By Alvin Peters
Father Matthew closed his eyes and put his face into his hands. He felt the stubble on his cheeks. He hoped to collect himself before his next appointment. After that, a shave and maybe a quick bite.
A few moments later, he wondered why Mrs Wiltshire, the parish secretary, didn’t send in the next person. As if on cue, she entered and put on his desk a mug of piping hot tea and a plate with two of her delicious beef pies. They were going to be her post-lunch snack, but she thought that he needed it a lot more.
“Thank you but weren’t there supposed to be four more people to see me now,” he said before sipping the tea. “I asked them to hold on for another half hour. It seemed like you needed a break,” she said and left him alone.
He said ‘grace’ then munched on the pies. His stomach growled in delight.
A few minutes later, he went into the kitchen and thanked her again. She took the mug and dessert plate and placed it in the sink. “Sorry to hear about your friend. Someone at the hospital told me.”
“Thank you,” he said and leaned against the kitchen counter. Mrs Wiltshire washed, dried, and put away the dishes. “Will he be alright?”
“I can only hope. Nigel and I became best friends in secondary school. And sometimes rivals,” he reminisced as he took two bottles of water from the fridge
“In what ways?” Mrs Wiltshire asked.
“Oh, playing video games, who made the better scores in exams, cricket or football. Once, we even competed for a girl.”
“Oh yes,” he said as he handed a bottle to her. “Her name was Amanda.”
“That’s a nice name.”
“We bought cards, chocolates and even serenaded her in class. It got really intense.”
Father took a sip, walked out of the kitchen, and sat at the dining room table. Mrs Wiltshire chuckled and shook her head towards Heaven and grabbed a glass. She followed him and sat down. “Well? Who won Amanda’s heart?”
“Neither of us,” Father replied smirking. “She chose to go with an idiot, Jeffery, to the school dance.”
“Ouch. What he had that you two didn’t?” “Good looks and rich parents.”
“To Jeffery and Amanda,” she said making a mock toast.
“My sentiments exactly,” he said raising his bottle, smiling broadly. “We laughed about the money we could have spent on kurma and chicken wings. I think that loss made us better friends.” She nodded.
“It was because of him I stayed in the Church. Before that, I didn’t see the importance of it. I was upset when my parents made me go to Confirmation class. I told myself that once that was over, I would never go back,” he said as he slowly peeled off the label.
“Nigel was different. He dragged me along on his ‘joyful adventures’ as he called it. Visits to the orphanage, helping the elderly. I complained but I had to admit, I liked it. Eventually his enthusiasm rubbed off on me. I found myself growing in my faith. When I told him some years later that I wanted to be a priest, he was so happy for me. He said that those joyful adventures were worth it after all. Now and again, we still meet and talk about what’s going on and encouraging each other to be better. At least, I thought that was what we were doing.”
“What happened this morning?”
Father drank the last of the water and exhaled slowly. “Last night I got a call. He was in the hospital. There was car crash. He was drunk and crashed into a wall his parents told me.”
He paused for moment, his shoulders falling. “He is an alcoholic his parents said. Why didn’t he tell me I asked? A man who wouldn’t hesitate to help anyone was reluctant to call on a friend. His parents said that he was too embarrassed to call me because I am a priest.”
He held on to the empty bottle tightly. “Our friendship didn’t change when I became a priest. Why didn’t he understand that?”
Mrs Wiltshire waited a moment and said, “You know many times we look at priests and we don’t think of them as quite human.”
“But we are.”
“I know, but we see you as men set apart. You live these lives we don’t fully understand. We hope, love, stumble and fall, and sometimes we wonder if you know what that’s like.”
“Priests experience those things, too,” Father said. Not always in the same way, but we do. You don’t have to understand everything about a person to know that someone needs a meal, a smile, a prayer, or a blessing.
They sat quietly for a while. Mrs Wiltshire said, “Maybe that’s what your friend needs to hear from you.” She added almost apologetically, “We ask a lot from you.”
“It’s what we are called to do,” Father said with a smile. Mrs Wiltshire nodded.
Father quipped, “But don’t worry. We have a ‘club’ called ‘The Men Set Apart’. The Archbishop is the manager for life.”
She laughed as she stood up. “Thanks for sharing that story with me. I’ll pray for you and the members of your club more often.”
“And pray for more men to join us. Our numbers are thinning, and His Grace is concerned. It’s people like you that make a priest’s work the joyful adventure.”
“Thanks,” Mrs Wiltshire said, “Can you tell my husband that? I think he is going to forget our anniversary again.”
The priest raised both hands in mock surrender, “Oh no. Leave me out of that! How about the intention for tomorrow’s Mass be for forgetful husbands and maybe you’ll send some more beef pies my way?”
“Deal!” Before going to her desk, she said, “Father, when you’re ready to continue your adventure, say the word.”