After more than three decades as a priest, Father Joe thought nothing of the two men who came into the church after the mass had begun. Not even when they all but marched down the center aisle, failed to genuflect, and sat in the front pews on either side where two other men already sat. Father Joe was caught up in his work.
When it happened again during the Act of Contrition, he still did not give it more than the most passing notice. People came in late, babies cried, people unwrapped peppermints. Church was a strangely noisy place.
At the end of the first reading, two more men strode down the aisle and seated themselves down front, just as the others had done. Father Joe was starting to notice. He looked briefly at the men and was startled to see the hate on their faces. But he didn’t have time just then to sort it out.
In the middle of the second reading, two more men came in and took their places with the others. The congregation was beginning to stir both at the unusual procession and the lack of respect paid to the altar.
As he began his homily, another pair of men walked in and sat down front. Father Joe continued with his message but scrutinized the gathering before him. Each man returned his gaze with all the loathing they could project while sitting still. Twelve men, all wearing suits and ties; the older ones were in their mid-30s, and the younger ones were barely in their 20s.
Father Joe broke off in midsentence. It had been years since he had seen some of them, but now he recognized most of them.
He struggled to return to his message, to find his place in his notes, and to project his words enough for the microphone to pick them up. He didn’t look up again during the homily, not even when the next two men came down the aisle to the front pews.
He kept his head down through the Nicene Creed, through the Intercessional Prayer, and the preparations and prayers for the Eucharist. As another five minutes came and went, another pair of men joined the others.
Father Joe quickly looked over the heads of the congregants as he began the Sign of Peace. Then he gave himself over to a slim hope and looked at the men from left to right as he said, “Let us offer each other a sign of peace.”
All along the row, he saw jaws set more firmly, eyes blaze more brightly, and some hands ball into fists. They sat like a wall even as those behind them began shaking hands and offering words of peace to each other. The parishioners in the second row looked up at Father Joe, openly curious about the unresponsive guests. The priest, rather than going into the nave to pass along the peace of Christ as always, simply looked down at the altar. He knew this would occasion comment, and that was what his unwelcome guests had in mind.
A final two men came in during Communion and sat and stared hate at him. This drew the expected looks from the communicants waiting in line and quiet commentary once they had returned to their pews.
He looked up again at the men. Tears, he noted, streaked one angry face.
Duane, he remembered. Duane always cried when … NO! Don’t think it!
Father Joe continued to conduct the mass automatically even as part of his mind wondered how things were going to play out. Did they mean to challenge him? Here, during the mass? Or afterward? Or did they simply want to annoy him? Yes, perhaps that was it. They merely wished to cause him to lose face in front of his congregation.
Well, let them stare and cry and hate. This is my church. I am invincible here. I’ll think of something to tell the congregation later. This little group will be quickly forgotten.
As the mass drew to a close, Father Joe felt less threatened and became cheery again. He looked out at the regular, familiar faces and smiled over the heads of the intruders.
“The Altar Sodality will meet as usual this week, at 10:30 Tuesday morning. And the catechism class will meet at 4:30 this Wednesday rather than at 4, so be sure to come half an hour later than usual. Those are all the announcements I have.”
“Aren’t you going to introduce us to your parishioners, Father Joe?” a voice called out.
The priest’s heart seized for a beat as he saw the oldest of the front row men take two steps toward the altar.
Jonathan. He looks so much like his father.
Despite the tomblike silence in the church, Father Joe heard a roaring in his ears as his blood pressure spiked.
“Surely you haven’t forgotten us, Father Joe,” Jonathan said. “I assure you, we all remember you. We, and perhaps two hundred others. Two of our number couldn’t live with how well they remembered you; one is in a psychiatric hospital and the other jumped off a bridge.”
Father Joe tried to reassert some control. “Listen, whatever you have to say can wait until the mass is concluded. You have no right to interrupt like this.”
All the men stood as Jonathan continued.
“And you have no right to wear that collar. You have no right to walk around a free man.” Jonathan turned to face the congregation. “We represent nearly three decades and six parishes of Father Joe’s priesthood. We were his altar boys.” A few gasps rose from the pews as some of the congregants began to make the proper conclusions. “And his victims.”
Chaos threatened to take over, and Jonathan yelled over the tumult.
“Listen to me! In every parish, wherever he went, this man molested his altar boys and any other boy he could find an excuse to be alone with. He used us for his perverted pleasure and threatened us with everlasting damnation if we told anyone. He has preyed on innocent children almost since the day he was ordained.”
Some of the men broke off looking at Father Joe and turned their attention to the youngsters helping with the mass. One of the men, Kent, took a small step forward and gently looked a question at them.
The younger of the boys stared blankly at Kent, not comprehending. The older boy — 10 years old — slowly caved in on himself and began sobbing. Kent and Alan rushed up to him and spoke softly.
“And it appears we have a new little brother in our order,” Jonathan said. “God damn you, Joe.” He looked out at the congregation. “You’ve all got cell phones; someone call the police.”
The altar boy’s mother had raced down the aisle, and Kent and Alan made room for her. The nave began to echo with her high-pitched cries of anguish.
He looked back at Father Joe. Joe’s face was ashen, but he had regained some of his priestly dignity.
“Why?” he asked Jonathan. “Why did you do this? My bishops knew. The cardinals knew. They forgave me each time. This is a church matter. Now it’ll be on TV. You’ve harmed the church by doing this. You’re helping to deliver the church into the hands of its enemies.”
“You’re the only enemy here, Joe,” Jonathan told him.
Father Joe shook his head sadly. “You don’t understand, Jonathan. The church must be protected from the outside world that always threatens us. You’ve invited a leering, mocking world into the church family’s private business. They’ll use this as a pretense to attack Christ’s church.”
Sirens, lots of them, blared outside the church. The police switchboard must have lit up with the panicky calls from the worshippers and the response was proportionate.
“You’re right: I don’t understand. I don’t understand you. I don’t understand the bishops or the rest of the church fathers sweeping your crimes and our pain under the rug. I don’t understand why you’ve been allowed to roam freely to hurt more of us. But here’s something I do understand, Joe: you’re finished. You’re going to die in prison, and you’ll never hurt another child again.”
Four police officers ran to the altar, urged on by angry parishioners. Jonathan spoke quietly to them, pointing to the mother and child weeping together. The priest was shortly in handcuffs and the congregation grew quiet as he passed down the aisle for the last time.
Jonathan raised his voice just enough to be heard.
“The mass is ended. Go in peace.”
There was no response.