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Priest or no priest 1

Dear Bradshaw,

I’ve taught many priests over the years and though I’ve asked each one of them the same particular question, I’ve never managed to get a satisfactory answer, either because the student’s English wasn’t good enough to understand my question, or because the student’s English wasn’t good enough for me to follow their answer, or because of various other language deficiencies. Well, Shaw, nine years and twenty or so priests later, I’ve finally got my answer!

In the course of my conversation with Marco yesterday, he mentioned that a difficult aspect of his job is when people die. I said that it must be especially complicated to console parents who lose their children and Marco nodded his head, frowned and said, “Absolutely. Just last week I held mass for five families, each of which had a child eighteen or nineteen years old. These five teenagers were in a car that broke down on the highway at night. While they sat in the car waiting for the tow truck to arrive, a passing truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and smashed into their car, killing everyone. You can’t imagine the parents, especially the mothers. They were devastated, hysterical. I’ve never seen such sadness. In those situations, my job is not fun. After all, what could I possibly say to ease their pain?”

Marco and I have had several such conversations. We often talk about God, the universe, the meaning of life, and so I said, “You know, Marco, I’d like to ask you something that might seem inappropriate and none of my business.”

He leaned forward, rested his elbows on the desk, and said, “Ask away.”

“It’s just that, you know, I’ve often wondered, when you do confession… I mean, I’m sure that ninety percent of the people tell you things that are relatively commonplace: I lied to my parents. I cheated on my partner. I took a cookie from the cookie jar without permission. Whatever. But does it ever happen that people confess things that are just, well, you know…”

“Shocking?”

“Exactly. Because I mean, being over forty years old, I sometimes figure that by now I must have seen and heard everything but then suddenly I’ll hear or read about something even more outrageous. Do people ever confess things that, let’s say, curl your hair?”

Marco leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Yes, of course.”

“How do you retain your composure? Because I mean, priest or no priest, if someone told me they had their neighbor’s cat crammed in the freezer and were planning to serve it with vegetables and a side of rice, well, I’d have a heck of a time acting normal.”

Marco was gazing at the air in front of his face and rubbing his chin. He sighed and said, “For one thing, I always expect the worst, so when I hear something abominable it’s easier to speak with a calm tone of voice. Those are disturbing situations, for sure, and another thing that bothers me is when a person confesses one thing but is guilty of another. What I mean to say is that they repent one action but don’t recognize that the consequences of that action harm other people as well. These are people who often don’t think they’ve sinned against anyone while in reality the greater wrong lies there. On those occasions I choose my words extra carefully, explaining, ‘It’s okay. God loves you. He forgives you.’ and then I try to help them understand that they have to, well, not only acknowledge the error of their ways, but also to rectify the situation and to apologize to people. It’s frustrating because, again, they feel they’ve done nothing wrong.”

I was silent, biting my lip, and seeing me tongue tied, Marco continued, “One of the things that frustrates me the most is, uh, how do you say ‘calunnia‘?”

“Slander.”

“Yes. Slander. There’s a story about Saint Philip Neri. He was a great Italian saint who lived in the 1500s. The story is about a woman who gossiped. On one occasion in particular her false words were discovered, but only after they had damaged another person’s life and career. Even after the truth went public, this person continued to suffer from the humiliation and disgrace caused by the scandal, and throughout his life the townspeople still regarded him with suspicion and disgust. As penance, Saint Philip told the woman to go to the market, buy a chicken, and then to pluck it on her way back to him, scattering the feathers along the road as she walked. The woman did this and when she arrived with the plucked chicken, Saint Philip told her to go back and collect all the feathers. The woman said, ‘But Father, that’s impossible! By now the wind has scattered the feathers all over the place. Who knows where they’ve gotten to?’ And Saint Philip said, ‘Exactly, and the same thing happens when you gossip about people. Just as the wind scattered the feathers that you tossed along the road, so have people scattered your slanderous stories all over town. Now perhaps you understand that the damage your words do is dangerous and irreparable.”

So Shaw, that was that. Not only did I get an answer to my nine-year-old question but I also got this story about a saint I’d never heard of. Of course, with well over 10,000 saints in the Catholic religion it’s no surprise there are a few I don’t know. Anyway, I’m looking forward to my next lesson with Marco and who knows, with any luck, he might become saint #10,001.

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  1. Robert Hecker says:

    Beautiful story…

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