Monday, April 23rd, 10:30 AM - Ocala, FL
Most Mondays were a bit slow for Fr. Liam after the weekend weddings and Sunday masses, but this Monday in late April, he had been asked to speak at a sister parish, St. Theresa’s Parish Retreat. Juanita, his parish secretary, was getting a list of questions she needed answered as Fr. Liam would whisk into the office right after morning mass for just short of an hour and then he would be gone and incommunicado for the better part of the day. Juanita had to make sure she had all of her questions answered in order to finish her office work; otherwise, she would get stuck waiting for a time she could call or see him. Even in a world were bosses were one cell phone call away, you can’t call a priest during mass, or confessions or when they were comforting people who just lost someone. Juanita was already proficient in tackling Fr. Liam as he dashed in and out of the parish office and before he got away for the day. He had been assigned to their parish four years previously after their long time pastor had passed away. She had been Fr. Liam’s parish secretary from his first day.
Juanita had been with the previous pastor, Pastor McCarthy, until his last day when he died sitting at his desk in the next office. He was 85 years old, still working, but slow-going most of the time. He was a sweet and kind man who Juanita came to love so when Fr. Liam was assigned to the parish, and she heard he was an ex-cop who entered the priesthood two years shy of his 60th birthday, she didn’t think she would ever adjust.
She liked Fr. Liam well enough, but the first two months was an adjustment because his schedule was three times as busy as Pastor McCarthy’s was, not to mention Fr. Liam’s walking and talking pace was three times as quick as Pastor McCarthy’s. In time, Juanita became only too happy to make the adjustment.
As she was stacking her work pile with handwritten notes to go over as soon as Fr. Liam swept into the office, Rose Arnett came up to her desk and handed Juanita another note that was dropped into the poor box. The poor box slot was slightly wider than a half dollar coin and thick enough to put in only one coin at a time, but someone in the parish was now using it as a suggestion box. ‘There is entirely too much talking before mass when people are trying to pray’, ‘people need to stop wearing shorts, especially the elderly as they are too wrinkly and disgusting to be out in shorts at all’; every two weeks or so there was some other complaint left for Fr. Liam.
“Look at this one,” said Rose as she handed the note to Juanita. Usually the women snickered over the suggestions and more times than not they even agreed with them. ‘There is a murderer going to the 11:00 mass on Sundays now’ Juanita read it out loud and they looked at each other.
“What does this mean? Is this murderer someone we know?” asked Juanita looking at Rose.
Rose just raised her shoulders and shook her head. “Just give it to Fr. Liam for his collection.” She proceeded to sit at the side of Juanita’s desk to count up the money put into the poor box in order to deposit it and send a check to Peter’s Pantry, their food ministry.
Fr. Liam walked into the office smiling. “Good morning, ladies.”
“Good morning, Father,” said Juanita as Fr. Liam walked into his private office. “I have several questions I need to ask you on my work for today before you leave for your speaking engagement. But Rose gave me another note from the poor box/suggestion box. This one is a bit intriguing.”
Fr. Liam came out to Juanita’s desk, took the note and read it. He closed his eyes and shook his head. He folded up the note and gave it back to Juanita. “Just add it to the suggestion folder we made for her.”
“What does it mean? Do you know of a murderer that goes to the 11:00 mass?”
“The whole church is comprised of saints and sinners, so we probably have a murderer or two in the pews, I’m sure. Our suggestion-maker thinks I am still a cop, which I’m not. I was a cop for 30 years and I was in the criminal-catching business but now I’m a priest and I’m in the soul-saving business. I’ll talk to her.”
“You know who it is?” asked Juanita and Rose at the same time.
“Yes, I heard her tearing the paper note from a spiral notebook yesterday during my homily, which I don’t believe she caught one word of, and Deacon Bob saw her squeezing the note into the poor box after mass.” said Fr. Liam as he went back into his office.
“Who is it?” asked Juanita.
