“Mrs. Krampton, as I understand it,” the young priest said slowly, tactfully, yet gripping the phone so that his knuckles turned white, “you told the six year olds in your CCD class that their prayers were going directly to hell.” He exhaled through his nostrils. “To the devil.”
Beneath his calm facade, Father Edward could barely contain himself. Thirteen angry parents had called him that afternoon to explain their children were stark, raving terrified they may have (quite by accident) summoned Something from the pits of hell and thus were probably to blame for every evil thing that had happened to their family in recent memory.
“Yes, that’s right, Father,” Mrs. Krampton replied cheerily, even with a certain professional confidence. “I noticed that when they were praying they kind of clasped their hands together? Like a fist, with the fingers pointing down?”
She’s making statements with a lilt at the end. Like questions. Why in God’s name is she doing that?
“I wanted them to place their hands flat against each other – fingers pointing up, you know? Like the praying hands you see in paintings and such. I figured the quickest way to get them to change was to tell them that if their fingers are pointing down, well, their little prayers are going down. To hell, you see.”
Father Edward was trained in Boston and only newly arrived at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Macon, Georgia – somewhere near the buckle of the Bible Belt – and Mrs. Krampton’s use of the word “right” strangely dragged on for a second or two. “Yes, that’s riiiiiight.”
Drawing a short breath, Father Edward replied, staring out his window at the muted glow of late afternoon, “Did it ever occur to you, Mrs. Krampton, how this might be received by the imaginations of six year old children?”
Mrs. Krampton was in her mid-eighties, but her chipper self-confidence, bolstered by her many years of service in the church, was unabated. “Well, it worked just fine,” she replied. “I had them all doing their hands just right just as quick as you please.”
“Mrs. Krampton, I have received phone calls from thirteen different parents this afternoon, complaining that their children are terrified. These little boys and girls now believe they have been worshipping the devil without meaning to for many years. In fact, for as long as they have clasped their little hands together in prayer – which, in many cases, is as far back as they can remember. Mrs. Krampton, these children cannot wrap their little minds around the idea of what this may mean. It is a situation so horrifying to them that all they can do is simply lose it. Lose it, Mrs. Krampton. Have you ever seen a six year old child lose it, Mrs. Krampton? It can be quite spectacular.”
There was a beat of silence on the line. Then another. Finally, Mrs. Krampton spoke, a touch of frailty, even of disbelief in her voice. “Are you saying I’ve done something wrong, Father?”
No. I’m saying you are a minor league sociopath. I’m saying you are drawn to the Church, not because you love God and neighbor, but because it grants you unquestioned moral authority. How? Why just because you show up every fucking week! And, wearing this handy little mask of morality, you can proceed to pour your own toxic religion into the minds of six year old children. Dozens of them. No, hundreds of them over the past forty years. That’s what I’m saying, dear lady. Do you get my drift?
“You tell me, Mrs. Krampton,” Father Edward said simply. Then, when there followed more silence than he was willing to tolerate, he said, “Mrs. Krampton, with all due respect and gratitude for your years of service, I would suggest you enjoy your retirement years with Mr. Krampton and allow someone else the opportunity to serve as CCD teacher for the second graders. I will pay a personal visit to each of these children and their parents to assure them that they have not been praying to the devil. Okay? Thanks so much.”
And, with that, he hung up the phone.
The new priest in town does it again! Leadership, tact, and just the right pastoral touch!
Before he could settle into some feeble attempt at arranging his thoughts about the experience, there was a knock on the door.
“Come right in,” he said.
The rather ancient wooden door swung open with a long, plaintive creak. There in the doorway stood Father Mark Imboden, pastor of the parish, eldest of the three priests assigned to St. Joe’s, and, Edward had known from the moment he met the man, a traditionalist, pleased with the tentative return of the Latin Mass. Still, the man had been tenderized, as Edward put it, by many years of practical ministry, and spoke with gentle calm and an almost unshakeable good will.
“Edward,” Father Mark said with a grin bounded by fleshy jowls, “it’s getting late and I’m thinking the three of us could hop over to the Burger King.” Then, taking in Edward’s expression, he added. “Everything okay? Is this assignment catching up with you a bit?”
Edward was unaware he looked troubled. In fact, he had been thinking that Father Mark had acquired the Southern habit of putting an unnecessary “the” in front of proper names. The Burger King. The cancer. The AIDS. He quickly switched his facial expression, manufactured a grin. “Just, well, Mrs. Krampton,” Edward replied. “She’s going to be stepping aside to allow younger hands to handle the CCD.”
Father Mark studied the floor, nodding slightly. “Just as well,” he said. “Just as well. Amelia is eighty-five, I believe. Many years of service to the parish. Many years. Perhaps we should give her a little party in the Social Hall.”
“Sounds like a great idea,” Edward replied.
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