“...and God in Heaven will pull the tears from our bodies and water all the gardens of the earth. And the lilies of the field and the wild grasses and the poppies and the roses and the golden fields of daffodils will rise up and cover the concrete barriers that keep man from man. They will grow like ivy and kudzu and cover over the skyscrapers and the boardrooms where men wage wars. Their velvet petals will crush what men call progress and return us all to Eden, where every man is one man, where finally once again, every man is every child and every child is God’s child. For truly, my brothers and my sisters, we are all God’s children...and we are on our way home!” Father Radnaezewski’s eyes closed and he finally took a breath. His forehead was beaded with sweat, and his heart pounded loudly in his chest. He slowly unclenched his hands. He hadn’t realized that during his sermon he had balled them into fists on the podium. He felt as if the back of his head was coming off. Perhaps that was what people were describing when they said that they felt light-headed. He took another deep breath and opened his eyes.
His parishioners stared back at him. He turned his head and realized that both altar boys, Jonah and Ricky, were doing the same, waiting for some signal from him. He took another deep breath and then smiling he gave the blessing, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.” Then he stepped down from the podium, turned back toward the altar and finished saying Mass.
Looking back he wasn’t surprised that his altar boys and even his parishioners had reacted so oddly to his sermon. After all, fire and brimstone weren’t exactly the local fare for Sunday Mass, at least not at Catholic churches. Now, some of his friends who were pastors over at the Protestant churches, they could really get going. Some of them could make his parishioner’s hair stand right up on end.
In fact, his sermon had been something of a surprise even for him. Not that he had been taken over by angels or demons, or anything else. No, this was more a case of being overtaken. Overtaken by the moment, overtaken by the situation, simply overtaken by what was on the horizon, and for better or worse he had felt compelled to speak. He hoped for the better. Only time would tell.
Father Cass Radnaezewski sat quietly in the archbishop’s office, marveling at the richness of his surroundings. The chairs were covered in soft, burgundy leather, the tables were polished to a high sheen, and the rugs on the floor were thick and heavy. On the wall at the far end of the room was a painting of the Christ Child that Father Cass was certain he’d seen in an art history book. There was an enormous flower arrangement on the center table made up of evergreens and white poinsettia intertwined with red velvet ribbon, obviously a remainder of the Christmas holidays. The priest had never been in such luxurious surroundings and could barely keep his eyes still. When he arrived, the archbishop’s secretary asked him if he would like a beverage. He’d asked for a glass of water, and she had delivered the sparkling beverage with a twist of lime in a heavy crystal tumbler that he was nearly afraid to take, it looked so expensive. He held the glass on his lap in both hands, uncertain that the silver rimmed coasters would properly protect the high gloss on the table to his right. Thankfully, the secretary finally called him into the archbishop’s office and collected the glass as he went inside.
The outer office had done nothing to prepare the priest for Archbishop Farley’s inner sanctum. As opulent as the surroundings had been there, everything here was equally as simple. The floors were solid hardwood, no rugs or carpets in sight. The furniture was plain, almost utilitarian in its design, a sofa, three chairs, a small conference table and a large, very organized desk. The only art that was instantly obvious was a beautiful sculpture of the Madonna, resting on a black marble obelisk standing in the center of a bank of windows. He stood silently just inside the door as his eyes swept up, down, and around the room. He would have been shocked to know that what he considered the simplicity of the room was referred to by those in the know, as Art Deco and dollar for dollar out priced the furnishings in the outer office.
“You’re welcome to sit down, Father. Unless, of course, you’d prefer to stand.” Archbishop Farley had risen behind the desk and was smiling at Cass.
Cass’s eyes snapped back to attention as he approached the archbishop, bowed his head slightly and as was customary, kissed the large ring on the archbishop’s right hand. “Yes, of course. Thank you.” He took a seat in front of the desk. “You wanted to see me, your Eminence?”
