Chapter 34

in which Father Smith's newly completed church is bombed two days before consecration.

When, two days before the new Bishop was due to consecrate the Church of the Holy Name, Canon Smith heard what most of his parishioners called the sireens sound in the middle the night, he was not alarmed, because he had so often heard them sound before and nothing had happened. His rheumatism was hurting him, though, and his legs felt all stiff and aching, so as he lay in the darkness waiting for the 'all clear' to sound, he offered his suffering up to Almighty God, that He might be pleased to accept it in reparation for his own and the world's forgetfulness of Him. But the 'all clear' didn't go; instead, there were bangs and explosions and more explosions, coming nearer and nearer.

Canon Smith was not a brave man; at least, he didn't think that he was, because he knew that he would very much rather die naturally in his bed than be hanged and disembowelled and burnt as a martyr, and he thought that being burned alive in an air-raid fire must be even worse, because the greater glory of God didn't come into it at all. He had, therefore, quite a hollow feeling in his stomach as, with the crashing and the cracking growing louder and louder, he bundled into his clothes and hurried away downstairs to the church, wondering if it would be a sin to extinguish an incendiary bomb with holy water and wishing that he could consult Canon Bonnyboat on the matter.

He had no curate these days, because young Father Burt had gone away as a chaplain with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and he hoped that if a fire were started he would be able to put it out alone. As he opened the presbytery door, however, and walked out into the night, the banging suddenly ceased and the stars in the sky were calm above his head.

When he reached the porch of the church, he found it packed with couples making love and stuffing themselves with fish and chips. He had to explain several tires who he was before they would move aside to let him pass. He hesitated as to whether he should chase them away, but he remembered what Canon Dobbie had said thirteen years ago at his first chapter meeting, how that a grace from the Blessed Sacrament might touch their souls and change their dispositions to Almighty God, so he let them remain where they were.

Inside the church was dark but for the sanctuary lamp burning like a ruby. For a few minutes the canon knelt and prayed that the day would soon come when the night would belong again to monks and nuns, praising God down the centuries. Then he lit the two Low Mass candles on the high altar, because, even although all the windows had been blacked out, he thought it safest to show as little light as possible. The waiting altar seemed to keep receding as he sat down in the front pew and looked at it,' so he shut his eyes and it was still there when he opened them again.

The gunfire sounded, breaking out in a great roar over the town, and there were other noises as well, whistlings and screamings, followed by explosions, although it did not seem that anybody could really be being bombed. The canon remembered having read in the Highland Herald, immediately below a reference to the evil of Sunday concerts for the troops, that those who were out in the streets during air raids might easily be wounded by a splinter from an anti-aircraft shell, so he went back to the church door and opened it. The lovers were no longer making love now, but were staring in startled dismay at the sky at the edge of the town, which was now red and glowing. The canon invited them to come in, telling them that he thought that it was dangerous for them to remain outside. They came in sheepishly. They were mostly soldiers and sailors accompanied by trollops from the Port Said Dancing Club. Most of the trollops had no hats on, and so Canon Smith told them to put their handkerchiefs over their heads as Saint Paul had ruled that it wasn't becoming for a woman to have her head uncovered in house. One of the sailors said that he remembered read in the newspaper that the Archbishop of Canterbury had said that girls could now enter churches without hats on, but Canon Smith said that, as far as he was concerned, it what Saint Paul had said that mattered. So the trollops put their handkerchiefs over their heads, flat out like tea cloths, but the canon showed them how to make them stay on properly, by tying four knots at the corners, and he lent his own handkerchief to a big blowsy Jezebel from the docks who said that she hadn't got one, because she thought it was rude to blow her nose in night clubs.

At this one of the soldiers laughed aloud and then stuck his hand in front of his mouth and apologized to the canon, saying that he had forgotten that he was in church; but the canon said that there was no need to apologize at all, because God didn't mind how much people laughed in church, provided that they laughed at the right sort of joke. Whereupon the soldier said that he had always thought that the Catholic religion was a very fine religion, indeed, and one of the sailors said that he thought so, too, and that, indeed, he would have become a Catholic long ago only he hadn't been able to understand the bit about the unbaptized babies burning for ever and ever in hell when it really wasn't their fault at all that they hadn't been baptized.

