Read Chapter Two, A Florida Parish Priest

This was the worst attack yet! It was so hot! No air, and the humidity vibrated like a steel drum. But he couldn’t think about that. He could think of only two things; his next breath and the woman’s voice.

He couldn’t look at the dark wood of the confessional. If he looked at it, it rushed toward him. He had to hold on to the next breath: a sip of air.

“The next thing, I gossiped.” The woman’s voice. Disembodied, distorted, it became a devil’s falsetto.

His heart was thudding in his chest. Something was coming for him! Don’t think about that, hold on to the woman’s voice. Concentrate!

“How many times?” He could get out only so many words on the exhale. Three was about right, before the panic would catch his throat. Would there be air when he needed to inhale? He gasped the next sip.

“Once. This week.”

Think about something good, something with air. Air! Cool, dry, silky over the lips. Oh God, help me! I can’t! Can’t get air!

“Did it hurt?” Sip. “Anyone?” Sip.

The woman paused and thought. “I suppose it made someone mad.”

No. No, don’t go there. Not therapy. Sin.

“Anything else?” Sip. Poison air, like melted wax. Nauseous; gonna hurl. Help.

“The Seventh Commandment.”

“Yes?” He was drowning. Christ drowned. Couldn’t get air. The way they stretched His arms. There was no air, just her perfume, hair spray, awful. Panic was right there, where he could touch it. Something was coming. All he had to do was scream—but then, no air. What would happen next? It couldn’t be worse than this. Help!

“The one against stealing, Father.” She sounded exasperated to have to tell him, or that’s what she thought. It hurt his pride!

“Yes?” Could she hear him panting?

“Oh. Well, I bought some of them pirate DVDs for the kids.”

Restitution, oh Lord. How could he explain in three words? “Any good?”

“What? Good? How do you mean?”

“Good. Catholic.”

“They’re cartoons, Father.”

“But good?”

“Yeah, well, a couple, I guess.”

“Bad ones . . . in trash. Five dollars . . . good ones . . . poor basket. And.”

“Yes, Father?”

“Read to them. Books.” Sip. “And work on the gossiping.” He barely got it out. “Penance: decade rosary. Say the Act.”

“Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry . . .” the woman began the Act of Contrition.

Tim held onto her voice in the dark confessional and, trying not to think about air, said the ancient words of absolution as clearly as he could. He still said them in Latin.

When she was finished, he said, “Go in peace. Pray for me. How many waiting? Please?”

A moment later, she whispered on the other side, “No one left, Father.”

“Thank you,” he murmured, but she was gone.

Five more minutes. Just five more minutes in case somebody showed up late.

Finally, Tim opened the heavy wooden door. He took off the purple stole. He started to hang it over the door knob, but the satin was soaked with sweat, so he draped it over his shoulder. It could use an airing, and so could he. He groped his way out of the confessional.

He knelt to say goodnight to Christ present in the tabernacle. What a relief, to kneel in the open air of the old church. They had designed it for Florida, and the hot air found its way up and out through the stairway, up to the steeple and out, drawing relatively cooler air in through the windows at ground level. It was still hot, but the attack faded instantly in the wonderful sensation of flowing air.

Tim looked at the tabernacle. As he thought of the confessions he had heard that evening, he prayed for them, the straggly men and women who had knelt beside him, one by one, in that hot box: Help them to be strong against their sins, Lord. Then, he amended it: Help us.

He was too tired to pray in words. Well, that was also something to offer to God, for the world. He was so hungry he was trembling, and he smelled rank, and he had to pee. He offered all that to God, too. He offered it for his penitents tonight, like a chess move, for that’s what Saint Teresa of Avila said about prayer, it was “like playing chess with God,” she had written. He often wondered what she must have meant, since she hadn’t explained further. If God were a kind God (although that jury was still out, what with the Bible brimming with brimstone and all, the evidence pointed toward mercy), God’s next move (since Tim, on his part, had consciously and formally accepted all of his discomfort and offered them with a willing heart) would be to grant that prayer, and give the requested help for those who had come and told their sins and hoped for divine assistance in the endless struggle. Sort of like chess. Or maybe poker. (Saint Teresa didn’t say that!) Father had a sudden feeling that all that he offered was so small compared to the struggles of his penitents, even the least of them, and he cringed in shame at offering God such feeble suffering, compared to the roughneck old world as he heard of it in the confessional. It was a sad feeling. So he offered that, too, with a wry smile. What was he, God’s own personal Comedy Central?

