In Nomine Patris

First published in Northern Appalachia Review, Vol. 2, August 2021

My Catholic primary school built a new church and converted the old one into classrooms. The new one isn’t connected to the school building. It sits on the back lot behind the gym surrounded by smooth asphalt and strategically placed greenery. Walking across the lot, weaving in and out of cars, my skin feels hot. It’s the religion. It’s the people inside the religion, the clusters of grieving congregation members floating through the lot with me. Our group merges with others through the two heavy wooden doors. Mica and Jolene are cut off from the rest of us at the front, then more people file in and cut me off from Ray and Tyler. I keep an eye on Tyler’s greasy man bun as the mob shuffles through an impressive lobby with large potted plants, that may or may not be real, and moves toward another set of double doors into the church.

The man in front of me stops. I run into him, smack my nose right against his shoulder. He apologies, nods his head a lot, then dips two fingers in the marble holy water well carved into the wall, blesses himself, and moves on. I don’t dip my fingers. I walk up to the table with weekly newsletters and folded funeral pamphlets by the center aisle where my friends wait. The room’s vaulted ceilings resemble gothic churches from the 16th century. They contrast the Grecian columns that cut like long teeth through the room and create three distinct sections of pews.

It all seems wrong. Too big. Too open.

People in black armed with tissues and rosaries dangling from their fists pepper the pews. Towards the front, teachers and nuns stand in their own circles.

“Where should we sit?” Jolene glances this way and that. The stray strands that fall out of her hair clip sway; a single hair gets caught on her plastic nose ring.

“I don’t see anyone we know,” Ray says. “Let’s go over there.” He points to the right side of the church, to the collection of empty back pews where only latecomers and people with screaming babies sit.

We sit too close to each other at the aisle end of a pew three from the back. The clay relief of Jesus emerging from a stone tomb watches us from the wall between two skinny stained-glass windows. Stragglers looking for their parties and nuclear families linger on us, as one would seeing a toddler sitting at a bar.

We didn’t know that eighth grade graduation would be the last time walking out of the place, but fifteen years passed and suddenly we’re back. I see some distinct faces in the clusters, but they feel more like storybook characters, like far away people who have never significantly interacted with my life.

Jolene doesn’t feel the same. She taps each of us several times to point out our old teachers or classmates, to reminisce about student council elections, classroom shenanigans, and the underage drinking scandal that we may or may not have participated in. Her memories are clear, detailed, even fond. Mine gather like sand dunes shifting in a haboob.

“I hate this thing,” Jolene whispers, playing with the clear plastic post in her left nostril.

“I told you not to wear it,” Mica says.

“I couldn’t wear my hoop to church.” Jolene’s lips pucker. “And if I don’t wear anything then the hole might close.”

“It wouldn’t close in an hour,” Mica says.

“How would you know?”

Ray and Tyler have their phones out on the other side of Jolene. Anything they say is covered by Jolene and Mica’s third spat of the morning. I turn away from them, lock eyes for a moment with a pregnant woman passing by, nod politely, watch her waddle up the aisle and genuflect – to the best of her swollen ability – before shimmying into a pew.

Behind the alter hangs the larger-than-life crucified Jesus recycled from the old church, where it took up most of the back wall. Here it’s dwarfed by intricate tile work and Latin phrases scrawled beneath the crown molding. I used to be afraid of the statue; I thought it would fall on me when I sang in the choir. Every few lines, I’d look up to make sure it was still bolted to the wall, then I’d wonder why someone would carve that stupid look on his face. It isn’t a dying man’s expression. It’s exhaustion, maybe, but nothing more than that. The eyes slop to the side and the skin sags around his jaw, like the artist carved it out of wax then left it out in the sun too long.

A grand piano strikes up the beginning lines of Amazing Grace. It’s probably the only song I still know by heart. The music bounces off the marble and echoes into the far corners. Only a few spots in the nave are empty, and most of the side pews are full-up. The crowd’s made of different nationalities and generations. The look on their faces are all the same, though. It’s a little like Jesus’ above the altar.

It’s a long procession in. First the bishop; then the practicing priest; then a brood of altar boys carrying Bibles and golden statues on sticks and pushing along the light brown coffin; then several family members trailing behind. I shouldn’t be surprised to see family with Father Wert’s remains, but it doesn’t always make sense when you think about priests having anyone but God to keep them company. Then again, none of this makes any sense to me. Not this church. Not these superstitious rituals. Not me sitting here.

