The stranger came for the first time to Mass on Tuesday, along with the few elderly women from the village of Las Barrancas who daily attended the almost empty church. He sat alone up in the rickety wooden balcon that hadn't been used for years. There was something disturbing about him, Father Gabriel thought, the way the man stared at him during the celebration. Perhaps he was just a traveler who had stopped for a time in the village. Yet little happened in his small parish of Santa Rosa de Lima that the priest didn't know about. And if the stranger had not come to visit one of the families, why was he here and where could he be staying? The closest motel was in San Benito, forty miles away.
He was there in the balcon for Mass all week, and now again Sunday when more of the pews near the front of the church were occupied. The same daily women sat there, but now accompanied by a handful of elderly men—the husbands whose wives insisted that at least on Sundays they come to celebrate the Lord's feast. There were a few young families with little children, and six teenagers Father Gabriel had guided through confirmation studies over the past three years. The priest knew he probably could not keep the youngsters in his small flock for long. Drugs were in the valley now and at the dances on Saturday nights in San Benito. The outside teenage world would soon catch up with them, and he would lose them as he had lost their older brothers and sisters over the years.
For the past five days the stranger had not come down the narrow wooden steps of the balcon to join the women at Communion. He had sat up there, unmoving, his eyes watching Father Gabriel as the priest offered the Body of Christ to the raised, cupped hands of the bowed worshipers. But this morning, after the break in the Mass for the collection, the man descended the steps and took a seat behind the women.
Father Gabriel knew the little church could not survive another year, maybe only a few more months, before the bishop would summon him to say that it could no longer be maintained. The diocese had helped out since the beginning of the year, but Gabriel knew he couldn't count on that continuing.
And then what—where would he go? Probably the bishop would suggest that he go to the retirement home for elderly clergy in the state capital. Elderly...he was sixty-two. I am not elderly, Gabriel said to himself angrily. He had the strong feeling that the bishop disliked him, that he would make no effort to relocate him.
Father Gabriel had been a servant of Christ for almost thirty years, the last fifteen in the village of Las Barrancas. He knew the secrets of every life, of those who sat in the pews before him and of the others, too, who avoided him and refused any longer to come to Mass. It wasn't fair...they had no idea of the sacrifice he made for them.
These thoughts played through Father Gabriel's mind as he stood before the altar, raising the paten of wafers to the congregation and speaking the sacred words that were written indelibly in his mind. Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made... He lowered the paten to the altar and picked up the silver chalice, raising it high above him. Blessed are you, Lord God of all Creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. Gabriel set down the chalice and turned to dip his hands into a bowl of water on a small side table. As he dried his hands on the clean linen towel laid for him by one of the dailies, he prayed silently: Lord wash away my iniquities, cleanse me of my sins.
The priest continued with the ritual, the statements to the congregation and their memorized responses in answer to him. For the few minutes that Gabriel stood before the altar of this—his—little church, smelling the wax of the burning candles mixed with the musky odor of the wildflowers with which the women adorned the sanctuary, he never ceased to feel a heady ecstasy, a profound purity of his body, of his breath, of his senses.
Pray my brothers and sisters that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God... Sacrifice. Christ's sacrifice. His sacrifice. He put a wafer in his mouth and took a swallow from the wine he had just consecrated. Then he called one of the women to stand by him to offer the chalice. While he waited for the people to approach, he looked down at the two baskets of offerings the two old servers had laid at the altar steps. The collection... Why do they bother? There is scarcely enough money in the village for food and stove wood let alone money to maintain this old church. He could estimate the total of the few bills and coins in the baskets from where he stood.
The Body of Christ. Gabriel gently laid the disk of dry wafer into the cupped hands of Amelia Garcia, the woman who presented the Lord with a freshly laundered altar cloth each Sunday. Amelia bowed and crossed herself, as her husband, Jacobo, moved forward and reached out his hands to the priest. The Body of Christ. Jacobo was the mayordomo of the church building. He came every Saturday afternoon to sweep and dust the pews. Amelia's devotion was profound; she was one of the elderly dailies who greeted Gabriel every morning as he entered the sanctuary. Jacobo, on the other hand, seldom spoke to him, seemed to avoid him, and clearly had taken on his sweeping responsibilities at the behest of his wife. The Body of Christ. The Body of Christ. The Body of Christ. One by one they came to him, holding their hands up to receive the Host. The Body of... The stranger from the balcon had joined the end of the Communion line and now was the last at the altar. Gabriel stared into eyes that seemed to bore into him. The man opened his mouth to the priest. Shocked, without finishing the blessing, the priest shoved the wafer onto the man's tongue and turned away. Returning to the altar, he hurried through the ritual cleaning, and moved to his chair to sit down. The people were finishing their private prayers, some kneeling, some sitting. Gabriel looked away from the congregation, clenching his teeth in anger. Who is that man? Only rarely in these days did someone approach a priest expecting the Host to be put directly into his mouth. What does he mean by this?
