The Vicar-General

by Francis Clement Kelley

THE Vicar-General was dead. With his long, white hair smoothed back, he lay upon a silk pillow, his hands clasped over a chalice upon his breast. He was clad in priestly vestments; and he looked, as he lay in his coffin before the great altar with the candles burning on it, as if he were just ready to arise and begin a new "Introibo" in Heaven. The bells of the church wherein the Vicar-General lay asleep had called his people all the morning in a sad and solemn tolling. The people had come, as sad and solemn as the bells. They were gathered about the bier of their pastor. Priests from far and near had chanted the Office of the Dead; the Requiem Mass was over, and the venerable chief of the diocese, the Bishop himself, stood in cope and mitre, to give the last Absolution.

"The Bishop himself stood in cope and mitre to give the
last absolution."

"The Bishop himself stood in cope and mitre to give the last absolution."

The Bishop had loved the Vicar-General—had loved him as a brother. For was it not the Vicar-General who had bidden His Lordship welcome, when he came from his distant parish to take up the cares of a diocese. With all the timidity of a stranger, the Bishop had feared; but the Vicar-General guided his steps safely and well. Now the Bishop, gazing at the white, venerable face, remembered—and  wept. In the midst of the Absolution, his voice broke. Priests bit their lips, as their eyes filled with hot tears; but the Sisters who taught in the parochial school and their little charges, did not attempt to keep back their sobs. For others than the Bishop loved the Vicar-General.

There was one standing by the coffin, whom neither the Bishop, priests nor people saw. It was the Vicar-General, himself. He still wore his priestly vestments. Was he not a priest forever? His arms were folded and his face was troubled. He knew every one present; but none of them knew that he was so near. He scanned the lines of the Bishop's face and seemed to wonder at his tears. He was quite unmoved by the sorrow around him, did not seem to care at all. Yet in life the Vicar-General had cared much about the feelings of others toward him. His eyes wandered over the great congregation and rested on the children, but without tenderness in them. This, too, was very unlike the Vicar-General. Then the eyes came back and rested on the priestly form in the coffin, and the trouble of them increased.

The Absolution was over and the coffin was closed when the Vicar-General looked up again, and knew that Another Unseen besides himself was present. The Other was looking over the coffin at the Vicar-General; looking steadily, with eyes that searched down deep and with lashes that were very,  very still. He wore a long robe of some texture the Vicar-General had never seen in life. It shimmered like silk, shone like gold, and sparkled as if dusted with tiny diamonds. The hair of the Other was long, and fell, bright and beautiful, over his shoulders. His face seemed to shine out of it, like a jewel in a gold setting. His limbs seemed strong and manly in spite of his beardless face. The Vicar-General noticed what seemed like wings behind him; but they were not wings, only something which gave the impression of them. The Vicar-General could not remove his eyes from the Other. Gradually he knew that he was gazing at an Angel, and an Angel who had intimate relation to himself.

The body was borne out of the church. The Angel moved to follow, and the Vicar-General knew that he also had to go. The day was perfect, for it was in the full glory of the summer; but the Vicar-General noticed little of either the day or the gathering. The Angel did not speak, but his eyes said "come": and so the Vicar-General followed—whither, he did not know.

The Vicar-General was not sure that it was even a place to which the Angel led him; but he felt with increasing trouble that he was to be the center of some momentous event. There were people arriving, most of whom the Vicar-General knew—men and women of his flock, to whom he had ministered and many of whom he had seen die. They all smiled  at the Vicar-General as they passed, and ranged themselves on one side. The Silent Angel stood very close to the Vicar-General. As the people came near, the priest felt his vestments grow light upon him, as if they were lifting him in the air. They shone very brightly, too, and took on a new beauty. The Vicar-General felt glad that he was wearing them.

The Silent Angel looked at him, but spoke not a word; yet the Vicar-General understood at once, knew that he was to answer at a stern trial, and that these were his witnesses—the souls of the people to whom he ministered, to whom he had broken the Bread of Life. How many there were! They gladdened the Vicar-General's heart. There were his converts, the children he had baptized, his penitents, the pure virgins whose vows he had consecrated to God, the youths whom his example had won to the altar. They were all there. The Vicar-General counted them, and he could not think of a single one missing.

On the other side, witnesses began to arrive and the Vicar-General's look of trouble returned. He felt his priestly vestments becoming heavy. Especially did he feel the weight of the amice, which was like a heavy iron helmet crushed down over his shoulders. The cincture was binding him very tightly. He felt that he could scarcely move for it. The maniple rendered his left arm almost powerless.  The stole was pulling at him, and the weight of the chasuble made him very faint.