I stopped believing in God the way I stopped believing in Santa Claus: one minute He was real, and the next He wasn’t. It was in second grade during one of Father Wert’s homilies. At least, I think that’s when it happened. Father Wert was talking about Cain and Abel, relating it to our daily lives, to the bad things happening in the world, to the murder of a teenager a couple days before, and God suddenly didn’t exist. I remember looking down at the missal in my hands, paging through the songs of praise, and thinking that all of it was a lie. I remember looking around at my class and the kids older than me and the first graders in front of me and wanting to say something, but having no idea how to form the words. I feel the same way now, listening to the Bishop start his sermon, watching the people sit and stand and turn to page 347 to sing along with the choir. I don’t stand. I get some sideways glances from a group of women in the pews across the aisle. I think about telling them God is like Santa Claus.

Jolene smacks my arm and jabs her head toward me, the way mother ducks do to threaten their ducklings. Even when I stand, her gaze pierces me.

Mica chuckles and bumps my shoulder. “Mom’s mad,” he says.

“She doesn’t get to be mad when she looks like she’s picking her nose.”

We both glance sideways at Jolene, her thumb nestled in her nose fixing the plastic stake, her free hand still holding Mica’s. We giggle, and for a moment this place feels natural. The ground, the walls, the way Tyler’s foot fiddles with the folded up kneeling bench – it’s familiar, comfortable even. It takes me back to sixth grade and sneaking cookies into Father’s classes on Monday mornings.

Jolene smacks Mica’s shoulder and snaps him back to attention. He sucks his lips into his mouth and bites back the laughter.

“You guys are assholes,” she whispers.

“No cussing in church,” Mica says with the cadence of an actual sixth grader.

Even with several pews between our group and the vertically-nearest grievers, a woman looks back at us, the wrath of a PTO council member in her eye. Like good Catholic boys and girls, we bow our heads in apology and turn our attention to the bishop.

A funeral is just Mass with some extra words and more readings about death. The bishop’s speeches are pretty. He knew Father Wert, and says nice things about him and his dedication to the Church and the school. “The righteous perish,” he reads from Isaiah or Joshua, I can’t quite hear him over the nose-blowing, “and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away,” he pauses to stare provocatively at the congregation, “and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.”

We get to Communion after only three songs, four readings, and two of Tyler’s “bathroom” breaks. The teachers and nuns present the gifts as a group. My first grade teacher carries the wine. I can’t remember her name, but I remember the time my friend told her that the Bible isn’t real because no one has a last name.

They set the gifts on the altar in front of the bishop and the school’s current priest. The way the priest waves his hand over them for a blessing is strict, like a blade cutting the air. He passes out wine and wafers to four others who position themselves around the church to catch people in need of Jesus. My stomach growls; it’s an automatic response after so many years of morning Mass without breakfast.

The choir starts up a high-frequency rendition of a tired communion song. Patrons pass me, sparing glances or awkward smiles. Some nod in recognition, and I nod back whether I know them or not. I look down the row for anyone who may want to get up. Ray leans back and plays on the phone nestled between his knees. Tyler looks at me; the sides of his mouth pull up until his red eyes are barely open, and he giggles. Jolene perches on the edge of her seat and watches the patrons shuffle from their pews into black lines. She sits like this until the people before us file out, then she leans back and draws on the back of Mica’s hand with her nail. Mica guesses she’s drawing a penis several times before she gives up and folds her arms. I pull the missal tucked into the wooden basket on the back of the pew in front of me and page through the songs. Most of them are the same I sung in choir. For some, I can remember the tunes and hum along in my head.

There’s still a lot of crying, a lot of red eyes and sad looks. One man changes course on his way back from communion and detours past Father Wert’s coffin. He places his hand on the the light wooden lid as he passes. Like lemmings, those behind him follow the new path rounding Wert’s coffin and touch the side or top as the first man did. Only a few of us are sitting. A boy a few pews up who subconsciously clutches the shirt around his upper arm. An elderly woman in a wheelchair halfway up the next row. A surprising amount of people from the Egyptian family who owns the 24-hour diner by the mall, including Leo from our graduating class.

Communion ends as the last recipients file into the pews and take a knee to thank God and ask for favors. A woman behind me whispers her prayers out loud, asks God to protect her grandchildren. From what, she doesn’t say. I think about telling her that God is too busy for those things. That if God really exists, He doesn’t have time to make sure Tommy and Suzy have a fun vacation to the beach or to make sure your dog recovers from pneumonia. He has real problems, like the war in Iraq or the hundreds of priests in His Church convicted of molestation or world hunger.
I weigh the probability of these things while the priest and bishop suck down the rest of the wine and put the untouched bread in the golden tabernacle. The bishop readjusts his white silk hat, and the red fringes on the end of its lappets tickle his ear. He gestures for the congregation to stand for another sing-song phrase and then sit to listen to Wert’s sister read a long piece of the Bible. She relates it to Father Wert’s love for the Church, his love for God, his dedication to Christian education.

