Chapter 25

in which Father Smith, after the funeral of one of the nuns, has a long discussion with the Bishop about Father Scott.

Poor Mother Leclerc died of a bloody flux on the Feast of Saint Francis Xavier, 1935, and was buried two days later in the convent garden, where Mother de la Tour had chosen her grave in a corner where all her loveliest flowers would bloom the next spring. Canon Bonnyboat sang the High Mass of requiem, because he was supposed to be her especial friend, since it was he who had given the nuns the parrot; and the parrot himself, in a cage all covered with bows of black ribbon, was in the organ loft, because Reverend Mother knew that her lately departed daughter in Christ would have wished it so.

The Bishop himself preached the panegyric. His voice was becoming feeble and wavering, because he was now seventy-five years of age, but he spoke out as loudly and as clearly as he could, because he wanted everyone to hear how beautiful he thought a nun's life was.

Monks and nuns, the Bishop said, asked for no praise from the world for what they did; all they wanted was to be left alone to live their lives hid with God in Christ. 'Be still and know that I am God.' That was the command that each religious heard whispered in his heart, and it was the highest mission that any human soul could receive, for it was the only way to pierce through to the lustre and the glory which shone forth on the other side of the curtain and to reflect a tiny shimmer of it back to the unheeding multitudes. It was the command that men and women needed most to obey today when everything in the world was so noisy from wireless sets to motor cars. It was the command which Mother Leclerc had heard in the France of her youth, when her hair had been black and strong and young, and her obedience had led her into strange places, but her eyes when she died had been, oh, so blue, because all her life she had been in love with Almighty God. When the Bishop had said this, the parrot cawed out 'per omnia saecula saeculorum,' but nobody laughed, because they were all so sorry that Mother Leclerc had left them.

The sober voices of the children in Mother Leclerc's class sang the offertory. They were only ten years of age, and one day they would forget all about Mother Leclerc and would walk with their lovers beside rivers and have children grow old in strange beds, but they sang with sorrow: 'Domine Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae, libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum de poenis inferni, et de profundo lacu.' As they sang, Canon Smith prayed for the repose of Mother Leclerc's soul. Then he prayed for the old sailor whom he had shriven so many long years ago and for Angus McNab and for Annie Rooney and for the boozy major and for D. H. Lawrence, who had known so much and who had known little, that God might receive them, too, into everlasting dwellings. Then he prayed for the Abyssinians who were being killed by the Italians, that God might cradle their savage passing and make them quickly happy in paradise; and for the Italians, too, he prayed, because death was sore for them as well as they lay with split faces and gouged eyes and they, too, had once been little boys within walls. When he had finished praying the children had got to 'Fac eas, Domine, de morte trarisire ad vitam,' and their voices had never faltered once, although they had loved Mother Leclerc so much.

When the Mass was over and the absolutions given, they carried the wooden box out into the garden and laid it in the hole beneath the leafless trees; and they all held lighted candles in their hands as a sign that Mother Leclerc's soul had not gone out, but was shining somewhere still. Wrapped in his black-and-silver vestments the frail old Bishop prayed that God might grant eternal rest unto her and that perpetual light might shine upon her and that she might repose in peace.

When the service was over, Reverend Mother accompanied the Bishop and Canon Smith to the gate of the convent, for the Bishop had promised to give the canon a lift home in his car. 'Elle était toujours si gaie, la pauvre, mais maintenant elle est probablement en train de chercher une bonne histoire pour raconter au Bon Dieu,' she said.

The 'Bishop wasn't at all sure that they gave the souls in purgatory time to think up funny stories to tell God, but as the theologians had laid nothing down in the matter and as he didn't want to hurt Reverend Mother's feelings, he kept his doubts to himself.

It was so long since he had been alone with the Bishop that Canon Smith didn't know quite what to say to him as they trundled along deep ravines of ugly streets in his lordship's tiny tin truck. They knew each other well, of course, but not sufficiently well not to have to make noises at each other when they were alone together. Moreover, their natural shyness was increased by the fact that Canon Smith suspected that the Bishop had always slightly disapproved of him since he had made that speech of his at his first chapter meeting and by the other fact that the Bishop suspected his suspicion. The Bishop, however, was the first to break their slightly awkward silence.

'I've been thinking lately about Father Scott, he said. 'I've been wondering whether I oughtn't to move him on to another parish.'

'The Church of the Holy Name will miss him terribly if you do,' Canon Smith said. 'In my opinion he's the finest preacher we've had for years. It'll be an ungrateful task for one so awkwardly articulate as myself to preach at Benediction when he's gone.'

