"Another cruel twist of fate…"
In the middle of town stood the Holy Comforter Cathedral - the heart and soul of the community's faithful. The tall, center spire shot proudly into the sky, a lasting tribute to the craftsmanship of a bygone era. Built in the mid-eighteenth century, the Cathedralserved asthe spiritual bedrock for many generations of believers, both in good times and in bad. Nowadays, the Cathedral not only offeredspiritual guidance, but it was also the hubof many social outreach programsin the community. The man behind it all was Father Wayne Pride.
Father Pride had been the parish priest at Holy Comforter for many years. His bright smile, sharp wit and unassuming manner instantly put those around him at ease. He was quick with a helping hand or a listening ear. And though advanced in years, he was still full of vim and vigor. Tall, with broad shoulders and a muscular frame, his deep-set blue eyes, silver-hair and chiseled features made him as handsome now as he ever was. Needless to say,female parishioners were often eager to volunteer their time helping out aroundthe church. But those who expected carnal favors in return for theirservice always walked away dissatisfied.
As Father Pride approached the altar to begin the morning Mass on this balmy Friday, his thoughts were unusually distracted. It had been over a week since he had heard from his niece, Joanne, and it was unlike her not to call. In fact, ever since her divorce six months ago, she had called him almost daily. After all, he was the only family she had left since the tragic death of her biological parents when she was just a little girl, leaving a reluctant Father Pride to raise his only brother's only child. This is not to say, of course, that Father Pridedid not love his niece as though she were his own child. On the contrary, he had taken tremendousdelight in watchingthe young girlblossom from a playful, bouncing mass of curls and pigtails into a beautiful, graceful and refined young woman. She had a fairly decent childhood, under the circumstances. She attended good schools, performed well academically and was an avid soccer player. She also had a ton of friends. And though not a wealthy man, Father Pride made sure she never lacked the things she needed.
After high school, Joanne was awarded a scholarship to attend the State University. Four years later, she received her degree in business and immediately went to work for an advertising agency in the city. Despite her busy schedule, however, she still managed to volunteer at the church on weekends. It was during this time that she met Brad Tunney, the man who was to be her future husband. Brad was a single father who had enrolled his son in the church's youth basketball program. He and Joanne hit it off right away and in no time, it seemed, they were engaged to be married. Father Pride, who had grown quite fond of Brad, could not have been more thrilled. All he wantedwas for his niece to be happy and Brad made her light up in way Father Pride had never seen before. At last, he thought, his prayers for her had been answered.
They had their first child, Rose, within a year of being married and their second, Jonathan, two years after that. The happy couple then spent the next ten years building a successful, albeit somewhat sterile, household. Early on, the two were inseparable. Seeing one meant you saw the other. Over time, however,the demands of child rearing and Brad's career began taking its toll on the relationship. Things finally came to a head when Joanne, suspicious of her husband'ssharp increase in 'business' trips,discovered that Brad was a having an affair. Within six months of that discovery, he moved outto bewith his mistress, leaving Joanne to raise their two kids by herself. She was devastated.
Of course, Father Pride's heart ached over the news as well.He could not bear to see his niece in such pitiful shape. Not wanting to see the children suffer on account of the divorce, however, Father Pride had initially encouraged the couple's to try and reconcile. Brad, however, remained obstinate, showing no inclination of leaving his mistress. And though a man of the cloth, on more than one occasion it took every ounce of faith Father Pride had in himto keep from going to blows with Brad over the matter. Father Pride felt as betrayed and as hurt as his niece. He realized that Brad was not coming back and so relegated himself to once more being the rock and support of Joanne's world.Looking up at the congregants assembled in front of him, he cast his thoughts aside and commenced with the opening prayer, his faith in God assuring him that everything was okay with his niece and there was bound to be some rational explanation as to why she had not yet called. Still,he could not fully shake that little nagging feeling.
Stepping out of his brown sedan, O'Leary gazed at the old Cathedral a moment before heading inside. Memories from a lifetime ago suddenly washed over him. He had not entered through the blessed archways since his mother died. He recalled the days of her dragging him there every Sunday as a boy. How he did hate being forced to go and sit through Mass each week. He would much rather have been out playing football or frolicking in the woods with his buddies. Looking back through the lens of experience, however, he had to admit that there were worst things that could have been forced upon him. Still, life was much simpler then and a part of him that yearned for those days. Of course, this realization made the reason for today's visit all the more unfortunate.