His penitents! What a struggle, to be really sorry for their sins. All we humans ever wanted was to make excuses. Yet, the only necessary thing was to be truly sorry. Of course, it was also the hardest thing. Deceptively simple. What did the mass say, when the priest put the incense in the censor? “Help me put a wall at the door of my mouth, to not make excuses in sin.”

But, ah yes, they made excuses! Like dime-store lawyers, they were inclined to argue their cases. They stole because they were poor or thought they were poor.

They lied because the truth hurt, and they dodged it like a blow.

They gossiped because no one listened to them otherwise.

They dressed immodestly because otherwise no one looked at them, really looked at them.

They committed adultery because they were so lonely in the hell that marriage can be, if it goes bad. And it went bad so often. Because they insisted on contraception, without knowing it’s the death of love. Because they lusted in their hearts. Because they cheated. And then made excuses. All of it hands around the throat of their love.

Besides, too many men didn’t want to grow up. They secretly hated being the breadwinner, and they covered it up with sweet talk about “equality.” So women ended up doing both jobs, and the marriage died. Or the wives! Couldn’t do a nice thing for a husband if the world depended on it. Fifty-fifty, all the way, like a business!

So they argued their cases.

They always had a point. Monogamy is so delicate and so difficult. Men could really act like pigs. But women have a trick or two themselves. He’d learned a lot in the confessional. For one thing, he’d learned to appreciate celibacy!

Humans! They cheated on their taxes; they littered; they killed other human beings in public; they kicked their dogs in private. They found it really hard to stop. He could understand it. He knew them. He was one of them. “Our sins are all we have.” He’d heard a song like that once. Seems like the truth, sometimes.

Yet, God said, “Stop.” But really quietly. Because He knew.

God knew He overwhelmed men. He could make men stop sinning, but He didn’t want to. That wouldn’t be love. God tried to make up for it by invisibility, and He said “Stop” in a tiny voice, like the wind or the whisper of leaves, so faint anyone could pretend not to hear. Truly, He wanted the real love of free men and women!

The tired people at confession tonight hadn’t ignored Him. What a miracle! It moved Tim to prayer. He locked his heart on the Presence in the tabernacle and begged. Help us. He wished his heart said that to God with every beat. Help us, or the world will end. Because that was pretty much the way it was around here on Earth now: end game. Extinction.

He walked back to the rectory. The sky was rich with stars to the east, and in the west towering rain clouds still gilded from the sunset pulsed with energy, full of heat lightning. The smell of his housekeeper’s jasmine billowed all around him, but he was okay now, he could even appreciate it. His claustrophobia seemed a very mild penance compared to the problems and sacrifices of some of his parishioners—even though it had kept him at home in Florida all his life while his twin brother was already in outer space.

If you had to be somewhere on Earth, though, this was the place. Oh, sure, the cities were dangerous now; in spite of the mandatory news blackout, there were plenty of ways to find out things had gone to hell pretty fast around certain parts of the globe, including Miami and Tampa. But people in rural Florida had armed themselves long ago, and Catholics and Protestants saw their way clear to a kind of awkward cooperation around the Ten Commandments, more or less. Catholics had to stand silent about divorce and promote social justice, maybe over-promote it, to compensate for the economics they’d inherited.  Protestantism had begun with a king’s lust and greed, and protestantism still held to the lust and to the vicious economy the rebellion had produced . But they kept the peace between them, one way or another. Central Florida still had food and power, too.

The Church bureaucracy, from incompetence, left him alone to say the old mass and to do things the old ways. He thanked God for it often. He would be happy right here, except for one thing: he missed his brother, Tomás, on the new space colony, up there with the stars. Tomás was the only family Tim had left, since their parents had died. It was a constant ache, a hole in his heart; he offered it up, automatically. He missed his brother. Missed him. Missed him. Missed him. Offered it up.

