Are you a catholic?
It had been a time from hell. My life had changed in ways I could never have imagined possible only six months earlier. I was adrift and now, supposedly, recovering from the figurative and physical surgery of recent weeks.
The afternoon, autumn sun filled the hospital day room and I shielded my eyes so as to lend features to the silhouetted figure stood before me now.
Are you a catholic?
It was the young priest I’d seen a few times before. Thin, pale and nervous, he reminded me of David Warner as Master Blifil in ‘Tom Jones’. I wondered if his piety, like Blifil’s, was a cover for a more secular purpose. Used to rejection, he adopted a defensive crouch and continued.
Are you a catholic? Because if you are, I’d very much like to talk to you. May I sit next to you?
Well educated then. ‘May I’ and not ‘Can I’
Sit down Father. Be my guest. I’m Alan Stuart.
I offered my hand which he accepted gratefully and then sat on the bentwood chair next to mine. His timid smile somehow implied my knowledge of – and complicity in – his awkwardness. I leaned toward his smile and raised an eyebrow in query.
I’m Father Byrne. I’m attached to Catholic Social Services at present. We visit hospitals, rest homes and the like. Make contact with those of the faith….give comfort, support – mostly spiritual you understand….some material assistance too…I have…
Father, I should tell you that I’m not a church-goer. Not a worshipper. I was raised in the church, yes, but the best you could say is that I’m lapsed, apostate. The worst, well, the worst….. the worst would require a confessional and that would be a paradox, wouldn’t it?
The conspiratorial smile again. He knew I was testing him. Probably figured that I was at odds with the world too. Professionally sentient. And my cynicism was infinitely preferable to the open hostility he frequently met. I remembered watching him try to get the thin end of his wedge under Pat – who was in the neighbouring bed back in the ward. Pat was in his 60s and had quite a history. He’d run off to France in his early teens and joined the French Foreign Legion. But he was no Beau Geste. He’d fought the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. He’d avoided capture and lived in the jungle, existing on rats, snakes and dogs for a month before making his way to Laos and back to France. Pat had suffered malaria, dysentery and god knows what else – and for the last few years had had his head down a bottle. He was capable of philosophy but, like many professional soldiers, he had no faith and he gave Father Byrne a well-seasoned serving of soldierly invective. And the fingers.
Paradox. Yes. Very droll. But you still consider penitence as an option, yes?
If I get married, have children that need baptizing or need absolution when I’m moving on, I imagine that the church will be pragmatic enough to see the sincerity of my penitence. I returned his we both know how this goes smile.
He blinked at me and then contemplated his shoes for a few moments. Maybe he was considering Pat to be a more likely option after all.
Well, as I was about to say – we can offer material support too. Do you smoke? I have some cigarettes I can give you. Would you like some cigarettes?
Yes I do. I pointed to where Pat was sitting, playing cards. But he’d appreciate a hand out more than me I think. He’s on the bones of his arse, so a packet of Freemans would come in handy.
I can’t do that I’m afraid. He’s not a catholic. I can only offer assistance to catholics. I can only give these cigarettes to catholics. You’re a catholic.
I took the proffered cigarettes from him and put them in my pocket. I resisted the urge to walk across the room and give Pat the cigarettes there and then. I shook Father Byrne’s hand and asked him if he would bring a bottle of Black Label next time. The smile again – but leavened with a little ruefulness this time I fancied.
Yes. I’m a catholic.