The young priest nervously knocked, waiting for the elder parishioner to greet him. Hearing nothing, he chanced thumping his knuckles against the painted pane once more.
“I heard you the first time. Now, go away,” she barked. “No priest is welcome in this house. Ever.”
He swallowed hard, mustered his courage and said, “Ms. Bette, I’m Father Rob and I’ve just arrived at St. Rita’s. I simply wanted to introduce myself and personally invite you back to church. I’ve been told that you haven’t been able to make it to Mass in a number of years and I wanted to know if I could help to get you back there.”
“Who says I haven’t been able,” she retorted. “Truth be told, and it might as well be, I just haven’t been willing. Then, or now. So you best be going.”
Taken aback, Father Rob risked asking, “But, why?”
By now, the old woman was standing up and angrily leaning against her wooden cane with her gnarled hands white-knuckled around its silver handle. Through the screen door, in a voice just above a whisper, she told him, each word laced with bitterness.
As a young girl, living with her parents in this very same house, the family often attended weekday Mass and her brother served as an altar boy. The entirety of their lives centered on the church. Then, illness tragically struck and the cost of caring for her mother’s cancer quickly and completely depleted the family’s savings. Within a year, her mother was dead.
At that time, it was customary for the church to ring its bells to alert those in the community of a death and to honor the newly deceased as he or she hopefully headed to heaven. Generally, a small fee for ringing the bells was required, but her father did not have the money to pay the token.
No money, no bell, Ms. Bette said the then-pastor told her father. And so no church bell tolled for her mother.
Stricken with grief and depression and unable to function at work, her father lost his job. A household of hungry and hurting children awaited him each day. Too humbled by his perceived failure to face his fellow parishioners at Mass, he eventually stopped going. His health declined at a rapid rate and he, too, was gone a short time later. Again, without the necessary funds, the church bells did not ring.
Bereft and betrayed, Ms. Bette swore she would never again go to St. Rita’s. And, indeed, she hadn’t for decades.
Father Rob looked directly at the elderly lady and explained, “Ms. Bette, I have to leave for a minute, but I promise you I will be right back. Please, will you wait for me?” Without waiting for an answer, he left.
Ms. Bette muttered to herself about his rude and abrupt parting, especially as she had just bared her hurting heart to him. As she continued the inner diatribe, her thoughts were interrupted by a melodious sound.
Bells. Church bells. Ringing. Loudly. Many minutes passed and the bells still rang. When they didn’t stop, their meaning dawned on Ms. Bette and a torrent of tears trickled down her wrinkled cheeks. Her once-knotted hands slowly began to unfold and rest in her lap. She sat up a bit straighter. She could actually feel the cold, hardened places of her heart begin to melt and soften.
By the time she heard Father Rob again knocking on her door, she hardly recognized herself. It was as if a lifetime of hurt had been hastily hauled away. She motioned for Father Rob to come in. He knelt on the planked floor before her.
“Please forgive the old priest who was too stubborn and insensitive to stray from the rules to ring the bells for your parents. They ring now. Please don’t let anger and bitterness, no matter how justified, continue to grow in your heart. You are the only one who gets hurt. Please, let it go and come home.”
On Saturday as the Vigil Mass commenced, there in the front pew sat a content Ms. Bette.
It’s been said that forgiveness is the gateway to grace; that it is not a feeling, but rather, an act of the will. We are called to forgive all persons, not just penitent ones. In doing so, we are the ones that are finally set free. May Our Almighty and loving God assist us in letting go of every vestige of anger, bitterness and unforgiveness that we hold hostage in our hearts.
— Rosato lives in Mandeville
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