The bishop's man : a novel /
Linden MacIntyre.
imprint
Toronto : Random House Canada, c2009..
description
399 pages ; 24 cm.
ISBN
0307357066, 0307357066 (Cloth), 0307357066 (cloth), 0307357066 :, 9780307357069, 9780307357069 (Cloth), 9780307357069 (cloth), 9780307357069 :
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
imprint
Toronto : Random House Canada, c2009..
isbn
0307357066
0307357066 (Cloth)
0307357066 (cloth)
0307357066 :
9780307357069
9780307357069 (Cloth)
9780307357069 (cloth)
9780307357069 :
abstract
"From an award-winning writer and one of Canadaś̀̆ foremost broadcast journalists, comes a deeply wise and moving novel that explores the guilty minds and spiritual evasions of Catholic priests. Father Duncan MacAskill has spent most of his priesthood as the ́̀Exorcist ́̀ -- an enforcer employed by his bishop to discipline wayward priests and suppress potential scandal. He knows all the devious ways that lonely priests persuade themselves that their needs trump their vows, but heś̀̆ about to be sorely tested himself. While sequestered by his bishop in a small rural parish to avoid an impending public controversy, Duncan must confront the consequences of past cover-ups and the suppression of his own human needs. Pushed to the breaking point by loneliness, tragedy and sudden self-knowledge, Duncan discovers how hidden obsessions and guilty secrets either find their way to the light of understanding, or poison any chance we have for love and spiritual peace."--GoogleBooks
catalogue key
6927918
A Look Inside
Awards
This item was nominated for the following awards:
Dartmouth Book Award, CAN, 2010 : Won
Giller Prize, CAN, 2009 : Won
Libris Awards, CAN, 2010 : Won
Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction, CAN, 2010 : Nominated
First Chapter
{ 1 }

The night before things started to become unstuck, I actually spent a good hour taking stock of my general situation and concluded that, all things considered, I was in pretty good shape. I was approaching the age of fifty, a psychological threshold only slightly less daunting than death, and found myself not much changed from forty or even thirty. If anything, I was healthier. The last decade of the century, and of the millennium, was shaping up to be less stressful than the eighth — which had been defined by certain events in Central America — and the ninth, burdened as it was by scandals here at home.

I was a priest in a time that is not especially convivial toward the clergy. I had, nevertheless, achieved what I believed to be a sustainable spirituality and an ability to elaborate upon it with minimal cant and hypocrisy. I had even, and this is no small achievement, come to terms with a certain sordid obscurity about my family origins in a place where people celebrate the most tedious details of their personal ancestry.

I am the son of a bastard father. My mother was a foreigner, felled long before her time by disappointment and tuberculosis.

I was, in the most literal sense, a child of war. I’ve calculated that my conception occurred just days before my father’s unit embarked from England for the hostile shores of Italy, on October 23, 1943. There is among his papers a cryptic reference to a summary trial and fine (five days’ pay) for being AWOL on the night of October 17. I was born in London, England, July 15, 1944.

Isolation? I had, though perhaps imperfectly, mastered celibacy, the institutional denial of the most human of transactions. I was and am, to a degree, excluded from my peer group, my brothers in the priesthood, for complex reasons that will soon become apparent. But at the time I thought that I’d discovered an important universal truth: that isolation, willingly embraced, becomes the gift of solitude; that discipline ennobles flesh.

In that evanescent moment of tranquility, I was feeling okay. I see it as another life, the man I was, a stranger now.


I’d spent the weekend in Cape Breton, in the parish of Port Hood, filling in for Mullins, who had gone away with his charismatics or for golf. Escape of some kind. Mullins likes to pace himself. I’d planned to extend my visit by a day, to spend that Monday reading, meditating. The village of Port Hood is a pretty place and restful. I grew up in the area, but my personal connections there were limited. I could pretend to be a stranger, a pose I find congenial.

Mullins and the good Sisters up the road had given the glebe a comfortable tidiness. Anyone could feel at home there, as in a well-maintained motel. It has a remarkable view of the gulf and a small fishing harbour, just along the coast, called Murphy’s Pond. It was a pleasant change from the incessant noise and movement at the university an hour or so away, where, normally, my job was dean of students. In truth it was, as my late father used to say in a rare ironic moment, not so much a job as a position. Others did most of the real work. I was, in fact, in a kind of pastoral limbo, recovering, ostensibly, from several years of hard, unsavoury employment.

