On the evening of Saturday 26th May 2018, Fr Jim Doran knew that the beginning of the end had finally come.
At sixty-eight, and the survivor of surgery and radiotherapy for prostate cancer in recent years, Fr Doran felt weary. It had been a busy week for him. On Monday, Fr Ikele had gone home to Nigeria for a month’s holidays, leaving Fr Doran as the only priest in the parish. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he had funerals. Wednesday night had been taken up with a meeting of the fundraising committee for the renovation of the church roof. He had left the meeting in a state of exhaustion after it had dragged on for over two hours. He had also said a special evening mass on the Thursday, the eve of the referendum.
Fr Doran had eaten poorly all week, mainly ready prepared meals from the freezer, that he microwaved. Marie, the housekeeper, had cut back her hours to two mornings a week and there was no one else available to come in.
He had put off going back to his GP with the pain in his hip. “It’s probably nothing,” he said to himself. Deep down he was less certain. He knew that the cancer could come back at any time, and anywhere. When Fr Ikele returned, he would phone the GP’s surgery for an appointment. Fr Doran never prayed for himself. Although he blessed the sick and anointed the dying, he thought it unfair to use his position to look for special consideration, when others needed it more.
Before leaving the presbytery to walk the short distance to the church to hear Saturday evening confessions, Fr Doran had seen the results of the referendum on Sky News. The people had voted overwhelmingly to change the constitution to allow for the introduction of liberal abortion laws. Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, looking happy and casual in his shirt sleeves, said to the reporters that it was a great day for women, and for Ireland. On another TV channel, a woman wearing a Yes badge, said that “Catholic Ireland is dead and gone.” A commentator in New York said the shock waves of the referendum were being felt all around the world. A nun, who had worked in Africa, said that the Ireland that Pope Francis would visit in August for the World Meeting of Families would be a very different country to the one than Pope John Paul II visited back in 1979. Everything had changed in a day.
On the lampposts outside the church, poster images of women and fetuses no longer fought for the attention of voters. The debate, which had started back in 1983, was over. There was no going back. Fr Ikele had been right all along. He had said “No one understands us. We are still speaking Latin.”
There was no one in the church waiting for confession when Fr Doran arrived. At a stand at the back of the church, he stopped to arrange the leaflets for the Saturday vigil mass. He would leave the pro-life referendum literature on the stand for the time being. There was no point rubbing salt in the wounds of his parishioners, many of whom had volunteered to campaign for a No vote.
Fr Doran used Sellotape to stick up a notice for the parish’s annual pilgrimage to Knock. Then he unstuck the notice from the pillar and repositioned it again. He needed it to be seen. The number of pilgrims from the parish had fallen over the years. They were mainly pensioners now. Fr Doran looked forward to leading the pilgrimage each year – traditionally held on the last Sunday in September. He had great devotion to Our Lady of Knock. Although rumour had it that the Pope would visit Knock in August, Fr Doran felt he would be lost if he went, in the razzmatazz of the global media event. It would also be too much for many of his older parishioners. Last year, when he led the parish pilgrimage to Knock, he had to hire an agency nurse to come on the bus with them to look after those who were frail. He had already booked the same person again for this September. Although he tried not to dwell on it, Fr Doran felt increasingly removed from what was happening in Rome. He told Fr Ikele he felt like a centurion posted in some distant outpost of the Roman empire – just before it fell. The fact that the Emperor was coming through on a whistle-stop tour, wouldn’t stop the inevitable. The world he knew was coming to an end; he didn’t belong in the new one.
After emptying the donations box and saying a short prayer at the statue of St Teresa of Lisieux, Fr Doran limped stiffly down the side aisle to the 6th Station of the Cross. A large garish painting of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus hung over the confession box he had occupied since his arrival as parish priest fifteen years ago. Veronica’s face always reminded him of Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story.
After making himself as comfortable as he could with a cushion wedged under his bad hip, he pulled the grille shutters closed on either side of him and switched off the low wattage bulb. It was pitch black. He thought it was like being in a coffin, six foot under.
