Father Frank happily lived a life of personal sacrifice and denial of certain physical pleasures. He considered these sacrifices to be worthwhile due to his life being in service to something he felt to be greater than himself. As a priest of the Roman Catholic Church he made every effort to live the best life he felt a human being was capable of living in order to be certain of his place in Heaven.
That was a development of the past fifteen years. The twenty years before that had been spent living a life of Sin.
As a result of his dedication he made every effort to treat all people he came in contact with respectfully. He strove daily to serve as an example to any member of the community he could, regardless of their religious affiliation.
One of the very few guilty pleasures he looked forward to was the smell of fresh coffee wafting from the kitchen in the annex to the main Church at 6:30am Saturday mornings. The weekly meeting of the men’s prayer and discussion group was something he used to arrive at early enough to provide everyone else with that olfactory welcome.
In recent weeks one of the parishioners had been taking over the task. Frank considered this to be a fantastic treat. If coffee were a Sin he knew he would have real professional problems.
Approaching the door to the annex he couldn’t help but notice it was time to paint again. The New England winter months did take their toll on the exterior of the Church.
Making his way to the kitchen he saw George, “Good morning George. You beat me here again. Thank you for bringing some muffins as well. Someday I will figure out how you carry all this and still use that cane,” he said with a smile.
“Just one more time I want to offer my condolences on the passing of your wife. These past two months must have been a daily challenge. However, it does appear as though you are starting to move on with your life, and I think that is very positive,” said the Priest.
George had been an active parishioner at Saint Michael’s for almost four decades. After the recent passing of his wife he was seen at various Parish activities more than he was at home.
“Thank you, Father,” he said. “I have been feeling a little better each and every day. The first week was possibly the most difficult week of my life. I still sometimes wake up at night and think she will be there right beside me. I guess forty one years with the same woman makes it hard to get used to not having anyone there next to you. The Matheson household was a much better place for her presence. She was the reason I am the man that I am. She challenged me and made me strive to be the best person I could be while she was part of my life,” the old man’s voice quivered slightly as he spoke about his late wife.
“Our entire community was a better place due to her presence. Someday you two will be rejoined in a better place. I just hope you are here on Earth with us for a long time to come. Men such as you make our Congregation the dynamic living body that it is. That, and I do so enjoy your coffee,” Father Frank said as he sipped at the aromatic, steaming hot fluid.
The two men put themselves to work positioning chairs around the horseshow shaped table in the main room of the annex.
“Father, I was thinking about last week’s discussion. I agree that we need to find a way to stop the decline of morals so that our little township can once again have a strong foundation. Once we reestablish that foundation we can once again find ourselves back on the road to a world that can not only flourish spiritually, but also, hopefully, economically and perhaps find our world at peace. Not the least important result would be to get the high crime rate to come down. The reason I bring up economics is that I think the high crime rate is largely happening as a result of the bad economy. In other words, I completely agree with your theory that our society’s morals are the foundation of all of our behavior in life. If employers pay people what they should, if people do their jobs, and if we stop this greediness that has permeated throughout every inch of society we can reshape our world. While I agree with all of that I wanted to add something to your thinking if you would permit me to do so,” George said.
“Certainly…Discussion, and thereby improving of our ideas and understanding is why we have these meetings,” explained Father Frank.
“If a man or woman’s morals start to slide, where to they draw the damn line? A person’s morals are were all of their behavior is formed. With strong morals you will want to help your neighbor when he is in need. Without them you want to walk into his house on the one day the neighbor was careless enough to leave the door unlocked and help themselves to the television.
“Basically, what I am saying is that with strong morals we can build a strong societal foundation for our future. While I completely agree we should attempt to be a moral example to anyone we come in contact with, I also think we must work doubly hard very early on in our school system to teach Christian morals from day one. We want to teach our children regardless of their parent’s actions or desires. Strong morals are the key to all of our futures. If we sway the children this concept will get through to society in the long run. At least that is one cranky old man’s opinion,” explained George, the quivering in his voice disappearing as he spoke.
