Father Ignatius got out of the London Underground at Oxford Circus station. It took him a minute or two to find his bearings, and then he turned to his trusted A to Z of London Streets.
He consulted his book for a few minutes and then looked at his watch. As he had plenty of time before his appointment he decided to tour around for a while. It was such a long time since he last visited the Capital, and no doubt much had changed since, so he decided to enjoy the next hour or so. He headed for Regent Street, then Bond Street, and aimed in the general direction of Park Lane getting in and out of various connecting streets in the process.
“This is certainly the opulent part of London,” he thought, as he admired the luxurious shops, restaurants and cafés. He did a bit of window shopping and was astounded at the prices they were asking for a variety of goods and gifts he’d never believed existed, never mind wanted or needed.
“Would anyone pay that much for a watch?” he asked himself outside a jeweler’s. He looked twice to make sure they had the decimal point in the right place. Yes … that’s the right price for sure. He shuddered at the thought of carrying a fortune on his wrist.
He witnessed many chauffeur-driven posh cars and limousines drive by, or stop outside various buildings and bejeweled ladies and rich men walk out.
“This is so different from my poor little town,” he mused, “one bracelet or necklace could feed several poor old folks in my Parish for a month.”
And by coincidence his thoughts of poverty turned to reality when he noticed at a corner in a side street two men in dirty tattered clothes huddling together, sitting on the ground, near an air vent at the back of a building. They were trying to keep warm by absorbing whatever heat came out from the dirty black grille low on the wall.
By their state of unconsciousness it was obvious they had been drinking cheap hard cider mixed with methylated spirit; a favorite brew leading to quick oblivion for the down-and-outs, he had once been told by someone who’d come begging at St Vincent Church.
The sight of extreme poverty living side by side with such wealth reminded Him of Christ’s story of the rich man and Lazarus at his gate.
Eventually he reached his destination and asked the concierge at the door of a splendid building for Miss Strickland.
“You must be Father Ignatius,” said the man wearing an immaculate uniform.
Father Ignatius was impressed as he was led to the elevator and taken to the top floor. He was asked to wait in a palatial room with a large mahogany table and chairs in the middle. The walls were decorated with genuine masterpieces. Above him hung three large magnificent crystal chandeliers which would have required their own power station to keep them lit.The floor was covered with the most luxurious thick carpet he'd ever seen or stood upon. He looked around and wondered at the fortune which surrounded him from everywhere.
Minutes later a tall beautiful American woman came in.
“Ignatius dear …” she said softly as she hugged him tightly and kissed him on the cheek.
Still standing close beside him she held his hands gently in her hands and said nothing for a short while; she then raised his right hand to her lips and kissed it before letting go. It was then that the priest noticed her eyes welling up, yet she retained full control of her emotions. He said nothing. And those few moments of total silence spoke volumes to the two of them.
“Let’s sit down,” she said breaking the silence as she pulled a couple of chairs from the table, “it’s been a long time …”
It had been a long time indeed. Father Ignatius had first met Genevieve Strickland in London when they studied together at University. They had fallen in love and became very close friends.
They never told anyone of their feelings for each other because at the time Ignatius was fighting his own personal secret battle. He loved her dearly and yet somehow … deep inside within him, he knew that this love was not meant to be.
Eventually he summoned the courage to tell her that he’d decided to go to Rome and study for the priesthood.
It was literally a heart-breaking farewell when they parted. A farewell which shaped those two young lives all those years ago, and set them in totally different directions.
“It’s so nice to see you again Ignatius after all these years,” she said with a smile to ease the tension a little.
Father Ignatius smiled back gently and said nothing.
“Do you work here Genevieve?” he asked finally, wondering why she had written to him asking for an urgent meeting after such a long time.
He hadn’t seen her for a lifetime, yet she retained her youthful beauty just as he remembered her from their days as young students. Her lovely smile radiant as ever and her beautiful deep blue eyes reminiscent of holidays they’d spent together by the sea in Southern France.
“No, I don't work here … I own the whole company,” she replied timidly.
Father Ignatius said nothing, stunned as he was by that reply. Genevieve, his Genevieve from years gone by, now owns this well-known famous brand name. How could it be?
She told him that she had stayed in London after they parted all those years ago, and got a job in the City and then decided to work for herself. To cut a long story short, one success led to another and she was now worth a fortune.
“I am very happy for you,” said Father Ignatius.
“I have decided to stop working Ignatius,” she continued, “and to return home to America. I will leave the business in the hands of a good friend of mine who will manage it for me.
“You must be wondering why I asked you to meet me Ignee …” she went on with a laugh.
“Do you remember I used to call you Ignee? I believe you didn’t like it much …”
He smiled gently.
“Anyway … back to business,” she said pretending to be serious.
“First of all I wanted to meet you one more time before I move to the States. I did not want to leave Britain after all these years here and not see you one more time. I doubt that I’ll ever return here again.
“It’s so sweet and kind of you to agree to meet again.
“Second, I wanted to let you know that I have set up a Trust Fund for you Ignatius.
“It will pay you a nice sum every month for life rising every year in line with inflation … I have all the paperwork sorted out and my lawyers are waiting next door ready for you to sign.”
He was totally dumbfounded by what he had just heard. She smiled sweetly and said nothing.
“Thank you …” he mumbled quietly after a pause which seemed to last an eternity, “that’s very generous Genevieve, but I can’t possibly accept ... I am a priest now, and I really lack nothing … I don’t want to sound ungrateful … I vowed long ago …”
She moved slightly forward in her chair and put her hand gently on his mouth to stop him talking. After a short pause she moved back …
“Listen Ignatius … please hear me out,” her lips trembled slightly, “I hope you’ll understand me …
“When you left me for Rome all those years ago it really broke my heart. I did let you go; to follow your calling as you said at the time. But I really never got over it.
“I cursed and hated God for taking you away from me. I understood your decision to become a priest, but I never accepted it. I stopped going to church and to put it bluntly God and I just parted company.
“Once you left I looked for a job here in London and concentrated all my energies on work. I’ve done well of course but after all these years and all my wealth my one regret is that you were never with me to share my success.
“I have more than I’ll ever need.
“My gift to you is perhaps my way of making peace with God. Please accept it Ignatius.
“You may not need the money for yourself, but please take it and use it for whatever good you think it can do. Do it for me as a special favor Ignatius.”
At this moment Father Ignatius saw those two tramps huddled together in the cold London street by the hotel grille.
He accepted her generous gift and signed the papers witnessed by her legal team. She took him by chauffeur driven limousine to one of London’s most famous restaurants for lunch and then to a tour of the Capital visiting many old places they used to frequent.
And now … years later, the poor folks in his Parish are still benefiting from her legacy to the kind old priest who kept the flame burning in her heart.
She lives in America and writes to him once a year to wish him a Merry Christmas.
NOTE: Please listen to this song by another priest whom I know well.
FATHER FRANCIS MAPLE
Have you seen the old man
In the closed-down market
Kicking up the papers,
with his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride
And held loosely at his side
Yesterday's papers telling yesterday's news
So how can you tell me you're lonely,
And say for you that the sun don't shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London
I'll show you something to make you change your mind
Have you seen the old girl
Who walks the streets of London
Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags?
She's no time for talking,
She just keeps right on walking
Carrying her world in two carrier bags.
In the all night cafe
At a quarter past eleven,
Same old man is sitting there on his own
Looking at the world
Over the rim of his tea-cup,
Each tea last an hour
And he wanders home alone
And have you seen the old man
Outside the seaman's mission
Memory fading with
The medal ribbons that he wears.
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn't care