Oh there is so much wrong at the moment. So much division. So much me versus you. So much about the bad things people do. There’s not an awful lot about love and understanding and accepting differences. So, I thought I’d tell you a story. You don’t have to believe it, but if you don’t then I would ask you to at least hope it was true or at least want it to be true. If you believe it then welcome to my world.
I posted this a few years ago so if you have read it before, just pretend for a minute and read it again.
A priest, a marriage, an escape and a happiness. I met Father Joe when I worked in a small, inner suburban school populated by immigrants from all 400 corners of the world. The school was run by an order of Marist Brothers and I think I was the only non-catholic in the whole suburb. When people asked me what subjects I taught I usually said that I don’t teach subjects, I teach kids.
But one subject I really did enjoy teaching was woodwork and it was here that I first met Father Joe. He usually spent most of a Monday in the school, talking to the boys and the teachers. One day he asked if he could come into my class while the boys were there. It is very easy talking one on one with students , or colleagues, in a class like woodwork or cooking where there is permissible noise and wanderings around. I said he would be welcome.
He was uncertain how to approach me because I was the only teacher who did not attend Mass and he knew I wasn’t one of his flock. One day he looked at my hands which were not then, and are not now soft and flabby.
“You know Jesus was a carpenter,” he said out of the blue. “His hands would have looked like yours.”
We then started chatting away, talking about life, the universe and everything. He asked about my family and I asked him about his.
“I left my family in Europe when I was about to be arrested by the Communists. It was 1968 and Russia’s invasion of Czechoslovakia separated many of us.”
“Were you a priest then? Is that why they were after you?”
“No! I was just out of university and I wanted to be a doctor. When I came to Australia I tried to get into Medical School but I could not. I gave up all hope of ever seeing any of my family or my friends again so I tried my second dream and became a priest.”
“You never had any desire to get married and all that?”
“Of course I did but I was told that the woman I loved back in Prague had vanished and I didn’t want anyone else.”
“Faithful to the last!” I joked.
We chatted a while longer and he went away. Next week he came to the workshop and asked if he could make a small table. I helped him and it took him about three Mondays to complete it. He then stained it and polished it and after work that evening I decided to take it down to the church as a surprise. The lady in the office said that he had gone to his house. I expected the house for the priest to be next door to the church as it is in most cases. But I was directed about three streets away to an ordinary looking house and when I knocked on the door it was opened by a delightful woman. I assumed she was the house-keeper.
Because there were many immigrants who were single women or widows with children the church often gave them a place to live in return for them looking after the house and helping in the business of the parish. I gave her the table, explained who I was, and she promised to tell Father Joe that I had dropped it in.
Next Monday Joe arrived at school and we went on with our discussion about life, the universe and everything. We were continuously interrupted by boys needing help and often he would be the one to go and I would relax for a while.
And then surprise. “Ivan,” he said, addressing me as he always did by the Czech equivalent, “I wish for you to come to confession after school.”
What a surprise! “Listen, Joe,” I answered – I refused to call him ‘Father’ – “I don’t do ‘Confession’. It isn’t anything I have ever done and I don’t know how I feel about it anyway.”
“Well, but would you come, just this once, as a favour to me?”
I felt a bit uncomfortable and he also seemed a little strange. “I do not wish to convert you. It would be educational for both of us to do something so, how you say, ‘out of the box’.”
So that night I went to my first and only confession.
I have seen movies so I knew the routine although I wasn’t going to treat this all that seriously.
“Bless me Joe, for I have sinned. It has been fifty five years or so since I last owned up to anything. When I was ten I hit my big sister and she hit me and I swore at her. Is that enough? Or do you want a list of times I have been unfaithful or looked at another woman?”
“Yes Ivan, my friend. That is enough. And because you have done something you have never done before, I will do something I have never done. I want you to hear my confession. But you must promise to keep the convention of the confessional and tell no one.”
“Wow! Joe. This is a bit heavy. But if you want. Go ahead. It’s your turn.”
And he told me the following.
“John, I too have been unfaithful. And I have lied and told people things that are not true. When you went to my house to give me the table you met a lady. John, she is my wife. We have been married since 1967. Just before the Russians entered Prague. Her name is Hannah. We have a daughter, Katerina. She is eighteen. When I came to Australia I had been told she was dead. I did not know how I would live without her. I did not know I was a father. When you call me ‘Joe’ and not ‘Father’ I am always close to tears. I don’t like being called ‘Father’ by anyone except Katie. She arrived here eleven and a half years ago. It was a huge surprise and we did not know what to do. So we kept it a secret. Now we live as a family and nobody knows. But I wish to tell you because you are not a Catholic and you will not judge me. I hope you will not.”
Father Joe died a year ago. I went to the funeral and was speaking with the Bishop.
“You must be that Proddy friend of Joe’s. He told me of you.”
Just then Hannah and Katie came up to shake hands with the Bishop. They nodded at me and smiled. Hannah looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you, John. You were a good friend to Joe.”
I thought that was a strange thing to say as I had never spoken to her since that day I delivered the table. She left.
Then the subject just seemed to develop.
“We knew about Joe and Hannah,” said the Bishop. “But we kept it quiet. Joe was a good man and a great priest. He understood life. What he didn’t know was that most of the Parish Council knew. They didn’t want to lose a good priest. That is why we bought that house for him and Hannah and the girl. The Church has had so much bad publicity recently and I think this had been an exception. Maybe we need to break a few more of our stupid rules.”
“Does Hannah know that you know?”
“Of course she does. Joe and Hannah were a team. A great couple. I wish I had married such a woman when I was young. It is all too late now.”
And he turned and left.