Here’s a short story I wrote for a friend earlier this year. It was entered into the Takahae Short Story competition but did not place.
An audience with the Pope
From Runanga to Rome is a bloody long way.
Especially when you’re a wet behind the ears twenty four year old seminarian, embarking on three years of Theology studies before ordination.
From the moment I arrived jet lagged at Leonardo da Vinci Airport I felt like a fish out of water; just as I had felt in the preceding five and half years of seminary life and study in NZ.
I never set out to become a priest, although in many ways it was preordained that I would eventually be ordained. I was the second son in a line of five growing up in a traditional Catholic mining family.
My eldest brother Patrick was destined to become a lawyer, or a Doctor; he chose Law.
Desmond the middle brother was earmarked for the NZ Police.
Kevin a teacher; followed by Breandan, who regularly fell foul of Des; then having to use the services of Paddy to get off charges of petty theft or affray. That was until youthful exuberance spent, he followed Dad into the mine.
My sisters Colleen and Rosaleen; before becoming mothers, studied dental nursing and teaching. Oonagh joined the Sisters of Mercy Convent and Shonagh worked bars, my parents never knowing she was lesbian.
So there I was, Terrence Seamus Iain O’Guire, living and studying in the heart of Catholicism, Vatican City Rome.
My long journey started in my last year of school.
‘Have you ever considered a career in Christ?’ My stern humourless School Rector asking me at my Sixth Form Retreat.
‘No Father,’ I answered, ‘I want to be a professional musician.’
Father Scanlon with his dreary sun-spotted face peered over his diminutive spectacles, ‘it’s great to have dreams Terry, but a musician’s life is no life for a young man of your talents. For every thousand wanting to become a musician; a Beatle, or an Elvis, only one will ever make it, that’s if they’re lucky! Most will struggle and end up doing some meaningless thankless job for the rest of their days.
I’ve spoken with your parents; they’re keen for you to take up the cassock. And after your misadventure with Miss Rita Moffatt earlier this year, some religious study, piety and chastity will do you no harm. After all, you do not want to disappoint your parents, your Parish and your School again, do you?
Besides, if you want to be a musician the Church can offer you the world, all without the need to worry about lodging and food. You have talent Terry, it would be a sin to waste it on unfulfilled dreams. Offer it to the Church, give yourself to a life with Christ, you will be well rewarded both in this life and the next.
Two weeks later NZR, the Catholic Church and my own parents railroaded me straight into my future. Taking the Railcar to lyttelton, embarking on the Rangatira, sailing to Wellington and then catching the train to Hastings. My final destination; the Society of Mary Seminary in Napier. I was about to become a Marist.
Rita Moffat…Rita…; Rita and I were mates from way back. We had kicked around together for as long as I could remember. Raven hair with eyes the colour of a Karamea Nikau, Rita had the attitude of a brush tail possum. As a young fella I used to deliberately kick my ‘Ka Mate,’ (rugby ball) over our back fence into her section, just so I could see her.
‘Your shorts are so baggy,’ she used to laugh, ‘I can see your dak’s when you climb over the fence. Don’t get your nuts caught; you might need em’ one day!’
‘…Well,’ I would answer, fumbling for my words, ‘my mum says that one of these days, your mouth is going to get you into a load of trouble.’
But it wasn’t her mouth that got her into trouble; it was me and my nuts.
In the summer of 1972 and 1973 Rita and I, along with her two cousins Ted and John formed a band, The Dilettante’s. I played lead, Ted bass, John on the drums. Rita was our vocalist and man what a vocalist she was! But it wasn’t just her voice that brought people in. Her on-trend geometric hair style, her penchant for short black shift dresses and knee high leather boots always bringing gasps from older women, adoring jealous stares from younger women, and bawdy lustful grins from the guys. Grizzly older men would stand at the back, hands on hips with funny looks plastered on their faces; perhaps remembering that female flesh need not be as lumpy dumpy and comfortable as their wives overworked scones were.
And when Rita danced the world caught fire, the dance floor sizzled, sweat pouring off anyone even attempting to keep up with her. From the Hollies to the Beatles, from Stevie Wonder to David Bowie we played em’ all.
From Haast to Karamea and everywhere in between, we played every Pub, every Working Mens ‘ Club and RSA, travelling in style in the Runanga Four Square delivery van which Ted was allowed to use on the weekends. In the twelve weeks of the school holidays we must have travelled over 2,000 miles and played at least thirty gigs. Halcyon days which came to an end all too soon with the peeving call of the late January school bell.
‘You’ve knocked me up Terry,’ Rita told me one day six weeks after we had returned to our schools. ‘I’m up the duff.’
‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,’ I cursed. ‘I’m so sorry, I knew we shouldn’t have.’
‘But we did,’ she spat, ‘so shut up you dick.’
‘What are we going to do?’ I asked nervously.