A couple of minutes passed as the church became quiet. Gabriel took hold of himself and rose from his chair, moving to the front of the altar. He looked out at the congregation, feeling their eyes on him, feeling the other's eyes on him. May almighty God bless you—he raised his arm to make the sign of the cross—the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Mass is ended. Go in peace. He heard the murmured responses, some in English, some in Spanish: Thanks be to God—Demos gracias a Dios. While the parishioners filed out of the church, Father Gabriel turned and disappeared through the door to the little sacristy off the sanctuary.
As was customary after Sunday Mass, the people gathered for donuts and coffee at the parish hall across the road from the church. Usually Gabriel joined them, but this day he made his apologies and walked quickly to his home in the small rectory to the side of the church. Entering, he went into the kitchen and heated a cup of the morning's leftover coffee in the microwave. When the bell dinged, he took the cup and sat down in the heavy stuffed chair that he used for reading. He picked up the book he had left open on the side table the evening before. It was an Inspector Dalgleish mystery, his favorite escape literature. But he couldn't concentrate. The eyes of the stranger, the image of the tongue, the moist flesh of the mouth open to receive the Host kept forcing themselves into his consciousness. Am I overreacting? Gabriel asked himself. After all, presenting one's tongue to receive the Host was perfectly acceptable to the Church, even if it was a form seldom used any longer. And what has the man done other than attend Mass every day for the past week? But those eyes...they had focused on him every day from the balcon, had bored into his as he stood waiting to offer the Host.
Gabriel tried again to engage in the dilemmas of Inspector Dalgleish, but he finally gave up. He got up from his chair and walked into the bathroom. He examined his face in the cabinet mirror. He was a handsome man—even at sixty-two, his black hair was only beginning to mottle with gray, his body fit from years of early morning running. Yet there was something about his face that he didn't like, something that betrayed a tension in his character. It was the line of tightly clamped muscles that showed along his jaw, as if the tighter he bit down on his teeth, the better he could control the random thoughts that sometimes came to him.
Since it was Sunday, there were no more duties for the day. Fortunately, the phone tape was empty of any cries for his solace and comfort that could come through the wires at any time. No funerals were scheduled until that of Jacobo Garcia's father, Eusebio, on Wednesday morning, Today he had to get out of the village, maybe drive into San Benito and see what was playing at the movies, maybe even spend the night. Why not? Monday was his free day; he didn't have to stay confined in the village. But it wasn't relaxation or entertainment he was seeking, it was to get away from Las Barrancas, from the stranger—from his eyes, his moist tongue.
Gabriel went into the small bedroom and removed the narrow white collar and black shirt of his calling. He put on a gray sweatshirt and jeans. He liked to change into casual wear for his day off, go into San Benito or maybe even drive as far as the capital and walk around the streets. Stop in for coffee, have dinner in a restaurant. He liked the sense of being unidentifiable, unavailable—for a few hours to not be recognized, to mix into the flow of life of the town. Not that he wasn't happy to be a priest; he felt passionately about his calling. But, as he believed was true of his clerical colleagues, he had to be detached for a time from the sorrows of the people who called on him for help. Not immune to their sufferings, but strong in himself so that he could confront their sufferings with a compassion and strength that came from beyond him.
This Sunday, however, as he pulled his old Chevy pickup out of the rectory driveway and onto the state highway that runs through Las Barrancas, he hesitated. Walking around San Benito or even the capital didn't attract him today. Instead he turned the car towards the dirt road that led into the mountains.
The fall day was still warm. As the road climbed higher, the air became cooler, fresher in his open window. The landscape changed from the spent fields of the valley to the dark green of pines and the golden coins of aspen glittering in the September sun. Ahead of him, he knew, was an abandoned ranch. The owners had succumbed to the drought and left to try their hopes for livelihood in the city. It was a secret place for him: the smell of the red dirt in the sunshine, the quiet, broken only by the gentle rustle of the wind in the trees.