“I would rather not say. If your curiosity is killing you, go to the 11:00 mass on Sundays and linger after mass for a few minutes and you’ll see her trying to fit the next note into the coin slot, which is why she has to tear the paper during my homily as small as she can. She does it right out in the open.” said Fr. Liam chuckling.
“Let’s go to the 11:00 mass this weekend,” said Rose to Juanita.
“Okay.” Juanita said as she grabbed her pile of work and headed into Fr. Liam’s office.
“What time do I have to be over at St. Theresa’s? Is the retreat in their parish room, I assume?” asked Fr. Liam.
“Your talk is scheduled for 11:15 and it is in their parish office, yes.”
“What questions do you have on your work?”
“I need you to tell me who gets copies of these letters --”
The phone rang. Juanita, sitting in the chair in front of Fr. Liam’s desk, handed the four letters to Fr. Liam and he began to read them. She answered the phone on Fr. Liam’s desk. “Good morning. Our Lady of Mercy Church, this is Juanita, may I help you? . . . Hi, Alice . . . There’s only one so far this week, Mr. Russel. . . His mass is on Wednesday at eleven. . . Kramer Funeral Home. . . Sure, bye now.”
“Alice Brennan?” asked Fr. Liam as he put another post-it note on one of the letters with a list of who to copy.
“Yes, she calls every week to see who has died and where the funerals are. She goes to all of them, you know,” said Juanita. “Who goes to funerals of people they don’t even know?”
“Alice does. That’s why they call her ‘Madam Macabre’ behind her back,” said Fr. Liam smiling.
“But why? Why does she go to all the funerals?”
“She has a fixation, let’s call it, on how people die. She works the crowd when she goes to the wakes and finds out how they died and whatever details she can get out of everyone. She’s particularly interested in the cause of death, who found them, and what the scene looked like. And let me tell you, she gets more details than a seasoned FBI detective.”
“She does?” asked Juanita laughing.
“Oh, yeah. First of all,” said Fr. Liam looking up now, “she has a whole mourning wardrobe. If it’s a working class family, she arrives at the wake dressed in a simple black dress with a black lace mantilla with rosaries wrapped around her hand, walks the crowd acting like a grieving relative and touching everyone’s forearm and saying “I’m so sorry,” and that begins the investigation with each person. When it’s a wealthy family, she arrives dressed in full black designer wear including a velvet pillbox hat with that hanging French netting and she goes into the same routine,” said Fr. Liam.
Juanita chuckled and took back the letters Fr. Liam had finished putting post-it notes on. She checked her next item.
“Fr. Peter from the seminary called and said he will cover your masses on Saturday and Sunday so you can go away on Mother’s Day weekend,”
“Perfect. I can go and visit my brother in Boca Raton for the weekend.”
“You miss living close to him, don’t you?”
“I do. We’ve always lived about 10 minutes away from each other our entire lives. We’re only fourteen months apart; they had no such thing as ‘child spacing’ back them. We grew up together. We raised our kids together. When I was married, we went out as couples, had holidays together. We’ve been best friends since we were kids and we’re both miserable living so far apart. We’re on an organized campaign to talk his wife Maria into moving here to Ocala.” said Fr. Liam.
“Do you think she will?” asked Juanita.
“So far she’s very resistant to it as their only daughter Colleen is recently married and Maria doesn’t want to leave her yet. But we’re determined not to be discouraged. It’s only four hours away. Colleen and her husband can visit Ocala; and Mike and Maria, who are both retired now, can go down and spend time with her.”
“Well, good luck on your campaign. I just need you to sign these other three letters for the mail and everything else I can do without you answering any questions. And you better leave for St. Theresa’s now.”
Fr. Liam finished signing his letters and left for his speaking engagement.
Later the Same Day - 5:00 PM
The St. Theresa parish retreat talk went well. Fr. Liam got a few laughs during his talk and he felt the group was inspired and hopeful at the end of the day. They had a late luncheon at the retreat and he joined Fr. Dominick for dinner with a couple of his parishioners. From the outside, a priest’s job could look very monotonous, but it didn’t feel that way to Fr. Liam. The circumstances that surrounded the same rituals or ceremonies were always different. He often felt that certain people were led into his life and he into theirs.
