It was the third or fourth time Father Tim hadn’t mentioned ‘Heaven’, the Sacristan reflected as he put away the tall candlesticks and coffin table in the crypt of the church. John Canavan had been Sacristan at Christ the Redeemer’s for almost thirty years and he was concerned about the changes the new Curate, Father Tim, was introducing into the liturgy.
Maybe it even went further than the liturgy. Just after the funeral mass John had approached the new Curate and mentioned that the Monsignor—now unfortunately retired—always announced that the dear departed had gone straight to Heaven. The Mons, as he was called, felt that the mourners appreciated the mention of Heaven; the word itself had a comforting ring to it.
“Well, John, Heaven is a difficult concept for people nowadays.” As he spoke, Father Tim was rapidly changing out of his altar clothes in the Sacristy. He left them for John to hang up. “Have to be on the first tee in twelve minutes.” He rushed out in a flurry of regretful gestures about his own mismanagement of time.
John was coming to the conclusion that this new priest was a little too easy-going about his duties and about doctrine. He had only just arrived at the Parish when John decided to apply his usual test of going to confession with a selection of sins which included a few which were really mortal sins but which were now called grave moral disorders. Father Tim was far too easy. There was no penance at all, only an act of contrition. There should have been a rosary or two. Liberalism, they called it. It wouldn’t do. Father Tim wore his faith far too lightly.
John sat for a while in the crypt. It was one of his favourite places, cool and quiet, and he liked to examine the massive foundations of the church, the huge blocks of granite that carried the walls and buttresses. Peter was the original rock, imperishable, unchanging….When he finally left the crypt he carefully bolted the door behind him. Altar boys had been known to get in there to play scary games and desecrate whatever few bones they might find lying around.
He walked around the churchyard jangling his keys which were attached to a large metal loop almost as big as a Chinese magic ring. He passed the cross with the life-size figure of Jesus yielding up his spirit. Figures at the foot of the cross included Mary to whom John was especially devoted, due to his mother’s influence before her recent death. The figure of the Centurion piercing Christ’s body with a lance always upset him. It was partly because of the deed itself but also because of the superior sneer on the face of the soldier. He was often tempted to smash in that haughty pagan face.
Sometime later, having carefully cross-checked his watch with the clock in the Vestry, he went to the belfry to ring the Angelus. He climbed the steeple steps to the first floor and unhooked the bell rope. Of all his many and varied tasks this was his favourite. And he was good at it. Once when he was off sick an altar boy had to stand in for him, and the bell-ringing was so badly done that several people complained to the old Mons, including Miss Mooney, a local teacher and devout catholic. John took that as a compliment---one of the few he ever received. Of course, as Sacristan he sort of blended into the background, became part of the furniture; in a way, being taken for granted was proof that he did the job well.
By dexterous pulling of the rope he got the big bell, Ned, swinging but not so much that the clapper made contact. Each time the bell swung back the rope rose like lightening through his hands which he automatically loosened to avoid burns. When he was younger he sometimes rode up on the rope but he was too old for that now. Of course the altar boys always wanted to ride the rope and he had to keep a sharp eye on them. The altar girls had no interest in it whatever; that was something to be grateful for, he supposed.
Having put cotton wool in his left ear he waited for a while, then, at the right moment he gave a hefty pull that brought the clapper fully into play. The first peal rang out. The mighty affirming sound seemed to be confined inside the belfry but he knew it could be heard all over the town and beyond. He visualised the long powerful echo as a comet’s tail. Before it died away he tolled again. And then again. The first three peals were followed by a pause. He knew that people had stopped what they were doing; men would be removing hats and caps, women would be crossing themselves. He was calling people to prayer. What higher calling was there?
Then he tolled the second set of three, and then the third set. Pause. And the final nine in fairly quick succession, each new peal silencing the echo of the preceding one, except for the very last which resounded for what seemed like infinity. He loved the pattern of threes; it was a holy sequence that chimed with the mystery of the Trinity. Tolling bells were part of the colour and fabric of life in the town. But who knew that he was the person who made the magic happen?
Oddly, it never occurred to him to say the Angelus. He assumed implicitly that ringing the bell was a prayer in itself; he made it speak to Mary in a private language. Tongues; it was a form of tongues. His mother had the gift, and he could sometimes interpret the strange sounds that issued from her mouth.
