“Father, Father,” the guard shouted at Father Paul, a Catholic priest, who lie dying in the prison yard, stabbed to death by another prisoner!
“Call for the doctor,” he shouted to the other guards! But no doctor was to come.
Father Paul had been a friend of another priest, Father Anthony, whose wake was being held in the prison a number of years after Father Paul’s stabbing. Father Richard, who had come to the prison to attend the wake for Father Anthony, was remembering them both and remembering this incident as he sat alone in the somber room where Father Anthony’s casket lay.
A young man slowly entered the room where Father Richard was sitting. He was well dressed in a dark gray pinstriped suit with a red tie. Father Richard guessed he was in his early thirties, over six feet tall and noticed his blond hair. His looks bespoke the fact that he came from wealth. He was handsome and appeared to be in good physical shape.
The room was a far cry from his normal surroundings. It was a torpid gray with no windows and had seen many coats of paint. The light in the center of the ceiling had a weaker- than- appropriate bulb, possibly in an effort to save on electricity. The room was located on the ground floor of the prison, and its haggard look testified to the age of the prison and the tragedies its walls had witnessed.
The reason for the visit was a pine casket located at the far end of the smallish room. The young man had come to pay his respects to his uncle, Father Anthony, who he had not seen in many years. The priest’s friend Matt had called to notify the young man of the death, and that the priest had left the young man all his worldly possessions. The young man had come to collect his inheritance.
There were about twenty chairs in front of the casket for anyone who might come. The only mourner in the room was Father Richard. As the young man entered the room and approached the casket, the priest rose from his chair and introduced himself.
“I’m Father Richard Turner,” he said.
“Hello, I’m John Daly. Father Anthony was my uncle.”
“Welcome,” replied the priest.
Father Anthony was laid out in an old black suit with a Roman collar. The suit was shiny but had lost its shape from much wear.
“Although he was my uncle, he was nothing like my father.”
“What do you mean?” asked Father Richard.
“Well, my father was CEO of a major corporation. He was successful and widely respected. His funeral had many mourners.” The young man spoke as he scanned the room to take in all it had to offer and all that it did not.
“Things are not what they seem,” replied the priest with a slight smile on his face. “He is being waked here in the prison because his colleagues thought he would want that and the warden gave permission. How much do you really know about Father Anthony?” asked the priest.
“Not a lot,” John said. “My father didn’t talk about him much. To be honest, I only came out of a sense of obligation after a man named Matt called and said Father Anthony left me all his possessions. I’m supposed to pick them up.”
Father Richard was in his sixties, and his experience as pastor of a large flock had given him a keen eye. He looked at the young man lovingly, and then said in a soft self-reflective voice, “It's a shame you never got to know him. I think Father Anthony has entered through the narrow gate and the door of mercy.”
John’s curiosity about his family’s background led him to ask, “What do you mean?”
“Let’s sit down,” the priest said. The hour was about 5:00 p.m.
The priest was tired from his duties, and his fatigue caused him to reflect for a few moments on the meaning of Father Anthony’s life. He also had a great affection for Father Anthony, which led him to want to correct the record with John. He could see that this young man had much to learn about life and death.
“Tell me about Father Anthony. I’m curious because my father never discussed him much.”
“All right,” said the priest.
“I knew Father Anthony for many years. We were in the seminary together. As good friends do, we shared a great deal about our families over the years. But if you really want to know about your uncle in more recent times, you need to talk to the man who called you, Matthew Ryan.”
“Who is he anyway?” John queried.
“He has been a teacher and a psychologist in the prison for a number of years. He got to know your uncle very well.”
“How did he know him?”
“Why don’t you just go see him? He can tell you a lot,” said the priest.
“Well, who is he? Tell me about him,” said John.
