A dark, overcast sky loomed over the Saint Cecilia’s parking lot as Joanie Berglund found her pick of favorable spots. Two hours before the 11 A.M. mass, she was used to coming a little early to help out. Joanie welcomed the stress-free tasks like selling brownies and muffins or schlepping canned goods for the latest food drive. Her husband was doing the readings today, and she expected to find him and sit up near the pulpit as they always did when Charlie was reading.
But today was different. Her friend Claire got COVID, and she, Joe, and the boys were all stuck at home this weekend, hopefully not for too long. Claire taught the 8th graders pre-confirmation class Sunday mornings and had asked Joanie to cover for her (hopefully just) this Sunday.
Joanie liked being useful at church and couldn’t say no to Claire. But the prospect of walking into a class of early teens and taking charge made her a little scared. She’d never been blessed with children of her own, and despite spending time with two nephews and a niece all in and around puberty, she questioned her ability to relate. Despite a twinge of trepidation the moment Claire asked, she found herself blurting out, “Of course, dear! It’s the least I can do.”
Joanie loved the Lord. Whenever she felt uneasy about something, she leaned on her faith. The Lord calls us and we answer, she thought. Best to leave the rest to Him.
She wanted to at least seem not-so-old to the kids. She’d taken good care of herself over the years. Having let her hair grow over her shoulders, she ran her hand through the soft strands, summoning the confidence to stride right in there and be that relatable lady who showed how cool the Lord was.
The early mass was about to start as she made her way up the ramp and through the church’s rear entrance. She spotted Margaret and Katherine making coffee and chatting in the common room, preparing baked goods for later. Just ahead, she eyed the classroom, the big brown door ajar, the just-audible murmurs of an almost foreign species laughing and talking in a foreign tongue. She inhaled deeply, and guided the door open.
Charlie Berglund sat humbly in the front pew just to the right of the pulpit. He straightened his favorite maroon tie, the one that always knotted perfectly and felt bearable roped around his neck. He always dressed well on reading Sundays, but his tall frame was never comfortable in dress clothes. He liked this quiet time to get centered, to take in the spirit of the word. He practically knew the verses from memory and was a good, commanding speaker. He’d already gotten the nourishment he needed, but wanted to make sure his reading nourished others that day.
As the pipe organ played a subdued prelude and the 11 A.M. parishioners filed in, he spotted Joanie coming around the corner and toward him. He still loved the way Joanie looked, and particularly so today. He was anxious to hear how the confirmation class went. He tried to read her, as life partners constantly do. They locked eyes for a moment, but Karen Shaw and her husband engaged her, suddenly requiring her full attention. She seemed indescribably off somehow, as Karen and Bill prattled on about something and his wife politely listened. Joanie notoriously led every conversation she took up. Charlie reopened his Bible and revisited the opening lines of the first reading as he waited for his wife. He noticed Father Tills take position at the front of the church as the organ grew quiet and the service prepared to begin. His wife found the seat next to him.
“How’d everything go with the kids?” He whispered it as their heads naturally leaned toward each other.
Joanie looked at him, eyes slightly welled, and said nothing. She squeezed his closer hand, tucking her head against his shoulder. She squeezed it again even harder as they reflexively rose, the organ now played a full-throated Here I Am, Lord, as Father Tillis walked slowly to the altar.
A particularly great homily about the need for benevolence towards refugees fleeing difficult situations, her husband’s own inspiring voice, and the feeling of the sacrament feeding her troubled inner self brought her back to life. Prayers for the New England Patriots reminded Charlie of his plans for the afternoon, a lifelong dedication to his “other religion.” Dark skies had cleared. The ride home invited the sunroof of the Explorer open and the crisp fall air in. They joked about how Joanie would occupy her afternoon while her husband worshiped before the 60-inch large screen TV with his brother and a congregation of neighbors. In minutes, Charlie’s neck would be liberated and his prized Mac Jones No. 10 jersey would be strutting about the house.
There were snacks to prepare and people to get ready for.
Joanie sat at the kitchen island, laptop open, nursing a glass of white zinfandel, relieved that her lifelong habit of cleaning up during events had the house looking like a chicken-wing scarfing mob hadn’t just rolled through. She could hear Charlie saying goodbye to his brother in the other room. She took a long sip of the watery zin, scanning a glowing screen.
“Man, that was close.” Charlie chuckled with relief. “Can’t believe we pulled it out.” Joanie didn’t look up, focused elsewhere.
He regarded his wife. “Hun, everything okay?” He scooped salsa onto the last sizable chip in sight, taking the blue bowl to the sink. He turned on the water. “Can you believe Kenny, he said…”
He shut off the faucet. The energy in the room palpably changed in an instant. He immediately sensed the conversation he knew they needed to have earlier, was on.
“What’s goin’ on honey?” He took the island seat beside her. “Is this about church this morning? The kids?”
Joanie closed her laptop and faced her husband of 27 years. “I got confirmed back in ‘80s, just like those kids.” The thoughts struggled to form. “Never have I ever asked the kinds of questions about my faith that these kids asked. Maybe because I was new to them, they felt emboldened to challenge me so.
“What kind of things did they ask?”
