Father Sean Ryan was having a crisis of faith as he sat moodily staring out into the yard where snow was falling silently and peacefully, but Father Sean’s mood was anything but peaceful. As he watched the snow fall, he saw a thin alley cat, all bones and whiskers, slink from the yard into the overhang of the house and crouch down. It looked miserable. Good.
Ryan didn’t like cats, and he especially didn’t like this one — all mangy and dirty. The feline had been hanging around the tiny rectory for a week or two, slyly eyeing Ryan as he made his way in and out on his daily rounds, silently begging for food or warmth. Father Sean had none to give. Ryan didn’t believe in handouts. As parish priest of his small community, his job consisted, in part, of giving handouts to the needy, but deep in his heart he didn’t approve of anyone who could work and didn’t, whether they be whole or broken, faithful or faithless. Jesus said to feed the poor; Father Sean didn’t agree. All in all, Ryan thought, I am a pretty terrible priest.
Father Sean Ryan hadn’t started out badly. As the middle son of a prosperous Irish-American family, he was expected to go into business or engineering but the lure of the priesthood — though wondered at by family and friends, rejoiced at by his old-school grandmother — was too sharp to be denied, so he prepared for Holy Orders. Only his uncle, Father Donal Shannon, on a rare visit from Wicklow, saw the truth — the truth that Sean was hiding. That he didn’t really believe.
“Now, now,” Father Shannon said, shaking his head, “how can you take the Holy Orders? You’re not meant for the priesthood, Seaneen.”
“I am,” Sean retorted, digging his heels in for a long debate, “I can quote the Bible and I know more of my catechism than any other boy at school, and I feel the call.”
“How? How do you feel the call? Do you not want children, boyo? Or a wife? Do you know you have to follow the Church regardless wherever they send you? If you believe their precepts or not?” He laughed. “You’re too stubborn for the Church, Sean. Go be a doctor or a lawyer or something else. Holy Orders are not for you.” And he patted the boy’s cheek and turned away to join Sean’s father in a drink before dinner. Just before he disappeared into the kitchen, Father Shannon paused, perhaps feeling that he had been too hard on Sean, then turned and said in a soft and conciliatory voice, “Pray, Sean. If you really want this. Pray. Miracles do happen, even if only small ones,” and he bobbed his head at the boy and disappeared.
Sean, seething, made up his mind right then and there that he would prove his uncle wrong and be the best priest ever. He had great hopes and dreams and maybe if he didn’t believe everything written in the Bible, belief would come with time. That’s what he told himself and that’s what he hid from the other priests and professors and before he knew it, he was in the seminary, and then a priest.
At first, he was an extremely popular priest. Father Sean, they called him, or Father R. and the kids all loved him because he didn’t believe the old stuff like their parents did. He was young and had radical ideas. He argued for church reform and was always in the front row of the walks for religious and social reform, but he just missed being on the front page of any newspaper. He thought himself a priest of the people and even if the diocese didn’t look that kindly on all his ideas, the community loved him. You don’t have to believe everything in the Bible, Father Sean said, they are just stories to help people understand. The Bible was written a long time ago, said Father Sean, and a lot of it doesn’t apply now. After all, you wouldn’t stone your mother for divorcing your father, would you? And who can believe that story about Daniel in the lion’s den? The lion would’ve eaten him in one bite. Animals can’t change their nature and neither do humans. Now let’s see what the story tells modern readers like us …”
The girls made eyes at him as he went by. He wasn’t that handsome, but he had black, black hair and green eyes that crinkled in the corners when he laughed, and he had a way of looking at them that made them all tongue-tied and clammy-handed around him. Most of the high school girls thought up other sins when it was their turn in the confessional, sins that they’d never say out loud to Father Sean. They thought he didn’t know, but he did. Pride was his sin.
He went on scoffing at traditional Catholic beliefs and turning the children left when their parents wanted them to go right and soon enough he was transferred. Ever stubborn, he continued in this vein until he was transferred again and again, and by the time he was 50 years old, he finally found himself in a small parish with a tiny church, an even tinier rectory, and a mangy cat outside the window in the snow. By this time, he had lost any faith he ever had, and he didn’t have that much to begin with. He didn’t walk in the protests anymore because he didn’t believe people would change. He didn’t argue politics anymore because he knew the heart of mankind and it was as rotten as a week-old peach lying under the tree in dead summer.
As he sat in front of the computer trying to come up with a sermon for tomorrow — Christmas Day — his mood was black. The snow was coming down harder and he knew that fully a third of his minuscule flock would not be at the service because of age, infirm, or sheer lack of interest. He sighed and ran his hands through his thinning hair, once so thick and full. What’s the point? No one listens. No one believes. He slumped down in his chair. I don’t believe.
