The Occasion by Francis Clement Kelley

MR. O'BRIEN of No. 32 Chestnut street had his entire family with him, as he hurried to the eight o'clock Mass. Mrs. O'Brien was already tired, though she had gone only a block from the house; for Elenora, who always was tardy, had to be dressed in a hurry. Then Tom had come down stairs with an elegant part to that portion of his hair which was right above his forehead, but the back section, which the mirror did not show, was tousled and unkempt. It took an effort on Mrs. O'Brien's part to make the children presentable; and hurry plus effort was not good for—well, for folks who do not weigh as little as they did when they were younger.

Dr. Reilly met the O'Briens at the corner.

"Hello," he called, "it's the whole family, bedad. What brings ye all to the 'eight o'clock'?"

Mr. O'Brien answered his family doctor only when the children were left behind where they could not hear: "It's Father Collins' turn to preach at the High Mass, Doc," he explained.

"Sure, it is," said the Doctor. "Faith, I forgot that. I was going to High Mass meself, but I ran over to see ye. Yes, it's his turn. Sure, the poor  man puts me to sleep, and sleepin' in the House of God is neither respectful nor decorous. But what is a man to do?"

"He is the finest priest in the city," said Mr. O'Brien, looking back to see if his regiment was following, "and the worst preacher. I can't sit still and listen to him. He loses his voice the minute he gets before the people, and some day I think he'll pull the pulpit down, trying to get his words out. Faith, Doc, he makes me want to get up and say it for him."

"Well, O 'Brien, I believe you could say it, judging from the way you lecture us at the council meetings. And that brings me to the business I had when I ran off to see you. Couldn't you let the Missis take care of the children at this Mass? McGarvey wants to talk over something with us. He's sick and can't get out. We'd both go to the 'nine o'clock' and that will miss the sermon, too."

Mr. O'Brien nodded his head complacently. They had reached the front of the church, and whom should they meet but Father Collins hurrying out from the vestry on his way to the rectory across the street.

"Good morning, Father," cried the children in chorus, just as they did when one of the priests visited their room in the parochial school. The two men touched their hats in greeting. Father Collins returned the salute. He crossed the street quickly  and ran up stairs to his own room in the rectory, but did not notice that O'Brien and the doctor went past the church.

Be it known that Father Collins was the third assistant. He had been ordained one year. The first assistant, who was still fasting, with the obligation of singing High Mass upon him, was installed in Father Collins' favorite chair, when the owner of it entered.

"Come in, come in, Collins, come in to your own house," the first assistant called. "Come in, man, and be at home. I couldn't sleep, so I had to get up and wait around, hungry enough; but," he had caught the expression on his friend's face, "what is the matter?"

"Oh, nothing much, nothing much," replied Father Collins, "only I see the whole parish is turning out to-day for the eight o'clock Mass. The O'Briens and Doctor Reilly have just gone in. You know, they always go to High Mass."

"Which," remarked Father Grady, "is no compliment either to my singing, or your Eminence's preaching, or to both."

"Oh, your singing is all right," assured Father Collins.

"Well," said Father Grady, "I accept the correction. I am a modest man, but I must acknowledge that I can sing—at least, relatively speaking, for I haven't very much to compete against. However,  if it is not my singing, then it must be your preaching."

"It is, it is," answered his friend, with just a touch of shakiness in his voice. "Look here Grady, you know I made a good course in the Seminary. You know I am not an ignoramus and you know that I work hard. I prepare every sermon and write it out; when the manuscript is finished I know it by heart. Now, here is the sermon for to-day. Look at it and if you love me, read it. Tell me what is wrong with it."

Father Grady took the papers and began to look them over, while Father Collins picked up a book and pretended to be interested in it. In truth, he was glancing at his companion very anxiously over the top, until the manuscript had been laid down.

"My dear Collins, you are right," said Father Grady. "It is a good sermon. I wish I could write one half as good. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it."

"But," urged Father Collins, "I shall spoil it."

"Well," said his friend, "candor compels me to acknowledge that you probably shall. I don't know why. Can't you raise your voice? Can't you have courage? The people won't bite you. You can talk well enough to the school children. You can talk well enough to me. Why can't you stand up and be natural? Just be yourself and talk to them as you talk to us. That is the whole secret." 

"It is my nervousness, Grady," said Father Collins. "I am afraid the minute I enter the church to preach. When I open my mouth, I lose my voice out of fear. That is what it is—fear. I am simply an arrant coward. I tell you, Grady, I hate myself for it."

"Now, look here," said his companion earnestly, "you are not a coward. You can preach. It is in you, and it will come out, yet. I call this sermon nothing short of a masterpiece. If you can not brace up now, the occasion will come to loosen your tongue. It surely will."

"This is the worst day I have had," groaned poor Father Collins. "I am shaking like a leaf, already. Look here, Grady, do me a favor just this once. You preach so easily. You can get up a sermon in half an hour. You have nothing to do until half past ten. Now, let me go out and make the announcements and read the Gospel at the nine o'clock Mass. Most of the children will be there and I can say a few words to them. You preach at High Mass."

