Seamus stood on the front porch of the rectory behind Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, the place where he’d grow up. The grade/middle school building was across the parking lot near the sports fields, while the convent was built on the other side. Behind it was the high school, a playground, and a small chapel in the courtyard between the school buildings. Seamus remembered lots of basketball games played with school chums he was sure he’d run into at the celebration mass the next day.
He rang the bell, and when the door opened, there stood Father Akron with a welcoming grin, which was a relief. “There you are, Father McCord, early as always. Come in, my boy, come in.”
Wiping his feet on the mat before stepping inside, Seamus looked around the rectory to see it had been painted recently and the hardwood floor had been sanded and stained. It still reminded Seamus of his childhood.
Father Marv was always one to bribe the altar boys to come by the rectory to help the pastor’s cook and housekeeper, Mrs. Owens, move furniture when it was time for the spring cleaning, or to help put up/take down decorations at the church and rectory at the holidays with the guidance of the Ladies’ Sodality. The payment was always the same… cake and homemade ice cream in the winter, and frozen custard in the summer at the stand down the street. To Seamus, the memories were quite vivid and made his heart feel warm.
Seamus followed Father Marv to the kitchen where a plate of tea cakes waited. There was a kettle on the stove, so Seamus walked over and turned on the gas burner after lifting the pot to feel it was full. The rectory was almost his second home growing up. “Who’s cleaning and cooking for you these days?” Seamus asked, seeing the kitchen was quite tidy and sparkling clean.
Father Marv laughed. “I do my own cooking unless one of the ladies’ sends something for me, but I do have a cleaning service come through once a month to do the heavy lifting. The parish ladies always volunteer to do it, but I’ve found they’re more interested in snooping than cleaning.
“I don’t have many secrets, but I believe the color of a man’s boxers is his own business. So, tell me about the reassignment,” Father Marv inquired.
Seamus had explained some of the details to the priest the previous evening when he phoned to set up the visit before the family began playing a board game. The young priest’s head was still aching a bit from the drink-off with his brother.
The tea kettle whistled, so Seamus got up and pulled down two of the cups hanging from hooks under the cabinet. He found each of their favorite teabags in the wooden box on the counter and began preparing tea as he’d done when he would visit with Father Akron during trips home from college or when he was deciding whether to attend the seminary.
Seamus placed the cups on the table in front of each seat while Father retrieved milk, sugar, and a honeypot from the counter near the stove. The two men sat for a moment and doctored their drinks before they looked at each other. Father Marv said a quick prayer, and they both nodded after a moment of silence before they made the sign of the cross in gratitude.
After a moment, Father Marv cleared his throat to speak. “I have an old friend assigned to the Springfield Diocese who I spoke with last night after I talked to you. Father Kozlow is not exactly modern or liberal. He’s fundamentally alienated most of the younger parishioners who now attend service in nearby towns.
“Father Kozlow wouldn’t allow the school to have parties or celebrations for any secular holidays, even going so far as to chastise several of the parents for petitioning the PTO to hold a fall festival at the school gym around Halloween. They didn’t identify it as a Halloween party, but they wanted to allow the children to dress in costumes.
“It seems Father Kozlow still called them pagans and even said their names at the Mass. They ended up closing the school because so many parents pulled out their children.
“You’re going to have a fight on your hands, Mack. He’s unaware he’s being retired, as I understand it,” Father Marv pointed out, which wasn’t anything Seamus didn’t already know.
Seamus placed his cup on the table and crossed his hands. “That’s what Monsignor O’Keefe told me. I’m not afraid of meeting someone who is fighting against progress because he’s holding onto the things that make him feel safe, Father. It’s just the timing of everything.
“I’m afraid I’m having a bit of an identity crisis, myself. I haven’t taken my perpetual vows yet. I’m not sure if I joined the priesthood because it’s my calling or if it’s because I don’t want to disappoint my parents. You remember how excited they were when I decided to go to the seminary? Telling them I don’t think it’s what I’m meant to do with my life will break their hearts,” Seamus reminded.
Marv nodded. “I do, Mack. I also remember we talked about it for several weeks, and you almost seemed relieved when you finally came to a conclusion to go into the seminary. I wanted to ask you why, but you got busy with things, and we didn’t get to talk much after you began your studies. Why were you so relieved, son?”
Seamus looked down at his teacup not seeing anything except Giancarlo…or the boys he’d thought about during high school, or the few boys he’d wanted during college. He remembered he’d only contemplated telling his parents the truth about his sexuality for a few weeks before he’d accidentally overheard his mother say something about one of the little girls in her kindergarten class who had two mothers.