“He was a psychology teacher in upstate New York. As I understand it, when he was a young man a girl in his class accused him of seeking sexual favors in exchange for grades. He denied it, but the school was sensitive to the allegations and suspended him without pay pending an investigation. It was a long time ago, and the accusers didn’t follow through so there was no trial and he was never convicted of anything. However, the investigation was public and turned his life upside down. The public accusations and the lack of pay took its toll on his marriage, and his wife left him. All their friends turned their back on them, and it became too much for her to bear. Matt eventually resigned because the atmosphere had become so toxic that he needed a change of scenery and wanted a fresh start. Of course, with accusations like that hanging over his head, he couldn’t get a job teaching. Eventually, he came across an ad in a psychology trade magazine seeking a teacher and psychologist for the prison. That's how he got the job here. That’s how he met Father Anthony. Go see him. I think he can tell you about your uncle.”
The priest could see that John was arrogant, pre-occupied with material things and probably not a regular churchgoer. A visit with Matt might open his eyes to see with more than his senses.
“I can tell you a little about Father Anthony’s younger days,” said Father Richard. “As a young priest, he spurned the advances of a very attractive girl in a class he taught. In anger, she accused him of having made sexual advances. I remember that Anthony remained curiously silent during the accusations. It took me a long time to understand that. Since there was no DNA or corroborating evidence, he was not prosecuted or expelled from the priesthood, but he was no longer allowed to teach at the same school. He went on a thirty-day retreat and prayed to God to be able to return to teaching, but it did not happen, and he felt frustrated. Instead he was assigned as a prison chaplain.
“He once told me that the first time he saw the prison he noticed the broken cement of the sidewalk leading to the prison entrance. He told me it occurred to him that many had traveled the same path and had been broken by the journey— just as the sidewalk had been broken by their treading. The gray walls with razor wire on top reminded him of the crown of thorns worn by Christ during his passion. He said he reflected on the symbolism— suffering and yet through suffering, penance, redemption and rehabilitation.
“He said he also noticed that the entrance was a regular- sized door. He told me it seemed odd that so small a door should be the entrance to so large a facility through which so many had passed.
“He was all alone— so he thought— but God had decided to take a hand. He faced great personal conflicts. Was he doing God’s will? How could he help his poor sister from prison? Is this where God wanted him to be? He had always dreamed of being a teacher and bringing the right message to young minds. Now he was among men who had no desire to listen to him. But from his suffering he gradually learned obedience, patience, sacrificial love, and complete trust in God. He told me he united his suffering to Jesus’s suffering and offered it to God as an act of penance and reparation and for the conversion of poor sinners.
“For years only a handful of convicts paid any attention to him. The warden paid him no mind. His fellow clergy and the church hierarchy seemed to have abandoned him because of the accusations. He was in exile. He was tortured by his failure and by the suffering caused by the false accusations. He seemed to be spurned by his own brother. It seemed that even those who didn’t condemn him forgot him. He felt all alone. But he never despaired or complained a lot except to his sister, Mary, and to Father Paul. I’ll get to him in a minute.”
By now young John was beginning to fidget in his chair. He was in no mood to be preached at. He only wanted his inheritance. He had already chosen his path and was quite content with it. The priest sensed this, but he was in the preaching and advice business and was not about to be deterred as he tried to rescue a lost sheep.
“So, Father Anthony’s early journey of faith inside the prison walls met with little outward success. God often uses suffering to draw us closer to Him. But life has taught me that God does not leave unaided a man of faith, and help is not always where we expect to find it. So it was that Father Anthony, when he arrived in prison, met Matt Ryan and they became friends – as much as that was possible for Father Anthony. He was a man of faith and as such a man apart. His view was inward not outward, and while he was courteous he was not familiar. It was as if he was so focused on God that he could not be distracted by anything on earth. He was quick with a friendly smile, but he talked infrequently and prayed long hours in solitude, so aware was he of his sinful nature which he told me was always before him. Father Anthony had learned at an early age what the saints have known down through the centuries, that more things are accomplished by prayer than this world dreams of, and so he constantly prayed the Rosary.
“But Matt needed a friend, and, knowing that Father Anthony had undergone a similar accusation to his own, he was drawn to Father Anthony. There was, however, a great difference between them, because Father Anthony was innocent while from what I understand Matt was guilty.
“There are many paths to God, my son. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they lean on each other as well.”