Stories & Reflections
Father Giancarlo Fontana
I saw her when she arrived for Sunday mass, with the baby in her arms as usual. I knew that she and Lukás were having difficulties, but, until that week, these had all seemed merely the sort of misunderstandings that all couples have, and since both of them were people who radiated goodness, I hoped that, sooner or later, they would resolve their differences.
It had been a whole year since she last visited the church in the morning to play her guitar and praise the Virgin. She devoted herself to looking after Viorel, whom I had the honour to baptise, although I must admit I know of no saint with that name. However, she still came to mass every Sunday, and we always talked afterwards, when everyone else had left. She said I was her only friend. Together we had shared in divine worship, now, though, it was her earthly problems she needed to share with me.
She loved Lukás more than any man she had ever met; he was her son’s father, the person she had chosen to spend her life with, someone who had given up everything and had courage enough to start a family. When the difficulties started, she tried to convince him that it was just a phase, that she had to devote herself to their son, but that she had no intention of turning Viorel into a spoiled brat. Soon she would let him face certain of life’s challenges alone. After that, she would go back to being the wife and woman he’d known when they first met, possibly with even more intensity, because now she had a better understanding of the duties and responsibilities that came with the choice she’d made. Lukás still felt rejected; she tried desperately to divide herself between her husband and her child, but she was always obliged to choose, and when that happened, she never hesitated: she chose Viorel.
Drawing on my scant knowledge of psychology, I said that this wasn’t the first time I’d heard such a story, and that in such situations men do tend to feel rejected, but that it soon passes. I’d heard about similar problems in conversations with my other parishioners. During one of our talks, Athena acknowledged that she had perhaps been rather precipitate; the romance of being a young mother had blinded her to the real challenges that arise after the birth of a child. But it was too late now for regrets.
She asked if I could talk to Lukás, who never came to church, perhaps because he didn’t believe in God or perhaps because he preferred to spend his Sunday mornings with his son. I agreed to do so, as long as he came of his own accord. Just when Athena was about to ask him this favour, the major crisis occurred, and he left her and Viorel.
I advised her to be patient, but she was deeply hurt. She’d been abandoned once in childhood, and all the hatred she felt for her birth mother was automatically transferred to Lukás, although later, I understand, they became good friends again. For Athena, breaking family ties was possibly the gravest sin anyone could commit.
She continued attending church on Sundays, but always went straight back home afterwards. She had no one now with whom to leave her son, who cried lustily throughout mass, disturbing everyone else’s concentration. On one of the rare occasions when we could speak, she said that she was working for a bank, had rented an apartment, and that I needn’t worry about her. Viorel’s father (she never mentioned her husband’s name now) was fulfilling his financial obligations.
Then came that fateful Sunday.
I learned what had happened during the week – one of the parishioners told me. I spent several nights praying for an angel to bring me inspiration and tell me whether I should keep my commitment to the Church or to flesh-and-blood men and women. When no angel appeared, I contacted my superior, and he said that the only reason the Church has survived is because it’s always been rigid about dogma, and if it started making exceptions, we’d be back in the Middle Ages. I knew exactly what was going to happen. I thought of phoning Athena, but she hadn’t given me her new number.
That morning, my hands were trembling as I lifted up the host and blessed the bread. I spoke the words that had come down to me through a thousand-year-old tradition, using the power passed on from generation to generation by the apostles. But then my thoughts turned to that young woman with her child in her arms, a kind of Virgin Mary, the miracle of motherhood and love made manifest in abandonment and solitude, and who had just joined the line as she always did, and was slowly approaching in order to take communion.
I think most of the congregation knew what was happening. And they were all watching me, waiting for my reaction. I saw myself surrounded by the just, by sinners, by Pharisees, by members of the Sanhedrin, by apostles and disciples and people with good intentions and bad.
Athena stood before me and repeated the usual gesture: she closed her eyes and opened her mouth to receive the Body of Christ.
The Body of Christ remained in my hands.
She opened her eyes, unable to understand what was going on.
‘We’ll talk later,’ I whispered.
But she didn’t move.
‘There are people behind you in the queue. We’ll talk later.’
‘What’s going on?’ she asked, and everyone in the line could hear her question.
‘We’ll talk later.’
‘Why won’t you give me communion? Can’t you see you’re humiliating me in front of everyone? Haven’t I been through enough already?’
‘Athena, the Church forbids divorced people from receiving the sacrament. You signed your divorce papers this week. We’ll talk later,’ I said again.
When she still didn’t move, I beckoned to the person behind her to come forward. I continued giving communion until the last parishioner had received it. And it was then, just before I turned to the altar, that I heard that voice.
It was no longer the voice of the girl who sang her worship of the Virgin Mary, who talked about her plans, who was so moved when she shared with me what she’d learned about the lives of the saints, and who almost wept when she spoke to me about her marital problems. It was the voice of a wounded, humiliated animal, its heart full of loathing.
‘A curse on this place!’ said the voice. ‘A curse on all those who never listened to the words of Christ and who have transformed his message into a stone building. For Christ said: “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Well, I’m heavy laden, and they won’t let me come to Him. Today I’ve learned that the Church has changed those words to read: “Come unto me all ye who follow our rules, and let the heavy laden go hang!”’
I heard one of the women in the front row of pews telling her to be quiet. But I wanted to hear. I needed to hear. I turned to her, my head bowed – it was all I could do.
‘I swear that I will never set foot in a church ever again. Once more, I’ve been abandoned by a family, and this time it has nothing to do with financial difficulties or with the immaturity of those who marry too young. A curse upon all those who slam the door in the face of a mother and her child! You’re just like those people who refused to take in the Holy Family, like those who denied Christ when he most needed a friend!’
With that, she turned and left in tears, her baby in her arms. I finished the service, gave the final blessing and went straight to the sacristy – that Sunday, there would be no mingling with the faithful, no pointless conversations. That Sunday, I was faced by a philosophical dilemma: I had chosen to respect the institution rather than the words on which that institution was based.
I’m getting old now, and God could take me at any moment. I’ve remained faithful to my religion and I believe that, for all its errors, it really is trying to put things right. This will take decades, possibly centuries, but one day, all that will matter is love and Christ’s words: ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ I’ve devoted my entire life to the priesthood and I don’t regret my decision for one second. However, there are times, like that Sunday, when, although I didn’t doubt my faith, I did doubt men.
I know now what happened to Athena, and I wonder: Did it all start there, or was it already in her soul? I think of the many Athenas and Lukáses in the world who are divorced and because of that can no longer receive the sacrament of the Eucharist; all they can do is contemplate the suffering, crucified Christ and listen to His words, words that are not always in accord with the laws of the Vatican. In a few cases, these people leave the church, but the majority continue coming to mass on Sundays, because that’s what they’re used to, even though they know that the miracle of the transmutation of the bread and the wine into the flesh and the blood of the Lord is forbidden to them.
I like to imagine that, when she left the church, Athena met Jesus. Weeping and confused, she would have thrown herself into his arms, asking him to explain why she was being excluded just because of a piece of paper she’d signed, something of no importance on the spiritual plane, and which was of interest only to registry offices and the tax man.
And looking at Athena, Jesus might have replied:
‘My child, I’ve been excluded too. It’s a very long time since they’ve allowed me in there.’
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