My Curate, Father Con [poem by John O’Brien, 1954]

[Editor: This poem by John O’Brien was published in The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, 1954.]

My Curate, Father Con

Well, here’s a fearsome telegram with Latin words thereon;
Begob, they’ve made a bishop of My Curate, Father Con!
Well, well! My curate! Let it stand, for I have called him so
Since he was curate here with me some twenty years ago;
And further back than that, bedad, when I was young and keen,
With all the West my battleground, my scars all unforeseen:
I made the little ones my friends, each lad and radiant lass,
But most of all the handsome boy who served my morning Mass.
Clear thoughtful eyes, and wavy hair upon a well-shaped head,
My mind peered through the years to be by happy fancy led;
So priestly did he move around, so calm, so reverent —
I heard the rustle of the alb about him as he went;
And after Mass I laid my hand his splendid head upon,
And, bantering, I called him then My Curate, Father Con.

Then when the speeding years went by with youthful dreams aflame
He came to tell me of his plans, I mind the night he came.
He yearned to do God’s holy work where’er His Will might be —
Among the poor, among the weak, or here or o’er the sea.
I saw the Holy Spirit’s voice had called his soul apart,
The flame that Francis Xavier knew was burning in his heart;
And while he spoke some forward beams with glowing purpose shone
Of that great love which later blessed the work of Father Con.

But when he left my room that night, so bright, so confident,
A subtle presence stayed behind to chide me when he went.
It mirrored all the vacant past — my hopes, my failures, all;
And pointed to the crucifix that hung upon the wall.
The harvest still was great as then, the labourers as few,
And who would let the toiler pass when there was work to do!
I bowed my humbled head and knelt with reverent lips to bless
The feet that ached and bled because of my unworthiness.
For I had seen one sitting there, had met him face to face,
Who to the altar steps was called by nature and by grace.
Then back to earth and ways and means: How could this thing be done?
The road at best is long and hard, and he a poor man’s son
Would find it so. It chilled the heart and jarred my very soul,
That wretched sordid wherewithal that kept him from the goal.
How often in his home, to find a way out did we strive:
The father long since in his grave, the mother still alive,
A bent old form with knotted hands, but spared to eighty-one
To see them place the mitre on the fine head of her son.

I mind the way we thrashed it out, the little woman’s schemes
The kind which in this hard old world come only right in dreams;
The trust in God to see them through; the grit prepared to scout
The hardship of the sparing and the things they’d do without.
“They’d do without”. God help us! In that room so bare and small
I stood abashed and dumb before the courage of it all.

Well, anyway, we fixed it up, howe’er the plans were laid,
A hard investment, but the best that I have ever made.
The best! I’ve stood to other men and backed their schemes before,
Then had to bail them out of jail or hunt them from the door.
But this one was a winner, and the lads will say, no doubt,
The man who backed the Bishop, faith, knew what he was about.
A hard investment, too, it was, but if I’ve felt the pull,
In God’s sweet ways by unseen hands I’ve been repaid in full.
It paid me back a hundredfold to see the joy that shone
In two old tear-wet eyes the morn we “priested” Father Con.

The morning that we priested him! Ah, bid the past arise
And set that wondrous scene again before my misted eyes.
’Tis not the vast cathedral thronged with faces strangely white,
‘Tis not the pomp of ceremony that grips the mind tonight,
But those young soldiers girt and bound, the last recruits to bring
The vows of loyal service to the ranks of Christ the King.
And who will blame if one that day had felt his eyes grow dim
When o’er the crest of many years the memory came to him
Of such a scene ere time had etched his brow with lines of care,
When he, too, knelt with zeal as pure as those young Levites there;
When he, too, thrilled that he should be by words of power enrolled
In that long line of priests so new and yet so very old.
For I had knelt with those who knelt through all the ages gone
In flowing albs on altar steps which stretch for ever on,
Past crumbling ruin and battlement which brutified the earth
With boom of gun or shock of arms that gave the nations birth:
Unbroken back to that far time when God’s Begotten Son
Ordained the Twelve and bade them go and do as He had done.
The morning that we priested him! Ah, resurrect the past
And touch again with rose and gold a dream come true at last.
I see the Bishop in his robes, the surpliced priests around,
The M.C. moving here and there, so certain of his ground,
The well-trained acolytes, the choir, and passing in review
The old priest from the bush, and “bushed” at things so strange and new:
But he and one old mother knelt and in their grateful prayer
Were tears of holy joy because the Hand of God was there.

Nor do I disremember, faith, the fun we had that day —
When pious looks were laid aside and vestments put away —
The blessings and the banter! Then the Bishop sent for me,
And pacing up and down the path, “Now, Father John,” said he,
“You’ve been a splendid priest indeed —” (Thinks I, “Now what’s the push,
With his butt’ring up for something and his foot’ring round the bush.”)
“You’ve done your work most faithfully, but times are moving fast
The ways of such as you and me were all right in the past,
But things have changed, the old has gone, and everything is new,
And modern times, dear Father John, need modern methods, too.
Your armchair’s been the saddle, you have combed your parish wide,
There’s not a soul you do not know; and on the business side
We’ve marvelled at your prowess there, with church accounts far spread
Upon the backs of envelopes, the census in your head;
Now, what you need is some strong arm to lean your weight upon,
And so I thought of sending you as curate Father Con.
He’s read a brilliant course, I’m told, the text his outlook rules,
But you will teach him many things they touch not in the Schools.
You’ll tell him many facts you’ll find your varied store among,
For parish priests are very wise and curates very young.
He thinks you are the greatest man — and so you are, we know,
He really hero-worships you: ’tis fine to see it so.
You’ve done a noble thing by him, and all your praises sing —”
(“Yes, yes,” thinks I, “and now you put the kibosh on the thing,
A man may have his hero and his worship, so to speak,
But the parish priest who’s hero to his curate is a freak.”)
“So, Father John,” the Bishop said, “you’ll crown what you’ve begun.”
What could I say but, “Thanks, my Lord, God’s Holy Will be done.”

