Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Father Joseph had hoped that a stroll in the garden behind the rectory this early morning would help center him for the busy Sunday ahead. But the scent of roses was overwhelming in the heat. He continued on to one of his favorite parts of the garden, the koi pond. Father Joseph usually found the undulating orange, black and white fish mesmerizing and mentally refreshing.
There was plenty troubling his mind, particularly his relationship with Monsignor Albert Wall, whom he was to assist at Mass this morning. As hard as Father Joseph tried to please the older cleric, the exacting monsignor was increasingly dissatisfied with his work. Father Joseph worried that a bad review from the monsignor would mean continued servitude in other parishes, delaying assignment to a parish of his own. The monsignor’s parishioners love him because he appears so strong and caring, thought Father Joseph. Monsignor Al had a way of persuading people to do things they normally wouldn’t—like the time he wrangled the donated koi out of the wealthy parishioner infamous for his stinginess.
But Father Joseph had felt first-hand the sting of the monsignor’s personal insults when things were not done precisely the way he demanded. In fact, one of Father Joseph’s most troubling thoughts was that the monsignor had a cruel streak, that he seemed to enjoy inflicting humiliation, albeit masked by irreproachable reasonableness.
Immersed in his thoughts as he walked, Father Joseph stumbled over an object protruding from a shrub. He gasped as he realized that the protrusion was a human leg that did not pull away reflexively. His heart pounding, Father Joseph pushed the shrub aside for a better view. He nearly dropped to the ground upon seeing coagulations of dark red by each blood encrusted wrist. A sharp pair of garden shears lay near the ashened face of Monsignor Al.
The ensuing police investigation uncovered a barely legible note in the monsignor’s pocket stating “I have betrayed everything and everyone.” Detectives dispatched the note to a crime lab for analysis. It seemed to Father Joseph that that the investigators doubted the authenticity of the note. So did he, having never seen any hint of regret in the monsignor. He understood that if the note was discounted, so was the theory that Monsignor Al had died by his own hand.
There was no indication of a breaking and entering of the rectory grounds. Nor did anything appear to be missing from the rectory.
The police questioned many parishioners, including everyone listed as having an appointment with the monsignor on the last day of his life. Father Joseph offered triage counseling for the shocked and frightened parishioners called to account for themselves. The only non-parishioner in the appointment book was Melanie Drivers, a sweet girl of about 18 who was receiving premarital counseling with her fiancé from Monsignor Al. Distraught, Melanie told police that the monsignor had been particularly kind to her to help her feel at home in the parish that was to be hers upon her marriage.
Father Joseph started hearing repugnant rumors recycled throughout the parish. One of the ugliest was about a Loretta James, who years earlier reportedly used to find excuses to be near the then-Father Al. Some parishioners thought Loretta liked Father Al a little too much, but no one ever saw him act inappropriately toward her. According to local wags, Loretta eventually married and moved several towns away. Someone thought he had seen her at a Mass not long ago, but this was not confirmed.
The young cleric also began to realize that affection for Monsignor Al was not as widespread as he had believed. A number of parishioners on the receiving end of the monsignor’s strong-arm tactics expressed discomfort with or even disdain for him.
In the end, the interviews yielded nothing useful to the police. When the lab reports came back confirming that the note was written by the monsignor, the investigative fervor of the detectives cooled down considerably.
But anxiety and fear churned deeply in Father Joseph. Adding to the mix was the enormous guilt he felt for having thought ill of the monsignor. He might have had his unpleasant side, thought Father Joseph, but he certainly didn’t deserve to end his days bleeding to death in despair in the garden. Father Joseph also could not shake the feeling that someone knew more than had been revealed to the police.
The monsignor’s death stirred many parishioners’ thoughts about dying with a guilt-ridden conscience. There was also rampant confusion and panic about the possibility of a murderer lurking in the shadows of the parish. Father Joseph noted that many parishioners began using the rite of confession as an ad hoc counseling session.
Late one Saturday afternoon, after seemingly hours of listening to parishioners unburden themselves and of repeatedly reassuring them that the parish was safe, Father Joseph was collecting his things to end the confessional sessions for the day. As he as about to rise to his feet, he heard someone enter the confessional box. It was a woman—he could smell the flowery perfume.
“Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been, well, years since my last confession,” the woman said haltingly.
The deep, sensuous voice was familiar. Father Joseph struggled for a few seconds to recall—yes, it was “just Marie” from the phone. In recent weeks, Father Joseph had taken several messages from her for the monsignor. She always refused to give her full name. But Father Joseph knew that Marie lived in a distant parish. Why would she come to his church for confession? He encouraged the woman to go on.
Marie explained that she was born in the monsignor’s parish. She had been baptized there, had received first communion, and been confirmed there. She had even attended the church’s elementary and high schools.
Father Joseph looked at his watch. How long was this rambling going to continue? He wanted a stroll in the garden before dinner.
“I had to move away, you know.”
“Oh yes?” he said.
“Back then, things like that mattered. My poor parents, the shame, the guilt.” Marie sounded close to tears. Father Joseph didn’t know what to say.
“You know Melanie Drivers? Doesn’t she remind you of someone?”
“I don’t understand,” Father Joseph said.
“She’s my daughter.”
“So Drivers is your married name?”
“I never married, Father. And Melanie is my child only.”
Father Joseph was beginning to feel annoyed. Soon it would be too dark to see the koi.
Marie continued. She said that she had loved Melanie’s father deeply, that he had been her first true love. She had known him for some time before anything happened between them. Then, shortly after her 18th birthday, the man pressed her for sex. At first Marie was frightened by the prospect, but she found herself surrendering to the man’s charms and reassurances. She also admitted to being thrilled by the forbidden nature of the affair.
“This much detail is not really necessary,” Father James interrupted.
“But it is, Father. Don’t you know who I am? I was the number one topic in these parts for quite some time.”
For several moments the silence of the confessional box was broken only by the breathing of the two people within. Then Father Joseph blurted out, “You’re Loretta James, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Loretta Marie James. He always called me Marie when we were alone together.”
“I understood that you moved away after marrying.”
“I wasn’t married. I was pregnant. By my parish priest. Good old Father Al, as he was called back then.”
“Oh my God, what are you saying? It’s vile,” said Father Joseph in hushed tones. Then a shocking thought entered his mind. “Are you responsible for his death?”
Marie sighed. In a small voice she replied, “Yes.”
Father Joseph fought hard against the desire to flee the confessional box. As repugnant Marie’s words were, he owed her a duty as her confessor. But once he calmed down, he once again started thinking logically. He even began to doubt Marie.
“Why now, after all these years?”
“He sent me packing. I was just a kid. He said I was causing him a crisis of faith and that he could serve God again only if I was out of sight. So I stayed away. Then I found out that he gave in to the temptations of the flesh again. With our Melanie.”
The meaning of this took a moment to register in Father Joseph’s mind.
“That last afternoon I showed up and found him pulling weeds in the garden. How appropriate that he should be on his hands and knees. He tried to brush me off at first. But I told him, yes I did. The look on his face—he had no idea about Melanie.” Marie began to sob. “Then I saw him cry, maybe for the first time in his rotten life. That was the last time I saw him.”
“You’re not responsible for what he did.” Father Joseph spoke softly.
“But I am. I drove him to it. I—I just wanted him to suffer. I never dreamed he’d go that far.”
“It’s not your fault. You did nothing wrong,” Father Joseph said.
“It will destroy Melanie. She doesn’t know anything,” Marie cried.
“Then don’t tell her. You don’t have to tell anyone if you don’t want to.”
“But I’ve sinned greatly and I have to pay somehow,” Marie said.
“No. The sins committed against you and your family are even greater. I can’t begin to know your pain. But I don’t think the Lord Jesus Christ requires you to suffer even more.” The words came out with difficulty. Father Joseph felt exhausted.
“What should I do now?” Marie was calming down.
Father Joseph thought for a moment. “Say a slow ‘Our Father.’ But feel every word of it. Let if be a revelation to you. Then go home and put the past behind you. Help your daughter any way you can. And reclaim your happiness.”
Later, by the koi pond, hot tears fell from Father Joseph’s eyes for a long time.