The last echo of the people left the marble floors and stone walls. Fr. Daniel sat down praying after mass. His heavy shoulders rolled forward as he began to recite the prayer to St. Michael. The burning sensation came to his face. He felt it right around his eyes, his stomach, and heart. Defend us in battle, be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil, may God rebuke him, we humbly pray… He shifted in his pew to get his bones to stop aching and distract himself from the burning. Every day it became worse. Half-ass prayers fell from his lips to subside the pain. He stabilized himself on the pew before he rose to have breakfast with a fellow priest. It was the same routine every day. At 5:00 a.m. he awoke from his Ambien-induced sleep by his nightmares to brush his teeth. At 5:30 he began his rosary. At 5:45 he was dressed and ready to make his way to the church to say mass. At 5:55 he had all of his vestments on and ready to walk down the aisle at six. At 6:45–7:00 he shook the hands of the five people who came to mass. At 7:05 he was in his normal attire and instructed the altar servers. At 7:10 he said his prayers after mass and then at 7:15 he departed to meet his fellow priest for breakfast at Reggie’s Diner before they headed off to their ministry for the day. No sooner, no later. It was like clockwork.
The eggs were too runny, bacon too flaccid, coffee too cold, and the toast was barely toasted.
“I’ve been coming here for thirty fucking years and they still can’t get my breakfast right.”
“Father! Watch your tongue! The Lord is watching and so are the sheep.”
“You fucking shut your fucking mouth. I’m goddamn sixty-seven years old and you’re barely out of your diapers.”
“Forgive me, Father. I overstepped my bounds.”
“Don’t do that. Either mean it when you say it or don’t say it at all.”
“Sorry, Father. Are you feeling well?”
“What do you think, Sherlock? I’m tired, my bones hurt and they call me to go out to the hospital today. It’s supposed to be Father Mike’s duty today. I don’t care if he broke his damn leg. We all have problems and still fulfill our obligations.”
“Maybe it’s a blessing God’s trying to give you?”
“I may be old but I’ll fucking beat the shit out of you right here.”
Father Kevin put his head down in prayer for his mentor.
Fr. Kevin was in his first year of priesthood and knew he had many things to learn from Fr. Daniel. It had only been three months but Fr. Kevin was afraid. The people in the parish loved Fr. Daniel. His homilies were short and his mass even shorter. The majority of the time all he said was, “God loves you. Go to confession. Go to mass. Pray unceasingly and it will work out.” This was the crowd’s favorite. Whereas Fr. Kevin’s homilies were long and detailed. It was a full exegesis every homily. During one mass he had been literally booed by the entire congregation with Fr. Daniel laughing in the chair behind him.
Fr. Kevin asked for a blessing from Fr. Daniel after they finished their food. Fr. Daniel responded by dipping his fingers in the water glass and flicking it on Fr. Kevin’s dick.
Fr. Daniel’s assignment today was to pray with the sick and dying. He avoided the children’s side of the hospital by taking a long way around and walks straight for the hospice area. Fr. Daniel hated children almost as much as he hated young priests. The smell of the hospital would upset his stomach. Shit. She’s here today. The director of spirituality at the hospital was a young girl named Kelly who had taken over from his old-time friend, Angela, when she had retired.
“What’s the damage today?” Fr. Daniel asked.
“We have three people that would like the last rites and about ten people who want to talk to you,” Kelly responded.
“Are they Catholic?”
“The people who want the last rites say so. The others said they wanted a priest but didn’t specify their religion.”
“Find that out for me first. I don’t have time for them if they’re not Catholic.”
“Does it really matter, Father?”
“Does it really matter if they have insurance for you to take the patient in or is them just being sick enough?”
“You know I have nothing to do with that. Why do you care? You just bought a damn boat. You could’ve given that to the poor but you decided to use it on yourself. I’m just making sure these people are comforted during their suffering in the way they want to be.”
“Empathy will get them nowhere and you know it.”
Before Kelly became a spiritual director, she had been a missionary in Mexico and Detroit. If anyone has a similar experience to a priest, it is a missionary. Not all missionaries, though. Not a person who fundraises and speaks with the upper-class Americans while every once in a while going to a foreign country, masking their vacation with the title of helping the poor. She would sleep in the same places as the homeless, eat with them, talk with them. The other missionaries did not like her, she refused to go to the galas, sleep in the dorms, or eat the food they bought, taking her portions to those on the streets, leaving only a small amount for herself.
