By all accounts, Father Francois (Frank) Francoeur was a fine priest. He said Mass every morning at 6:45, even when only the Mr. Proulx, the beadle, and a few old biddies showed up clutching their rosary beads through the holy sacrifice. He blessed the CYO's bats and mitts every spring before the season opener, made an appearance at every Bingo and penny sale, raised funds to patch the roof and repair the balky boiler, and gave a fine, if smooth and unmemorable homily (cribbed from the diocesan priest's magazine) every Sunday.
One lazy Sunday afternoon, as he was watching the ball game in the rectory's well-appointed living room, a strange feeling flowed over him. His chest tightened. And, raising an arm to summon Madame Pichette, the cook, who was in the kitchen peeling carrots for his Sunday dinner, he was gone.
Francoeur floated unsteadily for a while, drawn silently toward a circle of white, blinding light in the distance. The brillian light did not hurt, yet he instinctively drew up his hands to shield his eyes. All at once, he dropped with a muffled thud onto a cloud bank. On a nearby cloud stood a high desk. And behind the desk, an aged and bespectacled man writing in an enormous book
"Saint Peter!" cried Francoeur.
"The same," responded to the other, adjusting his spectacles and laying down his quill. He regarded the new arrival coolly.
"I am Francois Francoeur, late (I am led believe!) of Saint Clothilde's! Could it be? I am I truly in Heaven?"
"More precisely, just outside," responded the saint, leaning back in his chair.
"Oh goody!" cried Francoeur. "The dream and goal of my lifetime -- fulfilled! Praised be God!"
Saint Peter allowed the priest's excitement and joy exhaust themselves. How many times had he seen this same scene play out?
"Well, first," Peter said, looking down his nose through his specs, "There is the matter of the inspection."
"Inspection?" responded Francoeur, a bit rattled. "I never learned of such a thing in seminary!"
"No?" said the saint. "Then I suspect there's a great deal they didn't teach there." He continued perusing the great book in front of him, pausing occasionally to turn an enormous leaf.
At this, the priest's ebullience drained completely. He stood dumbfounded, looking from side to side, as though searching for others to stand up for him.
After interminable moments, Peter completed his reading, removed his spectacles and began cleaning them on his snowy white robe.
"I've just read your life," began the saint. "The record of the traces of all you have done and left undone throughout your life. It's a fine tale."
At this, Francoeur brightened. Heaven's standards were high, he knew, infinitely so. But surely, a priest should breeze right in. Shouldn't he?
"As I said," continued the saint, noting the priest's change of mood, "It's a fine tale. You have led a fine life. And a fine priesthood..."
Francoeur's frank heart soared. "I'm in! I'm in! I'm in!" he chimed exultantly to himself.
Francoeur stammered, "B-But? But what?" He was perplexed and, frankly, starting to get worried. Had he been in his human body, he might have started to perspire, and to get hot under the collar.
"But," Peter continued, "there are questions."
Francoeur's mind raced through every event in his life -- childhood, school days, his calling to the priesthood, seminary, his ordination, parish life in three small city parishes. Nothing stood out in his life as a blot serious enough to cause an issue in his entry to heaven, was there?
"Is this about the double communion?" he asked, hands knitting in anxiety.
"What?" Peter cried aloud, his great frame pushed back suddenly into the chair.
"There was that time when I had two funerals in a row, served by the same altar boy -- what's his name -- you know, the one who did all the masses when no one else showed up."
"Good Lord, man, there's nothing like that written here!" Evidently, the Book of Life only recorded instances worth mentioning. Francoeur breathed a sigh of relief. Receiving communion twice in one day was sinful in the Church's eyes. But this lapse, which had cost the priest no end of troubled nights and a reprimand from the bishop, was not even serious enough to merit an entry into the Great Book. Francoeur relaxed. Saint Peter must just be being extra careful about letting all newly arrived souls into the divine presence. This was just a standard entrance procedure. Wouldn't want any secret heretics storming heaven, would we?
"But there are a few, shall we say, matters, that I'd like to look into with you."