“You really have been thinking about this. Let me explain how I formed my opinion. Teaching morals and values in schools is, or course, important. However, I think if we don’t spend some effort leading by example at all levels in our society that lesson will just not take hold. If we can’t sway some of the adults we interact with we are lost. Merely ‘indoctrinating’ the youth is the typical method of tyrannical groups throughout history, and something the Church should probably avoid,” Father Frank replied.
He looked at George and realized the old man was still not fully on board, “Let me give you an example, if we enforce these morals at school, but children see their parents behaving differently, the lesson will not stick. We really need more adults to come into the light, and yes, we also need the kids. We must think big, and perhaps get some celebrities, sports stars, and even politicians to come out publicly in support of us, rather than just generic statements that support nothing, and can be interpreted by everyone as supporting anything they want to do.”
Father Frank took a sip of coffee before continuing, “If we hold up these more recognizable people as examples while simultaneously showing that bad morals, low morals, misplaced morals cause nothing but trouble in the long run. When considered in the short term, they may bring you pleasure, but in the long run they will cause you nothing but pain and suffering. The biggest problem is that as a society we have a very short attention span.”
The Priest was glad to see that these discussion group meetings were causing at least some of the men to think about how these Biblical topics could bring positive changes to the community even after they left the room. He had been adamant with the Bishop that men needed a place to meet and talk with other men. He argued that spiritually stronger, more righteous men in the group would lead, and that would result in the others following their example. This would all be in a similar fashion as Christ had been a Spiritual example to the men around him. It appeared as though, at least in the case of George, some lessons were taking hold, and even growing. The Priest’s argument had been, and he still hoped he was correct, that thinking about a problem was the first step in finding a solution.
Having completed setting up the room the two men waited for the rest of the group in the kitchen where they continued to chat and drink coffee.
As always there was a wide array of attendees that showed up. They ranged from blue collar to white collar, from old to young, from talkative to quiet. It didn’t matter all were welcome. Every week there were a few regulars as well as some men who joined in either sporadically, or even a few who showed up several times before never being seen again. All were welcome, regardless of regular attendance or position in life, everyone was equal in the eyes of the Lord.
Inside the congregation everyone seemed to know everyone else’s profession. No one cared about such trivialities except when leaning on one another’s skills to solve problems facing their community. Everyone was just as important a part of the spiritual community as everyone else. Everyone was here due to their mutual interest in living their life in as a reflection of God’s teachings.
When he watch read exactly 7AM Father Frank, as was tradition, flipped the lights off and on several times as a sign to everyone that it was time to begin the meeting. As the men all took their seats and their polite laughter at one another’s jokes died down, Father Frank began the discussion, “Gentlemen, and I use that term loosely,” he said with a smile. “Let us begin with a prayer.”
They all made the sign of the cross and dipped their heads.
The Priest spoke the words for the group, “Heavenly Father guide us in these troubling times. Help us find a way to make our neighborhood, State, Country, and the World that You have given us a great and glorious place once again. Help us to have the wisdom to transform it into a place where all of Your creatures can live in peace, harmony, and prosperity free from evil, amen.”
The group repeated the final word in unison.
“Now, let us have the weekly reading. I have placed paper copies around for each of you, so please, follow along. Michael, would you please do the honor?” the Priest asked.
“Yes, Father,” the middle aged man said. “We have a reading from the book of Exodus.”
“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman, and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious offender, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
“Thank you, Michael,” said the Priest. “I want us to think about the passage in the context of the problems facing us today, not how it was used at the time it was written. Let us ask ourselves the following question. Does this passage apply today? Do people believe their evil actions have consequences any longer? As a part of this discussion, I think today should be part brainstorming session on what, if anything, we can do about the situations we are faced with each and every day. Crime is rising quickly, unemployment is skyrocketing, and people are losing hope.”
