Body Title: Prayers and Penance

Author: JBD

(Based on the episode "My Blue Heaven")

*************

Looking back on it, Monsignor Samuel Marshall could not say that he'd had much warning that that day would be much different than any that had preceded it. His schedule wasn't unusual - he had a new priest assigned to him for a few days, a baptism, and his regular duties to fill up the rest of his time.

He had no premonition that on this day his faith would be rewarded; he would witness a miracle, and from a most unlikely source.

As a matter of fact, the morning started out well, as he conducted the baptism of little Andrew Russell Pattello. But he had barely begun the ceremony before he became aware of raised voices drifting from the back of the sanctuary. Glancing up without pausing in his speech, he saw the disturbance came from two men- the new, temporarily assigned priest Father Smith, and another man he did not recognize. They seemed to be arguing softly about something, and as he watched, Father Smith raised his eyes to the ceiling and spoke. Some of his words echoed up to the front where the proud parents were standing by their baby. It sounded like "What, I can't even argue?" People attending the ceremony were starting to look around at the disturbance as more of the hushed conversation drifted their way: "...that was when I first went on the take." Marshall cleared his throat meaningfully, and shot a reproachful look at his errant priest, hoping he would get the message and shut up, or at least take his conversation with the noisy visitor elsewhere. Apparently, young Father Smith thought that was amusing, for he turned his head and smiled. Unfortunately, he didn't stop talking.

Father Marshall sighed internally. That one was going to be a problem.

As he pressed on with the ceremony, trying to ignore his audience's distraction, fragments of the muffled conversation continued to disrupt the quiet baptism. He caught snatches of their words; "...yeah, like back at the shooting, you were a big help there!" He joined the assemblage at that, to give the them another look. Just what were those two talking about back there? Or maybe he should be wondering what exactly his new priest had been up to already this morning, from the sound of it. He struggled to keep his expression pleasant as he continued, but with half the congregation tilting their heads to hear what was going on in the background, it was hard going.

Finally he saw that two of the attending men had had enough, and were stepping back to deal with the problem. Good. Now maybe he could finish this baptism with some semblance of decorum. And then, he promised silently as he gently poured water across the infants head and spoke the time-honored words, he would have a serious talk with a certain young man.

**********

Father Smith hastened after him as he swept down the hallway, still clutching his small

Bible as he chewed the young upstart out. He was beginning to think that the problem here was a lack of seriousness, as he listened to the young priest babble on about how cute the Pattello baby was, and watched him carelessly wad up his sacred cloth and toss it into the closet. And then, unbelievably, the man who's conversation with Father Smith had so disrupted the ceremony earlier poked his head around the door and said "Smith! C'mon, we've got to get to the bar."

The bar!

He could hardly believe his ears. So that was the kind of thing Father Smith liked to spend his free time on! Well, he'd see to it that the young whippersnapper didn't have a free minute of time to call his own for his entire stay at this church. And he had the nerve to ask if he could be excused! The Monsignor was almost speechless with outrage. "No we cannot talk about this later, so that you can go to a bar!" When he proceeded to mention that he had been told to expect trouble from Smith, the young man got the oddest look on his face and asked from whom. He was tempted to say from the reports he had received from the Seminary Father Smith had attended, but gave in to an urge to take the authority level up a notch and said 'from Above!'.

Father Smith seemed completely unsurprised at that pronouncement.

A sudden bang distracted him, and he looked down to see a book on the floor next to him. Now where had that come from? He leaned over to pick it up, trying to mentally calm himself as he straightened and turned to face his wayward charge. Obviously, Father Smith was in dire need of guidance, and the best way to provide it, in this Monsignor's view, was to spend plenty of time in old-fashioned, soul-searching prayer. And there was no better way to find time to meditate on one's sins than through performing acts of penance. Lots and lots of penance.

Unfortunately, when he straightened to inform Father Smith of his decision, he found himself quite alone.

**********

An hour later, he was keeping his hands busy, refreshing the water in one of the many decorative vases of flowers in his charge, when his straying lamb wandered in. He had had enough time to calm himself , and was able to view Father Smith's outrageous behavior with more equanimity. There was no doubt that this young man was going through a difficult time. He was likely wavering in his faith, undoubtedly being tempted by the world's sinful pleasures (a bar, indeed!), and no doubt had been assigned to this church for those very reasons. He had pulled out the boy's file and sat down to peruse it, and his suspicions had been confirmed. Father Smith was well known from his Seminary days for avoiding responsibility, pulling small pranks, and a general air of irreverence in his behavior. He had been written up for gambling, eating the communion wafers, pilfering the sacramental wine, numerous other small infractions. Yet, reading between the lines, and adding to that what he had observed himself in the short time he had known the young man, Marshall thought that he had a promising future in the Church, if only he could be steered down a straighter path. Perhaps it was his associations with ruffians like that detective, Barbosa, who he'd been with earlier that were the root of his problems. Often, old ties to more worldly friends were hard to manage, and the constant temptations promoted by such people had led to the downfall of many. He resolved to pray for more patience and understanding, and to watch out for his young priest. And, of course, to absolutely bury him with acts of penance.