Gabriel unhooked the wire ranch gate, drove up the rutted drive, and parked the truck in front of the dilapidated house. An old chair stood on the portal, slightly sprung but still serviceable if one didn't sit back too far, and he settled into it. He looked forward to the sense of peace the place always offered him, the break-through of contact that would settle his mind.
But today that peace would not come. He couldn't rid his mind of the feelings aroused in him by the presence of the stranger. Lord, wash away my iniquities, cleanse me of my sins. The words he had repeated in the Mass that morning kept returning. It was a ritual prayer that he had said over and over again through the years, but today the words took on a significance he had not attended before. Lord wash away my iniquities... Did he not truly believe these words? He had accepted with a full heart the sacrifice he made those years ago when he first declared his vows before the altar. And he knew, he knew that God knew, that he had never...not even when that young man from the village had made his intentions so obvious in the Confession box. Gabriel had been abrupt in dismissing him. But then the rumors had started...
The priest's thoughts were disrupted by the sound of his cell phone ringing in the truck. Damn—he had forgotten to turn the thing off. Suddenly he was apprehensive. Only one person knew his cell number, the one who had given him the phone in order to keep communications private so messages wouldn't be left on the rectory phone tape. With a sense of dread Gabriel went over to the pickup and opened the phone.
"Father Gabriel." The familiar voice assaulted his ear.
" Yes, Your Excellency." Gabriel grimaced at the pompous address the bishop insisted upon.
"You know, Father, that here at the diocese the council has been giving much thought to the expense of maintaining the small parish churches." It was the expected call. "We have had to make a very hard decision," the bishop continued. "With winter coming on, and the utility bills, you know, the diocese just doesn't have the funds." There was a pause. Father Gabriel knew he was expected to say something, but he just waited.
"I know this will be hard for you," the bishop broke the silence, "and I know you have put in many dedicated years in the parish..."
"What about the parishioners?" Gabriel interrupted. "Where will they go?"
"I've already discussed this with Father Jeremy in San Benito. I'm sure the people will be able to get to church there at least once a week." Gabriel thought of the dailies who had stood by him, refusing to listen to the slanders the young man had spread about him.
"What about me?" Gabriel finally asked, his voice tight. "Where will I go?" There was a pause on the line.
"The council has discussed that."
"Well, the council has decided that it would be best for you to take early retirement."
There it was. He had known it was coming, but still he felt the shock of the bishop's words. The council was the bishop's cover; it was His Excellency himself who didn't want him any longer in the pulpit.
"You have served the Lord well over the years, and you deserve to rest now. I've checked and there is room for you to live at the home." Gabriel tried to keep the anger out of his voice. He was being discarded, shipped off to an old folks home. He had done nothing to deserve this, he had made his sacrifice all these years—and for this?
"I'm only sixty-two."
"I'm aware of that, Father, but the council has decided it is for the best."
The council again.
"The retired priests are very happy at the home, and there is counseling there."
"Counseling!" Gabriel exploded. "What in hell do I need counseling for?"
"Father... Please... It's just a suggestion, only if you feel you might need it."
So that was it. They thought he should have counseling. For what? His life had been exemplary. Had he ever once betrayed his vows?
"And you would be able to fill in for us occasionally when one of our priests is ill or needs to be away for a few days. There are many ways you can still serve. Perhaps you might like to sit on the fund-raising committee. You would be good at that, and we could really use your help."
Gabriel didn't answer.
"I want you to announce the closing at next Sunday's Mass." The bishop's tone had changed, he was now giving orders. "Explain to the congregation that the church has to be closed, that the council has determined it can no longer support the expense. And as I said, I've reserved a place for you in the home, but you will have to call next week and make your own arrangements with them—of course, if that's what you decide to do. I certainly recommend you consider it. I'm sorry, but I have to get off now. The council is meeting tomorrow, and I have to prepare."
The bishop clicked off. Gabriel punched the phone off and slammed it into the glove compartment. So that was it. After thirty years. He started the truck, jammed it into gear, and headed back down the dirt road, oblivious to the smell of the forest, the freshness of the air that had calmed him as he had driven up only an hour earlier. He turned onto the highway to Las Barrancas and after a few minutes pulled into the rectory driveway.
