After church, everybody flocked to Father K.
Priests at our Priory didn’t vanish in the sacristy after serving Mass. Each one would stand at the main door and wait for every last person who wanted to come shake his hand and bend his ear.
It took a while. Sunday noon was always full; church seats 400. The custom was nice, but I always ducked out the garden door instead, to stay off the celebrant’s reception line. It puzzled me that people pick the busiest hour in a priest’s life, when he’s fasting on his feet all day. That’s when they want his message for their distant kin, or signature on this petition, or appearance at that charity lunch, or blessing on their picture of the Pope.
The priests stood at that door though, for as long as anyone was waiting. For Father K., that meant students and teens, people coming for marriage preparation, newlyweds, new parents with infants. The parish had posted him to youth ministry; over on campus he held daily Mass and study groups and socials. He booked evenings at a frat-row pizza parlor, handing out dinner and lively doctrinal discussions. Even off duty he’d stake out beaches and malls, bringing his guitar and hymns. Kids noticed his tall strapping tanned good looks and thatch of dark wavy hair and flash smile. They’d stop to hassle him, and then find themselves attending church.
Among the Legions of Father K., I never got a word in edgewise.
People said “What! Don’t you join the line after church on Sundays? Stay after; go up to him and say hello!” So, on three different Sundays I gave it a try. I picked moments when no one else was queueing up, when he wasn’t off full-tilt with vestments flying to assist at the next Mass, when he wasn’t managing some fund-raiser in the parish hall. Three times I offered him a handshake and hello. His hand might have given mine a shake, his smile might have burned an extra watt or two; but he didn’t see me. Like paramedics at ground zero or blue heelers on a station ranch, Father was always scanning the landscape for any special needs jockeying for his attention. So three times he looked past my shoulder and kept moving, off to give a cheering word or quip or touch or sketched cross or attention. (“Of course I’ll pray for her; what is her name please?”).
Just today, typing this, it occurred to me: to talk to Father K. all I had to do was make an appointment for Confession. But that didn’t dawn on me then. Instead, I cooked up a big story to explain to myself why Father K. didn’t see me standing there. My story was that church was a place that celebrated people who were young or loved or had a vocation to religious orders or were going to be converts. The community life of the church had sacraments for all those people, but didn’t have a ceremony to celebrate the fact that women like me were over 50 and still single. So I went back to slipping out the garden door, and then faded out of church and didn’t show up much on Sundays any more.
It was months later, in November, before I ventured back again. At that particular noon service, the celebrant was Father Pastor. After Mass, Pastor announced that Father K. had decided not to seek any further rounds of medical treatment for his diagnosis, and that he wished to remain here at the Priory in the care of the priests.
One glance at the congregation showed that to them the news was sobering, but no surprise. Apparently they’d known something of the kind all along. On my way out the garden door, I felt sad and repentant for my way of withdrawing from people who looked happier than I felt. Here our handsome enthused Padre, as people called him, looked like a man in radiant fields of public acclaim, when all along he was a man in a private war.
At home that night, a bitter wind rocked the fir trees and my conscience.
Tossing and turning in my sleep, I realized “Here I thought he didn’t see me. But I’m the one who didn’t see him at all. How is he really doing?” In dreamtime mind I sat up, pulled back the covers, and stood on the bed. Passing through the frozen panes and up to the eaves, I stepped from the fir tops to the roof of the Priory and through its brick wall to the back cloister. There I picked a bedroom door and peered in.
Father K. was in white vestments, kneeling at an altar. It held a cruciform monstrance with a gold cross holding a glass disk, where the host of bread was placed for the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Father was so caught up in his devotions that the intensity of his prayer began to melt the molding of the white plaster wall. The wall wore thin as the shell of an egg, letting a haze of light glow in to the room. The ceiling began to fade, giving way to a stainless blue morning sky with faint light clouds. Sunlight streamed in; cherry blossoms budded out and opened into bloom. I took a breath of fragrance and reached out to touch them. But, “This is not your spring,” a voice from somewhere admonished me, and I sat up startled in my own bed.
In January I dropped by at another noon Mass. Father Pastor was our celebrant again. After his thoughts on the Gospel he stayed in the pulpit. He told a hushed church that next door at the Priory, the priests and Hospice nurses took all measures to keep Father K. free from pain. Father K. was resting as comfortably as possible, and was expected to remain deeply asleep until —
Father Pastor looked up and stopped.
With all eyes on the pulpit, we hadn’t seen the side door open. The Priory always had visiting priests; I’d somehow left my distance glasses at home and didn’t recognize this new one. This Father had a very slight thin figure with fine white hair combed straight back, and a pale complexion. With courtesy he waited, leaning in the doorway, catching his breath, listening to the announcement. Then he straightened up and climbed the altar steps, where Father Pastor stepped out of the way and turned over the altar and the Mass.
An hour earlier, after days of deepening sleep, Father K. had sat up and astonished the Priory with the words “Time for Mass.” Now he stood at the altar supported by one of the younger priests and the choir director. In sips of breath, in a scorched whisper, he called upon God’s blessings for Benedict our Pope, for…
His Pastor concelebrant, the men supporting his arms, the congregation — any of them could have shouted out the name of our current Bishop. But nobody stirred.