"Why certainly, your holiness!"
Peter looked up at the priest, eyes crinkled in annoyance.
"Your grace? Your saintliness?" The priest was looking more and more like a naughty puppy, caught beside a puddle of urine on the kitchen linoleum.
"Yes. Well," Peter interrupted, clearing his throat. "There is this matter of a Madame Langlois."
Helene Langlois was a parishioner at Les Bonnes Anges parish. She had ten beautiful children. A stalwart of the parish, she ran whist parties, baked pies for fundraisers, led the girl scouts and served on the altar guild, washing the priest's used linens.
"A beautiful soul!" the priest responded. "A worker in the vineyard, a great supporter of the church. Why I officiated at her funeral!"
"Yes, I see that," responded Peter dryly, underlining a passage in the book with a fingertip. "It says here she died aged 43."
"Yes, indeed, poor soul," added the priest. "Leaving ten children and a husband bereft of all joy."
"Eleven," said Peter.
"Eleven? Eleven what?"
"Eleven children. She was carrying one when she died. He had to cut out of her after a breech presentation. A surgical instrument pierced her womb. She bled to death."
"Ah yes, I remember now," said the priest. "A tragedy! God rest her soul!"
Peter sat back, startled. "No worry of that," Peter responded, lips pursed and tapping agitatedly on the desktop. "She is here, with us. But it took us weeks to rest God's soul!"
Francoeur blinked nervously. His mind raced back to his seminary education. Did God have a soul? Was Peter being serious or talking in metaphors? His simple mind raced around and around, like a mouse in a maze seeking an exit.
"But there is one thing that I -- we, all of heaven -- want to know," Peter began.
Francoeur fumbled nervously at the buttons on his cassock.
"And what is that, your saintliness -- that is, I mean -- what is that?"
"Helene came to you after her tenth child's baptism, did she not?"
"Let me think," said the priest, "Why, yes. I think I remember. She was very worried."
"And what did she ask?"
"Well, she told me what a wonderful Baptism it was, and whether I would like to drop by for cake and ice cream at the family party."
"And?" challenged the saint.
Francoeur bit his lip and looked down. He breaths were coming hard now.
"And?" Peter repeated.
"She asked permission to stop having children," Francoeur blurted.
"And you said?" said Peter, leveling his gaze at the priest.
"I-I said," the priest stammered. "I said...I said that would be against Church law. Which is true! I learned that in seminary! The church forbids all forms of birth control, even sterilization. It's an abominable sin!"
Francoeur's face was hot. His eyes glistened and his chest heaved with the effort.
Peter ran a hand over his face, stroking his beard.
"Have you given any thought that depriving ten children of their mother might also by a grave sin? And that driving a husband to a too-early second marriage with a woman who hated them might also by grave, even abominable?"
Peter's tone signaled to Francoeur that he should feel chastened, but the prelate couldn't raise that emotion.
"But she went to heaven -- a pure woman who had not been stained by the sin of denying God's will by refusing more children -- each child a blessing from the Lord!"
Peter gazed sternly at the priest. "It was God's will," he stated, slowly and evenly, "that Helene Langlois raise a family, love her children, and be a beacon of hope and grace to them, to her good but confused husband, and to her grandchildren."
The last words rattled around the heavens like rolling thunder.
"But I did my duty as a priest!" Francoeur replied weakly.
"Yes, you did," Peter retorted. "But our Lord asked you to do your duty -- not as a priest, but as a neighbor. Didn't you ever hear the story of the Good Samaritan?"
"Why yes!" Francoeur straightened. "I preached on it many times."
"But apparently you didn't understand it!" Peter rumbled. "The hero is not the priest or the Levite who passed by so they could fulfill their religious 'duty,' but the heretic who assisted the injured man."
Francoeur looked blankly at Peter.
"You are the priest and the Levite!" Peter thundered.
Francoeur's blank look persisted.
"You should have been the Samaritan!" Peter fairly bellowed, rising from his chair.
