Father Joe and I go back over twenty years. I met him at an AA meeting. He was honest and passionate. What he said seemed to matter more than what others said. Whatever he got riled up about it, he always went back to being mild after speaking his mind.
Once when I was – yes, going through yet another difficult time in my life – I worked up the nerve to ask Father Joe to be my sponsor. He agreed. We started meeting at his apartment every Wednesday night. We sat in his living room across from a large statue of the Virgin Mary. I bared my soul to him. He listened, and told me what I needed to hear whether I wanted to hear it or not.
Father Joe and I became close. There was an intensity to our visits that exhausted and strengthened me at the same time. He began cooking meals for our visits, which I appreciated because I was broke and starving. He offered to give me money, which I refused at first. Then I would accept the money because – well, I really needed it. One night it was clear Father Gene had feelings for me I could not return, and our relationship ended.
I bear him no ill will. I miss talking to him, and still admire him as a man. He was a father figure for me when I really needed one. Five years later I converted to Catholicism, and once I received Communion from Father Joe. I didn’t look at him, so I don’t know if he recognized me or not. Maybe I was just another mouth, which would have been fine with me.
Father Joe is much older now, and doesn’t do a regular public Mass. Once in a while he’ll be in the confessional. I’m sure he doesn’t recognize my voice, but his absolution goes to the bone. I confessed to Father Joe recently, and he said that when we sin God seems distant from us. He left things at that. I had always thought that God removed himself from sinners, but perhaps it is we who remove ourselves from God. But if sin does remove us from God, does that mean God goes away? That he doesn’t hear our prayers?
Some of the radical Catholics I used to hang with would say yes. I am not so sure. I know God heard my prayers before I was Catholic, when I was in a state of mortal sin. Perhaps God is even nearer to us when we sin because he wants to be back in Communion with us. And we, with our guilty consciences, try to hide from God just like Adam and Eve did. Does God still seek out his sinful children, as he sought out Adam and Eve? I am told God does not change.
Father Joe uses a walker now, and he doesn’t distribute Holy Communion at Mass. He is heavier, and slower. I realize now I love Father Joe because of, and in spite of, the jagged relationship we had. I have missed him these years, but our separation was unavoidable – kind of like my divorce. I would have loved to have talked to him about that.
Maybe someday I will.