Afterwards, he climbed further up the steeple, using the ladders that joined the trapdoors on each floor. He kept a sharp eye out for wood-worm, termites or any form of infestation. As he went higher he could see more and more of the town through the narrow Gothic windows of the spire. When he eventually reached the belfry proper he examined the big bell which had been cast in Pennsylvania, the clapper like a bull’s scrotum. The bronze was wearing well, all seven tons of it. He had read about hundred-ton bells in Moscow but Ned was big enough for him, and the sound was sweet and clear. As he examined the huge timbers on which it swung, cold lamenting winds came through the louvred shutters. He felt at home there even though his first experience in the belfry had not been a good one. His predecessor, hating the prospect of imminent retirement, had instructed John to remain in the belfry while the noon-day Angelus was being rung from five floors down. It had been a frightening experience and John had lost almost half the hearing in his left ear. He never complained but he did take precautions to protect his hearing from further damage. The experience had taught him to respect the power and majesty of the bells.
He fetched the binoculars from the niche in the stone wall and looked down at the town. He could see Mrs. Farrelly taking a cauliflower out of the window of her grocery shop but couldn’t quite make out who the customer was. Other shops and businesses were closing for the evening, the workers walking or cycling home for their tea. The District Nurse had just dismounted her bike and was knocking on the door of Frizelle’s where the oldest daughter had some sort of strange, wasting illness. Nobody would mention the name of the disease. It wasn’t all that long ago since the Nurse visited his house to check on his mother….
He could see across the river to the jetties where a couple of Dutch ships were moored. It was too early for the prostitutes but they would be out later, picking up sailors and bringing them to that infamous lane where the hedges were flattened, and only recovered in the weeks following the annual mission.
He next focused on the Presbytery which was behind the church on slightly higher ground. Through the branches of the orchard he could see Father Tim put his golf clubs in the Rover and drive out through the wrought iron gates. Judging by the spray of gravel from the rear wheels of the car, he was very late indeed. The Housekeeper was on her knees picking up windfall apples---the June drop. John looked at some of the upstairs windows but couldn’t penetrate them. In thirty-five years he had never been inside the Presbytery. He had often waited in the front porch to deliver a message or await a decision, but he had never been invited in.
He liked to observe. He was invisible to most people and had come to accept that; with the exception of Ms Mooney, they probably didn’t know that it was he who cared for the fabric of the church. But that didn’t mean the townspeople were invisible to him, quite the reverse. He knew more about them than they would ever realise, for example, that the daughter of the Chemist gave birth to an illegitimate child right down there in the church-yard, behind the cross. In the light of the waxing moon John had watched the birth throes; he had seen the girl cut the cord with her teeth, bury the afterbirth, wrap the baby in her cardigan and creep out of the church-yard. What became of the baby he never knew? He presumed it was sent for fostering somewhere else in the country, though of course there were other possibilities. The Chemist and his even more uppity wife still behaved as if nothing had happened, but John knew the truth. His vantage point was as close to perfect as made no difference. His writ extended way beyond the confines of the church gates.
Before replacing the binoculars he had a final look at the crucifixion tableau in the church-yard; the Centurion’s lance still pierced the body of Christ. He sighed and then gave Ned a farewell ping with the nail of his index finger and began the long climb down through the series of trap-doors. It was like going back to ‘go’ in a game of snakes and ladders.
“Heaven is a difficult concept for people nowadays.” He could hardly believe Father Tim had said that. He knew that the Pope had abolished Limbo and that some Theologians had doubts about Hell—or at least the fires of Hell--- but was it possible that Heaven was on the way out as well? No, they couldn’t do that; they couldn’t take away peoples’ only reason for hope. They had to believe that justice would prevail in the next world.
In the nave of the church he can hear his footsteps echoing. He climbs the marble steps to the altar and, once inside the brass gates, basks in that special sense of belonging. He checks the sanctuary lamp which must never be allowed to go out as long as Christ resides in the Tabernacle. As he examines the flowers and altar linens he makes a mental note to have a word with the Ladies’ Altar Committee. Having checked the six large candles he prises up a couple of buried wicks from the candle grease; this will make them a lot easier to light. He looks down the body of the church and his gaze rises to the organ loft. God be with the days of proper choirs and himself working the bellows of the organ. It is hard to accept the pop hymns of to-day and the tinny, trendy guitars. The abolition of the Latin Mass was the thin end of the wedge. There’s no ceremony anymore, nothing uplifting. Father Tim doesn’t seem to understand how important the fundamentals really are. He puts out the banners for the Ladies’ Sodality, then locks up and goes home to the cottage he shared with his mother until her death four months ago.