She stared right through him, continuing. “Why is it officially a sin not to take communion, this bread-like wafer manufactured who-knows-where? And how can anyone believe that this wafer contains the actual physical being of Christ?”
“Oh, honey, nobody actually believes that, it’s just a…”
“No, you have to actually say you believe that, Charlie. They showed me. Julie Sheehan had the entire Bible on an iPad, and the diocese’s website with all the rules.” She finished the zinfandel and poured herself another. “Why can’t priests marry?”
Charlie, still abuzz and very full from the party, tried to fight off this unexpected intellectual attack. “Because they’re in a matrimonious relationship with God, honey.”
“Really? Well I now know for sure, because they had me Control-F my way through the entire text, that God never made that a rule. Men made that rule. And apparently Boston is basically ground-zero for child sex abuse, because…”
“Okay, cool it, Joanie. These kids basically ambushed you. We should have prepared you for some of the things kids see online. The church simply didn’t understand the extent of the problem.”
“Cardinal Law took the blame. Sure, it blew up and he was left standing there when it did. They’ve taken it very seriously. There’ve been settlements. Priests have been defrocked, some have gone to prison. Recently Pope Francis announced a zero-tolerance policy. He gets it, honey, the kids just don’t…”
“Why do men run everything in the Catholic church? Again, I can find nothing in the Bible…”
“No, Charlie, I mean the Bible itself, nowhere in which, through the miracle of scrollable technology I can apparently search word for word, does it subjugate women the way they remain subjugated. And for two thousand years no less. At least larger society has begun to get women on equivalent footing, or at least we appear on that albeit rocky path. I mean, I think Claire would make a fine priest. She’s educated, a great leader, and wholeheartedly devoted to the faith. I’ll bet it never even occurred to her.” She stared with contempt at him. “Why?”
Charlie stood, unused to being taken to task in any kind of religious argument, and certainly not by his wife.
“Can you even imagine those kids, in today’s world, NOT having access to birth control. Jesus!”
He pulled out a Sam Adams summer ale from the frig and popped the top, as Joanie waited. He lifted the sweaty bottle of zinfandel and topped her off, and remained standing.
“Honey, it was a lovely day. The party was great. Our friends were all here. And our boys won.” He smiled that disarmingly big smile that announced everything was right in the world. “Let’s not ruin it with all this.” He lifted his beer and took a proud sip, his delusion complete.
The sound of somebody scoring a touchdown echoed from the living room.
“Let’s pray on this and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.” He swept over towards her and kissed her cheek, then pivoted towards the living room. Before reaching the archway, he turned part way back to her. “Boy honey, you looked mighty fine today. Mighty fine.”
Joanie pulled into the driveway. An easy Monday at the office had her home twenty minutes early. Charlie’s Nissan was strangely already in the driveway.
“Hey… I got your text.” She put her keys on the hook. “Didn’t expect you’d be home this early.”
Charlie emerged from the kitchen. “I got us take-out. Pauli’s.” She spotted the table set, excited about not having to cook.
“You got me Skinny Vinnie.” She hugged him.
“Come sit. I want to talk about last night.”
They sat at the table, her zinfandel already poured. Charlie took the seat adjacent.
“Honey, I’ve been thinking all day about my, well, our faith.” She sat up a little straighter. Charlie leaned in. “You know I’ve always loved being Catholic. I just find it so… comforting… I feel like it’s given my whole life structure. Purpose. It helps me not get too stressed out, knowing that I have a savior, a faith community, a priest, and you…all on the same page, with me. To be honest, I just don’t like challenging all of that very much.”
“No honey, let me finish. Let me just say what I need to say here, because… well, what you said did kinda make me think. In a way I guess if I’m being honest I never have, or have always kinda avoided thinking about. I mean, we don’t live under a rock, Jo. I know why we’ve lost a lot of really good people. The older ones die. The younger ones don’t accept everything that has… happened.”
He stood to put the take-out in the microwave. She could see this was hard for him.
“Catholicism is all I’ve ever known. I guess… well, I guess I choose not to focus on what’s wrong with our religion. I do know that this life really works for me, and I think that it has really served you in the same way. I know that Father Tillis is a good man, and I rely on his counsel. When both our dads died… .everybody was just… incredible. I can’t speak to the sins of the church elsewhere, and I guess if we had kids, I’d be forced to look at some of those things a bit harder.”
The microwave beeped. He retrieved the food and proceeded to arrange the food on two plates.
“I’m sorry. I guess I got pretty rattled yesterday. I didn’t mean to…”
“Joanie. Listen.” He set the plates and sat back down. “I wouldn’t trade places with those kids for anything in this world. Every one of them has access to every piece of information the world’s ever held, right there in their phones. No wonder they’re obsessed with them. No wonder they ask the hardest questions. We would have, too. This, well, it works for me. Where I’m at in my life. I suspect if I was asked to become a traveling salesman for it, I’d fail. After this… well, I don’t think I would try.”
“The way I see it, our faith just reinforces our love for each other, for others, and for those kids. We just owe it to them to be honest with them. They may need to find other faith journeys. I wanna stay on ours.”
Charlie smiled as took hands, and began their evening mantra. “Bless us, O Lord, and These Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord.”