Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
– Wisdom, 2:12, 19-20
Slick snow covered grey pavement, exhaust rose into the air lost in the clutter of many feet. Dennis glanced up folding a textbook in his backpack. It would be 1:00 soon and he’d have to rush off yet again, get back to the small city university, sit in a crowded lecture room and listen to a boring physics professor. As he stood, a silence settled over the cool afternoon. The crowds had cleared, scurrying to finish their day’s work. Suddenly, on the frozen street emerged a lone figure, a tall man with closely-cropped, brown hair. Most noticeably, a long, stark black robe swirled behind his silent footsteps.
Dennis had seen a Catholic priest before but never like this, walking so conspicuously down the street. Shivering, tightening his jacket, Dennis watched the priest’s otherworldly, almost ethereal silhouette glide over the snowy ground. Far as Dennis knew, no one else was there. He stood, not understanding exactly why this priest transfixed him, demanded his attention. He actually felt silly…
Another person strolled past, utterly ignoring Dennis as if he were an unassuming icicle on the nearest wall. This person was undoubtedly male, thickly-built, his face wrapped in a red scarf. He approached the black-robed priest. Meeting him, he raptly yanked the scarf off, showing his meaty neck, stress-creased face and small lips which opened to speak:
“I was raised Catholic… now I know Jesus Christ.”
The priest timidly turned.
“I am glad you know Him,” he answered.
Such a demure, cool reply seemed to only unnerve the man who shoved an indignant finger into the air
“And you never told me! Some Gospel you preach… buried in a heap of piety and false motions!”
“I am sorry you feel that way…” began the priest before he was cut off.
“AND, you lied to me, told me I had to confess my sins, pray to statues and bow to the pope!”
The priest cleared his throat. He had an explanation; he wanted to explain and would have explained if only the man ceased hounding him. Hands trembling, he pulled a worn, black covered Bible from his coat pocket. Dennis saw the heavy book then briefly remembered his class. He needed to go right now or else be late. However, he stood there motionless as yet someone else came forth: a teenage girl clad in a tattered, leather coat. She spoke but the two engrossed men didn’t hear. Determined that her voice would be acknowledged, she stepped between them and raised a bony hand.
“The hypocrisy of the church is why I don’t believe in God,” she asserted.
The fervent, Bible wielding man paused, certainly baffled. His mouth tensed and waited to announce salvation to yet another lost soul.
“A priest refused to help my sister who was penniless and pregnant- and why? Because she could never pay back the money she needed!”
The Bible-toting man hesitated, silently debating whether he should tell the poor atheist girl of Jesus or adjoin more complaints about the Catholic Church. But, the young woman seemed very sensible…she after all, had been scandalized, pushed away by the glaring hypocrisy of false religion. Thus, he decided to leave her alone. This priest had dared show his face in public, to flagrantly display his religiosity and therefore, begged for a challenge.
The teenager beat him to it. She impatiently ordered, “Yes, please tell me how we’re supposed to believe that bread and wine somehow, miraculously turns into the body and blood of Christ? Tell me how you can swear off marriage in some fancy ceremony and then prey on widows and even children?”
“I never harmed a child,” the priest objected.
Anger flashed in his eyes. He would have fled these two, dogged accusers but he cringed, cheeks flushed with humility, stung by a sense of injustice and grave sin. A deep voice suddenly erupted from behind Dennis. He clutched his backpack, shivering and let an elderly man step past.
“And you Catholics are racist!” he yelled, “Think that blacks and women are second-class.”
He then pointed back towards Dennis. Noting his light-brown complexion, he now brought attention to the fact he was mulatto, half African-American.
“Bet you would tell this boy he shouldn’t go to college? Say he’s better off cooking fries in some greasy restaurant?”
“I never said that, nor would I ever say that…” muttered the priest, “My religion doesn’t teach that…”
Growing calm for a second, the teenaged-girl crossed her arms. She would assert herself, dominate the symbol of patriarchal society who trod her down. It wasn’t good enough to make him think, to make him question faith…she needed to crush him just like she had been crushed.
“My sister had to get married at sixteen, to an abusive prick because her family said if she got an abortion, she would burn in hell. She can’t even pay her bills, she lives in a trailer, in some hick town- you ruined her life!”
Finally, they backed the besieged priest into a nearby alley. He leaned against a wall, huddled, closing his eyes and said, “Please leave me alone. Stop tormenting me!”
“Oh you dumb kid,” admonished the elderly man, “You have no clue about real torment. Twenty years ago, I was stationed in Vietnam. I saw good friends, guys I went to school with, die. They died for your freedom, with twenty-five pounds of gear strapped to their backs, so that dandies like you could parade around in dresses!”
