For the last three Sundays Father Ignatius noticed a new member of his congregation attending Mass and always sitting in the same place on the left of the Altar.
She was an elegantly dressed lady in her mid to late fifties. She took part in silent prayer throughout Mass and never came forward for Communion. At the end of Mass she got out of church without speaking with anyone and drove away in a nice new car. Not the sort of car you see often in St Vincent Church whose parishioners are mostly either out of work or earning a pittance in a job in the poorest town in the country.
Father Ignatius liked to wait in the car park after Mass and greet his parishioners as they came out of church. Yet he never managed to speak to this mysterious lady who always left just before the final hymn ended, and so avoided contact with him or any other parishioner.
This week however the repetitive saga would have a different outturn because Father Donald was offering Mass; so our resourceful priest decided to wait in the car park a few minutes before Mass ended and so have the opportunity to greet his mysterious new visitor.
As the elegant woman came out of church early Father Ignatius greeted her with a smile.
“Hello, I’m Father Ignatius … I don’t think we’ve met …” he said.
“Yes Father … how remiss of me …” she replied in a refined English accent, “perhaps we can meet somewhere and I’ll introduce myself …”
Father Ignatius was taken aback. He certainly did not expect such a response.
“Ehm … we can go in the Parish House” he mumbled.
“Excellent … lead on and I’ll follow” she smiled.
Minutes later they were both in the large lounge room downstairs in the Parish House. She sat on the armchair near the warm fireplace; the very chair the priest often used when watching TV or listening to his beloved classical music. He sat on the settee opposite her.
“I haven’t been attending your church for long," she started.
“You’re very welcome here …” he encouraged her.
“The truth is … I haven’t been to church for almost thirty years,” she continued, “but my husband died a month ago and I thought I’d come back …”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear it …” the priest sympathized.
“Sorry that I’ve come back to church or that my husband died?” she asked teasingly, and before the priest had time to reply she smiled and went on “oh … don’t worry Father, actually I’m glad he’s dead … I’ve cursed him often enough …”
Father Ignatius knew to say nothing and let her continue.
“We married some thirty two years ago to be precise and he left me for another woman after two years of marriage. We had a young son aged one year at the time. My husband moved to another part of the country to start a new life with his new lover and I haven’t seen him since.
“He provided generously for the up-bringing of our son. He was fairly wealthy and made arrangements for moneys to be regularly credited to my bank, yet he never made contact nor visited our son since the day he left.
“My son is grown-up now and married with two children of his own. And my husband and I never divorced.
“He went to live with his girl friend, and had two other children with her although he never married her. And last month he died in a car accident.
“I heard from his solicitors that he left money for our son and for me.
“And I cursed him once again … I never forgave him for the pain he’s caused me and that’s why I’ve not been to church ever since the day our marriage broke down!”
“Well, as I said, you’re very welcome here …” Father Ignatius replied encouragingly once again.
“I know it’s wrong not to forgive Father …” she continued as calmly as before, “but I just can’t. And that’s why I haven’t been to church for a long while.
“I don’t even know why I’m back in church now … for the past three weeks at least. Perhaps I’m hoping that God will give me a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” she smiled. “You know what I mean … He’d forgive my hatred for my husband yet let me continue to hate him.”
“I doesn’t work like that …” Father Ignatius said gently.
“Yes I know Father. You’d have thought that after all these years I would have moved on … but I haven’t …” she continued lighting a cigarette.
“That’s because the hurt caused to you all those years ago has not healed. For various reasons the pain has not been given time to subside and fade away. Memories perhaps remained too vividly alive and so fuelled your anger and made the pain worse,” he explained as quietly and gently as before.
“Anyway … that’s my story,” she smiled stubbing out her just lit cigarette in the ashtray, “I may or may not continue to come to church … but it’s been nice meeting you Father. You’re a very gentle and caring person, and I appreciate your kindness.”
“Let me ask you something …” Father Ignatius asked just as she was about to get up, “if your husband was alive today, and he was here right now, full of genuine remorse for the hurt he has caused you all these years. If he asked you to forgive him, knowing full well that there’s nothing he can do to turn back the clock and put things right. If he genuinely and truly asked you for forgiveness; would you find it in your heart to forgive him?”
“What an interesting question …” she replied, “yes … on reflection I think I would forgive him.”
“It’s too late for him to ask your forgiveness,” said the priest, “but it’s not too late for you to forgive him.
“For your own peace of mind … and for your own sake and salvation, you must forgive him once and for all. The memories and hurt may well linger on, but with true forgiveness will come healing and in time reconciliation with Our Lord.”
“I’ll try …” she said showing emotion for the first time.
“That’s all God is asking of you. And I’ll be here to help you if you need me …” he replied.
And that’s how a wounded soul finally managed to find peace and healing. She continued to attend Mass on Sundays and had several discussions with Father Ignatius and Father Donald over a period of time to make her way back to God.
Yesterday, she went to Confession and had Communion for the first time in over thirty years.
EXCERPT FROM TAKE CARE OF MY SHEEP