Father Frank noticed the group was paying more attention than usual. He had hoped this passage would be something that got them to think more than usual, “As a group I think we congregation members can do much to deliver a positive message, but this message, while it is one of hope, doesn’t do much to change the situation people face if it remains mere words. We need action. So while we have the opportunity here in this room I hope we can find some ideas in the experienced minds we have. I think we need to become proactive in bringing some sense of normalcy back to our community. I think this for many reasons. First and foremost is that families are turning to the Church for food because their houses are being broken into and the only thing being taken is food. This indicates a real problem to me, but I’m unable to put my finger on exactly why. Does anyone have an idea why this is happening?”
Officer Jonathan Pierce was an average sized man with a large and thankless job. He was a local police detective raising two children with his wife of seven years. He had a perpetual look of fatigue about him from long hours of work. He rarely spoke out at these group meetings, choosing instead to just observe. Not today, this time was much more personal to him than to most men. A real distaste for crime is what had driven him into his profession, “Father, I can confirm your claim. The police have been called to home after home to investigate break-ins. These days when we go out and look into them, many times it is just empty pantries and refrigerators being reported.”
He stood up and began walking around the table aimlessly as he continued, “A year ago the calls were valuables, or anything that could be sold. Now, the fact that it is almost always food indicates a couple of things. The first is that most homes have either had all their valuables stolen and not replaced or they have sold these things off themselves. The second is that we discovered the local food banks are either running out or are very low on food. This is causing people to go hungry, or turn to the church, or they just go out and steal what they can. In addition to all of that we are aware that drugs and prostitutes are getting much cheaper due to a massively increased supply of both.”
As he finished the group started talking all at once. A series of ideas began to be offered, none of which would be workable.
Suddenly Officer Pierce snapped his fingers and shot out of his chair, “Guys, how about this? Don’t bother trying to solve the problem just yet. Everyone here needs a closer look at the actual issue. I can arrange for a everyone to take a ride along with an officer on duty. This will be in different parts of town, and at different times of day. This way you will all get a first hand look at what we see every day. Then you will have a much less abstract idea of which areas of town have the biggest problem, and understand those issues a little better than from what you can get on the evening news. Then we can figure out which problem areas we can and should focus on. Some areas might be a little dangerous, but I can pair you with solid officers and keep everyone safe.”
Donald Hinkle, one of the oldest and most respected members of the group spoke up, “Gentlemen, I am 78 years old. I don’t have much time left on this Earth and I, for one, don’t care how dangerous whatever we come up with is. I want to do something to at least attempt to repair the problems in this nation I love.
Everyone knew Donald was a combat veteran from the Viet Nam War but rarely spoke of it. It was rumored he still had difficulty sleeping through the night due to something that happened while he was there, all those decades ago.
Donald paused to sip his coffee from a small Styrofoam cup before continuing, “Not all of the nasty desires people have are meant to be fulfilled. For instance, prostitutes are just about everywhere these days. We must be honest gentlemen, there have been times in my life, long ago, that I wanted to be with just about every woman I saw. Does that mean I should just about every woman I saw. Does that mean I should just go ahead and be unfaithful to my wife? Hell no. I for one think that consequences have long since ceased having meaning in our country. Criminals are released from prison quickly, large companies are able to get away with what amounts to criminal activity as long as they donate to the right set of politicians. Couple all of that with our laws being weakly enforced, except tax law, that is if our judges enforce penalties at all. It all adds up to our Police Officers being faced with a nearly impossible job. I believe the passage from our reading today need to become reality once again.”
Father Frank rose from his seat. He stood straight and tall letting his robes flare a bit. He employed this kind of theatric from time to time. His 6’4” frame commanded attention even though he felt he needed to exercise a bit harder than had been his habit of late, “Gentlemen, let us coordinate the first step of ride along nights with officers on duty. Officer Pierce, how do we get this process started?”