'It's of the young man's own good that I'm thinking and indeed of the ultimate good of the diocese as a whole,' the Bishop said. 'If there's one thing more calculated to fan the flame of human vanity than being a popular actor, it's being a popular preacher. All these queues outside your church on Sunday evenings. And not only Catholics either, but Protestants as well. A young man requires to be a saint indeed not to let that sort of success go to his head. And then some of the things that he says are rather startling. For instance, that remark of his about morality being something more positive than glamour girls refraining from uncovering their vaccination marks in the presence of archbishops. And then his statement about it being a matter of ecclesiastical discipline and not of divine law that priests in the diocese of Quebec should wear cassocks when they went swimming.'

Canon Smith was relieved. He had been afraid that the Bishop had been going to quote an even more startling phrase from Father Scott's address to the Men's Guild in the church hall on the Vigil of Saint John the Baptist for which he himself had taken the young man to task.

'I do not think, my lord, that Father Scott meant any harm' by the statements you quote and, what is more, I do not think he did any harm,' he said. 'And certainly he intended no disrespect to His Holiness's well-known views on women's dress nor did he intend to criticize the rules and regulations prescribed by the Ordinary of Quebec. All he meant was, I am, sure, that ladies who wore long sleeves when they went to the Vatican and priests who dived off spring-boards in their cassocks would not because of their reticences alone enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.' Behind his earnestness he smiled as he remembered the day sixteen years ago when he himself had told the Bishop how much purer he thought the world would be if women wore no clothes at all. 'Father Scott has often told me that he thought the old truths wanted restating in language the people could understand. And indeed I think so myself. The Church possesses the truth, so why should she not shout out the sharp uncompromising gospel of Christ in sharp uncompromising language? As it is a greater sin before God for a duchess to underpay her footman than to appear before a cardinal showing a not very seductive sirloin of arm, why not say so? And Father Scott doesn't only preach Christianity, he acts it. Last month, for instance, when taking the last sacraments to a dying woman down by the docks, he found another woman in the same house keeping her two children out of bed because she was letting out their room to passing immoral couples. Father Scott told her exactly what he thought of her and himself turned the couple then in possession of the children's bedroom out into the street. You may say that such actions do not come within the normal scope of a priest's duties, but with all respect I maintain that they ought to. I maintain that our Lord would have done exactly the same thing, because He, too, could lose His temper when the occasion demanded, as when He threw the money-changers out of the temple. I maintain, too, that if more priests acted and talked like Father Scott, many more people in the world would be Christians who are pagans now and those who are already Christians would be better Christians. Doctrine, yes, the Blessed Sacrament and heaven and hell and purgatory, but let us shout them out bravely and in new loud words, so that the tired old world of habit and respectability may hear and understand that Christianity is the only true and daring revolution.'

'Probably we are both a little right and probably we are both a little wrong,' the Bishop said with a smile. 'You know, each time that I walk behind a processional cross I think I have a clearer view of our Lord's purposes. For sometimes the acolyte holds the cross straight and firm and erect and sometimes he lets it slip, so that it wobbles in his grasp. Well, the Christian religion's just like that, Canon: sometimes the battle's with us and our banners go forward; and sometimes the struggle's against us and our standards are tilted and torn; but always the grace of God is in our chrism, because He Himself poured it there.'

The Bishop said no more, but from his manner when they parted at the door of the presbytery the canon understood that there was no immediate likelihood of Father Scott being moved to another parish.

On the other side of the street Signor Sarno was walking with Father Scott himself, who had not been able to attend Mother Leclerc's funeral, because he had had to stay at home in order to officiate at another funeral in the church. Canon Smith watched them from the window pacing up and down in front of a multi-coloured poster which said something about 'gorgeous girls and their playboy pals.' It was obvious from the way that they stopped from time to time to wave their arms violently that they were having an argument. Then suddenly they took off their hats at each other and shook hands. Signor Sarno thoughtfully ascended the steps of the cinema and Father Scott came back across the road to the presbytery.

'I've just been giving old Sarno the works about Mr. B. Mussolini,' the young priest said as he came in. 'I told him that it was neither glorious, valorous, noble, nor epic for a great nation like Italy to bomb, gas, blister, blast, and massacre a horde of untrained and comparatively innocent savages. At first he was inclined to protest, but I think I've gone a long way towards convincing him. And you'll never guess the advertisement I read in the Catholic Trumpet yesterday: "Devonshire priest wants to purchase second-hand Bulgarian dictionary." Now what the heck does a priest of God mean by wasting his time learning Bulgarian when there's as much downright wickedness in the world as there is today?'

'Perhaps the poor man wants to conquer downright wickedness in Bulgaria,' said Canon Smith.

'Says you,' said Father Scott.


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