Lately every story you read about a priest is about a bad priest, but here’s a story about a good priest. I used to tell this story for comic effect, but more and more now when I tell it, I think about the deft quiet grace of the young priest, and I think now maybe the story isn’t about me, like it used to be, but about him, and how cool he was, without us boys noticing.
He was the assistant parish priest, which means he did all the work the pastor didn’t want to or couldn’t do anymore, and in this latter category was coaching the youth baseball team. This young priest had never played baseball, and wasn’t much of an athlete anyway—his idea of strenuous exercise was lighting his cigar twice—but he was wise enough to let the better players play a lot, encourage the lesser players with judicious playing time, and include the awful players in selected idiosyncratic roles. This last category included me. As a baseball player, I was an excellent basketball player. I was terrified of the rock-hard ball, which I couldn’t see well, and so could not hit or field, which are the prime duties of a baseball player. Nor could I pitch accurately; but I could throw hard, at least for a few moments, before hitting the batter or the umpire or the metal bar of the backstop with a resounding clang or, once, one of the fathers in the rickety bleachers.
The young priest, puffing his cigar, watched all this and assigned me a curiously effective role as a relief pitcher; I would come in for no more than five pitches, terrify the other team with my wild speed, and then be relieved in turn by an accurate pitcher.
With high glee I used to relate how I would peer in at the catcher, ostensibly for the signal, though I could barely see the fuzzy white globe that his entire body was to me, that far away; and just as I went into my windup, the catcher would shout, Here! to give me a target, and I would throw the ball as hard as I could at his voice.
I see that young priest now, puffing his cigar and counting my pitches, and I see that he was making sure I played. He knew I was awful, but he made a place for me. It was a team. Every boy had a place, every boy played, every boy mattered. He never groped us or lied or cheated or anything like that, not that I knew. He was a good priest. He paid attention. He was generous. Someone ought to say thanks. I do, finally, today.
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