The archbishop slowly sat down and opened a file that was sitting on his desk. He briefly scanned through the contents and then looked up at Cass. “You’ve been a priest for a long time, Father. You’ve been the pastor at St. Florian for nearly,” he looked down at the file, “fifteen years. You’ve done some good things. Let’s see, I’ve made a note here. Your parish has increased in size by about twenty-three percent since you became pastor. Not an easy thing to do in these times, with parishes closing every day. All in all, Father, you have done a wonderful job. No one could ask for more of you. No one.”
Cass released the breath he had been holding. “Thank you, Archbishop, but it’s really nothing. It’s just my job. As you, I do God’s work, that’s all, Archbishop, just God’s work.”
“Yes, God’s work. That’s what I wanted to speak to you about. We’ve had some calls and, in fact, letters from some of your parishioners. In particularly”, he looked down at the notes on his desk, “Mrs. Scanlon, Mr. Khirshon, and Mrs. Kozlowski. They had some amazing things to say, Father, amazing things about you.”
Father Radnaezewski slowly shook his head back and forth. “Archbishop, there is nothing amazing about me. I prayed with these people and God answered their prayers. That’s the whole story, there’s nothing more.”
“I think there is something more, Father.” He picked up a blue folder from his desk, and pulled out what appeared to be a letter. “According to Mrs. Emily Scanlon, ‘I had been suffering from fourth-stage inoperable ovarian cancer when I went to one of Father Radnaezewski’s prayer circles this past August. I then went back twice that month, then every Tuesday in September. He laid hands on me each time, and when I went to my oncologist, Dr. Ethan Jantz, on October 6, he could find no evidence of cancer anywhere in my body.’ ”
“No, she is mistaken, Archbishop. We prayed together - that’s all. I am sure she has exaggerated her illness.”
“I don’t think so. She has included a letter from her oncologist and a copy of her test results before and after her ‘experience’ with you. I also have similar letters from Mr. Khirshon regarding his Parkinson’s disease and Mrs. Kozlowski regarding her daughter, Amanda’s leukemia. These are only three of the many letters I have received regarding your ‘prayer circles’, Father. This sounds like more than ‘just praying’ to me.”
“Cancer is a mysterious illness. It often goes into remission for no apparent reason and just as quickly reoccurs. The prayer circles were started at the request of parishioners who wanted to take a more proactive approach to their lives with prayer.”
“I see. So the prayer circles are prayer meetings?”
Father Radnaezewski hesitated, turning the phrase over in his head before answering. “Yes.”
“I see. Prayer meetings are not something that we as Catholics ordinarily hold. Protestant churches, non-denominational churches, Baptists are big on prayer meetings. Traditionally, we do most of our praying at Mass or while saying the rosary. As for the laying on of hands, Cass, I...”
“Archbishop, I am only trying to give them some hope, some solace. Sometimes a simple touch can do so much for an aching soul. Sometimes not even a touch, but just an open ear, a listening heart. Isn’t that what being a priest, ministering to a flock, is all about?”
“Giving solace, ministering to your parishioners has limits, Father. Only Christ can lay hands on to heal, not me and certainly not you. Miracles are tricky things. Even at Lourdes most of those claiming miracles have not been proven. The Vatican has studied many, many cases, and most often they find only a temporary remission of the original ailment. Quite often what appears to be something of a hysterical or psychological healing that is temporary at best. I must ask you what exactly are you attempting to accomplish with these ‘prayer circles’ of yours, Cass?”
“I assure you, Archbishop, I am merely trying to ease their pain, to give them some hope, some peace. Nothing more. I believe that prayer is very powerful. I’m sure you must feel the same way. I simply want to help them, to enrich their spiritual lives, and if in doing so, they feel that their physical lives have improved, where is the harm?”