He opened the screen door and entered the back porch quickly, and closed the door quickly again to keep the mosquitoes out. The rectory kitchen was as old as the church and just as thoughtfully designed for the heat. It was a separate wing from the house, with its own porch, so the cooking heat and odor dissipated. A cast-iron wood-burning stove complete with a smoke oven in the flue dominated one side of the room. An enormous window opened the sink area to a view of the sweet, slow creek below, where otters sometimes played and water lilies bloomed.

There now at the sink, his housekeeper Dovie stood firmly planted on her house slippers, washing dishes. She turned when she heard him enter. “I’ll get your supper, Father. You’ll be wanting to wash your hands.”

When he came back from the bathroom, she was standing by his chair holding his dinner plate. She would give him, as usual, a thorough examination before she put the plate on the table. If he failed any part of it, she would absentmindedly return the plate to the counter and set out to rectify whatever was amiss. He hoped he’d pass. He was starving.

“You’ve had another attack, from the looks of you,” she finally said.

“It wasn’t so bad. I got through it. But my stole could use some sunshine, okay, Dovie? I left it out. Thank you.” He seated himself and held his breath to see whether she was going to put down the plate.

She weighed his words syllable by syllable. Satisfied, she placed his dinner carefully before him, and then returned to the counter for the hot rolls, salt and pepper, and his juice. Fried chicken from their own little flock, mashed potatoes, collard greens from the rectory garden, and the juice squeezed fresh from oranges growing by the doorstep—another benefit of living in Florida, if you still lived on Earth. It was possible it would go on forever, if the crisis did not result in any kind of nuclear war or invasion, and people outside the world’s cities just might survive.

He wondered what Tomás had for supper tonight. Many things were coming online on the colony; maybe they had fried chicken and collard greens by now. Anyway, that’s what the news said, if you could believe it. He’d have to ask Tomás the next time he emailed, if it wouldn’t be too much like gloating over his own dinner and making things tougher. Different folks from around here had someone on the colony—a relative who’d been evacuated or volunteered, a friend, an old co-worker. And everyone felt sorry for the people on the colony—to be living with only the thinnest layer of air and a micrometer membrane between you and a very dark, very large solar system, and besides that, war at home, and no fresh food and possible terrorist destruction. Just hung out there like a big target at a shooting range. From what Tomás had told him about black-market activity, clearly security was imperfect. Things, and even living people concealing themselves by various devices, had gotten through. Once they got there, no one on the colony wanted to turn them away. Labor was hard to get!

Dovie interrupted his thoughts. “Well, Father, we’ve had a crank phone call.” She had a slip of paper in her hands.

“How is that, Dovie?”

She handed him the slip of paper, and he peered at it while he took a bite of mashed potatoes.

“It’s long-distance,” he observed. And not even normal long distance; there were too many numbers.

“Well, listen to this, Father: It’s worse than long-distance. He said it’s Rome!”

Father Timothy and Dovie locked eyes for a moment. Rome! She might as well have said the moon.

“But it has to be fake, Father,” Dovie said. “Look at the name. Isn’t that the Vatican Secretary of State?”

“It is, Dovie,” Father Timothy said. “It is, indeed.”

He finished his supper, though, before he punched the numbers into the rectory phone. The call went through, not even through a switchboard, but straight to the renowned Cardinal and Vatican Secretary of State, who answered it personally and even sleepily, as if it were his private line. Only then did Tim realize how late it was in Rome.

“This is Father Timoteo Monaghan. From Saint Anne’s? In Melbourne, Florida?” he ran on, as His Eminence said nothing. “You called here and left a message? The message said it was urgent. I realize it’s very late there. Or maybe there was some kind of practical joke; if so, please excuse me. Do you speak English? I’m sorry,” he finally wound up as the voice said nothing.

