It has been written, and truly, that among the things that make happiness possible, the greatest of all is gratitude. I’ve written about that several times here at Liberty’s Torch. But a free-floating, generalized state of gratitude is a difficult thing to create and sustain within oneself. It’s a lot easier to be grateful “for [insert blessing here].” That ties in rather nicely to the old maxim to “count your blessings.” (That that maxim was frequently offered to persons who’d just suffered a stinging blow should not be held against it.)
It’s easy to feel gratitude, at least fleetingly, for material blessings. Christmas gift-giving is an opportunity for such gratitude. On the far end of the spectrum, it’s easy to feel gratitude for the Incarnation, the Nativity, the Ministry, the Passion, and the Resurrection of the Son of God, at least for Christians. After all, without those events, what would we be? Unitarians?
But we’re not often enough grateful for the men who serve us as Christians: the priests and ministers who’ve made such service their life’s work. Catholics in particular have a lot to be grateful for. There’s no calling among mortals that demands as much from the men called to it as does the vocation of Catholic priesthood.
The media don’t say much that’s complimentary about Catholic priests. That’s to be expected, considering how thoroughly corrupt the media have become. They treat Christian faith as at best a quaint survival of yore, irrelevant to our advanced times. At worst, they portray priests as black-clad perverts who’ve adopted the clerical life as a way to amass lovers or juvenile victims.
One of the major reasons I write fiction is for the opportunity to portray Catholic priests as the servants they are. Such men sacrifice nearly every temporal fulfillment and pleasure for the chance to serve the rest of us. That there are grave sinners among them is only to be expected, for are they not men, as fallible and vulnerable as any of us?
The Christmas Octave is a good time to reflect on the generosity of our priests. Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell has penned a stunning reflection on the subject. Her Sunday punch:
Without you, consecrated priests, nothing. No Mass. No Eucharist. No absolution. No anointing. If you disappeared, we would be left to our lack, our poverty, our desert. You bring streams into the dry land and light where shadows reign. And to do so, you must fight many days against voices of doubt and mockery. Does it matter? This sacrifice I made? Does anyone see my exhaustion, my insecurity, my hopes, my fears, my overwhelming desire to serve Our Lord, to be His hands and feet, His heart?
Yes, dear priest! We see you. In our hearts, we hold you. Your existence comforts us, as we walk the path of life. You will be there when sickness strikes, when joyful milestones come, when death looms large. You will be there in the daily evening Mass when monotony is broken by eternity. You will be there in our school, making an impression only you can make upon young hearts. You will be there because Christ is there. And where you walk, He walks. You bring Him to earth for us and allow us to encounter Him. He needs you. In your transparency before us, you are Christ. In your silent service, you are Christ. In your voice of prayer, He prays.
The following is a story I wrote some years ago. Did you celebrate your Christmas with family or friends? Did you partake of the traditional bounties of food and drink? Did you jubilate over gifts given and received? Share a more trying moment with Father Raymond Altomare, the pastor at Our Lady of the Pines in Onteora County, New York, who is called into the valley of the shadow of imminent death during this most joyous of times:
Aaron Teitelbaum had the coldest smile Father Raymond Altomare had ever seen.
The lawyer was dressed in the height of Manhattan Legal style: a pinstriped three-piece navy blue suit, black Oxfords so brilliantly polished they seemed to outshine the conference room lights, and inconspicuous but quite impressive diamond-studded cufflinks. His glove-leather briefcase looked as if it had never been in contact with baser matter. The gold fountain pen and memo book he pulled from his inner jacket pocket were equally pristine. From the moment he’d walked into Ray’s room at St. Gregory’s rectory, Teitelbaum’s smile had never wavered, but his eyes were fish flat and icy cold, and they never left Ray’s face.
“Thank you for taking this meeting, Father,” the lawyer said as they sat. “I hope I haven’t greatly inconvenienced you, what with the pressures of the season.”
“Not at all,” Ray said. “As it happens, I was in town to visit my family for Christmas.” The lawyer nodded minutely. Ray got the distinct impression that Teitelbaum had already known it. “But what could a parish priest from Onteora possibly do for you?”
“Quite a lot, actually.” Teitelbaum slid a large glossy photo across the table. “You’ve heard of Del Nevins, of course?”
Of course. “The fellow condemned for the mass murder at the convenience store?”
Teitelbaum nodded again. “I was his attorney.” He scowled fleetingly. “I still am. The court won’t let me withdraw.”
