Writing directly to Rome seemed to be the most expeditious way of dealing with things. Alistair wanted to avoid having his letter escalated through the ranks in Australia.
Long into the night he wrote, explaining his inordinate unhappiness and with all the discretion he could muster, explained his loneliness and regret, post ordination.
“Nights are mostly sleepless, and isolation envelopes me like a mantle that refuses to shift. I find myself reaching for alcohol, and that is unsustainable. Now I realize that being a priest was never my calling and so, I humbly ask that my allegiance to church be terminated forthwith.
“The cost of not following my heart will be spending the rest of my life in regret. It is no way to live and so I ask that you release me from my vows forthwith. There are many other ways in which I can serve my God, and I look forward to hearing from you in the very near future. Allow me at this point, to thank you sincerely for your understanding and support.”
Over the next few weeks he anxiously waited. He’d hoped to hear back from the Vatican itself, but, after many weeks of silence, he was disappointed to receive a letter from a secretary within the Vatican, suggesting he speak to his local bishop.
Alistair was angry.
It was clear they were stalling! How easy would it have been for them just to agree to his leaving? How many hurdles would they have him jump before his eventual release? However, he went along with the suggestion, for that was his option, and a meeting was quickly arranged.
Not surprisingly, it skirted all the deeply-held feelings and issues that Alistair had already highlighted, and tension grow inside him.
Bishop Scanlon sat back in his chair, his hands folded firmly on his growing paunch, deliberately putting distance between the two of them. Alistair could have written the opening script, and he braced himself for self-control.
“We all experience loneliness at times Alistair,” he began, “all of us. Loneliness is part of being human, but it’s in how you deal with it that will determine whether you survive. If you can weather those times, if you deliberately set up some positive distractions, if you find some outlets that interest you, you will find that the challenge of isolation adds beauty to the many times when you feel happy. And you WILL feel happy!
“Loneliness is not bad of itself. If life were always wonderful, you would not be able to enjoy the superb beauty of the sunrises and sunsets,” he told him, now leaning forward in his chair, hands defiantly flat on the desk, his eyes fixed firmly on Alistair.
“That may be the case for you and for others,” Alistair answered. “Who am I to say? But the trouble with me is that I am no longer aware of sunrises, and I dread the setting of the sun, because I know how miserable I am going to feel. I feel so disconnected with the world and like a child, I find myself ticking off the sleeps until I can be relieved of my post.”
“That’s a little arrogant of you,” the Bishop answered angrily.
“I’m not sure what you mean. You’ve come to see me assuming that we will let you go…just like that? Doesn’t that sound a little presumptuous to you?”
“Not at all! I came here in good faith, and hoped that I had already set out my situation clearly.”
“And that this meeting would be a civilized one where you would recognize how difficult things are for me, and allow me to leave with dignity.
“I’m not bound by any civil law to stay, and I have tried to deal politely with my request to leave, so I fail to see any hubris in how I have gone about dealing with my problem. If I were a doctor I would simply resign after giving the hospital the requisite time to find a replacement…or not! I’m sure there are a few doctors who have left in haste. Life happens.”
“Look here young man, I see no parallel. Yours is an allegiance to God. That is a bond that cannot be compared to any other profession. It’s not something that can be broken when things get strained or when something else takes your fancy.
“Have you ever thought that it might be you, yourself who is feeding your misery?”
Alistair had a sense that the bishop was deliberately not asking him particular questions, and skirting the obvious of whether or not a woman was involved, and he determined not to even hint of the possibility.
A strained silence fell between the two, but Alistair’s eyes never left those of the bishop. The tension in the room was palpable. At last the older man raised his shoulders, leaned towards him, right elbow on his desk, the left one akimbo, and pointed his index finger at Alistair.
“You’re an excellent priest young man. Don’t spoil it,” he warned him. “You’re young and inexperienced, and whether you believe this or not, we have all been through the same misgivings.”
“That could well be the case, but it doesn’t change how I feel.”
“I also know you will regret leaving us. You have talent and already I hear talk about an exciting future for you in our church. Believe me, being recognized so early is not something that happens often! When you are selected at an early stage in your calling, it almost always means huge promotion.
“I don’t think you are aware of this, so let me spell it out to you right now. You will be giving up so much more than you bargained for, if you turn it all in…a life spent in God’s service, is a life well-spent!”
“So you say, but I can’t be an excellent priest when every day of my life is spent dealing with regret, and with a level of loneliness I could never have been prepared for. This is not something that just happened overnight. As I explained to you, and to the Holy Father, I have tried so hard to deal with my issues.
“The truth is,” he continued earnestly, “I was wrong all along. I should have listened to others. My father is of Irish stock and he has been witness to things in the church that he disapproved strongly of. Believe me, both my parents tried to dissuade me from entering, but I was blind to all protestations, to their suggestions that I hadn’t thought things through, and that I needed to get away for a while and experience the world before cloistering myself in the church.
“You talk of my arrogance, but in some ways I can now see my brushing aside their concerns as absolutely egotistical behavior on my part. So whether you accept this or not, it is with the utmost humility that I now acknowledge my need to leave.”
“You do realize that you are breaking your vow of celibacy? Does that frighten you in any way?”
“Frighten me? Why on earth should it FRIGHTEN me?”
“Because you have bound yourself to Church, and to its teachings, and you just can’t walk away from that,” the bishop answered testily.