"Well, I ought not to do it," said Father Grady, thoughtfully, "for if I do such things, it may spoil you. You ought not to give way, but—you are white as a sheet, man. Well, I am going to do it this time, so I had better look over something."

Father Collins was overjoyed. He could not help it. He went to the church to prepare for the  Mass and prompt to the minute he was in the sanctuary.

The Mass had proceeded as far as the end of the first Gospel, when the Sacristan came to the priest's side and whispered a message. He was plainly excited, and trying hard to conceal it from the congregation. Father Collins leaned over to hear what he had to say.

"Keep your head, Father. There is a fire in the church basement now, right under your feet. The firemen are working on it, but can't put it out. We have stopped people from coming in to stampede the others. The galleries are filled with the children, and we have to get them out, first. If there is a rush the children will be killed at the bottom of the gallery stairs, where they meet the people from the body of the church out in that vestibule. The chief sent me to you to tell you to go on preaching and hold the grown folks down stairs for ten minutes. The firemen will get the little ones out without noise or fuss, if you can keep the attention of the people. I'll whisper 'all right' to you when they are gone. Then you tell the rest to file out quietly. It is the only chance you have to save those children in this ramshackle old building, so you preach for all you are worth and don't let the people look up at the galleries. There will be hundreds of little ones owe their lives to you, Father, if you can hold the fort." 

The Sacristan left and, with a gasp of horror, the priest thought of the galleries emptying into the little vestibule and meeting a rush of the people from the church.

Father Collins took off his chasuble and maniple and placed them upon the altar. He wondered at his own coolness. He advanced to the front of the altar platform, opening his book; but he closed it again coolly. Then, in a clear voice, that reached every corner of the building, which he could not believe was his own, he began.

"On second thought, my friends," he said, "I will not read the Epistle or the Gospel to-day. I have a few words to say to you, though a sermon is not expected at this Mass."

In a front pew Doctor Reilly and Mr. O'Brien groaned softly. They had been caught by the dreaded sermon.

Father Collins announced his text. The congregation was surprised that it was to have a sermon instead of the usual reading, but it was more surprised at the change in Father Collins; so much, indeed, that it was almost breathless. The priest glanced up at the gallery, quickly, and saw that the children had begun to leave the rear pews. He had ten minutes to fill in. The people below could see only the front rows of the gallery, which in this church, built in the old style, ran on three sides. So Father Collins preached. It was the sermon he had  prepared for the High Mass, but which he could not deliver. The beauty of it had been plain to Father Grady when he read it; but it was plainer to the enraptured congregation which sat listening to every syllable. Neither the Doctor nor Mr. O'Brien attempted to sleep. In fact there were no sleepers at all, for upright in the pews sat every man and woman, hanging on the preacher's words.

In the midst of his discourse Father Collins detected the smell of smoke and thought that all was lost. But he made another effort. His voice rose higher and his words thundered over the heads of the astonished people, who were so rapt that they could not even ask themselves what had wrought the miracle. If they smelled the smoke, they gave no sign, for a born orator, who had found himself, held them in the grip of his eloquence. Father Collins took another glance at the gallery. The front row would go in a moment. Above all, the people must not be distracted now. Something must be done to hold their attention when the noise of the moving of that front row would fall upon their ears. In two minutes all would be well. That two minutes were the greatest of the priest's life. Into them centered every bit of intensity, earnestness and enthusiasm he possessed. He rapidly skipped part of his sermon and came to the burst of appeal, with which he was to close. The people could see him tremble in every limb. His face was as white as his surplice. His  eyes were wide open and shining as if he were deeply moved by his own pleadings. He quickly descended the steps of the altar and advanced to the railing. The congregation did not dare to take its eyes away from him. The noise of the departing children fell upon unheeding ears. The intensity of the man had been transferred to his listeners. A whispered 'all right' reached the priest from the lips of the Sacristan behind, and Father Collins stopped. His voice dropped back to the tone with which he began his discourse. It was a soft, musical voice, that people till now did not know he possessed.

"My friends," he said, "keep your seats for a moment. Those in the front pews will go out quietly now. Let one pew empty at a time. Do not crowd. There is no danger, at present, but a fire has broken out below, and we want to take every precaution for safety."

"Stop," he thundered, and his voice went up again. "You, who are leaving from the center of the church, remain in your seats. Do not start a rush. Do not worry about the children, they are all out. Look at the galleries. They are empty. The children were cool. Do not let the little ones shame you. Now, give the old and feeble a chance."

With voice and gesture, he directed the movement of the people, and then, the church emptied, he looked toward the vestry door. The Sacristan was there. 

"Hurry, Father," he called, tearing off his cassock. "The floor here may give way any moment. Father Grady has the Blessed Sacrament. Hurry!"

They were out before the floor fell and the flames burst into the big church, which, poor old relic of the days of wood, went down into the ashes of destruction.

Mr. O'Brien of 32 Chestnut street walked home with Dr. Reilly, but neither of them had much to say. Both paused at the corner where their ways parted.

Then Mr. O'Brien spoke: "What did you think of the sermon, Doc?"

"I think," said the doctor, deliberately, "that though it cost us the price of a new church, 'twas well worth it."