A priest and a pastor walk into a bar…
Actually, it’s a coffee bar, one of the over-priced ones frequently found in large book stores. The priest, obviously the younger of the two being in his mid-to-late twenties, sets about ordering two regular coffees and two breakfast muffins the size of the Hulk’s fist. If the barista looks askance at his black shirt and white collar, it is only out of regret for his profession’s celibacy. He is a handsome young man, with light brown skin and black hair trimmed close to his head. His black eyes are softened by his almost shy smile as he retrieves the hot muffins. Still, the barista thinks, he’s too small to seriously consider as a boyfriend. He’s shorter than she is by almost a head.
After dropping off the muffins, the priest hurries back to the counter when his name is called to pick up the coffees and then the two men can finally proceed with their fellowship time. The elder, a dark-skinned man with graying hair and a respectable pot belly developing, raises a grizzled eyebrow at the muffins but starts into his share without comment. The time passes in this companionable silence for a while, each man flipping through their newspapers and sipping their coffee peacefully.
Soon, however, only crumbs remain of the muffins and the elder folds up his newspaper. “Well, Peter, what’s bothering you?”
The younger man, Peter, is not at all surprised by this statement. He had asked for this meeting precisely because he was bothered and needed the advice of his old friend. He resignedly folds up his own paper and turns to face the elder. “I’m not sure, Sam,” he replies. Leaning forward on the little table and folding his hands before him, Peter continues, “I have been feeling ill at ease for a few months now. It is one of my parishioners. I am not sure where to begin, actually.”
“The beginning is usually the best place, if you know where it started,” Sam replies wisely in his smooth baritone. He gives the priest an encouraging smile and Peter takes a moment to compose his thoughts.
“His name is John Calvin. I wouldn’t say he is a saint, but he is certainly always been a faithful attendee of Mass. Bishop Ramirez says John was baptized at St. Teresa’s and has been coming to church every Sunday since. He even attended all of the Bible studies I asked Sister Abigail to begin last year.” Sam nods without comment. His is a job that encourages listening without interruption.
Again, Peter pauses, ordering his thoughts. It is a habit he had learned at an early age. The youngest of twelve children, nine of them being sisters, he had discovered that rash words were dangerous things. “A few weeks ago, he was attacked by a mugger, some poor homeless woman, I was told. She was so ill that the violence by which he resisted her was sufficient to burst her heart. John only suffered a few scratches, but he was hospitalized for observation considering the state the woman was in. I visited him, of course, and he seemed fine.”
Peter’s tone implies that “fine” was not how he expected John to be. Sam raises his eyebrows in a silent question. “John was always quiet, shy even, in service and class. By all accounts, and my own observations, he is a very gentle person. I expected him to be in shock at the least. Not only had he been attacked but the woman had died due to his self-defense. He was not in any danger of criminal charges, yet his lack of reaction seemed out-of-place. I asked him all the standard questions, let him know he could talk to me day or night if he needed to. I even reassured him that any guilt he felt was perfectly natural as long as he understood that her death was in no way his fault. He smiled at that, like I had said something amusing.”
The young man pauses to sip some of his cooling coffee. “His behavior since then has troubled you,” Sam states surely.
Peter nods, putting his coffee back on the table. “He did not come to Mass that week. I was not surprised. He had suffered a shock and I thought perhaps the severity of the incident might have finally struck him. He was absent from church for three weeks, though. I was about to call him to make sure he was okay when he returned, looking just fine. I told myself that people all respond to violence in different ways. Perhaps he just needed time to himself. There was something different about him, though. When I welcomed him back, he chuckled, though I am certain I said nothing humorous. Through my entire sermon, I saw him sitting near the back laughing to himself.”
“In my church, that’d be about normal. I prefer to pepper my weekly message with something to keep them interested. Found that there’s only so many times I can share the Good Word before they start thinkin’ wistfully of their couches and the football games they could be watching.” Sam smiles at Peter’s obvious discomfort. “Ah, but you Catholics don’t think it’s a proper message without some guilt and brimstone, right?” he asks with a chuckle. This is not a new argument for them.
“Bishop Ramirez believes that frivolity in the sermon makes the sermon frivolous,” Peter responds with a bit of a grimace. He is clearly torn between the approval of his friend and that of his mentor. “I am not wholly committed to his opinion, yet I see the logic in it. He is the Bishop. It is not my place to question him in such things.” Sam smiles again, but says nothing more on the subject. He sips his coffee with a twinkle in his brown eyes.
Peter continues as though he had been uninterrupted, “I do not know what he found so humorous and he left the church almost as soon as my sermon finished. I did not see him the rest of the week or the next Sunday, either. About two months ago, Sister Abigail informed me that John had quit the Bible study. She was really upset about it, and understandably so. Apparently, though he said nothing expressly to the effect, he seemed to imply that she was unfit as a teacher. She said he looked at her.”
“Oh?” Sam asks and drains his cup.
“She could not explain to me what she meant. She seemed embarrassed to tell me about it, which I can understand. She is one of our youngest sisters. She only received her habit eighteen months ago. Still, I encouraged her and she merely said that he had made her feel uncomfortable.”
Sam frowns and asks, “He leered at her? A nun?” He shakes his head, continuing in a half-joking tone, “I can’t see anyone leering at someone in those penguin costumes you dress them up in.”
“She is only a novice,” the priest replies coldly. He finds nothing humorous in a young woman being leered at regardless of her dress. “And St. Teresa’s sisters do not wear ‘penguin costumes,’ in any case. Simple dresses and veils, nothing provocative, of course. The Catholic Church has evolved with the times, Pastor.”
Sam smiles ruefully. “Forgive me, my son,” he says with a placating hand. “All I know about nuns I learned from Whoopi Goldberg.” Peter smiles and shakes his head, his irritation vanished. “So John is making eyes at your novices, eh? Anything else?”
“His attendance at Mass is still sporadic. I did not notice at first, but he seems to only attend when it is my turn for the sermon. Bishop Ramirez is grooming me to take his place, obviously, yet he is still fond of delivering the sermon. Anyway, he has not attended Confession since before his attack and he continues to snicker at things that simply are not funny.”
To his credit, Sam does not give the young man a patronizing look, though it takes some effort. “A man suffers a traumatic event and sometimes it gets him seeing things differently. Still, you got good instincts for a young’un, Catholic or not. My youth pastor has been beggin’ to give the sermon for weeks. How ’bout I give him this Sunday and pay a visit to your church? Get a look at this young man of your’s. That is, if you don’t feel threatened having a Baptist on your stomping grounds.”
This familiar banter helps to ease Peter’s mind a bit, so he replies, “As long as you leave your baby pool at home. My flock only needs one Baptism to protect their souls.”
Checking his watch, Sam says, “That’s an argument for another time, kiddo.” They drop off their dishes at the counter and then the two depart the coffee bar amiably, each going their own way.
Unnoticed by either of them, a man steps from behind a nearby bookshelf and snickers, eyes locked on the retreating priest.