Father Radnaezewski looked directly into Archbishop Farley’s eyes, and the archbishop immediately pulled his eyes away from the priest’s gaze. He focused his attention on the files in front of him for at least a full minute and then looked back at the priest and spoke in the voice he reserved for recalcitrant confessors.
“The harm, Father Radnaezewski is that you are endangering the spiritual lives of your parishioners. The harm, Father, is that by leading these ‘prayer circles’ of yours, you have somehow subliminally led them to believe that you can perform miracles. That you can, in fact, heal them of their illnesses.” The archbishop was just getting up to speed; soon he would reach what his secretary termed combustion level. His voice was rising with each word, and the color of his skin was deepening with every breath. “In addition, your parishioners are spreading the word, so to speak, and soon local newspapers will also pick up on your activities. And as the newspapers pick up these types of things, so will the Vatican.” He took a deep breath and continued. “That’s where I come in, Father. I have been instructed by Cardinal Marin of the Vatican, who by the way, will be arriving on Thursday, to instruct you to end your prayer circles at once.”
“I don’t understand. But why? What have I done? We’ve simply been praying.”
The archbishop stood and looked down at the priest. “For the time being I will be asking the questions, Father. Cardinal Marin will be investigating any and all claims of ‘miraculous healings.’ You will continue to say Mass, hear confession, perform sacraments, etcetera, but there will be no prayer circles, no prayer gatherings of any kind. Have I made myself clear?”
Father Radnaezewski looked carefully into Archbishop Farley’s eyes once more, and for just a moment, the archbishop suddenly felt as if all the sorrow he had ever felt had been reduced down to one tiny, potent drop that had just been laid upon his heart; the feeling was so painful he feared that if he tried to speak, his voice would simply shatter. He breathed in sharply and put his hand to his chest.
“Are you alright, Archbishop?” Father Radnaezewski had come around to the back of the desk and was helping the archbishop into his chair. He poured a bit of water into a glass and offered it to the archbishop. “Try and take just a sip. You look a bit pale.”
The archbishop drank the water and set the glass back on the desk.
When he spoke, his voice was labored. “Thank you, I’m fine. I’ve been working too hard and I missed lunch. I assume we have an understanding, Father? No more prayer meetings, no more prayer circles?”
“Whatever you say, Archbishop.”
“Good, then our business here is concluded. You will most likely be hearing from Cardinal Marin. Please make yourself available to him. Good day, Father.”
“God bless you, Archbishop.” Father Radnaezewski blessed the Archbishop with the sign of the cross and walked out of his office.
The meeting had taken less than thirty minutes, but the archbishop felt as if he had been climbing that horrid Stairmaster machine at the gym for at least sixty. He reached up and placed the first two fingers of his right hand against his carotid artery and looking at the second hand of the Rolex on his wrist he carefully took his pulse...slightly elevated, but probably nothing to worry about, yet better to be sure. He picked up the phone on his desk and pressed the intercom button to summon his receptionist. She picked up almost immediately. “Mrs. Ivey, I’m not feeling quite well and I think I need to see Dr. Oliveri. Would you please ask him to come by here today on his way home?”
“Yes, Archbishop, I’ll call him right away. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No, just explain to him that I need to see him today. Oh, and if you could get me a pot of tea, I’d be most appreciative. Thank you.”
“Yes, your Eminence, right away.”
“Wait, Mrs. Ivey, one more thing.” He opened the blue folder on his desk and pulled out the stack of papers, rifling through them for a few seconds before finding what he was looking for. “Would you please get Dr. Ethan Jantz on the phone for me? He’s an oncologist on staff with the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center on John R at the Detroit Medical Center. Thanks.”
Before the archbishop had a chance to re-read Dr. Jantz’s report, Mrs. Ivey had Dr. Jantz on the phone and had delivered a silver tray holding not only a pot of Earl Grey tea, but a pre-heated cup with a small silver pot of cold milk and one cube of sugar. As he often thought to himself at times like these, not withstanding the tiny sin of pride, It was good to be the king.