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R. G. Currell

The Chaplain

1998, R. G. Currell, Science Fiction Theater

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5,300 Words

1

     I had just finished my last tour of duty as a Missionary in Bangladesh and I was awaiting funds for a new assignment, when I met Captain Boneventure in a restaurant overlooking San Francisco Bay. At the time, I was looking out through the lofty picture windows down onto the main deck of the Golden Hinde, with its masts rising out of her like trees, reaching toward the cloud-buried sun. Well, maybe she was a replica of the Golden Hinde. And I remember. I was shaking my head. A little disgruntled, I think. I had a Gospel to preach and no new souls to whom to preach it. I'm a Missionary at heart. And I had serious doubts that my funding would be approved. So, the Captain was like an angel of light and hope -- and maybe even of mercy -- when he came and sat down at my table.

     "How do you do, Father." His brown eyes sparkled with that shimmer I've come to recognize, in men particularly, as his wanting something more than idle conversation.

     "Hello," I said, as I looked at his dull blue jacket. I knew it wasn't a military service uniform he was wearing, but he had four gold stripes on his epaulettes. "I'm Father John Paul. Captain, isn't it?"

     "Aye. Captain Victor Boneventure."

     Instinctively, I looked out at the bay. The sky was as gray as usual and the water reflected it off its choppy surface. Clouds were speeding in the wind. Some small boats were swinging at their anchors, while others swam further out as foot traffic busied itself in the local tourist trade. "You have a ship out there?"

     "I don't command a ship that sails the seas, Father," he said. He chuckled a little and his eyes sparkled with secrets. "I command the Lucy Maud, a ship that sails the heavens. Between the stars."

     I looked up at the gray sky then back to the honesty of his face and I reached inside myself to wake that judge of character. Somehow I knew he was telling at least a part of the truth. "A Starship?"

     "Not a Starship, strictly speaking. Starships are unquestionably military. An FTL Cruiser. Canadian registry. A Civilian Faster Than Light ferry. Crew of eighty, a hundred passengers, and some freight. Interstellar."

     I whistled. Any FTL Interstellar ship was extraordinary to me. "I am impressed. What a Mission Field that would be."

     "It would be that, Father," Captain Boneventure said out of the side of his mouth. He was eyeing me now with unspoken questions. "We'll be breaking out of orbit tomorrow morning. At 08 hundred hours precisely. We're headed for Port Turlane, Callisto, third planet in the Vega Colonies. Just opened up to contact with the native population, you know. Should be there in a week...."

     "What do you mean, 'in a week'? Vega is -- is light years from Earth."

     "FTL, Father. Faster Than Light. Vega's only fifty light years out. Just a hop, really. Light years aren't light years anymore. We do have one problem, though."

     "What's your problem, Captain?"

     "We don't have a Chaplain on board, Father. Everybody needs a Chaplain." Captain Boneventure ordered a beer, when the waitress came by.

     "Hmm."

     "We need a Chaplain who can perform Mass, administer the Sacraments, hear Confession, counsel the Brethren -- and one who can also minister to a Protestant minority, Father. Equally, you know." Those steel brown eyes of his never left my face, as he regarded me.

     "Sure. I can do that," I heard myself saying. I was at least pretty sure at the time. I'm more of an itinerant preacher than a pastor. But I could pastor well enough," -- until we got out into the Mission Field. "I'd have to talk to them, of course -- to find out more about how they worship: their content and order of service, how they serve each other, how I can serve them. You know."

     "No time for that -- first, Father. Your willingness is enough. When can you be ready?"

     I shook my head. "I never said I'm going."

     Captain Victor Boneventure smiled that little bit of a smile I've come to know. He nodded. "You would not have planned how you were going to do it if you weren't going to do it, Father. Here. Take this boarding pass. You'll need it. Keep it in your wallet. Priests do carry wallets, don't they?" He handed a square plastiCard to me.

     "Of course, we carry wallets."

