The


             
             



Chapter One


1971

           Father McGee looms large over me. I feel small in his presence even though I’m an inch taller than him. He’s a stout man, although not overweight, and even cloaked in a cassock, the priest exudes strength as he paces back and forth behind his desk. I guess that he would get the better of me in a fight, and sometimes I feel that he wants to give it a try. Father McGee is forty years old, and I am sixteen, a sophomore in high school.
           I stand at attention, stooped-shouldered, self-conscious, wondering why I’m in his office this time. Before saying anything, he sits down and leans back in his chair. I shuffle from one foot to the other, growing warm in my coat and tie, and then he asks the first question.
          “Why are you even attending a Catholic School if a C in religion is the best you can do?”
          I stare at his desk and remain silent. I know from experience that Father McGee doesn’t want any answers yet; he just wants me to absorb the questions. I’m thankful for that because the answer to his question is that I’m attending Saint Mathew’s School only because my parents insist that I do. I also decide it’s best not to argue that an average grade is not so bad, especially in a course that I consider boring and a waste of time.
          Father McGee puts on his glasses and leans over a paper that is centered on his desk. He stares at the cover for a moment and appears to be reading the words inscribed in red ink just above the title.
          “Did you write this paper on Buddhism just to be funny? You knew well that the point of the assignment was to familiarize yourself with other Christian religions. How did you expect Sister Dorthea to react?”
           He was right; I did know the point of the assignment. But I thought that Sister Dorthea might at least find Buddhism to be a refreshing alternative like I did. I almost start to defend myself along those lines but I opt to remain silent. From the amount of red ink on the cover sheet, my guess is that Sister Dorthea didn’t find Buddhism very refreshing.
           Father McGee snatches up the paper from his desk, flips open the cover sheet, and adjusts his glasses.
           “You write well, I’ll give you that, but unfortunately, your literary efforts are misdirected. Allow me to quote: ‘The belief that we can steadily improve ourselves through a cycle of rebirth seems to be a much more appealing ideology then the hard and fast notion of heaven or hell. Besides it seems unjust that a person should suffer eternal pain in hell for what they did in sixty or seventy years on earth. Likewise, sixty or seventy years of good living seems a small requirement for one to achieve eternal bliss in heaven’.”
           I shrug and look down. Those are fairly incriminating words, I have to admit. Father McGee stands and begins pacing again. I look up when he abruptly stops and faces me.
           “Instead of taking advantage of the instruction you receive here at Saint Mathew’s School, you obviously feel a need to spend your time questioning the fundamentals of the Catholic religion.”
           “No, Father, that’s not what I was trying to do. I just . . .”
           “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your savior, Mr. Ryan?”
           The question takes me by surprise as he intended. Father McGee’s steely blue eyes look deep into my own as if he’s examining my soul. He wants an answer this time. The fact is, I don’t believe in God; I haven’t for years. I’m a closet atheist, which isn’t easy while attending a Catholic school. As such, I no longer consider questions such as whether or not Jesus Christ is my savior.
           Coward that I am, I nod and manage to utter a weak ‘yes’. But he knows that I’m lying, and I know that my relationship with Father McGee has gone from bad to worse.



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