“Why do you need to withdraw?” Have you exhausted his money?
A spasm of distaste flew across the lawyer’s face. “He’s run out of appeals. His petition to the Supreme Court was denied a week ago yesterday.”
“Doesn’t that automatically free you from further obligation to him?”
“Not in a death penalty case.” The lawyer looked as if he’d bitten into a ball of tin foil. “A condemned man is considered entitled to legal counsel right to the instant of his execution. The possibilities to save him might be dwindling, but given his destiny, the law holds that he must have an outside representative to work on his behalf, right to the end. But that’s not really germane to why I’ve asked to speak with you, Father. Del’s execution warrant was issued yesterday.”
“So soon after his petition was turned down?”
Teitelbaum nodded. “He asked for it to be expedited.”
Ray’s suspicions swelled. He kept silent.
“I’m desperate to save this man’s life, and I need all the help I can get. Your church has a history of opposing the death penalty. Del claims to be a Catholic.”
“Very lawyerly phrasing, Mr. Teitelbaum.”
The lawyer shrugged it aside. “How would I know what he really is?”
Ray hunched forward and slid to the edge of his cot. “Was he baptized into the Church? We do keep records, you know.”
Teitelbaum reached into his briefcase again and pulled out a baptismal certificate. Ray peered at it. It appeared to be correctly executed. The seal looked genuine enough.
“Very well. So, has Mr. Nevins requested my services?”
“Not exactly, Father.”
Ray’s unease spiked. “I can’t force my ministry on a man who doesn’t want it, sir.”
“Oh, he wants it. He just didn’t ask for you specifically,” Teitelbaum said. “And you might help me save his life.”
“How so? It sounds as if he wants to die.”
Teitelbaum stared down at his manicure for a long moment of silence.
“I’ve made some inquiries, Father. You’re one of New York’s more active priests. Some still remember that flap you had with your county executive over the nativity creche, two years ago. He won the technical battle on points, but you prevailed in the court of public opinion. And of course, you’re young, photogenic, and dynamic. It all helps, when you’re trying to rally public pressure on a sitting governor to issue a commutation.”
“Well, thank you for all of that, but surely there are better known priests right here in Manhattan who could be of more assistance to you?”
Teitelbaum’s face became a rigid mask. “Everything helps, Father.” He rose and put out his hand. Ray rose and took it. “Are you willing to consider seeing Del?”
Would that be for his sake, or for yours? You must have called every priest in the five boroughs before you got to me…and they all turned you down.
“I’ll get back to you about it.”
The lawyer nodded. “Please don’t take too long. The date of execution is January 2. At midnight.”
Ray winced. “I won’t.”
Salvatore Altomare leaned forward over the dining room table and cocked a bushy eyebrow the color of new snow. “You gonna get involved in this rat’s case?”
“Let’s not prejudge him,” Ray said, “He might have repented, you know.”
“Whassat got to do with the price-a tea in China? He killed four people, and for what? Less than sixty bucks!”
Ray glanced fleetingly at his sister. Lisa was concentrating on her roast beef and maintaining an admirable poker face.
“Papa,” Ray said in his softest voice, “you’re not saying you’d have more sympathy for him if his haul had been bigger, are you?”
“Ahhhh!” The Altomare patriarch dismissed his son with a flip of the hand. “Get some sense-a proportion, kid. You gonna kill, you do it over somethin’ worth killin’ for. Not the price of a meal. Yanno, the pictures always make out that it’s us Italians who kill at the drop of a hat, but you think Uncle Angie or Charley the Fade would kill over sixty bucks? You think Uncle Vito would? Not on your life—and it would be your life to suggest it to ‘em.” He shook his head in wonderment over the decline in moral values. “You kids never unnerstood what it’s really about.”
The dining room became unnaturally still. Lisa laid her fork gently on her plate and sat back. Sal Altomare sat motionless, glaring in disappointment at the son who’d failed to follow him into the concrete business where he belonged. Ray simply allowed his thoughts to swirl until they coalesced.
“Then what is it about, Papa?”
“Balance, figlio mio. You gotta keep the balance. A life for a life. A death for a death. That way people can know what’s comin’ to ‘em. You go killin’ over a few quarters from a tip cup, or let a man live after he’s killed one of your own, the whole system goes to hell.” He rose and planted his fists on the table. “In the old days, everybody unnerstood that. We learned it early. You kids ain’t never learned. ‘S no wonder you got junkies killin’ each other over a lump-a crack.”