     "Put it in there and keep it on your person. At all times, now. When can you be ready?"

     I pushed my empty plate away, just as the waitress returned with his beer. "Right after I inform the Bishop." Well, the stars were to be my new Mission Field.

2

     When I saw him at six A.M., the Bishop wasn't receptive -- at first. "Father John Paul, that's the craziest thing I've ever heard. A Space Priest? Out of the San Francisco Bishopric?" The Bishop looked up from behind his polished desk sternly.

     "Bishop Carpozi, there was a time when no Priest had traveled to the New World on a Tall Ship. Today in the twenty-second century, most ships carry a Chaplain and Priests travel routinely to new places as Missionaries. There is much precedent." I nodded my head sharply to convey its reasonableness.

     Bishop Carpozi stood and walked out from behind his desk and crossed over to the window and looked out. "Even if I would, I don't think I could sanction it. My blessing would be meaningless at any rate, Father." He turned on his heel to face me. "I'll have to send you to the Archbishop. And I'm not sure you would be able to see him in time."

     "All right. But since your blessing is so little, you could give me at least that."

     Bishop Carpozi let out a stream of air as he exhaled. "It won't mean anything, Father John Paul. But go with my blessing. Benedictus Sanctus."

     "Thank you, Bishop Carpozi." I turned and left in a hurry.

     Pacing in the outer office of the Archbishop, I was thinking about what I would say. What I would tell him. A Scriptural argument. The Apostle Paul had heard the call of the lost souls of Macedonia in a dream. I have heard the same call from the lost souls of Callisto. I looked at my watch and it was seven thirty. One hour to go. And I was still waiting to see the Archbishop.

     I was pacing, when it happened. I began to feel a little odd. A little detached. A little electrostatic, for want of a better description. I stopped in mid-stride and took in a deep breath I thought might help. And the office around me seemed to fade, like turning down the brightness control on a vidcom. And when the brightness was restored, I was standing in a small transporter room. A smiling Captain Boneventure stepped forward to greet me.

     Captain Victor Boneventure stepped forward briskly and held out the hand that wasn't holding a blue uniform jacket. "Welcome aboard the Lucy Maud, Father. I trust you've informed the Bishop?"

     "Yes," I told him. "Bishop Carpozi gave me his holy blessing, but then he was sending me to the Archbishop for...."

     "No time for that, Father. The Bishop's word is good enough for me. Do you swear to carry out your Office faithfully?"

     "Of course, but...."

     "Excellent. Put this on. You are now a Lieutenant Commander in the SpaceMerchant Marines. This is a Chaplain's jacket."

     "Thank you." I remember how it looked when I first held it. The epaulets had three gold stripes on them: a narrow stripe between two broader ones. I felt somehow proud when I slipped it on. I felt somehow conspicuous when I regarded myself in a near-by mirror. "I don't know if I can get used to this. High rank, isn't it?"

     "Oh yes. You'll get used to it. And you've earned it by accepting the position of Chaplain of the Lucy Maud."

     "Thank you, Captain Boneventure."

     "Father John Paul, we have a young couple -- passengers -- who want to get married in Space. I'll be performing the ceremony. But they would like the counseling of a Priest beforehand. Will you see them?"

     I smiled and nodded. "Of course."

     "Good. As soon as we've broken orbit and are on Heading, then. An Ensign will show you to your office and you may expect them about ten."

     "Thank you."

     Fortunately, all the software on my office computer was Microsoft Windows compatible and I'd learned it twenty-five years ago. Unfortunately, I hadn't used a computer since before my Bangladesh tour of duty. So, I was still discovering the programs when the young couple walked in through the open door.

     "Good morning, Father," said the tall, slender, blondish woman who'd sort of brought her man along with her. Her narrow face was blushed with a young smile and her gray eyes were fluttering around the room like a moth.