There was a heavy sigh on the other end of the line. “No, it is not a joke, Father Monaghan,” the voice said in perfect English. “I’ve been waiting for your call. You are the brother of Tomás Monaghan, yes? The astronaut? The space pilot?”

“Tomás? He’s alright, isn’t he? He’s on the colony. Has something happened?”

“No, nothing has happened to Tomás Monaghan; at least we have heard nothing like that,” the heavily accented voice continued. “No, it is simply that Catholics on the colony must have a pastor, and we are thinking we have been tardy in recognizing that need. But no more. You, Timoteo Monaghan, are about to be a bishop.”

His Eminence paused to let his words sink in. Then, he continued. “You must come to Rome tomorrow. You must be consecrated, and—”

“Bishop of what?” Timothy said, realizing how dumb he sounded. But he was stalling for time, trying to think of what to say.

“—And then you will join Tomás.” The cardinal finished his thought before answering Tim. “You will be bishop of . . . of everything that is not Earth. You will be Bishop of the Universe. I suppose that is how we shall have to put it.” He chuckled dryly. “Or bishop of at least as far as our galaxy.”

The cardinal sighed. “We have been slow to understand.” He sounded regretful and sad. “I think we are beginning to see the whole picture, now, though,” he said, a little more cheerfully. “So you are to be the first and perhaps the only, for now, bishop in space. But someday you will consecrate other priests and other bishops.”

Tim held his breath as the cardinal paused for a moment. Lowering his voice, he continued, “There are many things we will discuss when you arrive. Let me just say, there have been some developments. I cannot discuss it presently. But please let me say that the situation is–developing, and urgent.”

It had, of course, occurred to Tim earlier, when Tomás left Earth, that this was coming for the Church. The Church would have to act, for Tomás was Catholic and there were other Catholics among the evacuated, and that meant eventually there had to be priests. He had thought they’d come and go from Earth, of course. Visiting. Rotate in and out or something. Not that different from mission assignments to remote locations on Earth. For those who could fly, of course. Never for him, personally. But it had to happen. Even with all the changes in the Church, priests were still a necessity for Catholics. But he was not the one, in spite of how well it must line up to others, with his brother already being on the colony and everything.

He started to frame his objection, scrambling for a delicate way to put his problem, when the cardinal continued briskly, “And so you must come to Rome, and then you will be evacuated. We will talk about that at more length later.”

“But I can’t!” Timothy blurted. “I can’t!”

“Of course,” His Eminence said. “Of course, you must have time to think. This is very sudden for you. It is true that you will give up many things, and even the saints had time to consider that.” His voice grew gentler. “But we don’t have time, Father Timoteo. That’s the problem. That’s why I’m calling you, not the Papal Nuncio. That’s why there’s no fine letter on linen, in Latin. Nothing is normal. Our civilization is dying, Father Monaghan. And our Church, our Holy Mother Church, is wounded. There is a new development.” The fine, confident, richly masculine European voice faltered for a moment, and then regained strength. “But the Church is not dead, much as they wish it. Listen: the shuttle leaves in five days. There must be a bishop on it, traveling incognito.”

He stopped then and waited for the young priest’s inevitable question about that last part, the incognito part. But that question didn’t come.

“No, I mean I can’t come to Rome.” Father hesitated for only a fraction of a second before he lied. “I can’t fly. I—I have an ear infection. I’m taking antibiotics. The doctor was very clear.” He bit the inside of his cheek and felt terrible. Lying! And for what? He had to tell them!

He was only putting off the inevitable. What did he think, that there’d be some kind of miracle down the road? He was not, no way, ever going to get on a shuttle and fly to the space colony. It would never, ever happen. Not even for Tomás. Certainly not to be a bishop! Why had he lied in the first place and led the cardinal to believe anything otherwise?

His Eminence hesitated only a moment and seemed relieved. “All right, then, Father Monaghan. No problem. Can you arrange local accommodations for, let’s see, myself and three other cardinals? We’ll bring everything we need. And call your bishop and let him know I’ll be in touch. He must attend. If you cannot come to Rome tomorrow, Rome shall come to you.” Before Tim could say anything, the connection terminated.