Fr. Jon Parker trudged along the pathway between the rectory and church. Despite the December sunshine, he felt low.
It had come to his attention that his wispy voice and low-key delivery had led his parishioners to a terrible conclusion: he gave horrible sermons. Each week he found himself studying the balding crowns of many bobbing heads. He'd seen video of his preaching and was painfully aware of his deficiencies. He mumbled. He stammered—if only slightly. He swallowed the fronts of his words and clipped off the backs.
Only last Sunday he'd been summoned to the Pastor's office for insulting the Ladies Altar Guild. Fr. Parker was stunned. He'd gone out of his way to praise their Advent decorations, remarking how the women of the Guild were, indeed, all ambitious.
Unfortunately, "ambitious" might have sounded like "'bitious," he explained to Fr. Monigan. From there it was a short leap, in the minds of the unrefined, to mental pictures of mongrels of the female persuasion. The Pastor had dismissed him, throwing up his hands.
Inside the church, Fr. Parker donned his vestments with renewed vigor. Enough was enough. He vowed to deliver a sermon that would be the talk of the town. He would advocate for the maternity ward at St. Elizabeth's. He knelt briefly, asking for the grace to speak eloquently, then strode out into the church.
Halfway through his sermon, though, he looked up and discovered the familiar, balding crowns. He increased his pace, pitch, and volume. He came down from the pulpit and stood in the aisle, looking Paul Osgood—a former Marine—in the face, or trying to. He paced back and forth, flinging his arms out. "Today we are called," Fr. Parker intoned, closing with three chopping motions, "ambassadors all, ambassadors true, ambassadors for Christ."
A stir in the congregation encouraged Fr. Parker. They were alert now, murmuring. Pleased, he bounced up the altar stairs on the balls of his feet.
Later, as the communicants filed to the front, some received the sacrament with a knowing gleam. Others looked away. He noticed the same pattern while shaking hands after the service. Some pumped his arm enthusiastically; others barely squeezed his fingertips.
John Regis, unmarried and forty, clutched Fr. Parker with a meaty paw.
"Thank you so much, Father," he said. "It's been such a struggle. Just me and mother, you see. Growing up was rough. You know how people can be, all gossip and bother." Fr. Parker suddenly found himself in a bear hug. "I'll never forget this," John whispered hoarsely. "I'll never forget you." Then he was gone, swallowed by the crowd.
Fr. Parker also noticed knots of onlookers in the parking lot. They lingered in clumps of conversation, pointing at him. He headed for the rectory, feeling a spring in his step that had been absent for many a month.
Monday morning, Fr. Parker awoke to a brave new world. He was excited, thrilled. He imagined that Jesus himself must have felt this way after the Sermon on the Mount. But he drew back—was this a sin of pride, comparing himself to the Redeemer? He admonished himself and went about his day, quietly.
After dinner Fr. Parker tried working on his next sermon. But in his mind a vast multitude sat beneath him. They looked up eagerly as he opened his mouth and spoke. They hung on his every golden word. He was energized. He was magnetic.
He was jerked back to reality by bellowing.
"Parker!" the Pastor boomed. "Where the devil are you?" Fr. Jon Parker, theologian and exorcist, picked himself up and trudged down the hall.
Fr. Monigan sat at his computer. "Five hundred emails!" he shrieked. "Five hundred thorns in my head!" He turned the monitor toward Fr. Parker. "I'll save you the trouble. Some love what you said. Most want to string you up, and not by your neck."
"What I said?" Fr. Parker replied, needing to sit down.
"Bastards for Christ!" Fr. Monigan yelled. "Good Christians should be bastards for Christ?" Fr. Parker felt dizzy.
"The local news called," Fr. Monigan interrupted. "They tipped me off about tonight's report." He entered some keystrokes.
The monitor picked up a live feed of reporters crowding the president of the Catholic League.
"Care to comment about Fr. Parker's unusual message, Mr. Donovan?" A microphone was thrust in Donovan's face.
"We at the League have received many calls," he began. "Our official position is that every priest must find a way to make the gospel relevant to the faithful. Fr. Parker was doing what he believed was his superiors' will."
"But what about those who find his message offensive?" another reporter insisted. Donovan chuckled.
"I remind them that Jesus himself was an unexpected pregnancy," he said. "Judge not, lest you yourself be judged." Donovan walked off-camera. The Pastor clicked off the newscast and stared hard at Fr. Parker, who studied the tops of his shoes.
When Fr. Parker emerged from the Pastor's office, everything was set. He was to call the Chancery. He was not to reply to inquiries from the media. He would clarify the misunderstanding at Sunday's sermon. Then he would take a month's vacation.
But the next day, picketers appeared across the street. Fr. Parker did not recognize most of them, though he did see Paul Osgood holding a sign. "Legit or Quit!" read one. "Marriage is Sacred," said another. And worst: "Bastards Go to Hell."
Several news vans sat across the street. Reporters exhaled December steam, microphones in hand. One stared up at the rectory, saw him, then led the charge to the front door. The bell rang frantically.
"Another fine mess you've gotten me into," said Fr. Monigan, appearing in the doorway. He seemed oddly calm. "Take a car. Go out the back. Don't tell me where. I need plausible deniability." Fr. Parker hesitated. "NOW!" said the Pastor, resuming his usual manner. Fr. Parker headed down the stairs. "Don't come back until midnight!" he heard the Pastor yell.