At about twenty-after four, he politely excused himself from the retreat and said his goodbyes on the way back to the parish office for his 5:00 counseling session. During the years he was on the police force, particularly in his years as a homicide detective, Fr. Liam earned a philosophy and psychology degree in night school. During baptisms, marriages and funerals, Fr. Liam only got to know about the parishioners, but never spent enough time with them to really get to know them.
During counseling, he worked with them individually on grief issues, addiction issues or moral questions. These were the people he got to know well and even became friendly with. It was more personal. He helped many of them move from a very dark tunnel back into the light of hope. This was a big part of his calling. Little by little this group of strangers became his second family.
He checked his watch and he had ten minutes before his session started. He helped Ryan Mallardi, a young thirty-something parishioner, through the annulment of his first marriage, a Las Vegas wedding at some random chapel on the strip. Most of their counseling focused on how a sacramental marriage is different from a civil marriage. As with too many young Catholics today, the concept was all new to Ryan. Although Fr. Liam loved the Church, he had to admit that somehow, in some way, they had completely fallen down on their obligation to catechize an entire generation -- or two. After his paperwork was all filed for his annulment and having briefly touched on his ‘mother and girlfriend issues’, Ryan wanted to continue on in counseling in order to address these issues.
Ryan Mallardi, having worked for a private investigator while getting his computer science degree from the University of Florida, had opened his own private investigations and computer security business right out of college. So at the youthful age of thirty-four, he had his own thriving business with three and sometimes four employees. Being an only child of a widowed, still-single mom, he was a self-made man in ways that the coddled youth in America rarely were anymore.
Fr. Liam knew that Ryan, rendered fatherless at age eleven, had longed for a father figure all of his life and he was only too happy to step in, as his own two sons were both presently living out of the country.
The door to the parish office opened and Ryan entered. It was 5:15 pm and Juanita was already gone for the day. They shook hands and entered Fr. Liam’s office and closed the door. As Ryan sat down, Fr. Liam said, “Have you received the final annulment papers yet?”
“Not yet. You said it could take up to six weeks, so I’m just waiting,” said Ryan as he crossed the ankle of one leg over his thigh and got comfortable. He loosened his tie and opened the top button of his shirt.
“So what’s going on in the world of private investigations, beautiful girlfriends and dependent moms?”
“The usual. They’re both sniping one another and I’m in the middle and think they’re both stubborn and wrong. I have my hands full working investigations and managing my own business and the uninterrupted refereeing is draining me.”
“You need to put some boundaries up with both of them. We’ve talked about this briefly in our previous sessions. Did you ask Angelica to stop making negative comments about your mother?”
“Yeah, I did. So now before she makes negative comments about her, she prefaces each statement with ‘this may sound negative, but it’s not…’”
Fr. Liam half smiled and raised his eyebrows. “What about your mom, did you tell her you’re going to hire a certified nurse’s assistant to drive her to doctor appointments and other errands so you can have your time back?”
“I gently told her about wanting my own time and introduced the concept of an assistant to help her and drive her places she needs to go. She was insulted and not understanding at all, which was not a surprise. She’s now mumbling things under her breath like ‘I don’t want to be in the way. Why don’t you just euthanize me? Then you’ll have all your time back,’” said Ryan with tongue in cheek. “That’s an example of the mumblings that are coming. She’s got one for every occasion, all guilt-loaded, each one more and more morose”
Fr. Liam chuckled. “Push through and don’t allow the guilt-laden mumblings to cause you to change your plans. It’s going to take her time to adjust. Guilting you has worked for a long time; she’s not going to give it up that easily.”
“Yes, it has worked.” said Ryan.
“It’s going to get better, at least with your mom.”
“I hope you’re right. It’s all exhausting.” said Ryan a bit more seriously.