Fr. Daniel looked at his first visit and found the room with his first project of the day. He knocked on the hard fake wood door before he entered the room.
“Ms. Sarah Krate? Hello, I’m Fr. Daniel, I’m here to give you the sacraments.”
“Oh, Father! What a blessing to see you! I asked Jesus to send me a good priest and here you are. What a miracle this is!”
“Yes, it is such a great miracle. Shall we proceed?”
“Well, my goodness just jumping on in, are we? Good thing you’re a priest, you wouldn’t even buy a lady a drink first before you kiss her, huh?”
“In your condition, I thought you would like to receive these as quickly as you could.”
“In what condition? Dying? Yes, I’m dying. Boohoo. It’s nothing special, it’s afterward that’s special. Intimate union with the creator; that sounds like a slick deal.”
“Only if you’re in a state of grace. Shall we proceed?”
“What’s the rush? Lots of dying people or something? Look, padre, we have time for you to hear my dirty little secrets but before I tell you mine, I want you to tell me a bit about yourself.”
“I haven’t the time to do this, Ms. Krate. I have other patients to attend to.”
“You’re no Doctor. Now, tell me about yourself.”
“No. I am here to give the sacraments, not to make you feel better.”
“Jesus lied to me, didn’t he? You’re not a good priest. I’ve been praying every day since I was a little girl and you are not a good priest. You just want to go home.”
“I’m here, aren’t I? I’m the one that can give you grace.”
“God will give me grace if he wants to. You’re just the vessel. You’re an ugly vessel that thinks he’s beautiful.”
Fr. Daniel clenched his teeth to hide the feeling boiling inside. She has no idea what priesthood is. What a foul whore. I bet she will confess to adultery or fornication. A loose tongue makes women loose in bed. A wretched creature.
“You seem bothered, Father. Have I struck a chord?”
“You aren’t repentant of your sins. All you want to do is mock priesthood.”
“Excuse you, but you aren’t so repentant either. I haven’t mocked priesthood in my life. Is it not true that you are just the vessel? You are just as much of a sinner as I am. You need just as much grace as I do. Maybe you’re the one who needs confession.”
A fly fell from the ceiling of the room onto Sarah’s lap before it awoke and flew away. Without answering her, he began the prayers for confession. She made the sign of the cross.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been… one week since my last confession. I lied to my roommate about eating her food. I took more of my pills than I was supposed to, so I got high as fuck from them…”
“How many times?”
“Two or three times.”
“I sucked off my mailman…”
Father went quiet.
“Does that turn you on a bit, Father? As you know, I’m into older men in uniform…”
“No. Just waiting for you to stop. I only need to know that you committed adultery and how many times. You are giving me more information than I need. Any more sins to confess?”
“Yes, Father. Hands where I can see them! I’m kidding! Don’t go! OK, OK, OK. I have attempted to tempt a priest to sleep with me and I am sorry for these sins and every sin I may have forgotten.”
The priest said the prayers of absolution and continued by giving her the last rites. He stopped himself, turned to the dying woman and asked:
“Where are your friends and family?”
She looked down at her knuckles, cracked and dry. There was no window in the room, so she looked at the painting with the willow trees.
“Father, I have no family or friends. I’m a junkie and retired prostitute. My family doesn’t speak to me.”
“Why did you ask for a priest?”
“Because I’m a Catholic.”
“Do you attend mass?”
“Then why are you living this way?”
“Sinful, as a prostitute, a drug addict, a sex addict. Should I keep going?”
“Father, everyone is sinful. I’m just not going to hide the fact I’m sinful.”
“You need to repent, you are not sorry for your sins.”
“Ah, see that’s the problem with some of you priests. You think because you are ordained you have some sort of magical ability to see what my intentions are and if I am repentant or not. You have no idea what brought me to this point. You have no idea how many nights I am praying my rosary trying not to get high. You have no idea the guilt and shame I feel for having to strip and fuck people to pay rent. When I was in my twenties, I couldn’t get a job sober or high. I started to strip and work as an escort. I was forcibly given a date rape drug at 27. They didn’t even put it in a drink. I was held down and it was forced down my throat. It was at a CEO’s house party so they could pass me around without any resistance but with the knowledge that I didn’t consent. Thirty-two guys had me that night. Before that, I was completely sober. Never had a drink or even weed before then. I made $500 that night. I was just supposed to be someone’s date. Arm candy. I went to the police station after I was able to leave the house. I didn’t shower. I waited as they told me to. I sat there and they sent me home not believing me. They said I had to have consented. I was threatened with being arrested if I didn’t leave the station. I started to drink more until I had to move on to drugs to hide the pain. Tell me, Father, do you think I deserve to be blamed for trying to handle being alive after going through that scenario? Have you ever been in a spot not being able to pay for food, have to sacrifice your ideals to be able to survive, then have your innocence taken away by a group of strangers, be told it never happened, then have a priest come into your room while you’re dying and act like you never felt sorry for what you’ve done? I never did anything wrong except try to feed and clothe myself. I have gone to mass every week from the age of 17 to the day I went to the hospital a week ago. I ran out of options. I feel guilty every minute of every day, even now when I am dying. Do you still think I’m not sorry for my sins?”