Fr. Parker escaped into his Ford Escort and drove out the back. Whether through force of habit or sheer obstinacy—he resented Fr. Monigan—he inadvertently turned onto the road that ran by the rectory. He averted his face, but a reporter pointed. "There he is!" They caught him at the red light, banging on the windows, screaming questions at him. He panicked and took an illegal left, roaring down the road.
After sneaking back into the rectory that night, Fr. Parker caught the late news, chewing his fist.
"In a situation like this," said the Archdiocesan Director of Communications, "we have a full investigation of the parish so that we have the facts in hand."
"But isn't it true," insisted the reporter, "that girls at the local high school have formed sex clubs so they can have babies for Christ? According to one source, they have a Facebook page called Parker's Preggers. Another is titled Magdalene Moms. Would you comment, Mr. Zellwigger?" The man's stoic expression did not change.
"At this point I cannot say what the situation is. We'll know more when our investigation is completed. Thank you." The camera cut back to the reporter.
"And so the saga continues for the embattled Fr. Parker. Evening Update has learned that supporters of the controversial cleric have planned a rally at John F. Kennedy High School in Somers tomorrow night. Back to you, Chris."
"Nice," said Fr. Monigan, nearly scaring Fr. Parker to death with his sudden if not wholly unexpected appearance. "I love investigations myself," he continued. "Nothing like a rectal probing of the parish to get the blood going. And the girls. Well, they do have a refreshing take on our pro-life stance." He glowered down at the seated priest.
"I'll go to the rally," Fr. Parker protested. "I'll stop this."
"You'll read a prepared statement I'll give you," the Pastor insisted, putting his face directly in front of Fr. Parker's. "You will not deviate from it in any way. Then you will come directly back here. Do I make myself clear?"
"Certainly," said Fr. Parker. The Pastor spun abruptly and left. Fr. Parker retired to his room and prayed for guidance to lead his flock aright. But he was troubled. He was only one man. How could he stem the rising tide of confusion?
As he prayed, he recalled a single sentence: God looked at everything he had made and he found it very good. Fr. Parker took comfort in this. He could reach out to the goodness in his listeners and shepherd them back to the right path. They needed him. They needed each other. He fell asleep and dreamed about auditoriums packed with entranced listeners.
The next night when Fr. Parker locked his Escort, he was shocked by the sheer number of people. So many cars jammed the driveway that he had to park a half-mile from the school. As he got closer, he encountered ever-thickening clots of Parker fanatics. Floodlights carved twin ovals into the night sky. News helicopters hovered overhead and documented the scene. Reporters climbed atop their vans, aloof from the gathering throng. Fr. Parker bypassed the main entrance by circling around to the back. He pulled his jacket tighter around his collar. He wanted to get inside without making a scene. But as he trudged along, heads turned in recognition. People followed, at first singly and in pairs. Then whole groups joined the pilgrimage, until he was accompanied by a multitude. "Hey Father!" they said. "Fr. Parker!" He started jogging, ignoring them. They jogged with him. Some thumped him on the back. "Hey, Father!"
He halted at the back entrance. As many people waited there as were following him. He found himself encircled by a mob. They broke into applause, cheering. Fr. Parker motioned that they should quiet down.
"Thank you," he began, "for coming tonight. If we could go inside, I have something to read." The people cheered again. "You're all good people," Fr. Parker persisted, "but this is a misunderstanding." From of the back of the crowd came a loud "No!" "Please!" Fr. Parker said. "Please. Come inside."
The crowd hesitated.
Paul Osgood emerged from the mob, pointing a .45 automatic. He took aim at Fr. Parker.
"My little girl!" he cried. "Only thirteen. Pregnant! She showed us the strip. It was positive!"
"I don't even know your daughter," Fr. Parker stammered. Osgood clicked off the safety.
"For Christ!" he howled. "She wants a bastard for Christ!" He pulled back the hammer. "It's your fault," he said, suddenly calm.
"Please!" said Fr. Parker. "You might harm one of these people." Fr. Parker crept forward, his voice a soothing instrument. "Your daughter could not have heard my sermon before she conceived the child. Think. It wasn't anything I said." He kept inching forward. "You're a good man. You don't want to hurt anybody." Fr. Parker stopped six inches from the gun. "Think of your family. They need you. Your daughter needs you. Your grandchild needs you." Fr. Parker reached out and touched the man's shoulder.
Osgood jumped, as though bitten by a serpent. Fr. Parker saw the flash and felt the explosion. He fell to his knees, blinking. The horrified father dropped the gun. "You're a good man," Fr. Parker whispered, then slid into an accelerating stream of light so intense that he had to close his eyes. When he opened them, he stood on a small bluff overlooking an immense field dotted with people.
"Go ahead," said the white-robed man next to him, gesturing to the hundred thousand five-thousands. "They're all yours." Fr. Parker opened his mouth and discovered he could speak angelically. His listeners settled in.
His sermon would last an eternity, but he felt that somehow he would rise to the occasion.
BIO: Robert Meade is a Boston native now transplanted in Mohegan Lake, in Westchester County, NY, with his wife and three children. He teaches at Loyola School in Manhattan. He won the Wordweaving Award for Excellence for his book, Daily Bread: Seven Days to a Healthier Soul. A published author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, his recent work has appeared in Angels on Earth magazine and online at Guideposts and Apollo's Lyre.