     "Good morning to you both. Pardon me while I sign off?" I pressed down the ALT key and the F4 button at the same time and the word processor closed to leave the Windows menu. I stood and walked around my desk to face them. I smiled with what I hoped would be congeniality. "I'm Father John Paul. And you are?"

     "Tammy Malltree."

     "Dane Perry." Dane seemed to be every bit as tall and slender as this Tammy was. He was a good-looking lad. Not handsome. He had out-of-fashioned long side burns and supported a fuzzy mustache that looked more cultivated than grown. And I noticed that he had very, very thick soles on his brown shoes that were the same color as his dull hair.

"Please," I said, as I motioned over toward the sofa against the wall, over by the deep blue recliner. "Have a seat and we'll just chat."

     I sat in the comfortable armchair across from them and purposely took no notice of the way she fluffed her skirt around her slender legs as she sat. After a few moments, I broke the uncomfortable pause. "So, you two are getting married all the way out here in Space, then?"

     I noticed how the young man squirmed a little on the cushion of the sofa, but it was Tammy who answered. "It's probably old-stuff to you, Father. But to us, it's new and romantic and wonderful." When Tammy smiled this time, all her teeth showed. "We want the wedding to be just perfect. And we thought where could it be more perfect but in the heavens?"

     "Of course you want it to be perfect," I remarked. Even I heard the unspoken "but" ending the sentence.

     "But?" she asked.

     I regarded them both, as a real father would regard his children. "I have been a Missionary for many years. I traveled all around the Earth. I saw many cultures. But there's one thing I found common to young couples in all cultures: they all spent longer planning their weddings than planning their marriages."

     The young couple traded a glance, and then they looked back to me. "What do you mean?" Tammy wrinkled up her face into a question mark.

     I remember how I settled back into the chair and steepled my fingers together like the arches of a cathedral. I felt -- what did I feel? Concerned. This couple was going to be with me for such a short time then leave together for such a long time. Passengers. I would probably not see them again. I might not even think about them anymore. They would leave to begin their struggling together. And they knew so little. "What I mean is that your wedding lasts an hour. Your marriage lasts a lifetime. No matter how badly the ceremony goes, it'll still work. You'll still be married. Am I right?" She nodded, but said nothing. "But if your relationship goes badly, the marriage might not endure. Have you discussed what your relationship should be like? What each of you expects from it? What each of you will give to it?"

     "We love each other," she insisted.

     "Of course you do. But have you asked these questions? Ones like them? We all hear that marriage isn't about getting your own way. But it's not about letting each other have their own way, either. Marriage is about doing what's best for the relationship. No matter what the details are, the relationship is what binds you together. Not love or money or any other thing. The relationship. You invest in the relationship and the relationship pays generous dividends. Now, let's start our discussion with each of you telling each other what your view of the ideal relationship is. Would you like to start it off, Dane?"

3

     A middle aged man by the name of Terry O'Hare dropped by my office, while I was working on the first draft outline of my homily for the up coming Mass. I smiled and logged off the computer, as he introduced himself. Bad timing, I thought. "Of course not, Terry. Anytime is a good time," is what I said. "What do you have in mind?"

     He sat down on the lavender sofa and wouldn't even look me in the face, as he spoke. "This is embarrassing, Father John Paul."

     "No reason for it to be. You may come right to the point." I was thinking that the sooner he got down to it, the sooner I could go back to working on my sermon. That's what's important to a Missionary.

     "I don't really have a problem with the Faith, Father. But I do have a problem with the Authority of the Church. And I don't know what's wrong with me." Finally, with it being said, he looked at my face pleadingly.

     "Ah. Authority. There's probably nothing wrong with you -- on that subject. I'll make a confession to you, Terry. I have my own problems with the Church's Authority."

     "You do, Father?"

     "I do. But Authority isn't what Faith is about. Ah, don't quote me to His Holiness on that. Still, what is important is that God loves us even when we're alienated from Him. Because He loves us, He provided for us in the Sacrifice and Resurrection of Christ, who Raises us with Himself, when we accept Him. We may have many problems, but that one answer covers them. Is any of this helpful at all?"