He made the sign of the cross before pulling out the pyx and giving her the Eucharist. Immediately afterward, he gave her the last rites.
Fr. Daniel left the room without saying another word outside the rituals. Evil woman. Hail Mary full of grace… Hefinished his rounds at the hospice, grabbed a sandwich, and headed home for the day. It was 4:30 pm.
His cook prepared him and Fr. Kevin their meal for the evening. Chicken pot pie, Fr. Daniels’ favorite. Fr. Kevin only ate a third of his portion. The old priest couldn’t believe Fr. Kevin would reject this food. Who the hell does he think he is? Fucking St. Francis over here. Lord, make me an instrument of peace… Fr. Kevin had thanked the cook and waiters for serving them that night before Fr. Daniel lost his temper:
“What the fuck is the matter with you? Don’t appreciate the damn food I made for you?”
Fr. Kevin tilted his head slightly to the left and let his right eyebrow raise.
“I just thanked the cook for cooking our dinner.”
“You only ate a sliver! You’re going to die if you don’t eat. You need the energy to be a priest.”
“My strength comes from the Eucharist…”
“No, it doesn’t you fucking idiot! You need physical food for your fucking physical body! This isn’t the medieval times anymore, Kevin! Miracles like that do not happen anymore!”
“I ate enough. I’m offering up my hunger for the Christians in the middle east.”
“They don’t give a shit if you offer up your hunger! They need food, water, and goddamn peace in their land! What will offering your food do? Nothing!”
“Good night, Fr. Daniel. I hope you get some rest tonight.”
Fr. Kevin blessed the cooks and waiters before taking the leftover food to the homeless shelter like he did every night. Fr. Daniel finished his third helping before heading to the church for his evening prayers. He will see one day. One day he will see and be just like me. Glory be to the father, to the son, and to the holy spirit…
The church was old, built in 1908, so when it was empty, the creaking could be heard throughout. Its joints ached along with the priest’s. They had become friends over the years, growing with each other, bodies deteriorating under the weight of the sins of the churchgoers. Beginning at a low rumble, the voices he heard during prayer began their battle. Certain voices were of comfort and peace while others were accusatory and unsettling. His breviary lay next to him as he stared back at Mary while praying by name for all the sinners he had met that day. Our Father who art in heaven… A soft voice came through the statue:
“Today, my son, you will be visited by Lucifer. He is coming to bring you away from me and the church. My dear child and warrior, it is time to fight. It is time for your tempting.”
The creaking of the church, birds who chirped inside, and the voices in his head were too loud for him. The old priest covered his ears trying to get through his prayers. A faster rhythm overtook his heart and he couldn’t catch his breath. Quiet! Quiet all of you! Go back to hell, Satan! Go back where you belong! Salve Regina… He began shaking under the weight of the war in his soul when it all stopped. A calm crept over the Lord’s house. His breathing was back to normal and he was ready to keep praying, but an uncomfortable feeling came over him. Someone was there. No one in town came to the church unless there was confession or mass. Evil is here. It is time for me to fight. I knew this day would come. Ave Maria…
Sitting himself down, the young man stared at the priest.
“How ya doin’ padre? What’s the 411 on the day?”
“I knew you were coming.”
“Oh, you did?”
“Mary told me I would confront you.”
“Seems to be the other way around, padre. I think I’m confronting you.”
“The details don’t matter. I knew you were coming.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“My God is stronger than you…”
“Darkness will not overcome the light.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I know who you are.”
“And who am I?”
“I know Lucifer when I see him.”
The stained glass windows pushed the echo of the young man’s laughter back to the priest. Slapping his knee, the young man bent over, tears streaming down his face. He wiped the tears as he spoke:
“You think I’m Satan? For fuck’s sake.”
