DIVINE CHILD
Evil vs. the Angels of Stony Island
by Jim Heaney

CHAPTER 7

 

BESIDES FOOTBALL, ANOTHER BRIGHT SPOT in my chaotic life was the new assistant pastor at St. Ailbe’s, Father Francis Cziezadlo. He was stocky, about five ten, and probably was in his forties at the time. His eyes, large behind his wire-rimmed glasses, were brown, and so was what was left of his hair. The first time I met him was the morning he walked up to Billy and me at the ball diamond, looking very out of place in his black suit and white collar. I remember that the coal chips squished under his shiny black shoes as he walked toward the railroad tie we were sitting on.
“I’m Father Chez, and I’ll be watching over you kids.” Billy and I sat grinning up at him. The sun behind him gave him a halo, just like a saint on a holy card. It was cool that he stopped specifically to talk to us; he had been walking through the neighborhood knocking on doors, shaking hands, introducing himself and notifying everyone he’d be preaching at all the Masses on the coming Sunday. We trudged along with him on his rounds, waiting patiently on the sidewalk for his home visit to be over. In between houses we talked baseball, of course, and we found out his favorite players and their batting averages. When Sunday came, the turnout was huge as the whole neighborhood showed up to check out the new priest. He told stories that reminded me of the parables Jesus told, stories that made connections between God, each individual, and the community we lived in.
“What I love most about being a priest is feeling God’s grace as I welcome those around me and helping the one person, as Jesus would,” he said. That’s where the sermon started to go bad. He asked that we radiate God’s love and welcome our new brothers and sisters—our new black brothers and sisters—to the neighborhood. Suddenly, arms folded defiantly, heads shook sideways and the people murmured to one another,
“I’m not helping those people!” Father Chez sensed the change in the atmosphere. He started to stumble and you could see him beginning to sweat. He ended by saying he relished the opportunity to serve the people of his new parish. I knew he had lost them. It was his job to say what he’d said, but… I stood and raised my hand before he had left the micro- phone. I felt my parents glare, but I ignored them. I was used to being in trouble, but Father Chez wasn’t. “Father, I was wondering, we’re all wondering… Are you a White Sox fan or a Cubs fan?” He looked astounded, but replied that he was a die-hard Sox fan and thought they had a good chance to finish in first place. He talked a bit about how the young players were the team’s future, and ended his sermon with
“Go, Sox! Go!” He won over most of the congregation that morning and became a stabilizing force in the neighborhood. As we stood outside the church greeting people afterwards, some of the other parishioners came over and shook my hand. My parents’ embarrassment at my bold interruption softened as they saw that other people approved of what I’d done. On the walk home I thought about Father Chez. I found both encouragement and safety in his words and his presence. I wanted his protection and volunteered to serve his Masses. “Serving Mass” in 1964 meant saying the prayers at the foot of the altar in Latin, holding the big Missal that contained the Mass prayers so that the priest could read them, and generally behaving like a reverent little boy in front of the whole congregation. This was one thing I did that my parents supported wholeheartedly. This was because being Catholic played an important role in the family addiction business, but not the way Jesus had in mind. It worked like this. My parents lived wrong six days a week, and on the seventh, they assembled my siblings in the third pew at church while I served Mass on the altar. Maybe my parents asked God to forgive them their weaknesses, maybe not; one thing I knew for sure was that we all looked like the Ideal Catholic Family. The contradiction puzzled me. One time after Mass I asked Father Chez, “If Jesus is everywhere, how come he’s not living in our house?” “What do you mean?” he asked? “My mom and dad drink too much. Can you make them stop?” He paused. “Jimmy, it’s a difficult thing to interfere with a child’s home life, but I’ll see what I can do.”

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