It was Friday evening and Father Ignatius was alone in the Parish House listening to his favourite classical music. He sat in his armchair by the fire, eyes closed, and with his hand slowly moving his index finger in the air as if holding a baton and conducting an orchestra. Just as the music reached his favourite piece of Verdi’s Aida … The Triumphal March … just then, the front doorbell rang and interrupted his grand moment of triumph.
He jumped off his chair, switched off the record player and said sotto voce, “OK … hold it there all of you … we’ll return to this piece presently …”
He opened the door to be confronted by Sister Martha.
“I’m not interrupting anything?” she asked.
“Oh … only Giuseppe Verdi,” he replied.
“Yes … I’ve heard him through the open window. He’s getting better under your leadership. Mind if I come in?”
He moved aside and let her in.
“Would you like tea or coffee,” she said as she made her way towards the kitchen.
“Tea please,” replied the priest as he walked back to the living room.
Sister Martha was in her late sixties, yet she was as youthful and energetic as anyone half her age. She lived at the Convent nearby with a dozen other nuns, and she taught at the local Catholic schools. She often called in on the priests at St Vincent for a chat and a cup of tea on her way home, especially on Fridays when she stayed a little late at the school.
Moments later she entered the living room carrying a tray of tea and ginger biscuits; the priest’s favorite, as she knew very well.
“Ah … I didn’t know we had ginger biscuits,” said Father Ignatius, “I didn’t find them earlier on when I looked.”
“Mrs Davenport has shown me where she hides them,” said Sister Martha pouring two cups of tea, “she told me if you’d find them you’ll finish the whole packet.”
A few minutes of silence later, as they slowly sipped their tea, Sister Martha was first to break the quiet.
“Ignatius … have you heard about Sister Cecilia?” she asked.
“No, I can’t say I have,” he replied, “what’s the problem?”
“I am not breaking any confidences Ignatius, she asked me to speak to you. She’s already spoken to Mother Superior today.”
“Sounds ominous,” said the priest putting his cup down.
“Well … she works at the hospital as you know. She’s a nursing assistant there. Well, not to put too fine a point on it … she’s fallen in love with a young doctor there.
“She told me she doesn’t know how it happened,” continued Sister Martha, “they got attracted to each other and she feels she can no longer continue her vocation.”
“You say she spoke to Mother Superior?” asked Father Ignatius.
“Yes … today. She told her she’d been thinking about this for about a month or so. She wishes it didn’t happen but it has. She wants to leave the convent and pursue a new life with him. She told me that Mother Superior was very understanding and suggested that she leaves the Convent for another one down South to give her time to think. But Sister Cecilia doesn’t think it will help. She wants to leave her vocation altogether.”
“I see,” said the priest calmly, “and you say Cecilia asked you to speak to me.”
“Yes … she wanted your advice.”
Father Ignatius smiled weakly.
“The poor soul,” he mumbled, “what advice can I give her, Martha?” he asked rhetorically.
“When we decide to take up our vocation to serve the Lord,” he continued, “we do so after a lot of soul-searching, a lot of prayers, and a lot of training. It takes years as you know Martha, this is perhaps deliberate to give us a chance to think seriously on what we’re doing and the commitment we’re undertaking.
“Yet … despite all that … it does sometimes happen as in this case, that individuals can no longer continue their vocations and wish to leave. It happened some years ago to a priest I knew well. He has left the church and is now married with a family of his own.”
“It’s terrible,” Sister Martha said quietly.
“I suppose it is,” he replied, “as a Church we frown when people break their marital vows and divorce or separate. And I suspect this is no different. When a priest or nun break their vows and no longer wish to continue their vocations … it is perhaps the same as couples seeking divorce. Yet Martha, whilst I understand what people like Cecilia or that priest I spoke of are going through, I cannot condemn them.”
The nun looked up at him with a frown.
“I cannot condemn them, Martha,” he repeated, “I agree that it is wrong to break the vows they made freely, but at the same time, who am I to stand in the way of true and genuine love, if that is what’s happened in this case. I know it was exactly what happened in the case of that priest. I knew him very well. He fell in love with a teacher. He shouldn’t have, but he did. He wanted to leave the Church, just like Cecilia. He confessed to me, it was heart breaking. He told me he could not go on serving as a priest.”
“What did you do?” asked Sister Martha.
“I forgave him of course,” replied Father Ignatius, “how could I possibly withhold absolution? He was repentant and he knew that he could no longer serve as a priest. Even if he gave up his lover and was moved to another Parish. He knew that he would not be a good priest and that deep in his heart he’d be a fraud. He’d be serving against his will and would be cheating the Church as well as God Himself.
“Yes,” said Father Ignatius thinking back to that event in the distant past, “I forgave him and absolved him. When we forgive someone else, we touch his very soul with the merciful love of Jesus Christ our Lord. How could I stand in the way of such love?
“Eventually … the bishop let him go. And as I said, he’s now married with a family.”
“What do you want me to say to Cecilia?” asked Sister Martha.
“Tell her that I’ll be praying for her,” he replied, “tell her to think about what Mother Superior advised, and that I’ll be always available if she wishes to have a talk with me. How old is she?” he asked.
“Thirty … last month!”
“She’s young and no doubt very frightened,” said Father Ignatius calmly, “I believe that whatever we do, our role is not to condemn but to forgive. She is doing what she feels is right for her life.
“Our Lord forgave many sins when He walked this earth. Who am I to stand in the way of true repentance?”
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