Francoeur continued to stare, not absorbing what was being said.
Peter took a breath and calmed himself. He lowered himself slowly into his chair. "I had hoped I could get through to you today," he said. "There was still a chance to sneak you in if you had shown some sign of repentance. But this..."
Francoeur felt a sudden rush of courage. "I shall never repent obeying the Church!" he declared defiantly.
" I know," Peter said, dejectedly. "And that's the problem, isn't it?" Peter looked over the page in the book before him. "Well, I supposed there's no use in going over the others."
"What others?" demanded the priest.
"Oh, there are so many. The woman whose vicious husband raped her and who committed suicide after you told her she could not leave him. The boy raped by your friend, Father Maudit, who became a drug addict and overdosed. The father whose son was dying of AIDS -- you told him to disown the boy. Lord, there are so many..." Peter trailed off, shaking his head.
"But they were all sinners! I gave them the Church's counsel to avoid divorce, avoid scandal, avoid sin!"
"All of us are, and were, sinners," Peter added softly. "And all of us needed love, and humanity. Not rules. Not judges."
But Francoeur was adamant. "Well, if they had taught this in seminary, I might have done differently. It's hardly my fault for wanting to be a good priest!"
But Peter shut him off. "Our Lord clearly taught what we should do -- heal, feed, clothe, visit, forgive. You were asked to live the Beatitudes, not just to preach on them."
Francoeur was unmoved. He crossed his arms, closed his eyes and raised his nose into the air.
Peter regarded the man with a mixture of pity, sadness and fury. "Well, it appears that there is only one thing left to do."
At this, Francoeur opened his eyes and began to shudder. "You don't mean you're actually going to send me...down there?" His eyes, once defiant, went wide with fright.
"Why, yes. That's precisely what I plan to do!" said Peter, matter-of-factly.
"To the P-Pit? T-To Eternal D-Damnation?" Francoeur's voice broke.
Peter seemed amused. "Oh, my Lord, no!" he exclaimed. Not to Hell, but to Earth!"
Francoeur looked confused. "To Earth? Will I be resurrected?"
"Oh, please!" Peter cut in, "You don't deserved that! But you will live again, just in another body."
"But that's that's reincarnation!" the priest interjected. "We don't believe in that, just Purgatory to atone for our sins!"
"Well," said Peter. "What better way to atone for your sins than to try to live more justly? Who said Purgatory was a place? Maybe it's a second chance."
Francoeur stayed silent, pleased that his seminary education was correct, at least in obliquely. "But, but what will I be? Can I be a priest again? I will do better this time!"
"Not so fast, padre," said Peter. "This time, we want to have the lesson stick. You're going down as a single mother."
Francoeur seemed horrified. Then his face lit up. "How wonderful! Like Mary, Our Lady! The Blessed Virgin! Conceived without sin, who brought forth the Lord from her pure body to save the world!"
"You wish, Father." Peter's last word dripped with disdain. "Not like Mary. More like a L'Shawnda. Or a LeeAnn. Or a Lucita. I haven't decided yet."
"But I wanted to see Jesus!" Francoeur protested. "Now I won't see him for decades!"
Peter said, "Don't worry, Frank. You will see Jesus. He will be in the faces of everyone you meet. But if you don't see him in your new life, expect us to have the same conversation again the next time we meet!"
Francoeur's face went white. His eyes widened in horror. His mouth began to form the word, "Nooooo!" But before any sound came forth, the cloud at his feet sent up tendrils of smoke. They snaked around his legs, then his hips and torso, pinning his arms against his side, and (just as his scream was reaching his lips) his face and head. This cocoon started to spin faster and faster until it was a blur of white and gray. Then at peak rotational velocity, it poofed! out of existence, sending Francoeur to his new life.
With any luck, he -- she! -- will experience the hardship of being let down by a patriarchal society. And if she is very, very lucky and works hard, she will learn that compassion comes from a life of love and service, not of judgment, rule-following and boss-pleasing. And in that, she will find Jesus and finally be found worthy of her seat among he angels and saints.