Father Matthias Blucher adjusted his necktie as he approached the Kessler mansion. The yard was filled with exquisitely sculpted topiary. Stone gargoyles, salvaged from old cathedrals that had been demolished decades ago, perched on the roof. Blucher smiled. It all matched the descriptions he had heard of old man Kessler from his fellow chancery priests: "a Radical Traditionalist, a right-wing fanatic, an integralist neanderthal, a dying holdout of the Church's blessedly forgotten past." The call had come in earlier that day: Kessler was dying and had asked for a priest. Blucher kept his feelings in check, but on the inside he was hoping that Kessler was going to have one of those deathbed conversions. If word got out that he, of all people, had finally accepted the reforms of the Third Vatican Council, then perhaps those other Traditionalist pests would finally stop bothering the bishop's office with all of their ridiculous complaints about heresy and sacrilege. Really, who even talked like that anymore?
Blucher rang the doorbell. An old man in black coattails, presumably the butler, opened the door and stared. "Matthias Blucher, Catholic priest," Blucher said in the approved ecumenical fashion, extending his hand. The butler continued staring. Blucher smiled, blinked. He finally said, "Father Blucher, here to see Herr Kessler." Sometimes the old fogies didn't recognize the way most priests introduced themselves these days.
"Ah, the priest, excellent," the butler said. He lowered himself to one knee and reached for Blucher's hand. He drew it away and motioned for the old man to rise.
"Oh none of that sir," Blucher said. "I'm a priest, just a man like any other man."
The butler sighed, "As you say sir." Blucher helped the old man to his feet. "If you'll follow me sir," he said. Blucher fell into step behind him, glancing at the mansion's decor along the way. Holy water fonts were by every doorway. The walls were lined with classical paintings from the Gospels and the lives of the saints. Miniature statues of saints rested on every table. Blucher kept silent but inwardly he clucked disapproval. He had never understood why so many Catholics spent money on gaudy displays like these when they could have given it to the poor instead. The chancery and cathedral church of the diocese were indistinguishable from the surrounding downtown office buildings, a fact of which he heartily approved.
They climbed the stairs and walked to a door at the end of the hallway where the butler stopped. "If you'll wait here sir," he said, and knocked on the door. Without waiting for an answer, he stepped into the room and shut the door behind him. Blucher took out his electronic Tablet to check his email. Let's see, he had to give a talk on structural racism later that evening, tomorrow was the luncheon with the local Imam, the day after the bishop's retreat on the latest immigration reform bill...
"Herr Kessler will see you now," the butler said, startling Blucher. He sheepishly tucked the pad back into his jacket pocket.
"Er, eh, yes, thank you sir," Blucher said.
"If I may make a suggestion sir?"
"Please do what he asks of you," the butler said, and walked away toward the stairs. Blucher adjusted his necktie, took a deep breath, and stepped into the room. Humidifiers made the air warm and muggy. On the left were two bookshelves stocked with books that no doubt predated Vatican III and probably Vatican II. Above the bed was a small crucifix. Herr Kessler was propped up against several pillows. His thin rasping filled the room. Blucher pitied the poor man. Always thin, Kessler was practically skeletal now. The chancery priests weren't exaggerating about his condition. He looked every one of his ninety-eight years.
"I thought I had asked for a priest," Kessler said.
"That's me sir. Matthias Blucher, Catholic priest," Blucher said.
"Where's your collar young man?"
"My... oh," Blucher couldn't help smiling. Had he ever worn one since the seminary? "We priests almost never have to wear those collars anymore Herr Kessler."
"Priests are just men like any other men sir. The Roman collar was a barrier between the priest and his people. We're not superior to the people. We're not fundamentally different than they are."
"Oh yes you are."
Blucher smiled. "If you say so sir. So, what is it I can do for you today?"
"Are you blind boy? I'm dying. I want to make my confession and receive Last Rites."
"Wonderful. Er, that is, it's not wonderful that you're dying of course, but that you're... um..."
"That I asked for one of you gentlemen and not my regular confessor?"
"Oh, it's all right Father. I know how you gentlemen in the chancery feel about me and Father Finster. We've been thorns in your side. We refuse to get on board with all of this ecumenism and dialogue and other hippie bullshit."
Blucher coughed and adjusted his necktie. "It, ah, has crossed some of our minds to ask why you requested a priest from the chancery and not from your parish. Or the, ahem, Society." Blucher was indifferent to the Society of St. John Paul II on a good day. Most of his confreres dismissed it with a withering contempt, and from what he had heard the feeling was mutual from the Society.
"Father Finster is dying too," Kessler said.
"Oh... I'm sorry to hear that..." Blucher said. He wrung his hands.
"During my last session of spiritual direction and confession with him, he asked me to do this. Call for one of you priests. And so here we are."
"Here we are indeed. Well, er, shall we...?"
"Why did you become a priest?" Kessler asked.
"What?" Blucher said.
"Why did you become a priest young man?" Kessler repeated.
"I thought I came here to provide for you Herr Kessler."
"Please. Indulge a tired old man."
Blucher coughed and adjusted his necktie. "Well, I wanted to help people."
Kessler snorted. "Social workers help people. Why didn't you become one of those instead?"