“Don’t say that to me!” the priest finally shouted back. He straightened, gaining courage, and faced the old man.
In return, the old man scowled. He lifted his fist, saying:
“Back in my day, kids who smarted their elders got slapped across the mouth.”
When the priest attempted to bat the old man’s hand away, he abruptly jerked and with one swift stroke, struck him across the mouth. Dennis now quivered. He didn’t know what to do. Could he pull the old man away? Would his combativeness then be unleashed upon him? No, it was better the adults dealt with it….
At once, Dennis’s gaze turned to yet another oncomer. Wearing a blue, buttoned, uniform shirt, strolled past a security guard. Likely, he was on patrol, rounding the nearby construction site and seeing him, Dennis sighed with relief. Maybe he would put a stop to this? See the disputing men and direct them to take their disorderly conduct elsewhere? He did speak however, his voice grated, almost angry, definitely harsh:
“This guy giving you trouble?”
Ironically, this question wasn’t addressed to the priest but rather the old man.
“Nah, just a young git who thinks himself better than us,” the old man replied.
The teenage girl added, “He’s pushing religion on us!”
“Really?” said the guard, “This guy here, harassing a defenseless, old man?”
Recovering his bearing, the priest then interjected:
“He is not defenseless. He just hit me!”
Nearing the priest, looking into his eyes, the menacing, security-guard jeered:
“Maybe you deserve to get hit?”
Yet the guard let that question hang above them and hastily departed, for he had more important business elsewhere.
Cringing, the priest stepped aside. He shook his head in sheer disbelief.
“I didn’t do anything to you, to anyone!” he hollered.
Desperation marred his fairly-youthful face. Dennis realized he could be no older than forty. He saw his intense, bright blue eyes darting with fear.
“I didn’t do anything either,” remarked the old man, ringing his cold hands, “In fact, I was once a hero, then when I was done, they threw me away. For my reward they called me a burden, a good-for-nothing old crock!”
Raptly, as if seeking an outlet for anger and long-accrued spite towards the world which used fellows like him then simply threw them away, the old man grasped the priest’s shirt. He growled then thrust him onto the hard ground. The Bible-carrying man, who had since been deathly silent, clutched his book of Holy Writ tightly to his chest, nodded his head and came forth.
“Oh, leave him alone,” he pleaded, “He’s just a wretched sinner in need of God’s grace…”
“You gonna preach to him?” asked the old man. Rather satisfied, convinced he had expressed himself enough, he shrugged and backed away.
Indeed, our goodly, Christian man, reached down, offering the priest his hand and said:
“Come on, come and repent of your sin…surrender to the arms of the Lord.”
Eyes flashing fearsomely, deeply insulted, the priest shoved this hand away. He climbed to his feet, wiped his face and retorted:
“I know Christ. It is you who fails to see him.”
At this, the Christian replied, “Oh yes and you know Christ? You who serves the Whore of Babylon stained with the blood of God’s holy people, who murdered the saints throughout the ages, who plundered and made a fortune from conquest?”
“I didn’t do those things…nor did any Catholic alive today,” the priest stammered, “and the Church, she is not a Whore but the Bride of Christ.”
“A very filthy and adulterous bride!”
Sighting a way of escape just beyond the alley’s edge, the priest took his chance. He swerved to the right then dashed away. In this frenzy, his feet suddenly slid over icy ground and stumbled.
The Christian man looked on coldly while the teenage-girl giggled. A clever smile crept across her face. Ever youthful, ever pure, her countenance glowered with dark and most impure sadism. She approached, halting the priest mid-stride and snatched him in a playful embrace.
“You’re just a poor boy…” she crooned then in a darker tone, added, “and you remind me of everything I hate!”
She shoved him backwards then spit on him. A sudden quiet settled. Soon, a young male figure entered the alleyway. About Dennis’s age, he may have easily been his fellow-student. Noise and voices drew him and coming closer, he gazed curiously. Immediately seeing the black-robed priest, he cleared his throat and declared, loud enough for all to hear:
“The Catholic religion is nothing but a disease….Inquisitions, Crusades, Oppression, hypocrisy, child-molestation…A damned crime against humanity!”
Dennis gaped, beholding the surreal scene. By now, several onlookers had gathered, standing at the alley’s mouth. Dennis could hear their rusting feet and faint muttering. It seemed a small mob had gathered off the city streets and assembled into a court of law. A nightmarish jury clothed in snow and smoke, they stood ready to sentence the unfortunate clergyman and his entire church. He shook his head to be sure he wasn’t trapped in some strange dream. What were they doing here? Where did they all come from? Why did they so greatly loath this lone priest? Why didn’t anyone stop the student as he drew a set of keys from his pocket and rushed upon their “defendant”?
