While doing bench presses at the local gym, I was surprised by innocence.
It was over a year ago, before the coronavirus shut everything down. No one else had been in the Nautilus room when I entered. Soon after, I noticed a motion at the corner of my eye as I strained to push the weights over my head. I turned and saw a little girl watching me from the doorway.
Don’t scare her. Don’t ignore her. I smiled and kept lifting. She was about 8 years old, I guessed, wearing a bathing suit with a towel draped over her shoulders. The swimming pool was one floor up. Probably her parents are on their way down to the dressing room, I thought. “Hello,” I said, tilting my head sideways toward her.
“Hello,” she replied. No fear in her eyes. No movement to leave. No sound on the stair. Just her and me, a little girl and a priest. In these days, a dangerous situation.
“Are you trying to be strong?” she asked suddenly.
The simplicity of her inquiry caught me off guard, charmed me like the tenderness of a baby or a lamb. “Yes, I am,” I laughed happily and sat up. Looking directly at her about five feet away from me — a strong little girl with rosy cheeks on a square open face with blonde pigtails — I noticed her bright blue eyes. Curious young eyes, gazing at a skinny grey-haired guy in a sweat suit. Such freedom! Such confidence! Ah, can I remember?
She remained there in the doorway while my mind whirled through the boundary guidelines all priests are trained in now, especially: “Do not be alone with a minor — for their protection as well as for yours.”
Where are her parents? But this seems so innocent — she trusts me!
“You look strong too,” I told her.
Then, as though she had it rehearsed for just such a moment, “I have my father’s blood,” she announced proudly. A knowing smile crinkled on her face.
“Good.” I pressed my lips together so as not to laugh, then laid back down on the bench again, grunting as I pushed the weights up. My father’s blood! She’s proud to be her father’s daughter. “It’s hard to be strong,” I confessed to her then, not knowing what else to say.
A few moments later, a woman I assumed to be her mother appeared behind her, she in a bathing suit as well. The little girl glanced up at her, then back at me. The mom didn’t seem concerned that we were conversing and paused in the doorway.
“I’m getting to know your daughter,” I told the mom with a grin as I sat up.
“Yes, she is very friendly, isn’t she?” An eyebrow arched.
My little friend smiled at me. As they turned to head for the dressing room, I could hear her explaining to her mother what had transpired.
When they disappeared through the door, I wondered for a moment if it had all been a fantasy. Something to wake me out of a cynicism that has grown over my heart, like ivy over a stone the past few years.
I lifted a few more sets before stopping to catch my breath. That’s when a sense of peace came over me as I laid on my back staring at the ceiling. The image and the words of the little girl rose in my mind: My father’s blood.
I’ve been blessed, I realized. With all the accusations against priests over the past few years, I had sometimes forgotten how a sense of trust in myself has been harmed, the vocation of priesthood itself become demoralized.
It is as though with all the scandal I had forgotten the Father’s blood in me. Jesus Christ, God’s Innocent Lamb, shed his blood for me and for all. My Father’s blood in me and us.
Oh God, I so needed that! Here I am “trying to be strong,” and you send an angel to bless me.
A little child’s innocence reminds me of my own once, and helps me to rediscover it. What a gift! A little normalcy instead of the constant fostering of mistrust that surrounds us. The blood of trust that children have, and that we have to protect with our very lives.
All priests need this gift. Please help us to show our people we deserve it, and to relearn it through their help.
Father Paul Morrissey is in residence at St. Augustine Parish, Philadelphia.
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