Immense by comparison to any modern structure, O'Leary had forgotten how remarkable the Cathedral's outer doors were -- relics of an age long since gone by. Hewn from solid oak, the doors had fine brass handlery and iron hinges that were Medieval in their design, fashioned after a time when the doors of the church had to be impenetrable against intruders and ransackers. They were a testament to the time, effort and resources that the forbearers dedicated to building houses of worship.
The doors swung open silently as O'Leary entered the main foyer. Rows of tiny red candle jars lined the walls, their flickering lights denoting the prayers of the faithful. The smell of burning incense filled the air as O'Leary passed through the hall to the sanctuary beyond. It reminded him of a time when he had a different faith. How things had changed since then, he thought to himself, as he prepared to deliver the grim news.
Standing in the back of the main sanctuary, O'Leary observed the morning Mass was nearly finished. He instinctively removed his dark brown fedora and took a seat in the rear pew He was surprised at how few people were in attendance. Father Pride stood at the pulpit, clothed in the usual priestly vestment. With a smiling face and outstretched hand, he delivered the last lines of his sermon which, ironically, was about forgiveness.
As Father Pride's homily drew to a close, O'Leary's mind drifted to thoughts about Joanne Tunney and the beautiful child he remembered her as. How she used to follow Father Pride around constantly like a puppy, watching every move he made as though she feared he would leave her the moment she turned her back. He was her safety blanket, her refuge, her safe place. After all, she had been traumatized by the loss of her parents at a very young age and so Father Pride was the closest thing to father she ever had.
And that was not all that suffered. In yet another cruel twist of fate in the life of child already scarred by tragedy, she became the victim of her eighth grade science teacher's predilection for young adolescent girls. O'Leary remembered the facts of that particular case because he was the arresting officer. Her teacher had been giving her after school 'tutoring' sessions for almost six months before it came to light. As often happens in abuse cases, the victims often do not come forward right away on account of the shame they feel. Her two suicide attempts later that year merely served to underscore the deleterious effects of that monster's heinous acts.
Why is it that one person can be made to suffer so much while another seemingly glides through life without a care or concern? Was there any justice in a world where such things occur? Could there be? O'Leary typically did not like to ponder such questions, but they sometimes rose to the surface. Still, the deeper questions beneath it all, the 'whys' and 'wherefores', were the province of minds better able, and interested, in figuring such things out. His job was simply to catch those responsible and, hopefully, bring them to justice. As Father Pride's sermon was ending, O'Leary pushed his thoughts aside. Maybe there were no answers:
"In conclusion, brothers and sisters, let us be reminded that forgiveness is a part of the God's perfect plan for us. It is as much a benefit to ourselves as it is a demonstration of His perfect mercy and justice to those that we forgive. It is never easy, yet always necessary. Never desirable, yet it is satisfying to our souls. In the end, it is a fundamental part of what makes us human, separating us from the beasts of the earth. It allows us to look beyond the anguish and pain of today and towards a brighter future where such sorrows will be no more."
Coming down from behind the dais with outstretched arms and a broad smile, Father Pride implored his audience, "I beseech you, brothers and sisters, go now and practice your faith. May God be with you. Amen."
"Amen." echoed the congregation.
O'Leary was transfixed. It had been years since he heard one of Father Pride's sermons. Years since he had heard the word 'forgiveness' outside of a counseling session. Could there be any value or purpose in it? What about all the monsters and ghouls who never showed mercy to their victims? Why should they be deserving of any? And now he was about to tell one of the most kind-hearted people he knew that the most precious and important person in his life had died. Dead at the hands of a vicious and sadistic predator. How could there be anything remotely akin to justice in this scheme of things?
As the organist played the recessional, the parishioners rose to leave. That's when Father Pride noticed the tall, ruddy-complexioned, detective standing in back. Smile pleasantly he motioned to O'Leary to come forward.
"Detective O'Leary! What a pleasant surprise!"
The two men exchanged smiles and embraced.
"Hello, Father. It's been a while, I know." O'Leary said sheepishly.
"Yes indeed, detective! And when was your last confession?" Father Pride with mock sternness, though his tone was poignant.
"I'm ashamed to say, Father. I honestly can't remember." Feeling as if he were back in grade school, O'Leary suddenly found himself looking down at his own shoes.
Clapping his hand on O'Leary's shoulder, Father Pride said, "No need to feel ashamed, detective. You will come when you're ready. And so, let me ask, what brings you here today?"
Looking sharply at Father Pride, one-eye narrowing as his expression hardened, O'Leary asked, "Is there somewhere we can talk in private, Father."
"Certainly, detective." Father Pride placed his arm around O'Leary's shoulders and the two started towards his private chambers, "Right this way."