(Another version of this appears in one of my novel “Get a life” as a straight dramatic chapter)
You told me many times since seminary that God works in mysterious ways.
I didn’t truly believe that until recently, always waiting for the obvious to happen or things to fall into place the way I had planned.
Then one of the more unfortunate women from the parish came in, dragging her little boy behind her.
She claimed First Holy Communion was bunk.
She said it was a crime for people to spend so much to have a wafer placed on her son’s tongue.
Of course, it took time for me to unravel what she meant by this.
Apparently, she didn’t have the money to purchase the white suit and shoes required for her son’s First Holy Communion ceremony.
She said she could barely keep up with the expense of the daily uniform our school required, the cost of dry cleaning them, and the books she needed to purchase.
She demanded that I perform the First Holy Communion ritual right then and there to save her son the embarrassment of walking down the aisle on Sunday without the required dress when every other child would be wearing white.
Yes, I told her that the school ceremony was meant to serve as a bonding ritual, bringing the boy’s whole class together with this common experience so that they could go through life knowing that they are apart of a religious community.
I promised her that I would seek information about where she might find the required clothing at a cheaper price.
To tell you the truth, your Excellency, I feared for the child’s soul.
Over the years I had heard of his family and their distain for religious observance. While this woman came to mass almost every day, the rest of them remained away, a drinking, cursing, even slovenly lot that some in the parish have called hillbillies.
Yet as savage as they seemed, they were hardly as poor as this woman made out. So I made a point of paying them a visit.
They did not greet me warmly, taking me into the back of their boat store only when I insisted that we needed to speak privately.
I had deliberately paid visit at the store in order to avoid holding the woman up to their ridicule by taking the matter to the house where they would force her to confront me and reveal that she had come to me pleading for charity.
I knew she suffered enough just by attending services regularly.
I explained to the pack of grown men what I was unable to make the woman understand, how the boy needed to celebrate his coming of age with the other children, and how his life was interconnected with them through the Body of Christ and the institution of the church.
They understood even less than the woman did. They asked me why the boy had to take the Eucharist at all.
They like the woman seemed convinced that if the matter had to be done, why couldn’t it be done painlessly, getting it over and done with without all the outlandish garb and rigmarole.
Everything but my faith was shaken in the face of such ignorance, and I came off that hill aware for the first time that such people actually existed in the world: not anti-Christ or even anti-church, but strangely immune to any understanding of faith or the need for ritual at all.
So I was resolved to finding a more practical answer to the woman’s problems, keeping my promise to call local merchants about finding less expensive clothing in which the boy might take part in the ritual the following Sunday.
As members of the priesthood, we often fall out of touch with some basic realities, and thus was the case when I learned just how expensive such items were, and how much beyond the means of our poor parishioners these things are to purchase – many have to do without food or other clothing in order to find the money to purchase clothing their children will wear but once in their lives.
So compelled was I to save this one boy’s soul that I arranged to have the woman pay a much reduced amount, and agreed to supplement the merchant with the difference from my own paltry allowance.
The two merchants I dealt with did not like the idea at all.
They feared word might leak out to other families and that all would expect to pay the same low rate later. But in the end, each gave in out of respect for my office.
The woman was not particularly happy either. Any expense was a steep one where she was concerned.
But she agreed both to seek the clothing and to send the boy to me for a pre-ceremonial examination of his newly acquired garb.
I admit I thought very savage things about both merchants when I saw how the boy was dressed.
Nothing fit. Not even the shoes, which the boy had to squeeze into it, bending the backs of both shoes just to get them on.
The white suit was worse. So I took the boy and the woman back to the store myself, where I caught one merchant just as he was leaving.
The man apparently had sold the boy a suit he had in old stock rather than the one the boy needed, complaining to me that the boy’s mother had come to the store days ahead of the event – much too short a time for the merchant to order the proper garb.
The man made some alterations and even found a pair of shoes that fit better than the shoes the shoe store had issued on a similar pretext.
Satisfied, I told the boy and his mother home, telling them all that would go well the following Sunday.
I got the call early Sunday morning, waking me out of sleep hours before the first Mass of the day.
The boy’s mother was on the other end.
She said the boy would not be able to attend the ceremony after all.
No, the family had not tried to stop her. Nor had she any second thoughts.
The boy apparently had come down with the measles.
And from what I saw in the mirror and the intense itching I felt, so apparently had I.