The phone aroused me on that Monday morning in Port Hood and launched the narrative that I must now, with some reluctance, share.

“The bishop needs to see you.”

“What does he want now?” I asked.

“He didn’t say. He said to come this evening. To the palace.”

I know now that I was stalling when I drove to Little Harbour, which is another, smaller fishing port just off a secondary road on the southern edge of the parish.


The harbour seemed to be deserted. Among the vivid particulars of that October morning in 1993 I remember a blue heron, knee-deep, transfixed by something in the quiet, oil-still water. Then I heard a throbbing diesel engine and at that moment observed a tall radio antenna mounted upon what might have been a crucifix. It was moving slowly above the crest of a low ridge in the near distance. The transient cross and the gentle rumble seemed unrelated until a boat suddenly appeared around the jagged end of a breakwater. It was a fishing vessel, about forty feet long, bristling with aerials and with a broad workspace behind the cab. The name, the Lady Hawthorne, might have been an omen, or maybe I just think that now, in the clarity of hindsight.

The boy standing on the bow was about eighteen years old. A rope dangled casually from a large left hand. He wore the uniform of the shore — jeans, a discoloured sweater unravelled at the elbows, knee-high rubber boots. He had a thick mop of unfashionably long hair obscuring his brow and neck. His face was tanned. He stared straight ahead but then turned and nodded, a moment of distracted curiosity as the boat slipped down the long throat of the harbour, stem turning a clean, whispering furrow.

It was about eight o’clock. The blood-red sun hovering behind me lifted a flimsy mist and held it just above the surface of the water. I felt the first stirring of a breeze. Something about the boat, perhaps its name, and the posture of that boy caused me to defer my anxieties for the moment. It was so rare to see someone that age stationary, sombre. I was more accustomed to a rowdy adolescent enthusiasm. This young man, I realized, was exceptional only because of time and place. Maybe any one of them in those circumstances would have been the same. Quiet. But he caught my attention nevertheless and linked the moment to tender places in the memory. Doomed boys and men: in retrospect they all have that stillness.

The man at the controls was probably my age, tall and heavy-set. They were, to my mind, almost reckless then, rushing through the narrow passage, past a nestling line of sister boats. But just before the wharf there was a roar of reverse acceleration and the Lady Hawthorne seemed to pivot in a tight circle then drift gently into a space between two others, bow pointing seaward. The boy stepped casually ashore with the rope. The older man was already at the stern, gathering another line into a coil, which he tossed up onto the land.

The two fishermen were winching some large plastic boxes onto the dock as I was walking back to my car. Father and son, I assumed. They didn’t seem to notice me.

I was almost at the car when the older man spoke. “Wicked morning, eh, Father.”

I turned.

“I never forget a face,” he said. “Father MacAskill, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said.

He walked toward me then, holding out a large hand. He seemed a bit unsteady. The boy was back on board the boat and out of sight.

“Dan MacKay,” he said. “I think I heard you’re from up around the strait.”

“Yes. And you?”

“I’m a shore road MacKay.”

His hair, the colour of sand, was streaked with wisps of grey. A name stirred in the memory.

“Danny Ban,” I said. “They used to call you Danny Ban, I think.”

He blushed. “Years ago. I’d hate to think of what you heard. Danny Bad was more like it, probably.”

I laughed.

“But I don’t live here now. I’m up in Hawthorne. Been there for years. Built my own place after the young fella came along.”

“Hawthorne,” I said. “I noticed . . . the name on your boat.”

“You know the place?”

“I’ve heard of it. But I’ve never been there.”

“You should drop in sometime. Visit the house.”

“Maybe I will.”

The boy was walking toward their truck, ignoring us.

“The name is on the mailbox at the lane,” his father said. “MacKay. We’re the only ones up there.”

“Thanks.”

He turned then and walked toward the truck, where the boy was already waiting at the wheel. The engine roared impatiently to life. I wondered again about the unsteadiness in his pace. From being on the boat, I thought. Sea legs.