After all, penance was good for the soul, wasn't it?

So, when the door quietly opened to reveal a sheepish Father Smith, he was ready. But, as he should have expected by now, his conversation with this rather extraordinary young man did not go as expected. He kept saying such outrageous things: " I'm sure the Lord appreciated what I was doing...Yeah, He gives me signs." What did he mean? Was he claiming to have visions from the Almighty Himself, or was he just inventing an excuse for his poor behavior? He seemed sincere, but the audacity of such a claim! From a young man with his record, it just didn't seem credible.

At least his breath did not smell of beer or spirits, despite his almost certain frequenting of that bar earlier. Indulging in drink wasn't one of his undoubtedly many sins, then.

He seemed surprised at being reminded that he had been troublesome at the Seminary, offhandedly remarking that he didn't remember. When pressed, he tried to cover his slip, if slip it had been. Yet the comment had rung true, much more so than his glib responses about the Bingo hall or the other incidents. He had the idea that there was something important concerning this young man's past in those words. Could he be suffering from mental problems, perhaps memory loss? His almost plaintive question: "Do those records say anything good about me?" revealed a deep insecurity that touched the older man. Perhaps half of his problems came from a lack of approval from his elders. When he said "That's good. 'Cause people have a hard time with that, forgiving. Even godly people." it sounded like a reflection of past disagreements with a superior. He felt sympathy rising, from his own experiences as a novice. But...no. He could see that there were some serious issues here, but first things first. If he was to guide this young man he had to begin with his underdeveloped sense of responsibility. Smith had to learn that careless actions had repercussions. The older priest steeled his heart.

***********

Father Marshall laid down his pen and sighed. He had just finished adding his own notes to the long list already contained in Father Smith's file, a not very pleasant task but one which he knew must be done. Probably he should wander out and check that his charge was actually following through on his penance and lighting the hundred candles as he'd been instructed. The young priest had accepted his punishment with commendable grace, and promised to start immediately.

Well, he'd just go see if he'd kept his word.

As he walked out of his office and moved towards the banks of hundreds of red candles, some already lit by visiting parishioners, he heard Father Smith's voice, raised as though he were talking to someone. Indeed, the young man was already at work, holding a long blazing tapir and standing before a large section of unlit candles. But he wasn't working very fast, just standing there holding the stick to one candle and looking upwards. Marshall paused hesitantly, then stepped back a bit, not wanting to intrude if his charge was speaking to a visitor. Then he realized from Smith's upturned face and his words, that he was addressing the Lord. Intrigued, dismissing a niggling feeling of guilt - after all, it would help if he knew what exactly was going on in the young man's mind - he lingered, listening.

"You made me a priest with a bad record? But why? Is this about teaching me patience? Or is this for arguing with Oth-" He lowered his voice and looked almost guiltily over his shoulder- away from where he stood, Marshall noted thankfully- "...Othneil? What, I'm not supposed to disagree with Othneil, not ever?" His listener frowned. /You made me a priest? What did Smith mean by that, exactly? And who was this 'Othneil'? Maybe the noisy friend from earlier? Or, more likely, the priest who had had to deal with his infractions in the past?/ Smith waited, staring up, then sighed, lighting another candle. "Never a response. All I hear is the sound of my own voice. Yeah, well, when do...when do I get to live again? All I do is guide people to their salvation... what about mine? Or, is their salvation my salvation? Is that it? Is that it?" He waited, eyes searching the air above him. His eager look faded into resignation. "Nothing. Not even a sign." Seemingly defeated, he glanced back down at the still unlit candles awaiting his attention. What happened next froze the Monsignor in his tracks, just as he was about to go over and make his presence known to his doubting charge. And offer a serious talk which was apparently long overdue.

The entire bank of candles, well over a hundred, suddenly flared into life, their wicks bursting into flame simultaneously.

Eyes wide, he crossed himself almost unconsciously as he stared at the amazing sight, then back at Father Smith. A miracle, it was a miracle. He had seen it with his own eyes. Father Smith seemed equally amazed and a little pleased, as if this was something he'd been hoping for...or even seen before. He didn't run yelling from the room, or fall over in a heap, as Marshall felt like he himself might do. Still looking up, his next breathless words were simply: "OK, I'll take that as a Yes."

Father Smith stood quietly before the blazing candles, eyes shining, still looking upwards as the Monsignor stepped quietly back out of view before he was noticed. He didn't want to interrupt now. The air by that young man felt charged. It was almost a - he searched for a word - intimate moment, not one that invited interruptions. Besides, he had to think about what he'd just seen. He felt as though he was in shock, his breath coming fast as his body tried to deal with his reaction. He had witnessed a miracle, sent by God, in his own Church! It had really happened. God had directly answered a prayer from one who he was now beginning to recognize, in hindsight, as a most amazing, complex, and intriguing young man. A young man who spoke casually of signs from God...and as was now to be seen, actually received them. He himself was a witness. And he now found himself in a quandary. Should he report this event immediately to his Superiors in the Church? Reports of miracles were a dime a dozen, of course, but any from such a respected clergy such as himself were rare and treated with more seriousness than the typical "I saw Jesus' face in this tortilla/potato/bun" type that filled up the pages of STAR and ENQUIRER. Somehow, he felt that he should keep this event in his heart for awhile. Perhaps he should just wait and see what developed next?