The smile on Officer Pierce’s face was the most expressive anyone had seen the man since his younger son’s baptism. “Well, it is really pretty easy. We get a pile of waivers for everyone to sign then just get in a squad car. I’d also like to give anyone who doesn’t already have it my cellular phone numbah,” his thick Boston accent coming through more and more as he became excited. “All I need to know is who is available which night and I can find everyone a patrol cah. The Officers on duty during the night shift will be especially happy to have the company.”
“Thank you, Jonathan. Are there any safety tips you can give us?” the Priest asked.
“There really isn’t much to it. Stay in the car unless the Officer you are with says differently. Other than that just do what they ask, and if anything happens just keep your head down. Father, I will coordinate with you on what areas of town to start in. Just stop by the precinct Monday mornin’ and we will figure it out,” Jonathan answered.
“Easy enough! Now, I would like to throw out a question to the entire group for brief discussion in the short time we have left. It is more of a philosophical question that I, myself, have struggled to answer. We all know the way those of us here like to live our lives. We all tend to agree, more or less, on the way God intended our world to be. We don’t like the crumbling infrastructure, or other things we have discussed today. The real underlying problem as I see it, is that a growing portion of the global population has lost any kind of understanding between right and wrong. However, in solving the problem, does the ultimate goal of righting some larger wrong justify doing one or two things outside the accepted norm in order to accomplish the ultimate goal of the greater good?” Father Frank inquired.
The other men at the table merely looked puzzled. They were unsure where he was going with this new line of discussion.
“Ok, I can see I haven’t clearly described my dilemma. We have an entire society succumbing to temptation at every turn. We want to pull it back from the brink of destroying itself. Sometimes, in the process of achieving some greater good we have to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do. For example, let us assume we are discussing a soldier during a war. There is a battle raging. In that battle, he observes someone from the enemy’s military waving a white flag of surrender. On the surrendering soldier’s left and right are two solders who are not surrendering and are still shooting. Would we consider as evil a soldier who used a hand grenade to eliminate the threat to himself in the form of the two shooting soldiers? Would we do so if in the process he killed the one with the white flag as well, just due to the nature of the weapon at his disposal?”
There was a quiet murmur among the men around the table. The Priest continued, “Gentlemen, in our attempt to clean up our town, and ultimately our society I am not suggesting we start a war or carrying automatic weapons. It’s a hypothetical question.”
Jonathan Pierce looked up from his habit of staring at his hands, “Father, I say in the situation, you described the soldier had done his duty. He has not committed an atrocity.”
Father Frank leaned back in his seat feeling deeply satisfied as the room exploded into immediate, intense discussions with all the 30-odd men agreeing with the officer. They were all encouraged by each other’s opinion and wanted to add their perspective to the groups thoughts on the matter.
The Priest stood once again, “Well then gentlemen, let us all think about this and perhaps have a more in depth discussion across the next several weeks. Perhaps we can even make enough sense out of it that I can make it the focus of a future sermon.”
“Perhaps we should even consider taking this discussion one step further and consider if we think it is ok to root out evil in our world even if it must be done by the application of force. It don’t believe anyone could claim that Hitler could have been talked out of European domination. The man had his delusions of conquering the world. The clearly had to be dealt with in a fashion he understood. Overwhelming force was the only way to stop him. Bring a priest I believe in peace and tranquility. I have struggled with the question lately. Is force sometimes the only option? I am starting think there are certain limited circumstances in which we are left with force being the only option. There are certainly Scriptures showing God felt the same way. Let me finish my ‘soapbox moment’ by saying I am not suggesting or condoning force or violence. That is best left to the professionals. These are merely offered as topics for thought.”
“Now gentlemen, let us adjourn and meet again next week. There is a happy young couple I have the honor of marrying today,” the Priest was looking forward to the wedding. He hoped at some point on this day he could get some of the confessions he had heard out of his head, and maybe find a way to help at least one of those confessors.