Ray closed his eyes.
The Church has condemned execution for decades. It’s only permissible in the very worst cases, the Vatican said. But what if Papa’s right and they’re wrong? And what’s worse than mass murder, anyway? Did Nevins have to do more to deserve his sentence? Did he have to torture his victims for his own death to be deserved? To keep the balance?
“Papa,” Ray said softly, “I think I do understand it.”
Lisa’s eyes jerked up suddenly and fixed upon him.
“Then what, boy?” Sal said.
“I don’t know.”
Ray waited in the interview booth with as much sangfroid as he could muster. That wasn’t much; over the whole drive up to Ossining, he’d thought of nothing but Nevins’s victims, his lawyer’s marked frigidity of manner, the Church’s proclamation against capital punishment, and his father’s diatribe of the evening before. When he’d identified himself to the deputy warden and asked to see Nevins, the man’s manner, originally affable if solemn, had mutated instantly into a disapproval so intense that it verged on hatred. Several guards had sneered him where he sat, their disapproval unconcealed.
Christmas Eve in Sing Sing Prison. Among people who despise me, inmates and guards both. Lord, be my refuge.
Nevins appeared between two husky guards with truncheons, in full arm and leg shackles. The guards practically dragged him to the booth and shoved him into his chair. One of them plucked the handset from its holder, thrust it into the space between Nevins’s ear and shoulder, snarled “Don’t drop it,” and backed away.
The condemned man was unremarkable in appearance: perhaps five-nine, a hundred seventy pounds, with watery brown eyes and thinning brown hair. He looked no more threatening than the average retail clerk…probably no more so than any of the four whose lives he had ended.
But he’s here and they’re nowhere.
Ray composed himself and put his handset to his ear. “Mr. Nevins, I’m Father Raymond Altomare of Our Lady of the Pines parish in Onteora County. Mr. Teitelbaum asked me to come up here and speak with you. He didn’t say whether it was your wish or his.”
Nevins smiled wanly. “Both, Father. Different reasons, though. How do you feel about the death penalty?”
Ray frowned. “You’re a Catholic, aren’t you?”
“Then you must know the Church’s position on the matter.”
“That wasn’t what I asked you, Father.”
Ray hesitated, unsure.
“The Holy Father did leave an escape clause, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” Ray said, “but it was about…the safety of others. Whether a murderer could be confined in a manner that would leave him no opportunity to do further harm.”
“I know, Father.” Nevins’s mouth twitched. “I’ve been in solitary confinement for the past nine years. I’d say the rest of society is pretty safe from me, even if I’d wanted to kill again. Don’t you think so?”
“Mr. Nevins,” Ray said, “I’m in no position to judge such things. But your lawyer told me that after your appeal to the Supreme Court was denied, you asked to have your execution scheduled as soon as possible. Is that correct?”
Nevins nodded minutely.
“If you want to live—if my opinion of whether you ought to be allowed to live matters to you—why did you do that?”
Nevins dropped his eyes to the little desk at which he sat. He was silent for a long interval. Ray searched the murderer’s face, looking for any clues it might hold to his tangle of contradictions. He saw nothing he could identify.
“Because,” Nevins said at last, “I’m afraid to die.”
“I can’t do anything for him, Mr. Teitelbaum,” Ray said. “The law takes no account of a man’s fears or Church doctrine. The governor has refused to consider a commutation. Seven days from now Nevins will stand before the Bar of Judgment no matter what you, I, or His Holiness the Pope might have to say about it.”
“I know that, Father.” The lawyer reached for his coffee and took a small sip. “But you have some sense for the man, now. He admits his guilt, and he knows what he faces. It simply terrifies him. The guards are likely to have to render him unconscious to get him into the execution chamber. He loses his sphincter control every time he thinks about it. And frankly,” Teitelbaum said, lips pressed into a thin line, “that’s something I think we would all rather avert if we could.”
“Do you know,” Ray said with sudden energy, “why he fears death so greatly?”
Teitelbaum cocked an eyebrow. “For the same reasons we all do, I’d imagine.”
“Not quite, sir. Nevins is afraid that he’s committed an unforgivable crime. He’s confessed it and been granted absolution—several times, according to the prison chaplain—but he can’t bring himself to believe that God will accept him after what he’s done. He expects to face eternity in Hell. He finds that a lot more frightening than mere death. I’d expect anyone would.” Ray paused, remembering. “I offered to shrive him again, right then and there. He said it wouldn’t matter.”