He knew some of the witnesses, but only a few. He had seen these few before. They were his neglected spiritual children. He remembered each and every case. One was a missed sick-call: his had been the fault. Another was a man driven from the church by a harsh word spoken in anger. The Vicar-General remembered the day when he referred to this man in his sermon and saw him arise in his pew and leave. He did not return. Another was a priest—his own assistant. The Vicar-General had no patience with his weaknesses. From disgust at them his feelings had turned to rancor against the man—and the assistant was lost. The Vicar-General trembled; for these things he had passed by as either justified by reason of the severity necessary to his office, or as wiped out by his virtues—and he had many virtues.

The Vicar-General's eyes sought those of the Silent Angel, and he lost some of his fear, while the weight of his vestments became a little lighter. But the Silent Angel's gaze caused the Vicar-General again to look at the witnesses. Those against him were increasing. The faces of the new-comers he did not know. The Vicar-General felt like protesting that there must be some mistake, for the new-comers were red men, brown men, yellow men and black men, besides white men whose faces were altogether  strange. He was sure none of these had ever been in his parish. The new-comers were dressed in the garbs of every nation under the sun. They all alike looked very sternly at the Vicar-General, so that he could not bear their glances. Still he could not understand how he had ever offended against them, nor could he surmise why they should be witnesses to his hurt.

The Silent Angel still stood beside the Vicar-General; but the troubled soul of the priest could find no enlightenment in his eyes. All the while witnesses kept arriving and the multitude of them filled him with a great terror.

At last he saw a face amongst the strangers which he thought familiar, and he began to understand. It was the face of a priest he had known, who had been in the same diocese, somewhat under the Vicar-General's authority. On earth this priest had been one of the quiet kind, without ambition except to serve in a very humble way. He had always been in a parish so poor and small, that the priest himself had in his manner, his bearing, even his clothes, reflected its humility and its poverty. The Vicar-General remembered that the priest had once come to him as a matter of conscience to say that, while he was not complaining, nevertheless he really needed help and counsel. He said that his scattered flock was being lost for the want of things which could not be supplied out of its poverty. He told the Vicar-General  what was needed. The Vicar-General remembered that he had agreed with him; but had informed him very gently that it was the policy of the diocese to let each parish maintain and support itself. The Vicar-General had felt justified in refusing his aid, especially since, at that time, he was collecting for a new organ for his own church, one with three banks of keys—the old one had but two. The Vicar-General now knew that his slight feeling of worry at the time was not groundless; but while then he had felt vaguely that he was wrong in his position, now he was certain of error. His eyes sought all through his own witnesses, but they found no likelihood of a testimony in his favor based on the purchase of that grand organ. Then it all came to the Vicar-General, from the eyes of the Silent Angel, that he had received on earth all the reward that was due to him for it.

The presence of the men of all colors and of strange garbs was still a mystery to the Vicar-General; but at last he saw among them a bent old priest with a long beard and a crucifix in his girdle. At once the Vicar-General recognized him and his heart sank. Too well he remembered the poor missionary who had begged for assistance: money, a letter, a recommendation—anything; and had faced the inflexible official for half an hour during his pleading. The Vicar-General had felt at that time, as he felt when his poor diocesan brother had  come to him, that there was so much to be done at home, absolutely nothing could be sent out. There was the Orphanage which the Bishop was building and they were just beginning to gather funds for a new Cathedral. The Bishop had acquiesced in the Vicar-General's ruling. The diocese had flourished and had grown strong. The Vicar-General had always been its pride. He was humbled now under the gaze of the Silent Angel, whose eyes told him wherein he had been at fault. He knew that the fault was not in the building of the great and beautiful things, which of themselves were good because they were for God's glory; but rather was it in this: that he had shut out of his heart, for their sakes, the cry of affliction and the call of pleading voices from the near and far begging but for the crumbs which meant to them Faith here and Life hereafter.

Now, O God! there were the red men, the brown men, the yellow men and the black men; not to speak of these white men whose faces were so strange; and they were going to say something—something against him. He could guess—could well guess what it was they would say. The Vicar-General knew that he had been wrong, and that his wrong had come into Eternity. He doubted if it ever could be made right, for he knew now the value of a soul even in a black body. He knew it, but was it too late? His vestments were as heavy as lead. 

Trembling in every limb, the Vicar-General looked for his Judge; but he could not see Him. He only felt His Presence. The Silent Angel had a book in his hand. The Vicar-General could read its title. There was a chalice on the cover, as if it spoke of priests, and under it he read:

THE LAW BY WHICH THEY SHALL BE JUDGED.

The Silent Angel opened the book and the Vicar-General saw that it had but one page. Shining out from the page he read:

"THOU ART A PRIEST FOREVER."

And under it:

"GO YE, THEREFORE, AND TEACH ALL NATIONS."

Sorrow was over the soul of the priest. Only the hope in the eyes of the Silent Angel gave him hope, as he bowed his head before the judgment.