He’d hardly closed the truck door when they were off, rear wheels spinning in the gravel. The truck stopped briefly where the wharf road meets the pavement. You could tell by the angled heads that they were talking. Using their secret language, the dialect of intimacy. Single words and obscure phrases conveying volumes.

“I’m a shore road MacKay,” he’d said. A brief biography and, for those who know the place, a genealogy, all you need to know summed up in a single phrase. Once, I might have felt a little envious. But somewhere along the way identity has ceased to matter, where I’m from, inconsequential. I have become the cloth. That’s enough for anyone to know.

“Come by any time,” he’d said. “For a visit.”

And that’s how things begin. Needs dressed up as hospitality.


There was a rusty freighter in the canal that technically sustains our status as an island. The swing bridge at the end of the milelong causeway was open, the road lined with cars and trucks impatient for their mainland destinations. I welcomed the delay. The bishop always has a reason when he calls; he always has a “special” job.

I’ve often tried to remember how it started, how I became his . . . what? What am I? I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. I’ll put it this way: for other priests, I’m not a welcome presence on the doorstep.

The first summons by the bishop had seemed innocuous enough. The particulars are almost lost now, obscured by far more troubling memories, but I remember what he said: “I’ve asked you to come here because you have a good head on your shoulders.”

He wanted me to handle a delicate matter. That was how he would describe them all. Matters that were delicate. Issues that required a good head and a steady hand. It was probably the late seventies. I’d only just returned from my two years in Honduras.

“After what you’ve been through down south,” he said, “you’ll probably consider this kind of Mickey Mouse. But things are getting out of hand here. Dear old John the Twenty-third, God rest his soul . . . he had no idea what he was getting us all into.”

I remember listening carefully, trying to anticipate where he was heading.

He sighed deeply. “There’s a young priest . . . You probably know him.”

I probably did, at one time.


I’d prefer not to name the place specifically. Just imagine one of many threadbare little communities clinging to the hundreds of bays and coves that once had integrity by virtue of their isolation. The priest in question and his young housekeeper had become a source of local gossip. I do remember that she had a pretty face with warm, frightened eyes and a full mouth that trembled when I asked her if Father was in. But mostly I remember the culprit’s attitude. It was his smugness, his unspoken sense of superiority. It was his obvious certainty that he’d transcended the lies and postures that had trapped the rest of us, we lesser priests, in our barren inhumanity. I’ve heard and seen it all many times since then.

I said: “Your housekeeper seems to be putting on weight.” I smiled, coldly, I hoped.

He laughed. “I already know why you’re here. Let’s not beat around the bush.”

“You go first,” I said, sipping at my tea.

He told me that “in all sincerity” the situation made him a better person. He actually believed it. I confess I felt like hitting him. I think I arranged a period of reflection in Toronto and he was gone in a few weeks. I persuaded her to lie low for a while. Life is full of temporary absences, I told her. It was that simple. But it was only the beginning, a sad rehearsal for the challenging assignments yet to come.


I was rattled by the time I reached the campus. It’s difficult to say for sure why. The reference to Hawthorne? The boy on the boat? Given what I now know, it could have been either, but it was, in part, almost certainly the summons from the bishop. The bishop only calls when there’s a problem.

“You know about the bishop?” Rita reminded me.

“Yes.”

“And you have an appointment at three this afternoon. An incident on the weekend.”

“Incident? What kind of incident?”

“Campus police found a fellow on the roof of the chapel. They think that you should handle it.” She smiled, sympathetically, I thought.

I guess by then a part of me accepted that I’d become a specialist in discipline. Technically it’s part of the dean’s job, and I was officially a dean. In truth I had neither the academic nor the occupational background for such a post. Just the temperament and, by default, the practical experience. I was a clergyman posted to a small, nominally Catholic university because my bishop didn’t really know where else to put me. At the peak of my usefulness I was attached to the diocesan chancery, but I soon became too controversial even for that busy place. Toxic, I suppose, is not too strong a word. My colleagues know about my history, my experience rooting out perversions, disciplining other priests, and sometimes students, when the cases are particularly sensitive. The Exorcist they’ve called me. Behind my back, of course.

A student on the chapel roof?

“He had a handsaw.”

“A saw?”

“Go figure.”