“All confession boxes smell of blood, sweat and tears, boys,” his old professor of moral theology used say. Beneath the aerosol fragrance of lavender, he could detect the familiar rancid smell of stale bodily fluids. It was like the smell of decay.
Fr Doran opened the button of his roman collar and leaned back against the wooden panelling. He took his rosary beads out of the inside pocket of his jacket and said a decade of The Sorrowful Mysteries under his breath. He still took great comfort in the worn feel of the beads and the faint clicking sound the chain and beads made as they passed between his finger and thumb.
He checked his iPhone. He had been there for almost an hour. No one had come. He could hear no one outside. He took a swig from the bottle of mineral water he had brought with him. The carbonated water was flat and lukewarm, and made him feel nauseated. He was uncomfortably hot. After struggling to release an arm that was caught in a sleeve, he eventually managed to take off his jacket. He was now in a lather of sweat. He could feel the pulsation of the blood vessels under the skin of his temples. His heart was pounding. The darkness was overpowering him. He began to hear voices. They were from the past. Voices of women. They had come back. Had he not answered them? Had he not done the best that he could? He wouldtry to remember the old answers again.
“Can I go on the pill, Father?”
“Why can’t we use condoms, Father?”
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid.
“Why can’t you get me an annulment, Father?”
“What’s the Billings method, Father?”
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
“Why can’t I go to communion if I’m divorced, Father?”
“Why can’t you forgive me for having an abortion, Father? Even God must know I had no way out of it.”
O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
“I can’t be pregnant, Father. Can you help me, Father?”
“Why is God so cruel, Father?”
Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done onto me according to thy word.
“Why did our blessed mother let that young girl die in childbirth in the grotto, Father? Right in front of her very own eyes, Father. Without as much as lifting a finger to save her. I don’t understand that, Father. I don’t. Can you explain that to me, Father?”
Hail Holy Queen, mother of mercy, hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To these do we cry poor banished children of eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, morning and evening in this valley of tears.
“Father, I have to leave him. He beat me up, Father.”
“Father, I was raped, and I think I’m pregnant.”
“Father, if there were women priests, they’d understand.”
O clement O loving O sweet Virgin Mary, pray for us O Holy Mother of God that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
“Father, I couldn’t have a baby and give it up for adoption. I couldn’t do it. And I can’t have the baby. They’d throw me out. Father, do you not see I’m desperate?”
The Angel of the Lord declared onto Mary, and she conceived of the Holy Spirit.
“Father, I’m a good woman – despite what you might think.”
“Father, do you know anyone in England who could put me up?”
Hail Queen of heaven, the ocean star, guide of the wanderer here below. Thrown on life’s surge we claim thy care. Save us from peril and from woe.
“Father, can you help me find where the baby I gave up for adoption is?”
“Father, why did the Church turn its back on us?”
And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
“Father, can you help me find my mother who gave me up?”
“Father, is it a sin to have my tubes tied when I’m having the Caesarean section?”
Virgin most pure. Star of the sea. Pray for the sinner. Pray for me.
“Father, is it a sin to have IVF? We desperately want to have a baby.”
“Father, I have HIV. I need to use a condom.”
Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord thy grace into our hearts that we
To whom the incarnation of Christ your son was made known by the message of an angel
May by his passion and cross be brought to the glory of his resurrection
Through the same Christ, our Lord, Amen.
“Father, put yourself in my shoes!”
O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy. Amen.
“Is everything OK Father?” Fr Doran opened his eyes. The sacristan was looking down on him. He had fallen asleep. He checked his iPhone. He had mass at half-six. It was now five past. There was just a handful of parishioners in the church. He hoped no one had come looking for confession. The sacristan helped him out of the confession box. He would have time to clean up in the sacristy before mass. He had only a few words to say as a homily. He was not in the mood for preaching. The voices were still ringing in his ears. They had come back. He knew they would. He had been waiting for them. He needed new answers. The old answers would not do. He would talk to Fr Ikele when he got back from Nigeria. He might have some answers, although he doubted it. He would also go to his GP and write to the bishop about retiring. And as for the pilgrimage to Knock in September, it would be the last one that he would lead.