Wide-eyed, Dennis couldn’t help but watch. Something like a bad movie unfurled right in front of him. The student, built like a jock, overpowered the priest and then landed two good-sized cuts across his face. At this point, the Christian man who once proudly touted his holiness and true love of God, fled. The old man stared in surprise. However, he didn’t act. He merely wagged his head, as if silently saying: “That’s what he gets.”
The atheist girl quivered with excitement. When the student swung another blow, she shrieked, jumping up and down, yelling: “Oh, my hero! Show him! Make him pay!”
Frantically, Dennis peered directly at the small crowd, his plaintive, brown eyes beseeching them. There were four of them. They could easily stop this fray, could calm everyone down- or at least, call the cops. Yet they stood frozen, unmoving, unable- or unwilling to do anything.
A shape fell at his feet. Face oozing with blood, the priest hugged Dennis’s pant-leg, wordlessly pleading for help. Panicked, heart pounding in his chest, Dennis began tugging on the old man’s coat-sleeve.
“Please do something!” he hissed.
Jerking his arm free, the old man replied: “Get off me!”
He turned away. Consumed by his own fear, Dennis nearly forgot the student that now faced him. He panted like an animal, marveled at his show of strength, gazed upon broad, blood-stained hands. Then, rather casually, he wiped them on his pants.
“What the hell is wrong with you,” Dennis blurted out, fearfully backing away.
“Oh, I have just begun,” answered the student.
His dry, chaffed lips twisted into a calloused grin. He was demented, Dennis realized, he was mad with the deadliest sort of wrath. Glancing towards the four onlookers who still stood there dumbstruck, he mouthed: “Call the police.”
All hope was lost as the student intently drew nearer. Effortlessly lifting the priest, the student glared at Dennis with piercing, black eyes. He asked him:
“You go to that fancy university, I know you do. So you can tell all about the Catholic Church, all about its history, all about its horrible clergy who did and still do evil things…”
When Dennis hesitated, the student spoke louder:
“Come on, college-boy; tell me, what do your textbooks say?”
Downcast and defeated, Dennis finally answered, “It’s true… They did horrible, evil things. By the fourteenth century, the Catholic Church became so corrupt and immoral, that Christianity had to split itself in two. That is what the textbooks say.”
A crushing woe struck Dennis. It sunk into the pit of his heart. He had to accept the grim facts he was taught, that Catholicism existed as an opportunistic, self-serving religion. He knew nothing else. He bet even the five who watched knew it. They had also learned nothing else. If the priest served evil- then he was evil and maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing for him to incur punishment. Maybe it suited that he endured the lashes of their anger, suffering and indignation.
Suddenly, the unspoken sentence was decided. The crowd, the old man, the girl, the student and the textbooks all said one thing. Dennis drifted into a dreamlike haze. He could hardly believe he remained there as the student tossed his priestly victim down and delivered a hard kick to his side. The girl laughed aloud and Dennis thought, just for a second, he heard the old man mutter, “I’m washing my hands of this…”
A second kick thudded, hitting bone and for a first time, shrill cries jarred the crowd from their stupor. Two walked away, one drew close for a better look and the rest indifferently stared. What was wrong with them? Dennis wondered. What was wrong with him? He strained to speak, at least to say this was getting ridiculous. The student, who once decried cruel acts of history, seemed increasingly hypocritical as he pummeled the priest with his booted foot. Dennis longed to stop this but he could not move. He also feared the student’s wrath, realizing he might turn on him, cut open his face, snap his fingers like pencils, send him down to the ground. No, he didn’t want to follow after the priest who writhed bleeding and helpless on the icy pavement.
“Don’t just stand there!” Dennis scolded himself inwardly, “Help him for God’s sake before that lunatic kills him…do it because he is human.”
That last part echoed resoundingly in his mind, repeated itself over and over. People who did bad things were still human. For all their wickedness and hypocrisy, human beings possessed living, breathing souls, sometimes capable of great good. Wasn’t it a beautiful thing when a gangbanger turns to God? When a hooker gives up the fast life? When hardened-killer on death-row, finds pardon? Didn’t Dennis faintly remember hearing in Sunday-school long ago that God came for sinners? The priest did nothing. He was innocent. It was not expedient he should pay for the others’ sins. Dennis would no longer stand by and watch him get beaten to death.
“Stop it, damn you!” he shouted, moving to grab the student’s arm.
With a single gesture Dennis was shaken off. He tripped backwards; eyes closed as he hit the stone wall and opened them to see a lifeless black lump at his feet. It was too late…