The bishop was expecting me at seven. I decided to walk. The town was quiet. On Monday nights the students usually stay in because they’re broke or hungover or both. Bored waiters stood outside the silent pub, the smoke from their cigarettes curling like fog around them in the still October air.

“Winter’s not far off,” I remark, walking by.

Once, the reply would have been swift and respectful. Yes, Father. Hand raised quickly to the cap. You can feel the snow in the air already. Good evening to yourself, Father. Now they stare. They’re just suspicious. Burly boys in baseball caps, arms folded. We are a fallen species. Strange men in black, stunted by the burden of our secrets. I smile. What if they knew the whole story?

I try to remember all the times I’ve made that walk through town to see my bishop. Past the looming cathedral, the bowling alley, the pub. Past what was, in my student days, a restaurant called the Brigadoon. We had rules back then. Lights out at eleven. Up and out in time for Mass at seven. No alcohol or women in the rooms. Virtue was the essence of the status quo. Virtue was the norm, they taught us.

Times have changed.

I fumble for the rosary in the pocket of my overcoat. The mindless recitation always helps subdue anxiety.


The first sorrowful mystery. The agony in the garden. The smooth, small beads are soothing on the fingertips. The bishop’s palace is set back from Main Street, among dark chestnut trees. I don’t know why they call it the palace. It’s just a house, large to be sure, and elegant. The designation “palace” probably had more to do with the authority of the old man inside than the architecture.

He met me at the door. I anticipated the welcoming aromas of cooking, but the place seemed clean and empty, vaguely like the cathedral on St. Ninian Street.

“I forgot,” he said. “Herself had the day off. I’m hopeless in the kitchen. You didn’t eat, did you?”

“No.”

“Well, I’m starved. You order up a pizza. It’ll be on me. You’d have a dram?”

“I would,” I said, “if you coaxed me.”

“Help yourself. I’m on the phone. There’s a take-out menu on my desk.”

He disappeared again and I headed for the sideboard in his study, where the whiskies were lined up in crystal decanters. I poured a drink. Picked up the phone, heard someone talking far away, quickly opened up another line and dialed the local takeout. Then sat down to wait. Our Saviour, hanging on the large crucifix above the desk, was staring down at me. He seemed to be saying: You again? What now? I wish I knew. I could hear the bishop’s voice faintly in another room. He was speaking loudly. But then I heard what seemed to be a laugh.

I’m sure he wasn’t that informal for everybody. I had special status because of my unusual history. My adult life, I suppose, could be measured in the spaces between my visits to that little office. How many years since I first sat there, a student, earnest in the throes of my vocation, oozing piety and purpose? I can see him now, sitting serenely beneath that crucifix.

“I think I want to be a priest,” I told him, heart pounding.

He listened quietly, but in the manner of one who already knew far more than I was telling him. He was smiling, but the eyes were not encouraging. “Why would you want to be a priest?”

I wasn’t ready for the question. I assumed the Church was like any wartime army, always looking for recruits.

“I might need time to think before I answer,” I said carefully.

“Good. Take all the time you need. The answer is important. It could one day save your soul.”

He never asked again, which is just as well, for even now I’m not sure what I’d say.

My eyes drifted back to the crucifix. The Saviour’s face exhibits a kind of weariness that I can easily relate to. When all is said and done, I thought, I don’t really have the stomach for this anymore. Disciplining wayward priests and drunken students.

The door opened suddenly. I want to say he “swept” into the room. You could imagine the swish of vestments, medieval dust rising around sandals. He was wearing running shoes, cords and a cardigan. His silver hair was disorderly. He went straight to the sideboard and poured himself a stiff drink. The bishop grew up in a place called Malignant Cove and clearly loves the reaction this disclosure always gets. You laugh as though you haven’t heard it a hundred times before.

“You were in Port Hood for the weekend.”

“Yes,” I said. “Mullins called out of the blue.”

He was pouring generously. “Coincidentally, I was just on the phone about a matter indirectly concerning Port Hood. And you.”

I was trying to imagine what it was.

“You remember Father Bell . . . the notorious Brendan Bell?”

“Yes,” I said warily, thinking to myself, So that’s what this is all about. Brendan Bell. What now?

“One of your former clients,” he said.

“I remember.”