He sits in a chair opposite the one she used to sit in, a plate of ham-and-tongue-paste sandwiches on his knee. His mother’s statue of the Infant of Prague is on a shelf of the dresser. There is no head on the statue. He remembers the time the head was accidentally knocked off and his mother’s superstitious belief that it was a good omen.
There is no one to confide in. On the stroke of ten he kneels and starts a rosary, offering it up for a strengthening of Father Tim’s faith. He would of course continue to keep an eye on the misguided man and drop hints every so often to the effect that currying favour with the liberal element would do him no good in the end, no good at all.
The Mons was a lover of tradition, a great old defender of the faith. It was he who told women not to wear lipstick if they were going to receive Holy Communion. Cosmetics tainted the priest’s anointed hands. John’s mother was delighted with that rule; it would put a stop to the gallop of the hussies. Her son could only agree. It was a matter of respect, decorum.
Of course his mother always wanted John to become a priest. In her view he had the makings of a great priest, so devout was he by nature. Everyone agreed and when he was fifteen he was sure he got the call. But he couldn’t study; his mind was always flitting around from one topic to the next, refusing to settle on anything in particular. And some people said he was too full of scruples. Priests could not afford to suffer from scruples or feelings of unworthiness. No problem there for Father Tim. Anyway, becoming a Sacristan wasn’t a bad compromise in the end. He couldn’t administer the Sacraments but he could keep the church in good order--- and perhaps some of the trendy priests as well.
A few days later the altar girls failed to turn up for first mass and John prepared to serve it him-self, donning surplice and soutane. The collectors were in place---two men who were up early because they were going shooting in the wetlands immediately after mass. John rang the ten- to- seven bell and observed the congregation filing in through the main door. Many stayed smoking on the top step until the very last moment and some of them walked across the mosaic of the Madonna and Child which was set into the concrete. One man actually dropped a cigarette on the mosaic and ground it out with his foot. John winced and turned away.
Some twenty minutes later the same man presented himself at the altar rails to receive Holy Communion and, as John held the paten under his chin, he wondered if this man was in a state of grace at all. An acrid smell of stale nicotine rose from his mouth, wide open to receive the sacred host. At least Miss Mooney, the teacher, set a good example by not wearing any lipstick and by being very devout when she received. Father Tim lived up to his reputation as a speed merchant and the mass was over in twenty minutes flat.
Aping the Protestant ministers, Father Tim stood at the church door chatting with the congregation as they left. John stood behind him, noting the people who walked across the mosaic. A light breeze ruffled the lace of his surplice. He couldn’t help overhearing Miss Mooney talking to Father Tim, “…two species next Sunday? Wonderful, Father…very avant garde…”
“We have to keep up with the times, Miss Mooney. The symbolic effect of both species is very powerful.” The young priest looked into the middle distance as if reflecting further on his pronouncement.
John was trying to cope with this worrying snippet of conversation when, to his astonishment, he saw Miss Mooney walk towards him.
“How are you, John?” Her eyebrows arched, waiting for his response.
“Fine, thank you…”
“I mean since your poor mother died.” She tilted her head and gave him a studied though not unsympathetic, look.
“I’m all right, thanks.” Nosey biddy, he thought, what’s she getting at anyway? To be fair though, she always gave handsomely to the church, fifty Euros at least for the Easter dues.
Later, when he was helping the curate disrobe he tried to hold his tongue---know his place, as his mother used to advise---but he just could not and eventually he broached the question of the two species. Next Sunday, Father Tim told him, the communicants would receive both bread and wine.
“Body and blood,” John corrected him without thinking.
“Well…yes. Symbolically speaking…” Father Tim brushed his hair, checked his shoulders for dandruff, and quickly donned his coat.
John felt a headache coming on; his temples began to throb. God in Heaven more symbols. What about reality? Transubstantiation? The fundamental change that occurred?
“No…” he began. “Not symbols….”
“We must accept modern thinking….”
“But, Father, it’s real….It has to be…. It’s real…”
“Must rush now, John. I’ll try to explain later on.” Father Tim left the Vestry in a flurry.
Partly because he needed air, John walked for a while in the church yard, grim-faced, praying under his breath, praying hard.
He couldn’t sleep at all that night and in the morning could only face a slice of toast for breakfast. Conscious of the fact that his mother would have rebuked him for that, he forced himself to have another slice---with the chunky marmalade she preferred. As he was leaving the pot of marmalade back in the cupboard he noticed another jar. He spooned some of the contents into a plastic bag which he put in the pocket of his coat.