Ray and I lean back to exchange a brief look behind everyone else’s heads.

When you get out of your small town and gain a bit of wisdom, you realize the parts that were wrong and right about your upbringing. You think back on your parents, their punishments and rewards, the times you did well and the times you didn’t, the things you were lead to believe and the people who believed them. Father Wert did educate us during Mass and his religion classes. He taught us Genesis to the Disciples, the crucifixion, the plagues, the righteousness, and then he taught us about Hell, about the people who go there and the demons who play there and the sins that would get us sent there. Maybe that’s why my clearest memory of Wert is on the day I stopped believing, and after that he became like a tumbleweed rolling between the shifting dunes.

Wert’s sister closes her notes, bows to the altar, and goes back to the front pew. She wobbles on her heels stepping off the platform. While the Bishop calls on the Lord to take Wert’s soul through the pearly gates, I contemplate the social constructs of gender norms and expectations of funeral attire. Some people aren’t in black. I’ve seen it as a growing trend: wearing bright colors to funerals. I’m not sure it means anything. Maybe they don’t own black. Maybe they’re trying to break expectations. Maybe the man three pews up just really enjoys that salmon polo.
Everyone stands. The organ strikes up. They sing a song I’ve never heard. Jolene doesn’t notice me this time, and I’m grateful because the world’s different when you’re sitting in a crowd of people standing. It all seems a bit clearer. I imagine this is how it feels to be a child, though I don’t remember those feelings myself. I don’t remember the first funeral I went to, but I know I didn’t cry because my mom told me, and I know it was after I stopped believing in God. Maybe that’s why I didn’t cry, or maybe that’s why I should have. Is it better or worse to think you’ll see someone again? I wonder where, if there is an afterlife – Heaven and Hell – Father Wert ended up. It’s nice to think all priests go to heaven, but we know what some priests do to kids and we hope no one like that gets eternal paradise.

Then again, if a priest can be damned, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Ray leans over Tyler’s lap. “We don’t have to go to the cemetery, do we?”

“The program says they’re doing a private burial for the family,” Mica says.

“Good,” Tyler says, “then let’s go get food after this.”

“Let’s go get a drink after this.” Ray scratches the two-day old stubble on his chin.

When I told my parents I stopped believing in God, my confession came out more as an accusation: “Why’d you let me believe something so stupid?” That’s why they sent me to Father Wert after Mass on Sundays for the entire summer. They would go to lunch at a restaurant across the street and leave me in the rectory with him and my Bible and this endless swelling of piano music that crackled on his record player. To this day I can’t listen to Bach or Beethoven without craving a cigarette.

His skin smelled like the musk incense they burn in churches and candle wax on parchment, the way university libraries and leather notebooks in the sun smell. His hands sort of felt like that, too: old and papery. The skin sagged off his knuckles and the gold ring on his right pinky twisted each time he turned a page. We started with a detailed explanation of the commandments, which he insisted on reading only in Hebrew or Latin, and continued through the Old Testament book by book, parable by parable, until the pages’ corners wore thin under his licked thumb.
The bishop leads the processional down the aisle and out of the church as the song dwindles to its final chords. The pews empty from the front to the back, one long line after another. The music stops before the nave is clear.
A middle-aged man with thick blonde hair at the back of the church says, “Father Wert’s family invites all of you to join them in the cafeteria for sandwiches and coffee, which was generously donated by the school in honor of Father Wert’s many years of service.”

Father Wert didn’t answer my questions about why he couldn’t prove God’s existence or why people in the Bible didn’t have last names. He only told me that God never gives us more than we can handle and that as long as we follow God’s laws, we will all live forever. After three months, I told my mom and dad that I believed in God again so I wouldn’t have to stay after Mass anymore.

A man with crutches gets stuck trying to get out of his pew in front of us. Mica shoves me into the sudden gap in the crowd and tows Jolene, Tyler, and Ray with him. It’s a crawl across the back of the church and a traffic jam at the double doors where people pause to bless themselves again.

Ray sticks all four finger tips into the holy water as he passes and makes the sign of the cross. “Spectacles, testicles, wallet, and watch.”

Tyler’s smile stretches up his face. “Ha!” He giggles to himself. “Spectacles, testicles…”

“You are such children,” Jolene groans. She pulls Mica by his hand through the inconveniently placed pockets of people and out into the parking lot. “So, food?”

“Food,” Tyler sighs. “Yes, food, please.”

“Nothing too expensive,” I say.

“There’s that pub like five minutes that way.” Jolene points beyond the highway that sweeps behind the church toward the outer limits of town.

“I don’t care as long as there’s beer and cheese fries,” Ray says.

“Cheese fries…” Tyler echoes.

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