Bell was supposed to be the last of them — “the last station on our via dolorosa,” was how he phrased it. The bishop actually promised. This should be the last of it, he’d said. Maybe that’s why I recall that particular encounter with such clarity.

The first time I met him, Bell was sitting exactly where I was sitting at that moment. It was in the winter, 1990. He made quite an impression, an Anglo-Irish Newfoundlander, a little shorter than I am, but most people are. Dark brown hair pulled back tightly into a tiny knob-like ponytail, a brilliant smile that seemed genuine, and nothing whatsoever in his manner that might reveal the miserable circumstances that sent him to us. But I soon found out that he was in a spot of trouble. The bishop of St. John’s was asking for a tiny favour.

I suggested Mullins in Port Hood.

“You’ll like Port Hood,” I said. “But they won’t put up with any bullshit there.”

Bell smiled at me and nodded. “I hear you loud and clear.”


“You probably knew he was in Toronto,” the bishop said, now sniffing at his drink.

“That’s where he was heading after Port Hood,” I said.

“Your Brendan has applied for laicization. That was Toronto on the line just now. Wondering if we’d put a word in. He wants to be fast-tracked.”

“What’s his rush?” I asked.

“He says he’s in love.”

“In love with what?”

“He says he’s getting married.”

“Married? Brendan?”

The bishop nodded, a tight smile causing the corners of his mouth to twitch.

“Marrying a woman?” I said, incredulous.

“That’s what they do, though you never know, up there in Toronto.”

“So what will you do?” I asked.

“I said I’d help. Brendan married — good for the optics, don’t you think?”

The pizza arrived and we moved to the kitchen. The bishop was carrying our glasses and a fresh bottle of Balvenie. He arranged two places at the table, tore sheets from a roll of paper towel.

“You’ve been ordained, what, now? Twenty-five years, I think.” He was speaking with his mouth full.

“Approximately.”

“Are you planning anything . . . some little do to mark the special anniversary?”

“No.”

“I suppose,” he said, chewing thoughtfully, “you have no family to speak of. I suppose it would be different if you were in a parish.”

“Perhaps.”

“You must sometimes wonder why you’ve never had a parish of your own.”

I shrugged. “You’ve told me more than once. I think you used to call it my ‘asymmetrical’ family history.”

“You were a curate once.”

“Assistant.”

“Well, never mind that. I sent you down to Central America. In 1975, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Those were the days, when I had manpower to spare.” He shook his head and studied me for a moment.

“But it wasn’t exactly a ‘manpower’ decision, was it?”

I thought he’d ignore the comment.

“You went through a hard patch, true enough,” he said. “But it defined your special gifts. I’m loath to quote Nietzsche . . . but . . . you know what I mean. You’re a strong man. A survivor. I always knew that.”

I nodded uncomfortably.

“I consider that period a little . . . hiccup . . . in an otherwise exemplary priesthood.” He sipped the drink, reflecting, I assumed, upon my exemplary service. “Ministry takes many forms. Tegucigalpa revealed yours. The Lord’s methods aren’t always obvious to us mortals.”

“I suppose,” I said, attempting a wry smile.

I had three drinks in and more than half the pizza was already gone when he got around to what I was really there for. He said he wanted me, after all these years, to take over a parish. A little place. Nothing too strenuous.

“Me?”

“Time to settle down,” he said. “I figure you’re ready for some new challenges. What would you think of Creignish?”

“Creignish,” I repeated.

“Yes,” he replied.

“I can’t see it. I wouldn’t have a clue what to do there. And I’m perfectly happy at the university.”

But I knew his mind was made up. He had that sorrowful look he sometimes gets when exercising God’s authority.

“Having priests semi-employed at the university became a luxury we can’t afford a long, long time ago. There’s no shortage of lay professors and administrators. Look around you.”

“But the Catholic character of the university? People from all over send their kids here for what they expect to be a Catholic education.”

“We’re more concerned about the Catholic character of the countryside, the solid places like Port Hood and Creignish. Malignant Cove.”

I knew I was supposed to laugh. “But—”

He raised an apostolic hand for silence, then stood and paced the room. “Look,” he said finally. “I regard you as a clone of myself. So I’m going to be frank.” He took the bottle, splashed both our glasses. “I thought certain . . . matters . . . were all behind us. But there have been developments.”