I mind the day the lad arrived, the suitcase in the hand,
And everything about him new. With gracious self-command
He spoke no patronizing stuff, nor put on mighty airs,
Nor checked my rusty Latin, no, nor helped me up the stairs.
He made no young man’s wisecracks about this backward place,
But took the homely fare it gave and with an easy grace
He bore that handsome head of his and spoke his every word
In unstressed cultured tones so like some music I have heard.
He was so tall, so young, so clean, that only truth to state
I in myself felt old and small and very out of date,
But, faith, I didn’t let him see I felt it overmuch,
I “sarched” him on the rubrics and theology and such,
I raked him from some ponderous tomes, the which I must confess
I had arranged around my chair with studied carelessness.
An old campaigner I, and soon I saw he’d win the round,
So cleverly — well, thus I hoped — I made for safer ground,
And gave advice, paternal pap, of which the only charm
Was that if it didn’t do him good, it wouldn’t do him harm.
But here again he won on points: with most becoming awe
He took the dreary twaddle like a bar of canon law.
A fig for marshalled arguments in logical array —
I like the man who seems to see some sense in what I say,
I like the lad who looks impressed when I give out the stuff;
And so myself and Father Con we got on right enough.

But, faith, there was another game in which he beat me bad
The vital game in which I could not pace it with the lad;
“You’ll teach him many things,” says he; and, ah, the soothering tongue,
“For parish priests are wise,” says he, “and every curate’s young”
I made a game and gallant show, but soon I learnt in truth
And not perhaps without a pang that age can learn from youth.
I saw in him so many things which brought again to mind
Ideals and hopes and outlooks, too, which I had left behind.
I saw in him the priest I was or rather wished to be,
And wondered when and where and why we parted company.
His work was as a hymn of praise which rose before the Throne,
The life he wished all men to lead was mirrored in his own.
His thoughts surged round the Feet of God like spring tides at the flood,
And yet his heart at every beat was pumping human blood.
He knew, but never felt, the chains which make a man a slave,
The heavy handicaps of life that sometimes crush the brave.
The many called, the few elect, the last who had been first,
And but the grace of God between the best man and the worst.
He knew it all and understood, and he so pure and young;
The splendid Latin of the Mass was living on his tongue
When every morn in vestments clad he bowed his handsome head
And prayed on Calvary’s height for them for whom his Master bled.
I’d seen him tender with the weak, and patient with the rude;
I’d seen the sick, the poor, the old, shed tears of gratitude;
“You’ll teach him things,” the Bishop said, but soon I came to see
I wasn’t teaching him at all, but he was teaching me.

Then when to wider duties called he left this humble place
New fields of action opened up and tributes came apace.
He filled each office year by year and filled them all so well
That hard old heads that joked at me were drawn beneath the spell.
The Bishop once backhanded thus, “Now look here, Father John,
If you’ve done nothing else, at least you gave us Father Con.”
And perhaps the old man knew, forsooth, on whom his cloak would fall
When he must lay the crozier down and answer to the call;
He’s proud, I know, in Heaven tonight — the old man who is dead —
That clean strong hands shall grip the staff and guide the flock he fed.
And I am proud — yes, very proud — although I needs must see
A change has come, not wrought by him but real, ’twixt him and me.
But still upon his day of days, surrounded by the great,
A prince among the princes there he passes by in state,
With mitre, crozier, buckled shoon, and lifted hand to bless
The sheep and lambs of Jesus Christ who round his pathway press;
I’ll creep down by the altar rails and catch them near the wing,
To be the first, the very first to kneel and kiss the ring.
Thenceforth my Lord, Right Reverend Sir, and so forth and so on;
But in my heart I’ll keep him still: My Curate, Father Con.

Published in:
John O’Brien. The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954

Editor’s notes:
alb = (from the Latin “albus” for “white”), a white linen tunic (also known as “tunica linea”) used by clergy, being of an ample and simple design, which comes down to the ankles, and is usually girdled with a cincture (a long rope-like cord with tassled or knotted ends, tied around the waist outside of the alb)
bedad = an Irish exclamatory oath, a euphemism for “By God”; from the tradition of avoiding blasphemy and the misuse of sacred words, by substituting words with the same initial letter (exclamatory oaths that use such a substitution for “God” include “by George”, “good golly”, “oh my gosh”, “good gracious me”, and “good grief”)
begob = an Irish exclamatory oath, a euphemism for “By God”
crozier = (also spelt as “crosier”) a staff with a hooked end, resembling a shepherd’s crook, or with a cross at the end, carried by abbots, bishops and archbishops as a symbol of office
mitre = headdress worn by abbots and bishops
rubrics = (from the Latin “rubrica” for “red ochre”) directions in books for the conduct of church services, where the general text is printed in black, whilst instructions for clergy are commonly printed in red (from the red ochre or red chalk used by carpenters to mark lines on wood to show where to cut)
shoon = shoes

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