Fr. Daniel embarrassed, unsure what to do next, became silent. He was more than certain it was Lucifer himself. Maybe it’s one of his ploys? Immaculate Mary, your praises we sing…
“You think you’re some mystic, don’t you?”
“The Lord and I know each other on an intimate level.”
“Sure, sure. Whatever you say, padre. I do have a quick favor to ask you: I have a few questions for a priest. Mind if I ask you?”
“I haven’t the time for such questions.”
“Wait a minute. You have an obviously lost soul coming to you saying he has some questions, and you tell him to go away? It is your job to talk to people when they have questions, isn’t it?”
“You are no lost soul, you are Lucifer. No, my job is to provide the sacraments. Are you a Catholic?”
“No, either you are or you aren’t. Have you been baptized as a Catholic?”
“What does it matter?”
“I can’t give you confession unless you’re a Catholic.”
“I just want to ask you some questions. If you don’t then I’m going to kill myself, so if you want blood on your hands then be my guest.”
Clouds covered the sun from seeing into the windows of the church. Fr. Daniel never took these pleas seriously but his mother’s eyes seemed to tell him to stay. I may be his only chance of salvation. I am Christ to him. Remember O’ most gracious Virgin Mary…
“Fine. What do you want to ask?”
“What was the deal with the inquisition?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did the Catholics really need to torture people who wouldn’t believe in the church? Jesus doesn’t seem to be that kind of guy.”
“It really didn’t kill that many people. We were just trying to clear the names of innocent men.”
“So the church tortured and killed people who were innocent and guilty, and the numbers are so small that who really cares? It was just a few? Ah, I see.”
“Yes. Christ guides the church and the leaders at the time followed what the Holy Spirit asked them to do. They were impostors. The people in question were baptized, went to mass; everything a good Catholic would do. Except they were lying about being practicing Catholics. We were weeding out the liars.”
“By torturing them and sending them to their deaths.”
“By getting them to admit their wrongdoing and send them to the secular courts.”
“Which, in turn, would get them killed if you didn’t already kill them first.”
“The church was just doing what was best for the salvation of souls.”
“The leaders heard a voice telling them to torture people to find out if they were actually Catholic or not by God’s decree. It seems kind of sketchy to me, Father. They also believed that doing something that was evil, such as torturing and killing people, was going to bring about the good. Wasn’t that the ends justifying the means which I remember you saying was not true?”
“It wasn’t evil.”
“So if you heard a voice telling you to kill me, for say, pissing on that statue of Mary, you would have the command of God to do so? God would be telling you to kill me, and would be commanding murder to be good?”
“God commanded such things in the Old Testament…”
“I know! He also commanded the people in wars to take with them virgin women for themselves.”
“That’s out of context…”
“Context of what? In whose right mind would it ever be OK to do that? Raping and forcing someone to marry you or they will die should never be OK, no matter what the culture is. If truth is universal, like I know you think it is, then the truth of rape being wrong should be wrong in all instances. Correct? I think we can both safely say that either the Church made a mistake or that God commanded the torture and murder of people who didn’t believe.”
Fr. Daniel felt rage in his bones at the young man’s arrogance. He’s just trying to rile me up. He knows the right answer or he wouldn’t know so much about it. Just let him ask his questions and go to bed… Only candles gave them any light; it flickered across the eyes of the young man’s tears as he continued:
“What about priests raping children? The men who are supposed to be Christ on earth, fucking small children. And they still are priests in the church, even when found guilty. Did God command that?”
The flames bounced in the darkness, lighting the recessed eyes of the old priest as he stared at the young man. Silence overcame the air as the cataclysmic question shifted the ground beneath their feet. The young face of Christian came across his eyes. A young Mexican boy whose great grandparents had come to that country fleeing the persecution. The Hernandezes were a holy family that never missed a mass in the many years he had known them before he was moved by his bishop. They led the rosary every morning before mass. Fr. Daniel could barely speak:
“Christian… Christian Hernandez?”
“Answer the fucking question. Did God command that?”
“Answer… the fucking question… Did God command you to rape me or was that just you?”
“No. He didn’t command me to do it. I was sick, Christian…”
“Fuck you! Don’t blame this on mental illness… Did you or did you not choose to rape me?”
“It’s a tricky situation, Christian…”
“No, no, it’s not! I remember very clearly. Every week for five years you would have me do some ‘special project’ with you, so my parents never suspected a thing. Every time I would be bent over, facing Our Lady of Guadalupe. She would reach out her hand to mine and comfort me while you raped me. She used to tell me that you will reap the consequences of your actions but I never saw it. She never stopped it. I never saw any justice done to me, nor to any child like me. How many, Father?”
