The Reverend's Rambling
Two days before Christmas, following an altar girl with the cross held high, Reverend Timothy O'Hara walked down the center isle of Saint Mary's Catholic Church. He moved slower than in the past. Knee surgery and his eighty-two years were telling on him.
Why am I still saying six a.m. Mass every morning? he mused. I'm retired; I don't have to do this. Too many innovations nowadays. I never liked the idea of girls as altar servers but I have to tolerate them; I have to read some of the liturgy because it's been updated and my memorized version isn't in vogue; and I stumble on the words, embarrassing myself. Hell, I can't even recite the Lord's Prayer anymore without missing a beat sometimes.
Hell? I said Hell on the steps to the sanctuary. God forgive me.
The deacon at his side held onto the priest's elbow as he walked up the steps and over to the lectern to face the parishioners. "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost--" The Mass had begun. As soon as Father O'Malley sat for the readings by the lecturer, his mind wandered again.
I guess it's the Irish in me, I always get sentimental at Christmastime and when a new year approaches. More so now that most of my family's gone and I never had one of my own. I think about regrets. Over fifty years a priest. I've baptized many children, and their children. I've watched them grow up. Some turned out fine; others, well, not so good. I've buried many parishioners, too. And visited them in jail. Plus, listening to their woes and trying to advise and console them, promising them God never forgets them. I've also reminded a few why they're on Earth--not to rack up millions but to serve God and reach heaven.
He stared at the deacon who had begun reading the gospel but he wasn't listening to the words of it.
Hmmm, I wonder what my life would have been like if I'd gone to medical school like I planned? Maybe not much different. As an internist, I'd still be counseling people, listening to their problems. But, God willing, I would have had children. Would I now be proud of them, or would that have been a disaster? Although I never let them know it, sometimes the school children get on my nerves. Maybe I wouldn't have been a good father. He suppressed a smile. Was I any good at being a "father" to my flock?
Father O'Hara blinked when he realized the deacon had finished reading the gospel. He rose for the Prayers of the Faithful; following them, he stepped over to the altar and recited the Mass prayers almost in a sing-song fashion. The congregation stood and joined in when he reached the Lord's Prayer. At the Sign of Peace, he looked out at the pews and waved to the O'Hara's, who always attended daily Mass, the general's wife who came most of the time alone, and to Sister Louise, now retired. He blinked when he spotted the young couple who'd just lost the month old baby he'd baptized in a back pew on the side area. As they hugged each other, he could see the sadness in their eyes.
I'm glad I never had to suffer through losing a child, he consoled himself.
The Mass ended. After telling the congregation, "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord," he received help down the steps. On the way down the aisle, he passed a lady he didn't recognize, but she looked familiar somehow. She followed him to the back of the church.
As soon as they reached the holy water fount, she touched his arm and motioned him over by the sacristy door.
"Father O'Hara," she said with a twinkle in her blue eyes, "I guess you don't remember me. It's been many years, but I'm Susan Stein Lewis." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "But I bet you remember the night you kissed me goodbye and said you were going to the seminary."
Father O'Hara cut his eyes in all directions. He hoped the parishioners passing by didn't hear her remark. "Oh, Susan. What a nice surprise. How has life treated you?" he asked, recalling what a tease she'd always been.
"Actually, I've had a very good life. My husband, John, is very successful. He's an engineer, retired now, so we moved back to my hometown. We have two children, the oldest, John, Jr., is also an engineer. The younger one, Timothy, she chuckled and blinked, "well, he's almost middle-aged but still finding himself." She pulled out a picture of a handsome man with carrot red hair and a winning smile and held it up. Her voice lowered. "John doesn't know it, but I named him for you."
She edged closer. "Look, Tim, er, Father, he's in jail on drug charges and burglary. I came to ask you to say some prayers for him." Her mouth twisted in a smug look that he remembered fondly. Then she added, "If things had been different, he might have been your son," and Father Tim caught his breath.
He put his arm around her shoulder. Oh, dear God, my memories are flooding back. No, I never forgot that last kiss. I think I loved her. My decision, was it right? Timmy? He's got red hair like mine was before it turned white. Would he have been different if I'd been his father?" He blinked. How am I going to handle this?
He stiffened his body, stepped back, and held Susan at arm's length. "Since Timmy is your son, Susan," he said in a firm tone of voice, "I'm sure he's enough like you to overcome adversity. Give him a little time and keep praying for him and he'll be all right."
Father O'Hara steadied himself by leaning his back against the wall. "Suz," he used his pet name for her, "I'm convinced that you know the right things to tell Timmy to turn him around, back to God. And I'll keep him in my prayers."
The tears in his former girlfriend's eyes melted his heart. He hoped he was telling her the truth. But it was time for dismissal. He looked at his watch. "I'm sorry, but I have to go. A baptism. Thank you for coming by." He squeezed her elbow. "Keep the faith." He didn't extend an invitation to come again.
It wasn't till Suz left that he realized how ludicrous his statement--"Keep the faith"--was. Suz was not Catholic; she was Jewish and deeply entrenched in her religion. It reminded him that their marriage could have turned out to be a very shaky one. A definite obstacle to happiness.
Walking back to the rectory, Father O'Hara raised his eyes to the sky. So, the baptism's not till this afternoon, but I had to have an excuse to leave, Lord, before I got in some real trouble. Ah, age doesn't end feelings. Suz was quite a looker and she's still a charmer--and a tease.
He turned and looked back at the church he'd just left. This isn't the first time I've had doubts about being a priest, either. But I think it's the last. I may be an old man, but I learned something from that encounter: The church is my home; I made the right decision.