She went on and on regarding how sinful it was that the poor child was saddled with lesbians for parents and how she believed the State should take the girl away from them on the grounds of child abuse. His mother then went so far as to quit her job at the public school at the Christmas break to take a job at Immaculate Conception as a substitute that year, even though the pay was far less.
His mother’s actions made up Seamus’ mind that he’d never be able to live his life freely, so the seminary had seemed his only option at the time. His parents had been quite pleased with his decision, and he’d decided he would hide behind the vestments for the rest of his life rather than break the hearts of two people who had been his rock his whole life.
“I, uh, I have tried my best not to think about the reason for my choice because I’ve committed a mortal sin I’m afraid God won’t wipe from my soul,” Seamus whispered. He felt the tears rising to the surface, but he was able to calm himself before they spilled.
“There is no sin Our Father won’t forgive, Mack. Confess it to me, and we’ll pray together,” Father offered as he took Mack’s hand.
Mack looked up at him as the first tear fell. “But Father, I’m not sorry for it. I can’t be sorry for it because it was a beautiful thing. It was the essence of loving and being loved. It felt pure and as perfect as anything I’d ever imagined,” he told the priest without giving him the whole truth.
Father Marv looked at him and offered a tender smile. “I see. Well, son, you’re not the first man of God to fall to the charms of the fairer sex. God will forgive your indiscretion because we are human. Only Jesus Christ was perfect. There are even a few priests I’ve known over my life who have fathered children because they fell to temptation, but they were forgiven by God, and the Church has assisted them with providing for their children and allowing them to remain in the priesthood.
“I liken fighting temptation as the necessity to take the vows every day. Heck, I’ve been tempted myself on more than one occasion, but I prayed for God’s strength to keep me on my path, and he’s abided at every turn.”
Seamus nodded. “I understand that Father, but my problem is I don’t know if I want to fight it. I think I went into the priesthood to avoid having to be my true self and lose the love and respect of my family. I love them very much, and I got fulfillment from my work with the members of my former parish, but I have doubts that those things will be enough for me as I get older. Don’t you get lonely?” he pressed the older priest.
Father Marv offered a gentle smile and a pat on Seamus’ balled-up fists. “I do, but then I go into quiet contemplation and remind myself why I chose to walk this path with Jesus at my side. I grew up in a Catholic foster home. My foster mother was strict but kind, and she loved us. She’d been a School Sister of Notre Dame, and she’d encountered many children who were mistreated in their homes or abandoned by their parents altogether. She left the order and moved back to her family home where she applied to be a foster parent. When she was approved, she devoted her life to taking in many foster children over the years.
“She gave me an example of serving my fellow man in a way aside from being a priest. She never broke her vow of celibacy, but she put the needs of the foster children entrusted to her care above the needs of the parish community as a whole. She was an amazing woman,” Father Marv explained.
Seamus didn’t remember ever hearing the story, but he thought it was remarkable how the man who had been such a role model for him had taken his cue from his mother, a woman who set the example of love and kindness by putting those in need ahead of her vows to the Church.
Father Marv discreetly reached for a handkerchief and wiped his eyes, smiling at Seamus. “If you find it too difficult to live the celibate life, you realize you won’t be able to remain in communion with our Lord. If you leave the ministry as my mother did, you can become a lay minister in the Church, but you can’t marry, nor are you allowed to partake in the favors of the flesh. Once a priest, always a priest, Mack, whether you practice or not. You still have time to walk away, but I’d think long and hard about it,” Marv told him.
Unfortunately, long and hard had been all Seamus had been able to think about of late. However, he chose not to explain to Father Marv he wasn’t lusting after an Eve, but a Steve. For a devout man of the cloth such as Father Marv, that was one thing he’d never offer friendly counsel on. The book of their faith made it clear, homosexuals committed the unforgivable sin. That was the thing that had Seamus stuck, for sure.
They prayed together for God to provide guidance, kneeling in the sitting room in front of a beautiful crucifix mounted over the fireplace with two statues on the mantle…The Blessed Virgin and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As they rose from the floor, Father Marv offered a warm hug.
When he pulled away from Seamus, he smiled. “Now, all of that being said, I want you to know I’ll always be here for friendly consultation or even just a pleasant conversation. I know you’ll weigh everything we’ve discussed before you make your decision, Mack, as I’d hope you’d do.
“Now, wait here for a minute. I’ll be right back. Oh, I want you to participate in the Mass tomorrow. You’ve made your confession, so I’d appreciate it if you’d read the Gospel. I have Lay Ministers and Deacons to give out Communion, but I want you to participate. Wait here,” he ordered as he left the room.
