. Athanasius. Boniface in his capacity as superior had spoken not long ago with the cardinal, giving him a report on the Order.
“There are just seven of you?” the cardinal had asked.
“Yes, Your Eminence.”
He was small, bald, and birdlike, a man of steel with a gentle manner. If he was shocked he did not show it.
“So what is your future?”
“God knows.”
“Indeed.”
Boniface had tried desperately to put a good face on the events
he reported. They had kept the seminary in good repair, the grounds were as they had always been.
“No vocations at all?”
“There have been inquiries. Older men, in their thirties and forties. They had known our priests in the parishes. I am afraid the prospect did not look inviting to them.”
“Do you have a plan?”
“A plan, Your Eminence?”
“For renewal. The Church has been through rocky times. Perhaps we are now at last ready for the Council to have its effect.”
Boniface had gone back and talked with the others.
“The Council has already had its effect,” Joachim said with sudden bitterness. “We were renewed right out of business.”
Boniface did not encourage this reaction. Old Martin had looked at him quizzically, but then his hearing had now become so keen that, as he put it, he heard things that hadn't been said. And little that was. Ambrose had an artificial knee and had never learned to walk properly since the operation. Peter was wracked with arthritis, and Bartholomew had been asthmatic all his life, unfit for anything more demanding than looking after the books. John, the one priest younger than Boniface, had suggested they volunteer to help in parishes.
“How I miss pastoral work.”
In the end that was the extent of the next report Boniface made to the cardinal. John had been made assistant—pastoral associate as it was now called—at an ethnic parish, putting to use his knowledge of Polish. And Boniface himself said Mass at St. Hilary's in Fox River whenever Father Roger Dowling needed him.
“You really want to come back after all these years?” Boniface had said to Richard Krause.
“If you'll have me.”
Boniface worked out a plan. Richard would spend a trial year, after which the cardinal promised to restore his faculties. Richard actually wept at the news.
“But what will I do?”
“Think of it as a retreat. You said you were a financial advisor?”
“Yes.”
“Perhaps you could help Bartholomew with the books.”
And so he did. Boniface had expected resentment, resistance, an angry refusal to have Richard looking over his shoulder, but Bartholomew relished having an assistant, for that was Richard's designation. The lost sheep took more enthusiastically to helping Bartholomew than he did to the spiritual regimen Boniface put him under.
“What's the point?” Richard asked, when told to study the rule, reacquaint himself with the life of the founder, review the work of the Order. “It's a record of failure.”
“If you believed that, you wouldn't have come back.”
“No,” Richard said, as if seeming to reject a number of possible rejoinders. “You're right.”
Apparently Richard had dyed his hair in the world. Now he wore his gray hair dramatically long and when Boniface suggested a haircut Richard was ready with an answer.
“The founder did not believe in haircuts. Or in shaving.”
“Ah. So you will grow a beard.”
Richard grew a beard. “I want to say good-bye to everything I was.”
It appeared that he had been many things, financial advisor only the last of a long line of pursuits. Perhaps when one deserted
a life to which he had vowed himself, nothing else exerted a permanent claim.
“Tell me about your wife.”
“She had been a nun. We were like two angry adolescents, though we were both in our forties. We blamed the Church instead of ourselves.”
It was the surprising restatement of the Church's teaching on contraception that had decided them not to have children. Marriage was above all a relationship between two people.
“We were flower children.”
They had lived in California, which was where they had met. She, it seemed, had become a psychological counselor.
“Her goal was to relieve people of their sense of guilt. For her, to be a Catholic was to be burdened with guilt. Especially about sex.”
As Richard described it, his wife—Marilyn—had preached the obverse of the Christian ideal. The body was paramount, its needs to be embraced, pleasure was not a sin but fulfilment.
“You disagreed with her?”
“Oh, no. You would have had to have known her.”
Was he slipping free of any responsibility for the life he had led?
“It all unraveled when she learned she had cancer, Boniface. All the fears and anxieties she had warned others against came back with a vengeance. She worried about her soul now that her body was moribund.”
Eventually, Marilyn had dreamed of returning to the life she had led as a nun, but she had a husband. Besides, her species of Franciscan was nothing like it had been when she belonged.
“She was shocked at the changes.”
“Did she try to go back?”
“She would have liked to lead the rest of them back. They laughed at her. She wouldn't have been allowed to come back. Her change of heart set me thinking.”
“Did she have a good death?”
Richard looked at him. “You can't know how odd that would sound to most people. But yes, she died with all the consolations of religion. I saw to that.”
“What do you mean?”
“In an emergency.
Tu es sacerdos in aeternum.
Even when you're laicized.”
Richard had become a priest to his wife. That had made it easier for her.
“Imagine her explaining everything to a hospital chaplain. More than anything else, being with her at the end made me realize what I had thrown away.”
It was Joachim who first wondered about what Richard would bring to them if he came back. Boniface was surprised by the suggestion, but he put it to Richard as his own.
“I divested myself of everything. It was like a repudiation of all that I had been. I come back empty-handed, Father Boniface.”
It didn't matter. If nothing else, the Order of St. Athanasius had prospered financially. Not even the near dissolution of the Order altered the fact that they had no monetary worries.
“I had no idea how well off the order is,” Richard said.
“Is it?”
“Don't you know?”
The truth was that he did not, not in any detail. From time to time, Bartholomew told him of the investments he had made. And old friends of the Order continued to send in donations as if they were hard at work in the various fields of the apostolate. The land
they held in Fox River was coveted by developers, but what would they do with the profits if they sold? The question was Bartholomew's. Boniface found it sacriligeous even to suggest that they would do anything to diminish what remained of the Order. Changes in personnel and the work the Order did were one thing, but he did not intend to preside over the dissolution of the Athanasian empire. Winston Churchill. Of course the real reason was personal. He wanted the school and the grounds kept just as they were when he had first seen them at the age of thirteen.
BOOK: Prodigal Father
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