As Gabriel entered the house, he saw the light flashing on his phone tape. He ignored it. He couldn't answer to the people right now. He glanced around the small rectory, his life for the past fifteen years. There was not much that actually belonged to him: a retablo of San Isidro above his desk that Eusebio had painted for him; his books in the small bookcase—lectio divina intermixed with the adventures of his favorite Inspector Dalgleish and other crusaders who fight the dark side of humanity; a Raphael print of the Virgin holding the baby Jesus and a photo of Mother Teresa, both on the wall of his bedroom. Mother Teresa had always been his inspiration, surely a saint who had sacrificed herself in a way that he could only aspire to. It was said that when she looked into the faces of India's poor and dying, she saw only the face of Jesus. He could never achieve such devotion, although he prayed for the compassion that had motivated her. Yet he had tried—for all these years he had tried-—but it made no difference to them. They wanted him out, and it was only the straits of diocesan finances that finally gave them the opportunity.
Gabriel sat down on the edge of his bed and stared at the photo of Mother Teresa. Suddenly a sob broke from the depths of his being; he put his hands to his face and fell back against the blankets. He turned on his side and let the tears surge.
He didn't know how long he had lain there when he heard the phone ring in the other room. Wearily, he got up to answer.
"Hello Father." Gabriel recognized Amelia Garcia's voice. "I just wanted to go over the program for Wednesday. Our daughter wants to do a reading for her grandfather and so does Jacobo's sister. We want to clear it with you."
Of course—Eusebio's funeral. Wednesday. He was still needed in the village, if only for another week. He agreed to meet Amelia in the parish hall after Mass on Tuesday.
Gabriel was glad of the interruption. After his tears finally stopped, he had fallen into an exhausted sleep. The phone call had broken in on him, brought him abruptly to face the importance of this last week both to him and to his parishioners. The villagers, especially the dailies, would be appalled at the news, and he would have to be strong for them. He sat down at his desk and made a list of the things he would have to do. Closing the rectory meant canceling the gas and electricity. And for the church as well. They would need water for cleaning, but there was a well. He would talk to Jacobo after the funeral, maybe Thursday. As mayordomo, Jacobo would need to discuss with the parish council about continuing to maintain the church even if it was no longer in daily use. A priest could be imported to celebrate Mass for funerals and weddings or fiestas for the saint's day. Gabriel thought back on the years he had celebrated the feast day of Santa Rosa de Lima for the parishioners. Poor woman. She had suffered too—at the hands of a ruthless father who had insisted she marry. But Rosa wanted the convent. As legend had it, she confounded her father as well as her intended by growing a beard to make herself ugly. Gabriel smiled. Smart move.
During the next days Gabriel made the necessary phone calls, wrote the necessary letters in a cool and business-like fashion. He had had his moment of collapse, but it was over; he had command of himself again.
On Tuesday Gabriel explained the bishop's decision to a heart-struck Amelia. She deserved to know. Wednesday, the funeral for Eusebio went well with the readings by the family. He spoke to Jacobo on Thursday about the church maintenance. The weekday morning Masses continued as usual, and as usual were attended mostly by the dailies. Gabriel felt sorry for them. There was no way they could get to San Benito on any regular basis.
During the week, the stranger was there in the balcon for the Mass. He continued to look down at the priest but did not come down the steps again to join the Communion line. As Gabriel recited the ritual celebration each day, the words took on a further meaning to him, a meaning he had never considered before. Lord, wash away my iniquities, cleanse me of my sins. What were these iniquities, these sins he had accepted as his own? He had bowed to his own sense of unworthiness, and yet in what way was he unworthy? He had made his sacrifice, but was that really what the Lord wanted of him? He had always doubted that God would love him as he was, and yet, had not God made him who he was? Was perhaps his sin his very refusal to acknowledge this? Was not his sense of unworthiness thrust on him from outside, and did not the iniquity lie in his self-condemnation, in denying the godhead in himself? As Gabriel packed his few possessions on the Saturday before his final Mass, these questions surged through his mind. And as he questioned, he began to formulate answers—answers that always before had seemed out of reach.