At first it was just some of what was in the Bible that Father Sean disbelieved, but everything else was fine. Everything else he could explain … sort of. Then, day by day, year by year, more things just didn’t make sense. In this world of lying politicians, terrorists, and school shootings, where was the Grace? Where was the Triune God when mothers drowned their babies and young girls had abortions and went out and had unprotected sex again and again and had more aborted babies. Men killed other men with abandon? What was the point? In his life of pyx and paten, chalice and chasuble, where was the meaning? In the scrawny confessions of those meager people? In the half-finished Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s and his own cookie-cutter sermons muttered to indifferent parishioners? Where was the love that God had promised? If there was no God, then what was there? Was his whole life a waste? A joke? The young Sean thought he could make a difference and now even that thought was gone. People had to believe in something. He didn’t believe in anything. He couldn’t change the world. He couldn’t even write a sermon for tomorrow. Everything was gone. Idly, he started typing his letter of resignation.
A movement from overhead startled Father Sean, and he glanced up. A little sparrow, probably freezing and in the last stages of life, fluttered weakly down from the roof landing several feet in front of the cat that still crouched miserably on his porch. The bird landed with a small thump on its side and then, with a flurry of weak wings, righted itself and huddled, its feathers puffed up, and its beak drooping, its eyes half shut. The cat, startled, went back into a crouch, and this time, his tail lashed around his hindquarters and his eyes glowed intensely at the small feathered creature.
Ryan watched with disinterest. Great. Now I’ll have to clean up bird blood and guts. Throwing his pencil on the table, he trudged into the kitchen to make a grilled cheese sandwich and heat a cup of Campbell’s tomato soup. Just so long as I don’t have to listen to that stupid cat devouring that stupid bird. Then, when he had put his dishes in the sink, Ryan decided that it was time for a nap. As he went past the window above his desk, he glanced out. The cat was crouched once more right where the bird had been, his tail curving around him like a coattail. Good-bye, sparrow.
A small spot of gray was almost hidden by the cat’s tail. It was the sparrow, still alive, and covered by the mangy cat’s tail. The cat was just lying there. Not eating it. Just lying. Waiting? Hmmm. Ryan continued to the bedroom. Probably wanted to warm it up before eating it. Smart cat. Who wants to break their teeth on a frozen sparrow? He threw himself on the bed and was asleep before he knew it.
When Ryan woke up, he was fuzzy-headed and dull. He thrust his feet into old, navy blue slippers and, shivering, pulled a sweater on over his turtleneck. Brrr. He padded back to his desk and sat despairingly at his computer, not seeing the numbers and letters. What else is there? Where will I go? What will I do? What else can I do but fail again? He shivered and rose to blindly draw the curtains against the cold, but something caught his eye. He gasped and leaped quickly to the door, tearing it open, and staggered out in staring disbelief. It was the cat.
The tom licked the tiny sparrow again and again. He was purring and the sparrow seemed to enjoy the warm rasp as it softly cheeped with every lick of the tongue. The snow fell and the silence around the cat was complete as if the Universe were pleased.
Ryan knuckled his eyes. He saw with disbelief that — oh, a trick of the setting sun, its dying light on the snow or the ice — a warm amber halo surrounded the cat and his bird friend. The glow brightened the scene and softened the diamond-sharp edges of Ryan’s heart. Tears started as he gazed at the creatures. An animal can’t change its nature and yet, it did. The cat was not eating the bird; it was caring for the bird. It was warming the bird. Ryan cried out in wonder and put his hands over his face, as the tears continued down and pooled in his chin and neck. Miracles do happen, even if only small ones. He lowered his hands and gazed once more at the cat and the bird.
“The lion shall lie down with the lamb,” he whispered, and he cried with a voice that grew stronger and stronger, “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb …” He was crying in earnest now, great, fat tears rolling down his cheeks. His hands clasped in that old familiar way and he prayed without knowing he was even praying, “… and …” he whispered, “… and a little child shall lead them. Oh, God! A little child shall lead them.” His tears were now joined with sobs — sobs for his proud and desolate life — but a tiny spark of hope grew in his warming heart, like the first bulb of spring. “Father,” he whispered, eyes closed, “Father. Forgive.” And he stayed on his knees until he could no longer feel them — until he was bitterly cold and his nose ran and froze in tiny icicles beneath. He didn’t care. He knelt watching the cat and the bird, fully aware of the miracle taking place before him, in him.
Ryan sat suddenly, jolting his spine and making his heart bump, but he laughed out loud. The cat turned its head and calmly looked at him, still purring, and was purring still when he gently picked up both the cat and the bird and took them into the warmth of his house. After they were fed and comfortable, Father Sean went back to his computer and took it out of sleep mode. His resignation was still on the monitor. He looked at it a minute, and, with a smile, hit Delete. After all, people need to believe in something. Then he began his sermon: “The Resurrection of Father Sean.”