Father Akron returned with a rosary bracelet, surprising Seamus. The beads were made of black glass with a sterling Crucifix and Glory beads. It was a surprise to him Father Akron had anything so modern. “I got this in Jerusalem at the Via Delarosa the year you entered the seminary. I had planned to give it to you when you took your perpetual vows, but I think you might need this now. Regardless of your decision for the future, you will always have God on your side, Mack. Never forget that,” he assured with another hug as he saw Mack to the door.
“Call me if you need me, son. I’ll see you in the morning at eight-thirty. Pleasant dreams,” Father Akron offered. Seamus nodded and said his goodbyes.
In the car on the way home, Seamus sorted through all of the things Father Akron had told him. Losing his career, his standing with the church, and possibly his family’s love and respect was a lot to consider but living a lie…or an omission…didn’t leave a good taste in his mouth either. He would be disappointing many people regardless of what he decided. It didn’t seem as if there was any right answer.
Seamus was standing in the Sacristy, hanging the black cassock and the white, lace-trimmed surplice he’d worn during the Mass. He’d forgone the dismissal recessional, heading out the side door to change so he could be in the cafeteria to help finish the setup with his mother. After he had the rabat adjusted, he pulled on his jacket and walked to a mirror, seeing his dark hair was a mess. He reached into the pocket of his coat and retrieved a small comb, adjusting his newly shorn locks that his mother had demanded he get that morning. He hated the haircut, however.
He exited through the back door of the church and walked the slate path to the cafeteria, seeing a lot of people heading in the same direction. He recognized a lot of them, and he knew he’d have to make small talk which he was dreading. He was, however, looking forward to meeting his brother’s new girlfriend and her daughters.
Seamus’ name being called from behind caught his attention, so he turned, seeing his brother, Mark, carrying a little girl in his arms as a woman and a taller girl followed quickly behind. He stepped out of the way of the foot traffic to wait for them to catch up, and when Seamus saw his brother with a glowing smile, the almost priest was quite pleased.
The three of them stepped over to where he was waiting for them in the grass, and it was sweet to see the younger girl, he thought her name was Rose, with her head resting on Mark’s shoulder as she side-eyed Seamus.
“Hey, nice job. Father Seamus McCord, I’d like to present my girlfriend, Callis Ross, and her daughters, Ella and Rose. Ladies, this is my brother Father Mack,” he introduced. Seamus stepped forward and shook Callie’s hand before he bent forward and shook Ella’s, then Rose’s.
“Please call me Mack. We’re going to be friends, so don’t worry about addressing me as ‘Father.’ That will confuse the heck out of people,” he teased as he smiled at the three females.
They made small talk for a few moments before Paddy walked over to them and was introduced as well. The six of them walked into the cafeteria and Seamus excused himself to go in search of his mother and sisters. He saw Shan talking to a boy that Seamus thought she had known from high school. She was laughing and touching his arm, so he deduced there must be some sort of romantic interest there.
He saw Erin sitting at a table with a guy that Seamus remembered her dating in high school as well. They seemed to be having a friendly conversation, and he noticed she kept blinking her eyes at the guy. In his opinion, either she was flirting, or one of her contacts was roaming in her eye.
Seamus saw Paddy talking to a group of guys Seamus recognized from when Paddy was in middle school. They were all laughing and fist-bumping each other, seeming happy for the reunion. His parents came from the kitchen area carrying large chafing dishes with several other people who were all chattering happily, and at that moment, Seamus missed his friends from Chantilly.
When there were functions at St. Thom’s, Seamus always had people with whom he could hang out and have fun. He’d never noticed he was the ‘plus one’ in everyone’s group, even if there were other single people, because everyone knew he was off-the-market.
He watched some of his friends from high school, most of them surrounded by families of their own, speaking with other people he recognized from growing up. He saw several of them looking his way, and a few of them waved, but none of them bothered to approach him for conversation. He glanced down to see it was definitely his cleric’s clothes that put them off. After he went to the seminary, he didn’t have time for old friends anymore, and they’d all left him in the dust. At the end of the day, he was alone, yet again.
The scene would repeat itself every few years when he was moved about, and Seamus was coming to hate the feeling. He wanted people in his life, people who would stay. He wanted someone’s hand to hold when they were at a gathering, someone with whom he could share inside jokes and stolen kisses.
He wanted someone to look at him the way he’d observed Mark looking at Callie Ross and her girls. When he was the age of his parents, he wanted to read the paper with his partner and have intimate moments where they could remind each other they were still in love after all their years together.
Seamus McCord loved his family, his church, and his Heavenly Father. There had to be a way he could love a man and keep the other pieces of his life intact at the same time. Praying about it seemed to be wrong. If he was going to leave God’s service, it didn’t feel right to ask for His vote of confidence on the matter.
