"Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."
Father Dowling murmured this formula as he traced a cross on the foreheads of the old people who advanced up the middle aisle of St. Hilary’s on this Ash Wednesday. Remember, man. No feminist had ever objected to this inclusive term, perhaps wanting to think of it as gender specific. Like All men are mortal?
It was the rheumy eye of Monica Garvey staring into his as he applied ashes to her forehead that prompted these irreverent thoughts. Monica was known to complain about the Church’s treatment of women, thereby earning the friendly enmity of Marie Murkin, the parish housekeeper. Monica turned and made way for the next penitent. Roger Dowling switched to the Latin formula when Kevin Brown stood before him, eyes closed, head thrust forward.
"Memento homo quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris."
Kevin’s lips moved as he repeated the words silently. Kevin had given Father Dowling a subscription to the magazine Latin Mass at Christmas, and the first issue had arrived some weeks before. Father Dowling said Vatican II’s Novus Ordo in Latin once a week, on Mondays, and the attendance noticeably rose.
"Why only once a week, Father?" Kevin asked.
"After years of English it takes some getting used to."
"People love it."
It was partly nostalgia, of course. There were few people who, like Kevin Brown, understood Latin. He had studied it as a boy at Quigley when he had thought of becoming a priest. But he had gone on to Loyola and then to law school, prospered, married, had half a dozen disappointing children about whose souls he now fretted. "Thank God, Bridget never saw how they turned out." It seemed that none of them went to Mass anymore. With Kevin there might have been an element of affectation in his championing the return to Latin in the liturgy. A pharisee thanking God he was not like the rest of men? That was unfair. Kevin seemed to think that it was the Church’s dropping of Latin that had led to the falling away of his children.
Father Dowling finished distributing ashes and went into the sacristy feeling that his Lent was off on the wrong foot. Uncharitable thoughts, first about Monica and then about Kevin. God knows he had few aggravations in his pastoral work. Other pastors had to contend with the uprising of laypeople, women lectors who altered the Scriptures as they read, male clerical wannabes hovering about the pastor, a platoon of aids called ministers. Father Dowling realized he was in charge at St. Hilary’s as others longed to be in charge of their own parishes. A mild feminist and a man who missed the Latin of his youth scarcely added up to a cross. Most of those who had been to the noon Mass and stayed for the distribution of ashes would now return to the parish center in the former school.
A man shuffled into the sacristy, a smudge of ashes on his forehead. Father Dowling remembered him; he had been the last in line.
"I hope it was all right, Father." He pointed to his forehead.
"Why wouldn’t it be?" The man had not come to communion. Did he think he must confess before receiving ashes?
"I’m not a Catholic, Father."
"I meant no disrespect."
"It’s perfectly all right," Father Dowling said. "It’s not a sacrament. Just a reminder of our mortality as Lent begins."
"Quite a turnout."
Father Dowling guessed him to be in his late sixties, maybe more. His complexion was colorless and seemed paler because of his white hair.
"Most of them came over from the parish center. You might want to look into it."
The man seemed puzzled, so Father Dowling explained the use to which he had put the school when there were no longer enough kids in the parish to justify keeping it open.
"What is it exactly?" the man asked.
"Look, come have lunch with me. Mrs. Murkin doesn’t like me to be late."
"I don’t want to intrude."
Father Dowling said, "She likes it when I ask people to join me." She liked anyone with an appetite greater than his. On the way to the rectory he asked the man his name and so was able to announce it when they passed through the kitchen.
"Mr. Green, Marie. Nathaniel Green. He has agreed to have lunch with me."
Marie harumphed. "On Ash Wednesday? Some treat."
"I’m not Catholic," Green said.
Marie gave him the fish eye. "I made no provisions for that. You’ll have to fast and abstain with Father Dowling."
Marie made it sound like bread and water. But it was a broiled white fish and mixed vegetables, peas and corn, that Marie put before them.
"I was telling Mr. Green about the parish center, Marie."
"You retired?" Marie asked their guest.
Green smiled. "Is that a requirement?"
"No," she said, "and you don’t have to be Catholic, either. Many of them will be older than you."
Marie’s manner with Green was brisk and oddly distant. She swept into the kitchen; the door swung to and fro and then stopped.
"I have been in a rectory before," Nathaniel Green said. "Before I married."
"You married a Catholic?" Father Dowling said.
"I used to be a Catholic myself."
"Did you get tired of it?" A light note seemed best, given the way Green had introduced the subject.
"After her death, I just let it go."
Father Dowling nodded. Every life had its tragedies, sooner or later.
"I gather that wasn’t recently," he said.
"No." "And now you’ve come back."
"You make it sound easy."
No need to press it now. If Green had come to church on Ash Wednesday, that might mean something, and then again it might not.
"Why don’t you let Marie take you over to the parish center and introduce you around?"
"Oh, I’m sure she’s too busy," Green protested.
From the kitchen came a voice. "Give me five minutes and I’ll take him over."
Excerpted from Ash Wednesday by Ralph McInerny
Copyright © 2008 by Ralph McInerny
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Minotaur
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.