The canon said that the sailor was quite wrong and that the souls of unbaptized babies didn't burn in hell at all, and that if they would all sit down he would tell them what the Church's teaching on the subject really was and perhaps it would help to take their minds off the air raid. So they all sat down in the two back pews and the canon stood in the pew in front of them and told them all about the sacrament of baptism. Two of the trollops looked rather bored, and one of them kept winking at one of the soldiers, but Canon Smith didn't notice because he was having to talk so loudly in order to make himself heard above the air raid.

The canon said that the sacrament of baptism was instituted by our Lord Himself as an essential to salvation when He said that, except people were baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, they should not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. That might seem to us an unreasonable condition, but after all, our Lord spoke in the Name of Almighty God Himself, Who was best fitted to know what qualifications were necessary for admission to His own Paradise and to assess their justice. It was true, therefore, that the souls of unbaptized babies could not enter heaven, because God Himself had said that they couldn't, but that did not mean that they went to hell. Such a doctrine would, indeed, be most unreasonable, since the babies could not sin as they lacked knowledge and therefore could not offend God with malice. The truth was that the souls of unbaptized babies went to another place called Limbo, where there was no suffering and where our Lord's Own Son had gone between the time of His dying on the cross and His rising again from the dead. Limbo wasn't heaven, of course, but equally so it wasn't hell, and he was afraid that that was all he could say on the matter because it was all that Almighty God had revealed to the Church.

There was a big bang as the Canon said this, and the sailor for whose benefit he had been explaining about baptism opened his eyes. The trollop sitting next him nudged him and asked him if he wasn't going to thank the Reverend Father for having told them all about baptism so nicely. So the sailor stood up and said that now that he understood the souls of unbaptized babies didn't go to hell, but to Kimberley instead, he would think very seriously about becoming a Catholic. He was sure that all the rest of them would think very seriously about becoming Catholics, too, now that they knew the souls of unbaptized babies went to Kimberley.

Canon Smith hadn't time to correct the sailor and tell him that it was to Limbo and not to Kimberley that the souls of unbaptized babies went, because there was a bigger bang than ever and the whole church trembled, and he and the soldiers and the sailors and the trollops all flung themselves flat. When they got up again, they were so frightened that they had forgotten all about the souls of unbaptized babies. The big blowsy Jezebel from the docks asked the canon they hadn't better sing a hymn and suggested 'Abide With Me,' but the Canon said that he thought that 'Praise to the Holiest in the Height' would be better, as it had been written by a very saintly man called John Henry Cardinal Newman.

They were all singing away at the tops of their voices when, the incendiary bomb fell through the roof of the church and set the curtains behind the high altar on fire. Another bomb fell on the front pews and set them on fire, too, but Canon Smith didn't know about the incendiary bomb on the vestment chest until he rushed into the sacristy to put on a stole to remove the Blessed Sacrament from the high altar. He found a stole hanging on the back of the door and he found the key of the tabernacle, but the door of the tabernacle was so hot when he reached it that he could scarcely touch The sailors and the soldiers and the trollops tried to pull him back, but he shook them off and told them to get out of the church if they didn't want to be burned to death. They said, however, that they weren't going to leave the church until he did, because he had been so nice telling them about how the souls of unbaptized babies went to Kimberley. The canon's face was so sore with the flames that he couldn't answer them, but he managed to get the pyx and the ciborium out of the tabernacle.

They were all very excited when they stood outside watching the blaze, but the canon said that they mustn't talk to him because he was carrying Almighty God in his hands.

The whole town seemed in flames when a fire engine came at last and Canon Smith set out to carry the Blessed Sacrament to the convent. The big blowsy Jezebel from the docks went with him, because she said that she would like to chum him. The canon said that he would be quite pleased to have her company, only he said again that she mustn't talk, and he tried to explain to her what a very holy thing it was that they were doing and how ordinarily lighted candles were carried in front of the Blessed Sacrament to do God honour, but that there were times when even God had to be robbed of His ceremonial. The big blowsy Jezebel from the docks said that perhaps the buildings burning all around them would do instead, but the canon said that he didn't think that God would see it quite that way, as the burning buildings were the beacons of men's miseries and God was not honoured by their distress.

The air raid was still on when they reached the convent and Reverend Mother and the nuns were all up and in their habits. They brought lighted candles and formed into procession when they saw that Canon Smith was carrying the Blessed Sacrament and, as she followed them into the chapel, the blowsy Jezebel thought that she had never seen anything so pretty in all her life. As the canon put the pyx and the ciborium away in the tabernacle, the nuns knelt and sang the Laudate Dominum. When the canon came round from his faint, it was a new young nun whose face he didn't know who was bending over him.


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