As he walked through the church yard he was stopped in his tracks by a strange sight near the cross. The figure of the Centurion was completely smashed and the lance had been removed from the wound in Christ’s side and broken in several places. Vandals or drunks? John thought it unlikely. Father Tim might have hit it coming back from the golf club in his Rover. He gathered up the plaster pieces of the Centurion and left them in a pile. They could certainly not be glued back together again; perhaps it would be better not to replace the figure of the cruel Centurion at all.
John had more serious concerns. The time had come to prove Father Tim wrong. He ‘phoned the altar girls and told them there was no need to turn up. He would serve. He spent some time on his own praying in the church, this special hallowed place with its huge pillars, pulpit like the prow of a ship, flaring candlelight, the Sanctuary lamp that he would keep lit forever, and the Tabernacle which lay at the heart of all belief and was so mystical and awe-inspiring he could hardly bring himself to look at it. Could Father Tim not see the beauty of his own church, the richness and the truth?
Father Tim was in the Vestry when John arrived and he broached the subject of the smashed statue. “The Centurion is a hate figure,” the priest said, “so the damage could have been done by a fundamentalist.” His tone of voice suggested that there was something very wrong about fundamentals in general. What about the Redemptorists, John thought. Great men. After a one-week mission the town would be flooded with grace. Even the prostitutes would stay at home in the evenings. He had proved as much with his binoculars on several occasions in the past.
“You said yesterday, Father, that…you would explain…” John hesitated but eventually finished the point.
“Well, John,” Father Tim began in a rather offhand way, “there are different views nowadays about transubstantiation. Theologians are allowing more liberal interpretations…” He continued at some length and John felt his scalp lift with pain. There was also an element of fear. When he was a child his mother used to threaten him with the coming of the Anti Christ when all belief would be lost. Even the priests would turn their backs on the faith; the foundations would crumble. It was all predicted in the Book of Revelations….Maybe the Apocalypse was closer at hand than anyone thought.….He would have to prove Father Tim wrong. In God’s eyes, of course, proof was not as virtuous as blind faith, but where the latter was so obviously lacking, what alternative was there? It had to be proof, proof positive.....
Father Tim reminded him about the two species and told him that two extra bottles of wine would be needed as well as a linen cloth to wipe the chalice after each communicant had drunk from it. John said he would see to it, and went to put on his surplice and soutane.
Miss Mooney was one of the first to arrive and she knelt in the first pew with a worried expression on her face. Yesterday as she took a short-cut from the school through the church yard she had seen John kneeling at the foot of the cross. He was praying and tears were rolling down his face. Half concealed behind a holly bush she watched as John blessed himself, picked up an iron bar and set about destroying the statue of the Centurion. She had never witnessed such anger, even though it was directed against an inanimate object.
Now as she knelt facing the altar she wondered how she might be able to help him. He was a man who kept himself to himself and would not appreciate interference of any kind. Maybe he was still grieving for his mother. In any case something would have to be done. Perhaps she should enlist the help of Father Tim.
In the Sacristy just after the ten- minute bell rang, John uncorked the bottles of red wine. He could prove it. The wine did change into the blood of Christ after the miracle of the Eucharist. It was no longer wine. It was no longer anything but the blood of the one true Christ. Why could Father Tim not understand that? Well, he would understand it to-day because the substance John was about to put into the wine would no longer be present after transubstantiation. Suscipe Domine sacrificium de manibus…..and then those marvellous, spine-chilling words, Hoc est enim corpus meum. These were the beloved Latin words that went through his head as he sprinkled rat poison into the wine bottles which he then carried out to the altar and left on the side table with the cruets, chalice and ciborium. He genuflected and returned to the Sacristy.
All was prepared. Real faith would soon be tested, and the gospels verified. The poison would not exist after the miracle of transubstantiation---any more than the wine would exist. The Communicants would receive the real body and blood of their Saviour. It would be a wonderful day for people of faith. His mother would be proud.
Father Tim put the finishing touches to his vestments. “Ready, John?” He started to walk towards the altar.
“Yes, Father.” John fell in behind him, carrying the open mass- book in his spread hands. Both men processed to the altar in single file. The congregation shuffled, and rose as a sign of respect. John had an expectant, devout smile on his normally stern face. Miss Mooney who stood at the front of the congregation, holding her missal, was glad that he seemed to be in better form.