Sunday morning Gabriel sat in the rectory, preparing for his final Mass. An hour from now it would be over, over for him and over for the parishioners who had stood by him for so long. Finishing his notes for the homily, he picked up his suitcases and the boxes containing his few possessions, went out to the pickup and tossed them onto the truck bed. He had no plans, no idea where he might go—just away. He went around the back of the church to the sacristy. From the closet he took out the long white alb and chasuble that priests have worn for centuries, since the end of the Roman Empire. He repeated the ancient Latin prayer that is ritually said during the dressing: O Lord, who has said "My yoke is sweet and my burden is light," grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace. He placed the stole around his neck and opened the door to the sanctuary. To his surprise, he saw that the church was full. Amelia had evidently told the villagers that this would be the last Mass.
Gabriel stepped to the front of the altar: The Lord be with you. The resounding And also with you surged into his blood. He went through the introductory rituals, two of the parishioners giving the Bible readings—the Old Testament in Spanish, the New in English. And then the ancient Hebrew Alleluia swelled through the little church. Gabriel felt his heart pounding. He walked to the podium, opened the old, ornate Bible that for fifteen years he had used at every Mass, bent and kissed the pages, and began to read. As he recited the sacred words of the Gospel, it seemed to him they were not coming from his mouth, but that he was hearing them being spoken to him.
When he finished the reading, he took out the notes for his homily and addressed the congregation:
You must remember always that the Lord has made you in his own image. Hence His image, reflected in each of you, is infinitely variable. Every one of you is unique with different lives, with different dreams, with different yearnings to be exactly as God has made you. He formed you in your mother's womb to give you your own individual presence. To give Him thanks for His sacred gift is to honor your holy nature, to be who you truly are in your thoughts, in your words, in your actions. As our Lord himself tells us in the Gospel, "Know the truth and the truth shall set you free." Only in knowing this truth about yourself, in acknowledging the godliness that He has breathed into you, will you find the freedom He wants for you.
But remember. His grace is not only in each of you here today, it is there in all people—those neighbors on the other side of the fence and on the other side of the world. However they may differ from you in language, in customs, in other forms of faith, He has created all peoples in the same holiness as he has created you. Only in acknowledging this—in living this—will you truly glorify His name.
A murmur sounded in the church. Then Gabriel made his announcement: he would be leaving, the church would be closed. As he spoke to the congregation, he looked down at Jacobo, sitting in the first pew. "I know that all of you will care for your beautiful church, and perhaps, when times are better, this Mass will again be celebrated in these sacred walls."
He moved back to the altar and spoke the words of the Eucharistic prayer: Through your eternal word you created all things and govern their course with eternal wisdom. You are the way that sets us free, the life that makes our joy complete. Gabriel knew it had taken the bishop's call to start him on his internal journey to discover the meaning of his life, to discover his freedom. Now he must lead the life that was God's precious gift to him.
Gabriel prepared the Eucharistic feast and called up one of the women to hold the chalice. The people rose and formed the line for Communion. The stranger was there again; he had descended from the balcon and now approached the priest to receive the Host. This time, however, he bowed before Gabriel. Again he opened his mouth to receive the wafer, but the priest had no sense that the gesture was somehow the desecration he earlier had felt it to be. He placed the Body of Christ on the man's tongue, and the stranger smiled at him; Gabriel smiled in return. There was nothing threatening in the stranger's smile, and there was no confusion in Gabriel's response. The man crossed himself, then moved on to drink from the chalice.
The Communion over, Gabriel stepped back to the altar, broke the few remaining wafers into the wine, and drank. He took the little towel on which he had earlier dried his hands and cleaned the empty chalice. Then he took his seat at the side of the altar while the parishioners concluded their prayers and returned to their seats. When the church had quieted, Father Gabriel stood. He stretched out his hands to the congregation: "I leave you in sadness, but I leave you with peace." Then he blessed them for the last time: In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Mass is ended. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Instead of leaving the church, the people surged forward to where Gabriel, his eyes wet with tears, stood before the altar. One by one they embraced him. Even Jacobo came forward and grasped him around the shoulders in a warm abrazo.
And then it was finished. The people drifted out of the church into the bright, sunny morning, heading for their donuts and coffee. Gabriel retreated to the sacristy to remove his garments. As he was carefully hanging the chasuble in the closet for the last time, there was a knock on the outer sacristy door. Gabriel opened it. The stranger stood there smiling.
"Will you come with me?"
Gabriel smiled back at him. "Yes, I am ready now."