Smoking Priests

Castel Gandolfo da Cancelliera - Albano L.Photo Credit: Deblu68 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On February 28, Pope Benedict XVI turned in his pointy red shoes. (Rumors that he wore Prada were, alas, just rumors.) I’m betting they’ll be much more comfortable, too. His destination is Castel Gandolfo, a sprawling estate with landscaped gardens, museums and lakes that was once home to Roman Emperor Domitian. While the Pope and I disagree on many things, I do wish him godspeed and hope he’s packed a Garmin. I wouldn’t want him to get lost exploring the 400,000 + square footage of his new home. After all, sans ruby slippers, it will be hard for him to click his heels and repeat three times, “There’s no place like home.”

With the Pope’s resignation, it got me thinking about my eight years of Catholic schooling.

I’m what my mother likes to call a recovering Catholic: I have fond memories of certain things relating to my Irish Catholic upbringing, but now that I’m over it, I’d rather not return. (Writing this blog is a way for me to become, someday soon, a recovering smoker.)

One such fond memory was my interactions with Father T., a gentle man with a large, hush puppy face whose wrinkles unfolded like an accordion when he smiled. He often said mass each day before classes began, so after my parents divorced, I saw him more frequently than my biological father.

Fr. T. didn’t live in the rectory. That was for Father M. and his housekeeper, B., who moved from parish to parish with him. It seemed Fr. M. was particular about the way his knickknacks were touched. Fr. T. lived in a one-bedroom, second-floor apartment across from the hospital. While we were studying to become brides of Christ at the age of nine, Father T. would invite a few of my school chums and me over for cookies and milk. His living room was gloomy: a square dining table covered with a yellowed vinyl tablecloth (the kind that was fuzzy on the underside), two folding chairs, a brown sofa, and a coffee table. We would squish ourselves onto the scratchy sofa, our legs dangling three inches from the peeling linoleum floor, and watch Fr. T. duck his head under the doorframe as he disappeared into the kitchen to prepare our afternoon snack. He would ask us about our teachers. Our homework. Our parents. We asked him if he liked being a priest. He always answered yes, but with a sadness on his breath.

During recess one day, the dodgeball rolled down the flagstone walkway separating the church from the hospital. I ran after it, making sure not to step on any cracks. (I was Irish and superstitious.) At the end of the lane, I saw a towering figure in frocks bend over and grasp the ball with one hand.

“Are you looking for this, my Child?” Fr. T. asked, offering me the red rubber ball.

I ran up to him, panting.

“Yes, Father! Thank you, Father!”

I took the ball and was ready to turn back to my teammates, when I spotted a thin line of smoke snaking its way toward me from behind his back.

I recognized the smell. It wrapped around my grandparents whenever they held a cigarette.

Fr. T. smokes?

It was as if I had been hit with the dodgeball right in the belly, my breath knocked out.

Fr. T. administered to the dying in the hospital. He could read pain. Read disbelief. He could read me.

“I’m sorry you have seen me with this vice of the devil.” He placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it.

My mouth hung open. I could taste the smoke stinging my tastebuds.

“Priests smoke? You… smoke, Father?” I managed to squeak.

“Yes, Lisa Ann. Even priests are sinners. Just like you, I am not without Original Sin.”

And with that, Fr. T. dropped the cigarette, squished it onto the lichen-covered paver with his very plain, very cracked black shoe, and said, “I’ve been needing a good reason to quit for sometime. Thank you, my Child.” He squeezed my shoulder one last time and walked toward the hospital where death awaited his parishioners.

Lisa's First Communion

 

© 2013 Lisa Rainwater