The Good Catholic

A Short Story by Kyle Taylor

Timothy was not a good Catholic, but despite this, the parish priest still cradled the phone and prepared to visit the hospital after the call came.  Father Brennan kept turning the idea of a good Catholic over in his mind, trying to stretch the idea in some direction that might apply to the man he was preparing to see.  The thoughts returned to the same conclusion each time; the seven miles between the rectory and the hospital, forty-five miles per hour and one traffic light, all but confirmed the first thought: Timothy was not a good Catholic.  However, he thought, that was not reason enough to not offer the last rites to Timothy.

When Father Brennan entered the hospital room, he found a body waiting to die.  Timothy’s eyes were closed, and his chest rose and fell as if any one would be the last.  The priest was not surprised to find the man alone; a family member or friend’s presence here, for him, would have been surprising.  The people normally in a room such as this one would be Father Brennan’s first destination.  There is always the requisite hand-holding and comforting sentiments.  Often, the recipient of his effort forces a slight smile and thanks the priest for arriving so quickly.  Father Brennan had always felt the need to respond immediately to calls placed from hospitals.  Be it births, pre-op work ups, long waits for test results, settings of broken bones, alcohol poisoning, or impending or immediate deaths, Father Brennan usually took no more than fourteen minutes between hanging up the phone and arriving at someone’s hospital room door.  Every so often, the traffic light would catch him or the elevator was full, pushing his response time closer to sixteen minutes, but no one but him could ever tell the difference.  To the overjoyed, overwhelmed, or overwrought, he seemed to appear mere moments after he was summoned.  That alone brought a measure of comfort to most.

Timothy was different.  There was no one in the room.  Father Brennan did not have the comfort of his routine.  After the greetings with family members or friends, he would go straight to work preparing the sacrament.  He always stood on the right side of the bed-ridden congregant, even if there was no room between the bed and the wall or respirator or IV tree.  Small details such as these were unconscious decisions made decades ago that were now merely habits no one had ever noticed or thought to question, not even Father Brennan himself.

So, Father Brennan just stood at the hospital room door.  The threshold seemed an invisible barrier through which he was unsure he would be able to pass.  He leaned forward, hoping the momentum into the room from fear of losing his balance would motivate his right foot to move ahead, followed then by his left.  He was successful, but he could almost feel a physical obstruction as his shoulders cleared the door frame.  His steps toward the right side of Timothy’s bed were measured and slow.  he glanced to the wall in hopes that a previously unseen family member, friend, or an anonymous visitor would appear.  Perhaps, he imagined, someone with a bouquet of flowers destined for another would mistakenly enter the room but would remain for a few moments out of polite embarrassment.  These thoughts were interrupted by the tops of this thighs bumping into the bedside.  There were no more steps to take.  The right side of the bed has arrived.  Father Brennan looked down at Timothy, whose eyes remained closed.

“Timothy, can you hear me?”

There was no outward sign that Timothy had heard the greeting or was even aware of Father Brennan’s presence.  He did not move at all.

“Timothy?”

Nothing.

“Timothy, it’s Father Brennan.  I’ve come to pray for you.  Are you ready?”

Nothing.

A small measure of comfort fell over Father Brennan as he imagined the unconscious Timothy’s positive response:

“Yes, Father; I’m ready.”

Father Brennan went to work.  The familiar words, which he would have said in the same manner regardless of the people in or out of the room, brought him complete ease.  It always amazed him how effortlessly they moved from the book to his lips and into the air:

By the Sacred mysteries of man’s redemption may almighty God remit to you all penalities of the present life and of the life to come: may He open to you the gates of paradise and lead you to joys everlasting.

Timothy, now twelve years old, ran through the parish graveyard without regard for the resting dead.  His shouts broke the air and left the parish priest, having given up the chase, a puffing, sweaty heap of crumpled vestments, slumped on the bench near the cemetery gate.  The young man had slipped past the priest’s attempt to prevent his escape from the classroom.  How, the wild squeals of victorious joy filled the cemetery.  What young Timothy would do with the new freedom was not his concern; the escape was the goal.  The priest only gave chase down the hall and out to the graveyard entrance.  After two laps around the old section of the cemetery and upon the realization that the pursuit was over, Timothy stopped running and fell silent.  He waited, looking in the priest’s direction.  The priest did not leave his bench; he only looked back at Timothy.  After some minutes of calm and the seeming shared resolution not to continue, Timothy walked to the priest, helped him to his feet, and quietly returned to the classroom without further disturbance.

The memory brought a slight smile to Father Brennan’s face.  The incident was the first of many rebellions against the church.  Later, Father Brennan remembered, Timothy would burn a hymnal in the acolyte’s room before graduating to tossing cigarette butts in the baptismal font.  Timothy’s behavior was insufferably disrespectful to the entire community, but it was tolerated only because Timothy was alone in the world.  Orphaned at age ten and having no other relatives, Timothy was cared for by the community and church members.  He lived the first two years with a young family in town, though he was collectively cared for by the entire community.  However, as he aged, the family no longer had the patience to keep him.  He moved into the church’s care until he was eighteen.  After that, he was gone.

By the Faculty which the Apostolic See has given me, I grant you a plenary indulgence for the remission of all your sins, and I bless you.

Father Brennan looked up from the prayer book.  He knew the rest by heart:

In the Name of the Father . . .

There was no father; there was no mother.  Timothy had been alone for so long, and he was alone now as well.

. . . and the Son . . .

There was no son; there was no wife; there was no family at all.  When his parents died, Timothy avoided people when he could.  He held no desire for companionship.  He lived the rest of his life in isolation, even when he was among other people.  He left the small town at age eighteen, pursued an education, and cultivated a vocation.  His work allowed him plenty of time alone, though he was weekly required to interact with others.  The interaction followed a prescribed script more or less, much like a sales procedure, so he did not have to put all of his energy in to that time.  The others responded well enough, though he really was a part of the scenery in most of their lives.  He moved in and out of others’ lives on cue; he did not hold a place there long.  He really didn’t believe what he told them most of the time, but as long as they seemed to believe him, then it was fine.  His career was predictable and boring, what really amounted to emptiness whenever Timothy stopped to reflect, which was not often.  The routine and repetition staved off those quiet reflections often enough that they never got much in the way.

Until now.  Now, in that lonely hospital room behind those closed eyes, Timothy had nothing but silence and time to reflect.

. . . and the Holy Spirit  . . .

Father Brennan made the sign of the cross, cutting the air with the delicate fluidity of an experienced hand.  His eyes opened; the room was still empty, and no one was there to witness the last rites.

A struggling voice rose from the hospital bed:

. . . Amen.

Father Timothy Brennan died alone after having administered his own last rites.  He had left the town of his youth, become a priest, followed a half-hearted path of piety, tended his flock despite his own doubts, and had retired to a life of solitude and confusion until he was very old.  He had many years ago decided himself not a good Catholic.  Thus, he arrived at the hospital without his driver’s license or his collar.  No one recognized him until after he was gone.  It was the young priest, the replacement of Father Brennan’s replacement, who noticed the old face bore a striking resemblance to a portrait that hung in the church’s vestibule after he had received the nurse’s call and had driven the same seven miles Father Brennan had once travelled. 

It took the young priest thirty-five minutes to arrive at the hospital.