“Developments?”

“Nothing to concern yourself about just yet. But next year could be tough. Big time.”

Instantly, half a dozen names and faces flashed before my eyes.

“Not Brendan Bell?”

“No, no, no,” he said impatiently. “That’s old history. We seem to be entering phase two now. The lawyers are getting into the act. I’d like to get you out of the line of fire.”

“What line of fire?”

“I just want you out of the way. You never know what lawyers might come up with. I think Creignish is perfect. Off the beaten track.”

We sat in silence for a full minute, the old house creaking around us.

“You’re going to have to tell me who it is,” I said. “Which one they’re talking about.”

He reached for my glass, which was still half full. “Let me freshen that.”

“Look, I’d appreciate just a clue . . . just to know how worried I should be.”

“It’s none of them and all of them. You can relax.”

The face and tone were unconvincing. We sat and stared at each other.

Finally he said, “You’ve been mentioned.”

“I’ve been mentioned.”

“You know how it is these days. Everything a conspiracy. Cover-up. You, me. Now we seem to be the bad guys. Whatever happened to trust and respect, never mind the faith?”

“Mentioned by?”

“The damned insinuating lawyers.”

“What are they insinuating?”

“It’s only speculation about how we handled certain matters. They keep going on about something called ‘vicarious liability.’ Did you ever hear the like of it?” He tilted his head back, staring at the ceiling, lips puckered. “Vicarious my foot.” Then he sighed and sipped his drink. “You’ve turned out to be my rock. It was as if providence revealed your strengths to me exactly when I needed you. But now it’s time for you to get lost in parish work and pray that this thing blows over without bankrupting us.”

“But Creignish?”

“You’ll have no trouble settling in. You’re from around there. They’ll know the kind of man you really are, no matter what they might or might not hear.”

I stared at him. I thought: He’s dreaming. But argument was futile.

“For how long?”

“As long as necessary.”

At the door, when I was leaving, his mood became enthusiastic. I was going to love parish work, he said. “Especially Creignish. Good old-fashioned people there. You’ll do a bang-up job. You’re going to be a real priest for a change. Anybody comes looking for you, that’s what they’re going to find. God’s shepherd, tending the flock.”

“When do you want me to go?” I asked.

“The sooner the better.”

“I’ll go in the spring,” I said.

He looked dubious.

“Unless, of course, the bailiff is on the way already.”

He didn’t react to my irony, just said, “Suit yourself . . . but keep your head down in the meantime.” Before he shut the door, he said, “I heard about the kid on the roof of the chapel the other night. What are they doing about him?”

I shrugged and waited.

“They say he had a saw or something, that he was heading for the cross . . .”

“I’m giving him a break,” I said.

“Good. You know who his father is.”

And he shut the door.


† † †


Walking home on that cold October night, I was barely conscious of the town, the small clusters of subdued youngsters straggling along the street. A fine drizzle filtered through the low-beam headlights of a passing pickup truck. A fluorescent light flickered in an office and another window filled with darkness. I felt disoriented. It was his mood. The heartiness was false. Something large has rattled him. He’s sending me away again. Where did this begin?

And then it is 1968 again and I am on this street, walking full of purpose in the opposite direction, toward the railway station, with a suitcase and a briefcase, the sum of all my secular possessions. Walking tall, bound for a place that I now dare not name for fear of stirring best-forgotten trauma. It is June, an evening sweet with early lilac and the hum of hopeful voices talking politics. June ’68, a renaissance of sorts, at least for me. I was reborn, a priest.

Oh, yes. He told me that time too that I was going to love the place, the place I dare not mention now, in middle age. And by the way, he said, you’ll be with an old pal of ours.

“Surely you remember Dr. Roddie . . . your old philosophy guru. He’ll be there with you. He said he’ll keep an eye on you. The two of you can spend the long winter evenings reading the Summa to each other.”

“Father Roddie?”

“I knew that you’d be pleased. He’s taking a little sabbatical. Teaching college students burned him out. He could have gone anywhere . . . I offered Rome. But he insisted on helping out in a parish for a while. Isn’t that just typical?”

The street was almost empty. The drizzle warmed below my eyes, ran like tears beside my nose. Father Roddie. I’d almost forgotten him. A dormant apprehension glowed within me, then, just as swiftly, dimmed. It can’t be Father Roddie this time. He’d be nearly eighty now. I laughed aloud.