Troubled, he decided that for now, he would do just that. And he would keep an even closer eye on Father Smith, for somewhat different reasons than before.

Right now, he felt distinctly like he was in need of some serious prayer, himself.

**********

While he performed his afternoon service, Marshall decided he would be most comfortable with the unsettling Father Smith right where he could keep an eye on him. He had kept him busy by sending him off to listen to a few confessions after he had come to report that the candles were all lit (the Monsignor noticed he did not say HOW they had become so). Then he posted him at the entrance doors to greet the people as they entered, and to stand on duty through the sermon.

More penance, he told him.

So here he was, droning through the familiar words with only half his attention on what he was saying. Most of his concentration was fixed on the slim, black clad figure standing at attention at the far end of the chapel. "As we prepare to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us acknowledge our failures and ask the Lord for pardon and strength. I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words..."

Halfway through, he saw that same man, detective Barbosa, pop through the doors and start yet another half-whispered conversation. This time, he strained his ears to hear anything he could, giving in to his curiosity. He caught the words "...penance. I don't know what I did in my other life, but it must have not been pretty" from Father Smith.

Other life?

He dragged his attention back to his text. "Lord, we have sinned against You. Lord have mercy." The congregation echoed him. "Lord, show us Your mercy and love." He continued watching them closely. He sincerely hoped, given this young priest's obvious connection to God and his apparent good heart, that he wasn't about to be led further astray. That his fears were well founded was proved by the sight of Father Smith genuflecting and crossing himself, before ducking out the swinging door closely followed by the other man.

Oh, dear.

*********

Immediately following his dismissal of the congregation, Marshall had hurried to his office where he had left Father Smith's file. He wanted to check for a phone number for any of the priest's former teachers at the Seminary he had attended, in hopes of learning more about his past.

It wasn't there.

He pulled the drawer out further, in hopes that the slender file had slipped to the back, but with no results. It was simply gone. For a moment, he entertained the thought that perhaps Father Smith himself had removed it, but that made little sense. After all, another copy could be obtained easily. Father Smith did not strike him as one who would do something like that...despite his history of small transgressions. Besides, he kept this drawer locked most of the time, since anyone in the church could easily wander in and he saw no sense in providing temptation.

He slowly pushed the drawer shut, troubled.

The missing file was significant, he knew it. He just didn't know what it's disappearance meant.

********

When Detective Barbosa came to his door, it was the first time he'd actually been pleased to see the man. At least this time there was no service to be interrupted, which seemed to be his specialty. He quizzed the detective on how well he knew Father Smith, and if he'd ever noticed 'unusual' things happening around him.

For some reason, Barbosa's denials didn't ring true. But before he could press him, the detective had practically run back out the door. He was left unsatisfied and a little worried. The alter boy he had mentioned to the detective had said that Father Smith had been handcuffed when he'd left with the two policemen. At first, he'd thought the young rascal had simply gotten himself into some small trouble, and would soon be calling for rescue from the station. But no call had ever come. And now, with the detective looking so worried, almost appalled, when he had learned of it...well, it left the Monsignor with a very bad feeling indeed.

He thought that maybe he should take the time to say a few prayers concerning his wayward charge, and then perhaps call the police station. He had a feeling that Father Smith was in over his head.

He started to head for his office and his comfortable chair, then had second thoughts. Maybe his own ease wasn't what was needed right now. Instead, he settled himself in front of the same bank of red candles that had been so mysteriously lit earlier in the day. They still burned steadily, comfortingly, as he ordered his thoughts.

So much had happened today, and he had the feeling that he had missed the importance of much of it. But did that really matter? God worked in His own ways, and he was privileged to have witnessed a small part of that design in this very spot. There was one thing he was sure of, and that was that this Father Smith was destined for great things. There was great good hidden in that young man, and as he began to pray, the Monsignor thought wistfully of his own youth, many years earlier. He had never been blessed with miracles, as Smith apparently regularly was. But maybe he himself was the blessed one, after all, with his quiet, ordered life. After all, he had never heard that those who saw miraculous things had it easy. Often quite the opposite.

He prayed that God would stand by Smith, through whatever trials lay ahead.

He somehow knew that Father Smith would not be with him for much longer. His destiny lay elsewhere than this particular quiet church, in this old neighborhood. No, he would move on soon. He had that look about him somehow, that of a man who hadn't yet found his home. Or who had lost it, somehow. Monsignor Marshall had done a great deal of traveling when he was younger, searching for a flock, and he could understand how tiring it could be.

He prayed about that as well.

And for Father Smith again, that he would grow in patience and continually strengthen in faith.

He hoped earnestly that whoever usually served as Father Smith's spiritual advisor was a patient man. He thought that he would need to be. Maybe he should add this unknown man to his daily prayer list, for he was sure to need all the spiritual aid he could get.

He had no idea how right he was.