Blucher's nostrils flared as he tried to hold his feelings in check. Do whatever he tells you, the butler said. "Because human beings need God in their lives. It isn't enough to take care of their bodies. They need to nourish their spirits as well."
Kessler smiled. "Very good, very good. I'm glad people still remember the spiritual works of mercy."
"I'm sorry... the what?"
Kessler winced. "Never mind. Did you know I was once in the diocesan seminary?"
Blucher's eyebrows went up. "No Herr Kessler, I didn't know that."
"John Paul II came here to Germany in 1996. I was eight years old the day my family went to see him. He was already slowing down by then but to me he looked like a superman. I remember thinking 'I want to be like him.' So when I was old enough I went off the seminary, with visions of being a great missionary either abroad or here at home." Kessler paused, sighed. "But," he went on, "I found out that whatever crowds he pulled in, priests and bishops were a good deal less enthusiastic about his vision."
Blucher nodded. John Paul II was a canonized saint, but not even saints were perfect. Blucher's seminary professors acknowledged the pontiff's sainthood but lambasted his rigidity, his dogmatism, his stubborn refusal to embrace the Second Vatican Council, his dictatorial rule, and his ruthless suppression of dialogue.
"Which is pretty ironic when you think about it," Kessler continued. "John Paul was a saint - I firmly believe he's in heaven - but my goodness, he was so liberal."
Blucher nearly choked. John Paul II, a liberal? Wait until the ladies at the chancery get a load of that one! "What do you mean?" he asked Kessler, struggling to maintain a bland façade.
"Praying with witch doctors at Assisi, kissing the Koran, asking St. John the Baptist to pray for Islam... can you imagine?! Er... well, I guess you can imagine. But dear God, that man probably sent my poor grandfather to an early grave. Anyway, I entered the seminary with grand dreams of working the Lord's vineyard for the salvation of souls. But the Church doesn't seem too interested in that kind of work anymore."
"Oh I don't know about that Herr Kessler. She still has her divine commission. But we've expanded on it."
"Is that right?"
"Yes sir, that's right," Blucher said. "Our ancestors were mostly concerned with the narrow pursuit of their own personal holiness. They locked themselves away from the world, only communicating with her to hurl thunderous anathemas from on high. But the world isn't going to listen to us if all we do is condemn her. Remember, God loved the world enough to send his only Son to save it. We've escaped the ghetto mentality. We actively dialogue with the world now in pursuit of our common truth."
"'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me,'" Kessler said.
Blucher smiled. "Well yes, I don't disagree with that. It's a matter of style you see. A lot of what the Society of John Paul II holds onto as essentials of the faith are really only particular formulas of the faith that worked in one time but not in our time."
"Oh yes," Blucher said, warming to his subject. "I mean, the Catholic faith is true, no doubt about that. But other religions, other traditions have elements of truth as well. We can't just condemn them all together. If we help them embrace the truths within their own religions and own traditions, then eventually they'll be led to the Catholic faith."
"And if they're not?"
"If they're not, then I'm confident God won't condemn them for remaining true to their own traditions. We all have to obey our own conscience above all."
"Then why," Kessler asked, "should anyone at all be Catholic?"
"I'm sorry?" Blucher said.
"Well if a Hindu can be saved by being a good Hindu, and an atheist can be saved by being a nice guy, why should they be baptized as Catholics?"
"Because Catholicism wants to welcome them into the universal human family, so we can be united in peace and brotherhood and..."
"Yes, yes, but what about the salvation of souls young man? The salvation of souls?" Kessler said.
"Herr Kessler, with all due respect, I don't believe in a God that could condemn his creatures to burn in hell for all eternity. We can entertain a reasonable hope that all men are sa..."
"No we can't. God damn it, I knew it was a mistake inviting you here."
"Herr Kessler please..."
"Get out you goddamned heretic! Get out!" Kessler screamed.
Blucher turned around and stalked toward the door.
"Wait," Kessler said. Blucher stopped.
"I'm sorry Father. I shouldn't have spoken to you that way," he said. "I just... why has God allowed this to happen to his Church? Why has he allowed her to mutate into something my grandfather would never recognize? Has he abandoned us? Has he abandoned me?"
Blucher bit his lip, lowered his eyes. "No, Herr Kessler, he hasn't. No matter what differences you and I may have, I can promise you that he is with us."
Kessler stared at him. "Why did you really become a priest Father?"
Blucher hesitated. When he spoke, he didn't know where the words came from: "Because I want to show men the way to heaven. Because I want them to adore our Lord Jesus Christ." He felt tears burning in his eyes.
The two men were silent for a moment. Finally, Kessler said "I think I'm ready to make my confession now."
"Of course Herr Kessler," Blucher said.
"Please Father... call me Joseph."
Blucher smiled. "Of course Joseph."
"Just for my own peace of mind Father, I don't suppose you have an older copy of the Ritual on you...?"
"Er... sorry, I don't. I can probably look it up on my Tablet if you like."
Kessler smiled. "That's all right. I've got one in my bedside table here"
His business finished, Blucher was shown outside by the butler who thanked him for coming. Blucher absently gave the butler his blessing. On the way to his car, he undid his necktie, draping it over his shoulders. Why did I become a priest? he thought. He looked at himself in the car mirror. It's never too late to change. He took out his Tablet and opened up the search engine. First things first: let's look up what those "spiritual works of mercy" are...