The ride to Beckett Creek was long, but the scenery was beautiful, and Seamus admired it much more than he had when he was a kid, anxious to arrive at the destination instead of enjoying the journey. Before leaving St. Louis, he’d gone to the car dealership where his brother, Paddy, worked so he could get his best deal since he’d be paying for the vehicle himself.
The stipend he would receive from the Diocese wasn’t what he’d received from the parish in Chantilly, but as Monsignor O’Keefe had explained in the letter Seamus had received before leaving Virginia, the small garage apartment where he would live was rent free. Since it was a few miles away from the church, the Diocese would supplement the costs of his gasoline because he’d be using his private vehicle. The church owned a car, but Father Kozlow had use of it due to his poverty vow.
When he pulled into the church parking lot, Seamus immediately noticed the rock structure was in dire need of foundation work, concrete work, and roof repairs. The concrete stairs leading to the entrance of the church were crumbling, and one of the iron banisters was missing. “Wow, when You throw out a challenge, You don’t disappoint,” he said aloud to the Man-in-Charge.
Seamus stepped out of his car and walked toward the back of the church where he’d been told was the location of the office, and he knocked on the door. He saw a small Honda parked under a carport attached to what must have been the rectory before the roof had caved in, and Seamus wondered why they hadn’t torn down the building and built another. It probably would have been cheaper than trying to repair the shell left standing that seemed to decay as Seamus stared at it.
When the door opened, he saw a short, bald man with thick glasses. “Yes. What can I help you with?” The man was giving Seamus the up-and-down and making him very uncomfortable.
It reminded him he should have gone to the garage apartment where he was going to live to change into his cleric’s clothes before arriving at the church. His anxiety at meeting the pastor and setting eyes on the church to judge for himself what he would be facing was nearly too much, but Seamus was an adult and knew what he was expected to do. That was why he went to face it head-on.
After a deep breath, he smiled. “Good afternoon, Father Kozlow. I’m Father Seamus McCord, your new Parochial Vicar,” he introduced himself, extending his hand to shake.
Father Kozlow, however, threw his hands up in the air and walked away from the door, leaving it open but not extending an invitation. Seamus walked in and closed the door, immediately wishing they could step back outside where a whisper of a breeze seemed to move the stagnant air as opposed to the convection oven of an office. The windows were open, but there were no screens which explained the flies and wasps buzzing around the room.
“I would be offended by your dress if I didn’t know you’d driven several hours. From today forward, you are never to wear those clothes into God’s house again. I was expecting you this morning. Tomorrow, you will serve the Mass. I’ll be making the visits to the shut-ins, so you’ll be here alone. I expect the Mass to be no shorter than forty-five minutes.
“Because it’s summer, we have no servers, so you’ll need to use the Deacon to assist you with the preparations. Do you have questions for me? I have visits to make, and since you’re not dressed properly, I’ll have to do them alone,” the pastor commanded from his place behind the old desk.
He didn’t invite Seamus to take a seat, so he stood in front of the desk, melting into his sneakers. “Is the air-conditioning broken?” Seamus enquired, feeling the perspiration running down his back and dampening his t-shirt.
“I don’t know if it works because I haven’t tried to turn it on. It’s too expensive to run it when we have many other needs here at the parish aside from cool air for our selfish pleasure. There are two large fans we use for Mass, one in the back and one in the front of the Nave. Some of the windows open, so when possible, I open them. It’s okay for morning Mass. For Saturday night Mass, plug in the third fan in the Narthex.
“In the summer, we only hold Mass at seven and nine in the morning because it’s too hot in the church for the eleven o’clock Mass. If you’re working in the office, keep the windows open but close and lock them before you leave.
“Some of the local hooligans have broken in here and made a mess because one of the windows had a broken latch. They stole the sacramental wine, and they’ve stolen the Tabernacle a time or two. They tried to pawn it in another town, but the police caught them. I wanted them prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but Monsignor O’Keefe interceded on their behalf and suggested they would better learn the lesson if we put them to work. They’re working here at the church, keeping the gardens and grounds. They are now your problem,” the old priest snapped.
Seamus nodded because his job was to do what it took to get the church back on track, so if some of the local kids were available to do work around the church grounds, that was welcome news. “Okay, Father. Is there anything I can do right now?”
Father Kozlow scoffed. “Not looking like that. The church committees are meeting on Wednesday. The Monsignor will be here as well. Good day,” the priest told Seamus as he escorted him out of the office and slammed the door in his face. Seamus wanted to laugh because Father Kozlow was acting like the old bull who was still prepared to fight for his territory. It wasn’t as if Seamus hadn’t been warned.
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