“Oh I think I can. I’m not walking away from God. I’m leaving a way of life that I simply can’t deal with. How can that be so bad…and why should it be something that scares me?”
“That’s for you to find out for yourself” he answered scathingly, “and believe me you WILL find out…at some stage in your life…and I have to warn you of this Alistair, if you do leave us, you will come crawling back in time. When the ordinariness of your life begins to blanket you in its fog and with its unique element of loneliness, you will realize your error. The everyday blandness of your living will eat away at your core, and you will come begging.
“Think about it this way,” he said, ramping up his rhetoric before Alistair had a chance to intervene, “as a priest you have standing in the community. People look up to you. They value your opinion. They seek you out for advice. Where else can you feel so revered?
“Listen to me Alistair. I promise you that in the years to come there will be amazing openings for you within the Holy See. As I suggested before, that is a privilege afforded to only a few, and a lifestyle that will take your breath away with its beauty and its standing. Don’t be stupid enough to turn your back on so much.”
“If only that were enough for me, but sadly, it’s not.”
Bishop Scanlon leaned forward in his chair, clearly appraising Alistair, but at the same time, now intent on intimidation.
“Maybe you haven’t told me the whole story,” he suggested, “and perhaps this is the time to come clean.”
“I am not happy as a priest. I want to leave, two simple reasons for my being here in the first place. There is no complication as you suggest.”
Bishop Scanlon stood up, his jowls bulging in an explosion of red, anger etched in every facial vein.
“Listen here young man,” he threatened darkly. “Believe me when I say this. We have ways of finding things out. You’re a good-looking man, maybe too handsome for your own good, and I suspect that at the root of this is not loneliness within the church, so much as in some vital part of your body.”
“THAT IS OUTRAGEOUS! HOW DARE YOU!” Alistair exploded.
“Calm down Alistair. Calm down,” he said quietly. “I’ve seen this before. You’re only human after all. So many young priests have strayed into the arms of pretty women, and like you, they ended up confused and ready to leave the fold. Fortunately for most of them, they were convinced to stay.”
“I can tell you now, that won’t be me.”
Once again, the bishop’s hackles were raised, his face darkened and his voice climbed almost to a shriek.
“I’ll tell you this,” he seethed. “Leaving never bodes well for either the priest…OR,” he shouted darkly, “or for the filly concerned.”
This time it was Alistair’s hackles that rose.
“She’s NOT a filly…and…”
But he didn’t get to finish as the bishop continued his venomous tirade.
“There you are! I knew it. Asking to leave can almost always be traced back to the sins of the flesh. This meeting is over.”
Alistair was stunned by how easily he had been tricked. He should have been prepared, but before he had any time to respond, the bishop continued angrily.
“Mark my words young man. Neither one of you will go on to enjoy your lives together…not one day, if I have anything to do with it.”
“You bloody moron…you damned, evil cretin…here was I, thinking I could exit the priesthood with some decorum and decency, and with peace in the eyes of God. For some obscure reason I thought that I could have had a man-to-man conversation with you about my issues, and I really believed you might have understood. Who gave you the imprimatur to determine how I should conduct my life?
“What cunning revenge you have drummed up to camouflage your baseness. Look at you. How you live with yourself I have no idea, and how you reconcile your attitude with YOUR God, (for yours is surely not mine), I cannot possibly imagine. What a miserable scum of humanity you are. YOU are little more than a victim of your own salacious imagination!”
Alistair was now in control, angry, but determined to have the last words.
“Now listen to me,” he said, breathing heavily as he bent menacingly over the desk, his finger pointed threateningly close to the older man’s eye, “Mark my words. I will have NO regrets, I will never turn back to YOUR church, and my life will go on despite your threats.
“You know,” he said, straightening himself up to his full height, and stopping momentarily to take a deep breath, “I’ve just realized what a terrible poverty yours is. Your darkness, your clear wantonness has robbed you of heart. I don’t need you, or any other member of this church, to sanction the choices I make in life, not you, nor the Holy Father!” and with that he ripped off his collar, threw it on the desk, turned on his heels and headed for the door, making his way blindly through the oppressive dark corridors of the building, out to the main exit, stopping momentarily to adjust the contents of his pocket, as he headed far away from a church he had now firmly closed his doors on.
Blindly he tore along the highway, anger filling his veins as he sidestepped the many people in his way, so that he neither saw, nor heard the truck whose path he inadvertently stumbled in front of.
Nor the screech of its brakes, as it bore down on him.
And crushed him.
His mangled body lay in a pool of blood, trapped underneath the chassis, and for just a few seconds the world stood still as people watched in horror, aghast at the tragedy that had just unfolded before them.
And as mechanically they swung into action in a desperate effort to save him, the hapless driver emerged from his cabin wringing his weathered hands in a grief he would never recover from.
Helen heard the news some hours later from Cam who somehow had managed to track her down through the university, all the while hoping she hadn’t already heard it in the news.
He’d had no time to think through the way he was going to break it all to her, but this was his mission and he had to carry it out as sensitively as was humanly possible.
“No!” she cried, as she threw her arms around him. “Please God no!”
Never in his life had Cam witnessed anyone cry such a river of tears. He folded her reassuringly into the safety of his arms, for once in his life intuitively knowing exactly what to do with a woman, and he thanked his God for that.