Teitelbaum looked away. He muttered something inaudible.
The lawyer’s eyes locked onto Ray’s. “I said, God save us from true believers.”
Ray was silent.
“Did he ask you for anything else, Father?”
Ray nodded. “To be present at the execution.”
“Nothing but that?”
“Nothing but that.”
Teitelbaum rose. “Then I suppose our work, however unsatisfactorily concluded, is done.” He extended a hand. Ray rose and took it. “Thank you for your time, Father.”
Ray looked up from his coffee to find his sister standing in the kitchen entranceway.
“You’re up pretty early on New Year’s Day,” she said. She pulled her robe a little more snugly around her and sat beside him.
“It’s tonight, isn’t it?”
“You’re sure you ought to go?”
“I have to go,” Ray said. “It’s a duty.”
“You won’t enjoy it.”
“I don’t expect to.”
“Lise, he says he believes. He was baptized and confirmed. He accepts Christ as the Son of God. He acknowledges me and other priests as Christ’s vicars. He’s asked me to perform Extreme Unction. But then why can’t he believe he’s been absolved?” Ray felt his hands ball involuntarily into fists. “Do we do too good a job of frightening people about the possible consequences of their sins? Do we say too little about the power of absolution and the infinite mercy of God?”
Have I enlisted in the biggest fright machine in the history of Man?
“I don’t know, Ray,” she said. “I’d say it varies. Father Keane is one sort of priest, Father Holcomb the opposite. I look to one for castigation and the other for compassion. If they behave differently with their other parishioners, I have no way of knowing.”
“Have you spoken to either of them about this?” he said.
“They both said they were sure you’d find the right path.” She smiled. “They think the world of you, you know.”
“Yeah.” He stared aimlessly into the gloom. “And you know I don’t deserve it.”
“Well,” she said with a chuckle, “they didn’t grow up with you. So, what next?”
He stood, and she rose with him.
“I’m going to shower and shave,” he said. “Then I’m going to Mass. After that…I don’t know.”
His sister’s eyes expressed a confidence in him that he could not feel. “You will.”
Nevins entered the little interrogation room tentatively, as if he were surprised to find himself there. He looked about in bewilderment, finally fixing on Ray, who stood behind a small table in his chasuble, alb, and stole.
Ray gestured Nevins toward the single chair placed before the table, waited for him to seat himself, and made a steeple of his hands.
“The Lord be with you,” he intoned.
Nevins rose as if compelled. “And also with you,” he whispered.
Ray celebrated Mass just as he had for the decade past. He recited the Creed, and Nevins recited it with him. He read from Chapter 26 of the Gospel according to Matthew, as steadily as he could. As he raised the host in the first act of consecration, he prayed silently for guidance and strength.
Lord, help me to do what this man needs. Help me to help him find You in himself.
As he raised the chalice in the conclusion of the consecration rite, he felt a vast peace descend upon him, and with it the certainty he had sought.
“For this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all, that sins may be forgiven.” Ray’s voice cracked and fell to a whisper. “Do this in memory of me.”
When he had swallowed the host and sipped from the chalice, he looked directly at the kneeling convict and said, “Come forward, ye child of God.”
And Nevins did. He accepted the host upon his tongue, swallowed quickly, and made to return to his place, but Ray stopped him and offered the chalice to him.
“Drink of the blood of Christ. Partake of His courage.”
Nevins took the cup hesitantly, as if it might be snatched away from him at any instant. He sipped quickly and made to return it to Ray’s hand.
“No,” Ray said. “Finish it.”
Eyes wide in incredulity, Nevins did.
“Let us pray.”
They fell to their knees, priest and convict together, clasping one another and praying as one.
Ray stepped through the apartment door to find his father reading a newspaper in the living room.
“Finished?” Salvatore Altomare said.
Sal Altomare grunted, started to return to his paper, then shoved it aside. He rose and peered into his son’s eyes.
“You unnerstand about the balance now, figlio mio?”
“I think so, Papa,” Ray said. I think he did, too. “Thank you.”
“Ain’t nothin’,” his father said. “You shoulda known. But hey,” he said, grinning, “Whatsa father for, right?”
Father Raymond Altomare pulled his father close and kissed his seamed cheek. “Right.”
Copyright © 2004 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.