“How many children, Father? How many children over your priesthood did you rape?”
“I felt used. I was thirteen. There was a weekend the bishop was coming to town, so I planned on telling him after mass. No one else believed me. My grandmother beat me with the TV antenna for having told her. He was your boss so I thought he could fire you and save me. I walked up to him and he blessed me before I whispered in his ear that you had been molesting me and raping me for five years. And you know what he said to me? ‘Young man that is a vile thing to say about a noble priest. The church does not need any more scandal.’ That was that. He blessed me, then walked away continuing to speak to the rest of the people waiting. You continued to come to my house for dinner. I continued to be your altar server — since my parents wouldn’t let me quit — for the rest of the year until Roger told the bishop and you were removed. Now, Father, why did Roger’s complaint get taken seriously while mine was tossed aside?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know exactly why. Say it.”
“Fucking say it… Say out loud why he was taken seriously.”
“His parents were funding the new church…”
“His fucking parents were funding the new goddamn church!”
The words filled the crevices of the marble.
“I’m so sorry for your pain, Christian, but you have to forgive me.”
“Do I? I don’t think I have to. I can choose to not forgive you.”
“I was not in the right mind. I had many issues I needed to work through.”
“Here we go again. ‘Poor me! I was so sick that I took it out on little children’s genitals! Save me! Save me!’ What did the bishop have you do? What did he make you do for it?”
“He sent me away to get help.”
“Did you get help?”
“Yes… I went to a rehab program for a year. No visitors…”
“No, no. You don’t get to bring pity upon yourself. You went to rehab for a year. Years of abuse and you had to go to one year of rehab, so many children’s lives ruined. 25 fucking years I have had to deal with this and I will have to deal with this until the day I die. How well did the rehab work? Did you do it again?”
“Did you ever molest or rape any little children after that?”
“How many in total?”
“How many goddamn children in total did you molest?”
“12… 12 children.”
Silence buried itself into the air.
“So, padre, what you’re telling me is: No matter what they do, God’s solution to priests abusing children is to just move them to another parish, and, on top of all of that, justice is dependent upon how much money you can give?”
“Why did you come here?”
The police lights began to shine through the windows, bouncing off the faces of the statues around them. Fr. Daniel looked at Christian, his face had aged at least 10 years in a moment.
“I went to rehab… I did what I was told…”
“And yet, you continued those actions afterward, you just admitted to it. The bishop that moved you will be arrested tonight as well for obstruction of justice. It’s on my recorder and you two will be going to prison for the rest of your life.”
Cop car sirens rang through the neighborhood as the people came out of their houses, watching the priest be brought out to the vehicle in handcuffs. Police raided the rectory, taking the evidence with them. They found hours of child pornography on Fr. Daniel’s laptop, including home videos. Fr. Kevin came out with the officers as a free man, a righteous man. He shook Christian’s hand as he said:
“If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know.”
“I’ve been hunting these guys for years. I know you were friends with them, and I’m sorry about that. I couldn’t ask for anything else from you except, I will have to take you in for some questioning, though.”
“Whatever you need. I just want my people safe. Whatever it takes.”
After he finished a majority of his paperwork, Christian returned home, throwing his keys in their bowl next to the front door. His two little girls ran and hugged his leg screaming, “Daddy! Daddy!” He put his coat on its hanger, knelt down, and hugged his girls. While he was still on his knees, his wife came to put the girls to bed. It was 11:17 p.m. and they had school tomorrow. When she returned, she kissed his cheek before asking him to come to bed, but Christian said he needed a minute. His wife shut the door to their bedroom and he made his way to the cabinet where the bottle of tequila was waiting for him. He couldn’t stand up straight, swaying back and forth. Only one sip passed his tongue before he collapsed on the floor in tears.
Fr. Daniel’s sentence came on a Friday afternoon three years later. Petitions for his laicization came in droves. Thousands of signatures were collected, but they were nothing in comparison to the faithful fighting for their priest. The bishop who moved Fr. Daniel died in his sleep before the trial began. He was 89 years old. Fr. Daniel was sentenced to 10 years in prison with no chance of parole. Three weeks into his sentence, Fr. Daniel was murdered by an inmate. When a funeral was held for the priest, the entire church was full; there wasn’t even standing room by the time the funeral started. His eulogy was beautiful.