“Father Ryan. Please, come in.” The friendly voice of Edward Ellerby pushed back some of the daytime darkness of the Bishop’s study. Nevertheless, Matthew Stephen Ryan hesitated at the threshold of the room, his raised eyebrows elicited the instruction, “Yes, please, close the door.”
To any number of the older parish priests in Philadelphia, Edward Ellerby’s study was the physical manifestation of success in the service of the Lord. The room was a symphony of carved-wood, expensive leather and exquisitely crafted leaded glass. One wall held a fireplace, bracketed by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The mantle was stone, elaborately carved and shouted of power and wealth. Two wing-backed leather chairs faced the broad hearth. Between them, a low table on which two glasses and a cut glass decanter waited. The Bishop’s desk was directly opposite the door, behind it, a bay window that looked out over the city; the white-painted, quintessential tower of City Hall dominated the view. In front of the desk, a pair of uncomfortable-looking chairs, clearly designed to inspire brevity. Stephen crossed the oriental carpet and chided himself for thinking that the cost of either the rug in front of the fireplace or cushioning the Bishop’s desk would have easily funded the daycare program at St. Agatha-James for more than a year.
Sitting, Father Matthew managed a smile that he hoped projected the blessed fraternity of the priesthood. He hoped for confident, but would settle for competent; his discomfort at being summoned, without explanation, to the Bishop’s office gave lie to his outwardly calm demeanor.
Edward Ellerby seemed in no hurry to get to the point of the meeting and chatted amiably. Father Matthew Ryan was impressed despite himself as the Bishop demonstrated a depth of knowledge of St. Agatha-James’s that exceeded any profile in an HR file. He asked about the rectory’s housekeeper by name and even knew that one of Violet McKenna’s grandchildren had just been accepted at the Naval Academy. Given that this particular information became available at the end of the school year, 6 weeks prior, Matthew found himself liking the man sitting across the yard or so of carved-wood desk.
Finally, the Bishop stood up and said, ‘This feels too much like a job interview or..”
“…being called to the Principle’s office?” Matthew said with an optimistic grin.
The Bishop looked at the young priest, laughter gave voice to his surprise, “Why yes, almost exactly like that! Let’s go sit somewhere a little less formal, shall we?” He stepped around the desk and walked to the fireplace, Matthew followed and was relieved to see that there was no fire in the hearth. Even with air conditioning, a roaring fire in a fireplace during high-summer in Philadelphia would be a bit much. He waited for the older man to sit first.
“Stephen, you know that passage from Matthew 22:21? ‘Render unto God the things that are God’s,…'”
“…and render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” Stephen finished.
“Well, as much as it pains me to have to ask, I need a favor.” Edward Ellerby turned in his chair and leaned slightly towards Matthew Stephen. “Your sister is a novitiate at St Dominique’s, yes?”
Father Matthew Stephen Ryan nodded.
“A very intelligent, resourceful young woman. She’ll be an asset to the Church. I’m hearing very good things about her teaching, ‘gifted’ was one of the words used. From what I’ve been told, she’s already been of considerable service, in a rather delicate situation.” Seemingly captivated by the mood his words brought the conversation, the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia failed to notice the puzzled look on the other priest’s face. His failure to understand the relationship between Sister Margaret Ryan and her brother, Father Matthew Ryan, would eventually exact a cost far in excess of the seemingly simple misunderstanding. “Her handling of that unfortunate matter of the priest in Chicago.” Oblivious to the lack of comprehension on the other man’s face, the Bishop continued, “It’s her exceptional talent for… ‘problem solving’ that has created a delicate situation, one that I need your help in resolving.”
“I agree. And she is, in fact, my sister. But if there’s something you need from Sister Margaret, surely you have more direct channels of communications?” Matthew smiled inwardly at his own choice of words. He made a mental note to add a prayer to his daily devotions that he would someday acquire conversational skills such as were demonstrated by his superior.
“Well, you’re quite correct, Father Ryan. There is a protocol for communications with the sisters at St. Dominique’s. Their Mother Superior is a remarkable woman by the name of Sister Bernadine Ellison. However, she is not always the most amenable woman in the Church, especially when she fails to properly appreciate the importance of matters that are beyond the four walls of her convent.”
“I heard she has a temper.”
“Be that as it may. I need you to ask your sister to cool the rhetoric on her campaign.”
“You weren’t aware of it? She is quite the social media provocateur, that one.” Stephen saw an expression of what might have to be called, ‘an amused fondness and interest’ when the Bishop spoke about his sister. He felt increasingly uncomfortable with the tone of the conversation, somehow drifting from professional to collegial, with the best of the former being replaced by the worst of the latter. He said a prayer for patient understanding and turned to face the other man more directly, “I’m sorry Bishop Ellerby, my sister and I do not currently enjoy a relationship that involves all that much communication. I confess that I know little about what it is you’re referring to, for that matter, I knowing about what she did in Chicago. The embarrassing fact of the matter is that I only learned that she’d joined the Order this summer.”
Bishop Ellerby smiled and appeared to relax. Father Ryan began to feel the opposite, tension grew with the dawning realization that his superior had been on his guard since turning the conversation to matters concerning his sister. He felt an ember of resentment flare up; that he was unable to identify the source of irritation added to his growing anger. His first thought, that his admission to knowing less about his sister’s activities than did the Bishop seemed reasonable cause. Less understandable was his reaction to the man’s too-familiar attitude. Without thinking, he said, “However I do know of Sister Bernadine Ellison. Talk about your impressive women, I for one, would not want to have to force anything on her. If even half the stories are a quarter true…” Matthew Ryan was rewarded with signs of change in the Bishops expression. The older man’s self-assurance eroded, replaced by something that he couldn’t immediately put a name to, although the word, ‘peeved’ came to mind and he had to catch himself to avoid laughing out loud.
Trying to mimic the confident, one-professional-to-another-professional tone, Father Ryan said, “Even in the seminary, when the topic of the Church’s relationship and responsibility to the religious Orders came up, there was always a story about a young nun and a priest who tried to put her on the spot during a synod. I forget his name, but everyone laughed in sympathy.”
“Lets get back to your Sister Ryan. If you have any influence with her, I need you to do your best to convince her that the Church has a responsibility to the community. A much larger community than a nun, a novitiate nun, is qualified to appreciate. Her current efforts to bring attention to the plight of a woman in Crisfield who is caught in a financial bind are not appropriate. That sort of problem is for the parish priest to determine the best course of action. Not a nun and certainly not in the arena of the so-called social media.” The Bishop stood abruptly.
“Can I count on your help, Father Matthew?”
Standing, Matthew Ryan faced the older man and nodded, “I will do whatever I can for the Church.”
Bishop Ellerby held out his hand and the young priest bent, kissed the proffered ring and tried not to think about Francis Ford Coppola’s Academy Award winning movie from the 1970s.