“Father Roddie. Wherever did you get to?”

A student shuffled by, stopped and turned. “Excuse me?” he said.

I hurried on.


The campus was quiet but for the throb of music from the residences. I was near the chapel, so I turned toward the stone steps leading up to its double doors. They were unlocked but yielded with reluctance. I dipped my fingers in the holy water then slid into a pew near the back. The gloom flickered near the altar. Somewhere in the basement auditorium someone was practising scales on a clarinet. A tuneless wail of notes gave substance to the shadows around me until I felt that I was wrapped in a suffocating shroud, lost in the endless carnage of days since I first embarked upon this journey into ambiguity. It’s ironic when I think of it: the beauty of the priesthood used to be the promise of its certainties.

The clarinet faltered. A music student struggling with a hard passage from Rhapsody in Blue. The wind rose outside, tapping at a window.


Tap tap tap.

“Hello . . . are you in there?”

Tap tap tap.

“Father Roddie?”

The door is ajar. I hear a sound. Someone moving.

Just walk right in, he’d said. The hearing isn’t what it used to be.

I walked right in.

An old priest’s sanctuary, drape darkened, sound muffled by reams of books, ancient tomes promising the wisdom of the ages.

“Father Roddie?”

He’s at his desk, expression calm and cold. “And what can I do for you.”

Not a question. A comment.

“I had a question . . .”

“What about?”

And then I see his visitor, the boy, stricken. Pale with guilt.


I think I must have slept there in the chapel for a while. It was late when I returned to my room. Then I remembered: Creignish. I had a mental picture of the place, the side of a low mountain of the same name, a few miles from where I grew up. Oh, well.

My eye moved to a bookshelf, stopped at a black book spine. John Macquarrie / Existentialism. I removed it from the shelf, turned to the neat handwriting on the title page: Tragedy and limitation are part of what it means to be human . . . Then: Welcome back from your sabbatical. Found this in Boston. Perhaps our paths will cross ere long. RM.

And then the scrawled signature: Roddie MacVicar. December, 1977.

I closed the book, and then my eyes. The images were overwhelming.


“I don’t care what you think you saw.”

The bishop’s neck is pulsing, a purple swelling throbbing at the centre of his forehead, outraged roseola nose aglow.

“I know what I saw.”

“You think you know.”

“I know.”

“Our eyes play tricks.”

“I know.”

“We know nothing. We believe. We have faith. It is our only source of hope. But that isn’t the point. You had no goddamned business spying.”

Spying? I just stare.

“I sent you there to help them out, not to snoop.”

I turn away from his outrage. Study the crucifix above his desk.

“You’re talking about a saint,” he says, quiet now, the rage replaced by injury. “A saint. A prince among men. I know him well. I’ve known him since we were students. You should aspire someday to be his equal.”

The bishop, finally calmed, declared that it was my “asymmetrical upbringing,” my “dysfunctional home life” that was at the root of my deficiencies. It caused me to see the worst in everyone, he said, and to be too inclined to read things in then jump to wrong conclusions. I don’t understand the family dynamic, and until I do, I’ll never be a parish priest. A parish is the ideal family, he said.

“What are you trying to tell me?”

He waved an impatient hand. “Let’s not get analytical. Let’s just say you need some special on-the-job experience. Which is why we’re thinking of sending you away for a while.”

We?

“We’re thinking of somewhere in the Third World, where things are simple and straightforward. A good place for you to experience the richness of family and parish life and the undiluted faith of the common people.”

The Third World?

“We happen to have an arrangement with the archdiocese of Tegucigalpa . . .”

“When?”

“They’re expecting you next week.”


I poured a whisky, sipped it straight. It was Tegucigalpa then, Creignish now. In a way it’s easier this time, I thought. Nothing in my life, since then or yet unlived, could ever be like Tegucigalpa. And this time I’ll have months to make the mental adjustments. And who knows? Things change. By spring we could all be different people.

I surveyed my tiny room. And if I go, I won’t have much to pack. Mostly books. Some photographs. A frugal wardrobe. One of the advantages of my calling: we travel light.
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Quill & Quire, September 2009
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