The microphone registered a painstaking inhale as he recalled the name, and calmly forged ahead.
At Communion there were several priests and several Eucharistic ministers distributing the consecrated hosts and wine on several lines. But most people saw and converged on only one.
To me it felt very wrong to cost even a moment’s breath and attention on the longest line of all. So I walked to a Eucharistic minister line and on out to the sleeping winter garden. Then, leaving the true congregation to spend this last meeting all together with their Padre, I walked away.
But not too far, and not for long.
A strange impulse stopped and turned me back. Those driving glasses! How did I manage to forget them? With glasses, I could have seen Father K. one last time, from a discreet distance well away from the press of his parishioners. With one glimpse I could have wished him well and left for home. What was the point of staying? I already knew what he looked like. We weren’t acquainted. The sooner the man was left in peace and safely taken back to bed, the better.
All these arguments agreed in mind while my steps set out for home, then circled the building, then stopped at the garden door closest to the Priory. The garden gave me an idea: I could stand just to the side of the path, in the shrubbery, and have a glimpse as the men walked him past. Like Zacchaeus in his legendary Fig-Sycomore, I picked an ornamental vantage point and waited. Fifteen minutes. Twenty. Twenty-five in the damp January chill. Mass had to be long over, but the building was silent; not a soul was leaving.
I tiptoed up the steps and through the side vestibule, peered in, and gasped.
Father K. was finally finished with Communion. Now he was just heading down the center aisle, back to his old post on the receiving line at the street door.
I ran down the cloister walk along the roseless garden to the front. The massive wood doors were propped all the way open. A flash of inspiration sent me diving behind one of the doors to be close by yet out of sight, with a perfect view out between the hinges.
The people who filled a church that seats 400 came out in silence. For one more hour they eddied around three men in white holding fast to one another at the top of the stone stairs.
Father K., with his singed whisper and labored breaths, had open hands for every one of them; infants suspended in outstretched arms, elders who pulled his head down to whisper in his ear, rosaries thrust at him for his blessing. Behind the door I fumed at all these hangers-on. I wished they’d go away with their pathos and their endless little needs, and let Father rest.
But then my squinting unglassed eyes shifted wavelengths and blinked at a different kind of vision. With that, people’s gestures and urgent words, the abject distraught touches and sounds and weeping, were luminous tendrils and silks stringing together. The parishioners were not weighing down their priest; instead they were weaving the final meaning of his life, a web of light to bear him up for the day that he left them behind and stepped out alone.
When the hour was over and everyone went sorrowing away, Father K. asked the priests to take him on a short drive, to enjoy a last little view of the city that he loved. Then he went back to sleep for the next ten days.
There were three memorial services in three other cities, at previous parishes who begged to see their Padre once again. But the main vigil was at our church. A full company of priests turned out in black and white. It was all candles and baskets of hand-woven rosaries and boxes of tissues in all the pews. When the service was over, the priests opened the Parish Hall and served coffee and food to a line of mourners so long that they had to keep the church open until the funeral next day.
I came to church very early and picked a corner to the side and out of sight, well out of the way of the family and closest friends. But the open coffin was carried to that corner and set down right in front of me. Gazing at Father K. was a gentle kind familiar experience, like seeing a perfect sepia photograph of his own cherished grandfather. Sitting right up close in the shadows with the banks of flickering tea-light candles was in its austere way a beautiful experience.
But meanwhile, on that last Sunday, at the top of the steps at the end of the line, one last petite elder wrapped up her long story of personal distress. Father bowed down to see her eye to eye. “Of course I will do that. And… apologies, but — remind me of your name?”
When she made her way down the stairs, Father’s supporters circled his back with their arms and turned him toward the Priory.
“Hard to believe this is the end,” he confided to them in pure open wonder. “But I guess it is.” He gave a worried look in toward the vestibule, and murmured a question.
“No no,” the men told him. “Church is empty. We’re just locking up.”
“But someone else…” he ventured.
“That’s everyone,” they assured him. “You’ve talked to everyone today. Let’s go back to the Priory. They’ve all gone home.”
“One more,” he said, anxious, dogged, scanning around. “One more, last of all.”
In murmurs and arm clasps, his care team gently guided him to come along.
But “Somebody’s out there,” he whispered. “Somebody. Somebody…”
Behind the door, I finally poked my head out of hiding.
The men blinked at me. “Would you like to come out of there,” one of them asked, “and say goodbye to Father?”
Father K. shook off the men supporting him, and turned to me. Each precarious step took all his concentration; each step rocked his frame. But in the grip of some enormous force he kept on walking, on his own, reaching out with both arms. His alabaster complexion and the fine silver of his hair set off his eyes: dark, enormous, pupils dilated from morphine into absolute black.
Our hands met and gripped together.
Father gazed and gazed, searching my face as if I were the last living being in the world. Laboring for his next breath he delivered a message, as if he’d saved it all this time, and all for me:
“I am sorry. But. I. Have. To. Go.”