It was Christmas Eve, early evening, and it was already dark. It was freezing cold with blinding snow still falling and winds making driving conditions perilous to say the least. Weather warnings on the radio advised people to stay at home.
Yet Father Ignatius was on the road. Driving back slowly towards St Vincent Church determined to be there to celebrate Midnight Mass.
He had been away the previous few days and had planned to return home early on Christmas Eve; but the bad weather held him back. Missing Midnight Mass was out of the question for the determined priest, and as he set off on his journey home the skies were dark and the roads were clear; until suddenly he was caught in a snow storm and had no alternative but to proceed onwards towards his Parish church.
The shortest way home was through treacherous country roads, which he knew well, yet never drove on in such conditions. As he turned a sharp bend on the road he noticed just in time a fallen tree blocking his way. He managed to brake in time and avoided hitting it or sliding out of control into a ditch.
He had no option but to reverse carefully and take another way home.
A few miles further on, just before entering a village he saw a car crashed against a tree. He stopped to help.
He’ll never forget the sight that greeted him.
There in the driving seat was a man covered in blood. He was breathing heavily and still conscious.
“Can you move?” asked the priest, fumbling for something to say.
The man shook his head, then slowly mumbled “my leg … trapped …”
“I’ll go for help …” said Father Ignatius.
“No … my wife … she’s gone to the village …”
The priest decided to wait with the injured man until help arrived. He got a blanket from his car and covered him to keep him warm. He tried as best he could to place another blanket on the man’s chest to stop any bleeding from a wound which, although not clearly visible in the dark, was obvious by the bleeding.
It was still snowing and Father Ignatius was freezing. Yet he stood outside the crashed car leaning through the broken driver’s window, trying his best to comfort the driver.
In between heavy sometimes gasping breaths, the man noticed Father Ignatius' white collar and asked, “Are you a church minister?”
“I’m a priest,” said Father Ignatius.
“I’ve never had time for people like you …” said the man, “I suppose I’ve never been able to believe … I tried mind you … but just couldn’t believe in God … Jesus …”
Father Ignatius said nothing but prayed silently.
“Do you think it’s too late … you know … can I believe now … or at least try …”
“It is never too late to put your trust in God. Just accept Him in your heart, right now, as best you can. Tell Him you believe in Him.”
The man breathed deeply once or twice. “Yes … I do want to believe, if He’ll help me do it …”
“Can I baptize you?” asked the priest daringly.
“Ah … it hurts more now … yes … do as you say … tell your God I’m sorry … tell Him to forgive me for any wrong I've done Him by not believing ...”
Father Ignatius quickly prayed with the man consciously sitting there and baptized him.
As he made the sign of the Cross on the man’s forehead he heard him say “Is that it? … that was painless …” as he forced a smile.
Father Ignatius held his hand and waited for a further twenty minutes or so, praying all the time, and speaking with him until an ambulance and a police car arrived almost simultaneously. He remained conscious throughout, breathing ever so heavily and obviously in great pain.
Father Ignatius eventually drove to the village and phoned a worried Father Donald from a small shop which was still open. He stayed there for an hour or so by the fire to warm up a little and, determined as ever, decided to continue on his way home.
He made it for Midnight Mass all right, but he was too tired and almost frost bitten to celebrate Mass. He sat at the front pew, by Our Lady’s statue, praying for the crash victim.
He learnt a few days later, from the man’s wife, that he never made it to the hospital. He died in the ambulance on the way there. It was then that Father Ignatius remembered that had it not been for the fallen tree blocking his way, he would have got home much earlier and avoided the accident altogether. Obviously, God wanted him to go to the man’s aid.
A tragic Christmas in human terms, perhaps. But a joyous one in Heaven, welcoming a new soul.
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