Is it true?
The telephone interrupted Father Benard in the middle of a light, cold dinner left covered on the table by his house-keeper.
It was the Mayor.
'Good evening, Monsieur Leroy,' he said.
The Mayor wore his brusque, official, political voice.
'I've been giving consideration to this business of the miracle of Dominique Farnet and the stone Madonna, Father. I think we had better meet to discuss how best to handle it.
Clearly it will change the fortunes of Couronne. Your church will become a place of pilgrimage. We will have to arrange car parks and introduce a one way system in and out of the town to handle the traffic. We will have to decide who will be allowed to convert their homes to shops to handle the sale of mementoes and we must arrange a contract for the manufacture of Weeping Madonnas. So much to do and so little time to achieve it all. When word spreads, we will be over-run immediately and must be ready to take advantage of it.'
The priest sighed and shook his head. He had not expected things to move so quickly.
'This is absurd, Monsieur le Maire. We have no proof that the child is not suffering from a delusion. There is no way the church can accept that a miracle has occurred on such flimsy evidence and without a thorough investigation.'
The mayor was unperturbed. 'You will quickly find that the people of Couronne will not wait for the Church to declare a miracle, Father, and neither will the people of France.
Dominique Farner will be a sensation overnight and everyone will want to share her experience. Despite your doubts, we must be ready.'
Father Benard was flabbergasted. 'You are saying that you are prepared to exploit a confused child and take the chance of perpetrating a religious fraud!' he said angrily.
'No Father,' Leroy replied, in the sickly persuasive and modulated tones of the politician.
'No, I'm saying that we must not question the faith of your congregation and the members of the Catholic Church. They will judge the miracle. We must be prepared to provide the opportunity. Perhaps I should speak to you tomorrow after we have had a full council meeting. You will have had more time think it over by then.'
Benard wished him goodnight and wearily replaced the receiver. The peace of Couronne was doomed and with it the fragile structure of a society that had somehow escaped the worst excesses of the twentieth century. He breathed a heavy sigh and returned to his cold meat.
The next morning started with an uneventful early mass. There had been no mention of the vision from the small congregation gathered for the first mass of the day and he had hurried back to the Presbytery determined to telephone the Bishop immediately after his simple breakfast.
Madame Fischer habitually poured his coffee then disappeared back to her kitchen leaving him to enjoy his croissants and confiture in peace, but this morning she hovered around the table, adjusting cutlery, moving plates and smoothing the table cloth.
'Is something troubling you Madame Fischer?' he asked eventually, irritated by her fidgeting.
'Is it true, Father? The talk is that the Farner girl has witnessed a miracle. Is it true?' she asked breathlessly.
He put down his coffee cup and gazed at her. Stolid, down-to-earth Madame Fischer was breathless with excitement at the prospect of a miracle. Word was definitely out.
'The child is emotionally disturbed about something. She thinks she has seen the stone Madonna weep but we must take care not to exaggerate a child's imaginings into a miracle. I would have expected that you would be the last person to be carried away by such extravagances,' he said, a note of reprehension in his voice.
'But Father, such a vision is a wonderful thing. The girl must have been touched by the hand of God. Such a thing has not happened since Saint Bern.....'.
The priest's anger burst.
'Madame Fischer, there must be no more talk like that in this house. Now go back to your kitchen and leave me to sort out Henri Farnet's romance with miracles.'
It had been a long time since her priest had spoken to her like that; it made her equally angry. She turned from the room and purposely slammed the door behind her.
He returned to his breakfast, broke a croissant, dipped it in his coffee and abstractedly sucked the bitter liquid from it, his mind a confusion of anger and sadness. He could see a dreadful upheaval of the way of life enjoyed by the small community that had been placed in his care. He was furious with Henri Farnet and The Mayor for the haste with which they sought to exploit the situation and angry with himself for his failure to control things better. And then a new, more threatening thought entered his mind and replaced both anger and sadness in his consciousness.
He was confronted by doubt.
Was his insistence on a natural explanation for the tears of the Virgin the consequence of a lack of faith? His life had been built on faith; it had led him to the priesthood and sustained him through all the trials of his early ministry but now, when he was facing the greatest test of all, was a crack appearing in the firm foundation of that faith?
He pushed his plate away; he suddenly had no stomach for food or drink. He felt like sinking to his knees, but that in itself would have represented an act of faith, contradicting his doubts and confusing him further. He felt the need to proclaim the conviction of his faith aloud. He knew it was firm and strong, an intensely private, subjective thing buried deep within his psyche, within his very soul. But then....what if he could never
believe that the child had witnessed a miracle, a wicked, cruel voice whispered in his head like a persuasive, wheedling, satanic advocate: would not disbelieving be as great an act of faith as believing implicitly?
His reverie was interrupted by a loud insistent banging on the front door. He heard Madame Fischer open it and then a confusion of voices before she rushed into the dining room.
'Father, Madame Farner is here in such a state! She asks if will come please?'
He rose immediately and followed her out to the hall. Monique Farner stood on the threshold anxiously wringing her hands.
'What is it Madame?' he asked.
'Henri has taken Dominique to pray before the statue. She was terrified and struggled against going but he insisted. I'm frightened for her, Father. Please will you come?'
'Of course,' he said at once and grabbed his hat.
When they reached the square he could hardly believe his eyes. It seemed that half the town were already there. Some knelt on the ground before the church, clutching their rosaries, others were lined up and appeared to be passing before the statue. But as he approached, his despair rose as he saw the slight form of Dominique on her knees before the Madonna and realised the line of people were passing behind her and reverently touching her frail fair head. He could see her gazing at the statue and the tears running down her pale, gaunt face.
The Mayor had been right, the people of Couronne had made their own decision on the miracle and were sanctifying, with their touches, the small girl whose vision they were celebrating. He stood on the fringe of the throng unsure what to do, his doubts once more dominating his emotions.
Monique's tug at his sleeve and her agonised "Please, Father," brought him to action.
He pushed through the crowd and strode to Dominique's side, went down on his knees beside her and closed his eyes in prayer. The crowd stilled and watched. Then he rose and gently took the girl by the elbow, raised her to her feet and led her towards the church. Many moved to follow but he turned in the doorway, raised his arm and shook his head and they accepted his refusal to let them pass. Only Monique and her husband moved to join them.
Madame Farner clutched the sobbing child to her heavy bosom and glared angrily at her husband:
'How could you expose her to that?' she cried.
'She must become accustomed to it,' Farner replied, untouched by his daughter's distress.
Monique's protective embrace tightened; 'We do not want miracles. We want our lives back.'
Her husband shrugged; 'The decision is no longer ours,' he said. 'God has chosen our daughter. It is not for us to interfere.'
Madame Farner turned appealingly towards the priest.
'Can't you do something, Father?'
Again he felt the crushing feeling of defeat. He feared his words would carry no weight and his decisions thrust to one side, but he felt bound to intervene.
'I beg you, Henri, protect your daughter until the church examines this situation. Do not expose her to what has happened this morning without some training and counselling. She is too fragile to withstand such treatment, too young and immature to handle the expectations of everyone who would wish to witness her experience. Take her home and keep her to yourselves until such time as she is ready for the changes that the future might hold.'
Dominique turned large pleading eyes on her father that even he, in his fervour, could not resist.
'Perhaps you're right,' he said and took her hand.
When they emerged from the church most of the crowd had dispersed. The girl walked away between her parents and the few who had stayed followed slowly behind, unwilling to allow the excitement of the morning to end.