“Don’t be hard on yourself, Ryan. This dynamic with your mother becoming overly dependent on you began forming after your father died. You were only eleven and too young to form any defenses to it or even know it was going on. Instead of grieving and finding another husband or becoming more independent, your mother went into a kind of ‘professional widowhood’ and in the process, she became dependent upon you. She made you into a ‘little husband’ and this is what has to change. This was not done in any sinister way, mind you.
“You can be a ‘good son’ to her but free enough of your time so you can be a ‘good husband’ to a wife.” Fr. Liam waited to see if this resonated with Ryan.
“I never thought of it that way, but it makes sense, especially the part about not having any defenses to it. I always thought my mother and I had a great relationship,” said Ryan as he was looking up and sideways, “and I didn’t realize how dependent she was on me.” Fr. Liam could tell Ryan was looking back in time to see this dependency playing out and it did resonate with him. He knew they were getting somewhere.
“What’s the diagnosis with Angelica and me? Do you have any insight into that?” asked Ryan.
“Angelica is a bit demanding, as some very beautiful woman can be. I don’t see her as being the most compassionate or sympathetic person, do you?”
“I guess not. She thinks my mother should snap out of it and ‘leave you alone’ is how she puts it. But it’s all the time,” said Ryan as he took a deep breath and exhaled. “She doesn’t seem to have any compassion for my mother at all. I mean, not every widow starts rocking the bar scene and gets remarried and moves on. Your church is filled with widows and divorcees that never found anyone else. My mother claims she could never love anyone besides my father. She still has his pictures around the house everywhere. She still wears a gold locket with his picture in it. I think it’s really a touching love story, but the plot line has drifted entirely over Angelica’s head.” Ryan took another deep breath and looked at Fr. Liam for some feedback.
“Is her complaint that your mother calls you too much or is her complaint that your mother calls you at all?” asked Fr. Liam.
Ryan looked at Fr. Liam and said, “Any time my mother calls me, or if she needs anything, even if it’s legitimate, Angelica bitches and moans. She sees every favor I do for my mother as being taken away from her somehow.”
“I want you to think this week about what virtues Angelica has and we can discuss that next week, okay?” asked Fr. Liam.
“I can do that,” said Ryan. “Virtues, I know a few, but I may have to do an internet search on that.”
“The seven virtues are: purity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. You can google the seven heavenly virtues and start there. We can talk more next week after you’ve had a chance to start noticing these. Just start looking for Angelica’s good traits and we’ll start there next week.”
“Okay. I’ll do that.”
The session went on and Ryan went into some other instances of the frustration he was feeling in the midst of this volatile dynamic that existed between Angelica and his mother. Fr. Liam knew he needed to vent so he just listened and could see Ryan felt relieved at the end of the session.
Fr. Liam knew as an only child, Ryan had been the head of his little household with his mother most of his life. He wanted to be married without another divorce and somehow this relationship with Angelica kept veering off course. He could see the dynamics of Ryan’s relationship with his mother as well as the dynamics between him and Angelica, and he could also see that Ryan was oblivious to them. He was open to change and Fr. Liam knew that was all that was needed. From his years of philosophy and psychology study as well as from his years working with the criminal classes, Fr. Liam knew that the absence of a father created a myriad of problems that, left untreated, could create havoc in a young man’s life.
Fr. Liam and Ryan talked about how putting in boundaries with his mother would be essential no matter who he was in relationship with or married to. Once Ryan was assured this dynamic could change, he exhibited signs of hopefulness. This is where Fr. Liam’s work really was.
He had decided to enter the deaconate while still married to his wife, Patty. He was three-quarters of the way through his studies when she got sick with ovarian cancer and died only four months into her treatment. He was overwhelmed by grief for about six months when his call to serve went from the deaconate to entering the priesthood fully. Now he had devoted the rest of his life to working for the Lord’s church, knowing it was presently in shambles, but hoping he could be part of the movement to build it back up. It was these moments of helping people like Ryan improve their lives that instilled hope and a sense of purpose into Fr. Liam’s heart and soul.