‘It’s already done; tomorrow I’m catching the Rail car over the hill to Christchurch. I’m being sent to live with my Auntie. I’ve been enrolled in the Secretarial College and when the baby comes it will be adopted out. Then, I will have to find a job.’
Without a goodbye she turned and walked away out of my life.
It was many years before I saw Rita again; and during all those dark years the memory of the resigned look of hopelessness on her once carefree face haunted me.
Me, circumstance, parents and Church had all but extinguished Rita’s light, a light which had flickered so brightly but way too briefly.
I sat by the edge of the green rocky pool staring at the Fountain of the Eagle; this was my favourite fountain in the Vatican Gardens. Its size and sound resonating deep within; bringing back memories of dense verdant bush, of waterfalls and Rita. It was September 1978, Rome had just experienced a wonderfully long and hot summer. The Vatican and the Church were buzzing, a new Pope had been elected, Pope John Paul 1. For most, Rome was the place to be, but for me it was torture.
It was 6.30am on a fine Saturday morning; I had thirty minutes free time before morning prayers. I sat day dreaming, my acoustic guitar resting between my legs; so lost in thought I didn’t see a man in white flanked by two Swiss Guards approach.
The man in white stopped in front of me. ‘May I sit with you my son?’
I looked up and gulped, ‘Your Holiness, yes of course.’
‘You play?’ John Paul asked, glancing at my guitar.
‘Yes’, your Holiness.
‘Where are you from young man?’ the Pope asked smiling.
‘New Zealand your Holiness.’
John Paul continued to smile, ‘I see, a Marist I presume.’
I smiled back and nodded.
‘Well play for me Marist man, perhaps something from New Zealand.
I thought for a moment then nervously picked up my guitar, hoping I could remember all the chords to Pokerekere Ana.
My own private audience with the Pope!
I played the best I could; closing my eyes attempting to sing my best vocal ever. As I finished the Pope touched my shoulder, a beaming grin lighting his eyes. It was the smile that could win a million hearts and subsequently did.
‘You play very well, my son, sang so beautifully. You have real talent. Please tell me what it means?’
I played it again, this time singing in English.
They are agitated
the waters of Waiapu,
But when you cross over girl
they will be calm.
return to me,
I could die
of love for you.
I have written my letter
I have sent my ring,
so that your people can see
that I am troubled.
return to me,
I could die
of love for you.
My love will never
be dried by the sun,
It will be forever moistened
by my tears.
This time the Pope clapped loudly ‘belissimo!’ He exclaimed.
‘I do not want to withhold you from your prayers my son, but tell me who is your Confirmation Saint?’
‘St Anthony of Padua,’ I answered.
‘I knew it, I knew it,’ he laughed, his hands slapping his legs, his eyes twinkling, smile infectious. ‘I knew you were playing and singing for something lost! So young Kiwi, as you have played for me, now let me pray for you.’
He bowed his head, I followed his lead.
‘O blessed St. Anthony, the grace of God has made you a powerful advocate in all our needs and the patron for the restoring of things lost or stolen. I turn to you today with childlike love and deep confidence. You have helped countless children of God to find the things they have lost, material things, and, more importantly, the things of the spirit: faith, hope, and love. I come to you with confidence; help me in my present need. I recommend what I have lost to your care, in the hope that God will restore it to me, if it is His holy Will.’
‘My Son,’ he said, as he got up to leave. ‘Our Lord wants you to be happy; he wants you to live your life with all your talents in the way you choose to live it. He has no interest in making you feel sad or unhappy. And, if he feels that way, then who I am to argue with him? Go home Son, find what it is that you have lost. Then, when you have found it, make your choice. The Church will always be here waiting.
Bless you my young New Zealand friend; you have entertained me wonderfully well this beautiful morning. Go in love and go in peace.’
Back in NZ I found Rita easily enough. Although when I did she was already married and had two young children, Lorraine and Beverley. It took another fifteen years before she was free, her husband wanting a divorce after having an affair with his secretary. During my years of waiting I became a Music Teacher at Burnside High School.
Two years after her divorce Rita and I married. We managed to have one child together, Colin, he was born with Downs Syndrome due to our advanced age we presumed. Colin is a lovely loving lump of a lad and still lives with me today; he misses his Mum terribly, as do I.
Two years ago, we received a letter from a middle aged man called Warwick Stephen’s, he was the son we never knew, our son who was ripped from Rita’s arms when she was still a teenager. Rita enjoyed getting to know Warwick in the twelve months she had left, but last year, just after Easter, she passed from the cancer which had been haunting and stalking her for her last three years.
I never went back to the Church. Its doors forever closed for an ex Seminarian who married a divorcee. An Institution which had so much bearing on my life had ultimately turned its back on me. Although John Paul’s prayer to St Anthony came through for me, I often can’t help wondering whether he was actually praying for the Church.
Kia Ora Roly