The Catholic Church I attend with my family is not very different from the average Nigerian Catholic Church.
As a Catholic Church, it contains the basics. The beautifully decorated altar, the pews arranged parallel to each other, stained glass windows, a large crucifix, huge portraits or statues of Jesus and Mother Mary, depictions of the stations of the cross etc. etc. etc.
As a Nigerian Catholic Church, it contains the basics too:
The people who rush to sit on the pews directly in front of the altar and are prepared to start a fight if another person makes the mistake of getting there first and making it their seat for that Sunday as though sitting elsewhere in the church would cause the blessings or the message for that Sunday to elude them.
The aunt, uncle or friend of the family you know will be present in church every Sunday and you’d truthfully rather not see so you do your very best to avoid them until they take it upon themselves to trot to where you’re sat or you’re forced to engage them by your parents.
The woman who insists that your dress is too indecent to be worn to the house of God even when you’re a hundred percent sure that you left the house with your parents.
The man who comes to the 6:30am mass every Sunday and sleeps/dozes throughout.
The person who comes to church armed with the missal, hymn book, daily devotional, bible diary and what have you and doesn’t use any single one of them throughout the entire mass.
The people whose participation in the mass would be incomplete if they do not share the peace of The Lord with every single soul in the church.
The family or organization that contributes largely to every major church project and revels in the resounding applause from the congregation when their very generous donation is announced.
The woman who looks like she really needs a miracle.
The man who you can clearly tell is giving out of his last just to have something to put in the offering bag.
The children who obviously got too much sleep at night and are full of energy and disrupt the mass every single chance they get and also the ones who have their parents chasing them around the church especially during sensitive times like the consecration.
The church warden with a permanent scowl on his face.
The priest whose homily takes forever and a day to end.
And the interminable albeit unnecessary announcements before the final blessing.
Yeah, the basics.
Amidst all these elementals, an old man stands out to me. I confess that this man would probably go unnoticed by me if I happen to sit elsewhere than I usually do on Sundays. I’m strategically sat every Sunday to watch and observe him.
It was my first Sunday at home after about 7 weeks away. My family had started attending the 6:30am mass at the Catholic Church in the estate where we reside. On that particular Sunday, I had no other option but to accompany them. Hard as it was to leave my bed and prepare that morning, I was ready on time and off we went. The 6:30am and 6:00/6:30pm masses commonly record the lowest number of congregants and seeing as how we arrived early, I had various sitting choices. Congruous to my nature, I took my place in an inconspicuous part of the church but which I could, coincidentally, behold everything that took place on the altar.
Just a few minutes shy of 6:30am when the mass was to begin and after I had prayed that that the devil would not win that round by manipulating me into participating less than fully in the mass, a small old man who had to be at least in his late sixties plodded past my pew. I’m no good at determining a person’s height, weight etc. by just looking at them so unfortunately referring to him as small and frail is as far as I can go for now. At that instant, I dismissed my notice of him as a simple distraction but as the mass went on I found myself constantly trying to catch a glimpse of him. It did not help at all that his pew was adjacent to mine. At the end of the liturgy of the word (the second phase of the holy mass), I gave up trying to restrain myself. I watched him sit quietly and participate as much as he could.
“The peace of the Lord be with you always”
“And also with you”
“Let us offer each other the sign of peace”
*everyone offers each other the sign of peace* (This is done by extending a friendly handshake to the person or persons beside or around you while uttering the words ‘the peace of the Lord be with you’ but it is usually a hug for Nigerian parents)
I normally just shake my sister who’s usually beside me and one or two other people around and give it a rest but to my astonishment, that small old man reached out from his seat to shake me with such a warm smile on his face. I returned the gesture with what I hoped was an equally warm smile.
I’m a bit worried about the name I’ve given him, Mr. P, but it was the first thing that came to me when I took notice of him. I gave him this name for I fear that he suffers from Parkinson’s disease because he exhibits the common symptoms of the medical condition: tremor, slowed movement and impaired posture.
I don’t quite understand the fascination myself; it could be how I see that he always tries to put a smile on his face even when people are clearly being rude to him, it could be how I see him trudge to church every Sunday even when he looks really uncomfortable and I think it wise for him to lay in bed and rest, it could be how he’s ready to give up his sit for another person and stand or squeeze tightly at the edge of the pew, it could be how his face lights up whenever he sees a child who usually wanders to his pew, it could be how I watch him immersed in fervent prayer and I wonder what he lifts up to God in supplication. It could be any, a combination or all of these things. Maybe even more.
I’ve tried to weave various stories featuring him based solely on his demeanor but none sticks. I’ve gone to a man abandoned by his family who he gave his all to to a poor pensioner to a domestic employee of some rich ingrate and back.
None of them stick simply because none of them appear to be truth.
I might be close but nothing beats the riveting intricacies of a person’s truth which is why, one day, I will muster up the courage to approach Mr. P and ask him to tell me his story.