     "Father, that is the answer I've been searching for --for years ...."

 

     I had everything in the Chapel in order again, when a young man in an Ensign's uniform came in and stepped into the Confessional. So, I joined him.

     "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."

     "What is your sin, my son?"

     "Last night, I fell asleep on watch. Oh, nothing happened. But it's wrong and I feel -- I feel worthless. Guilty, Father. What can I do?"

     "Penance, my son. Repent. Say five Hail Marries. And for Penance, sleep six hours before every watch without fail. This will strengthen you and you will be strong enough to avoid temptation. Is it not written that for every temptation, the Lord provides a route of escape? Sure. You are forgiven, my son."

 

     I was finally alone and I kneeled before Mary, the Mother of God. "Mary, full of Grace," I whispered. "Pray for me, as I pray for others. Here I am as a Chaplain. And I'm not even a Pastor. I'm a Missionary. I can't help these people. Give me your Grace. At least until I can find my way back into the Mission Field. But not my will. May the Lord's will be done."

 

     I still wasn't used to wearing a Lieutenant Commander's uniform of the SpaceMerchant Marines, when Captain Boneventure walked into my underway office -- and we had been in Space for four days. Four long days of counseling, confessions, socializing, the pastoral things I never really cared about doing. No, I still wasn't used to wearing a Lieutenant Commander's uniform, I just wasn't aware of it at the time. I was absorbed in working out the outline for my homilies for Mass and the Protestant Service.

     "You look settled in," Captain Boneventure said. "As you were."

     I settled back and flopped my reading glasses on the desktop. "Thank you, Captain. Just working out my homily."

     "Homily?"

     "Sermon."

     "Oh. Do I get a preview?"

     "I've been so busy with people the last few days, I just haven't had the time I'm used to having, to devote to my preaching. It's still an outline -- of an idea." I reached over and took a drink of cold coffee.

     "I'm your captive audience, Commander."

     I stood up and stretched my back and my keyboarded fingers. "The message I want to convey is that we all have communion with one another. The Doctrine of Communion of the Saints. The whole Bible leads us to that conclusion, as it leads us to Christ.

     "I have an eight point homiletical outline that should take us where we're going.

     "In the beginning was God.

     "God created us.

     "We sinned and became God's problem;

     "How was God going to solve this problem?

     "God made a Covenant with us and we broke it.

     "God sent His prophets to us and we killed them.

     "God sent His only Son to us and we crucified Him;

     "And in the darkest hour, God raised Him from the dead.

     "The Church verifies that this secures our salvation.

     "So, Resurrection is the theme. Those already resurrected and those on Earth have Communion with each other. That's it so far. Rough. It'll be better, though -- on Sunday. They always are."

     "Are you going to preach this to the Protestants, too?"

     "I'm planning a separate sermon for them. 'What is uniquely Christian?'"

     "Great! Keep up the good work. Oh. Everyone I've talked to has said you're the warmest Chaplain they've ever met. They like the feeling that you're one of them and not just some holy man -- or something. Do you have anything?"

     "No, Captain."

     "On my way to the Bridge. Have a nice day, Father."

     "Thank you. Have a nice day, Captain."

     'They really like me?' I wondered.

4

     The great moment of the Mass had arrived. The Sermon was done, of course, and I was about to recite the Words of the Institution of the Eucharist. "As we come to the Lord's table," I said, "we are reminded that we participate in the sufferings of Christ, as the Apostle Paul tells us: that we help make up for that which is lacking in His sufferings. It is not the Sacrifice itself that we offer here, this morning, then, but a continuation of it, as the elements are changed in substance, while they maintain their physical properties. Now the Words of the Institution: 'I received from the Lord what I handed on to you, namely, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it ....'"

     For the first time, really, since I had been teleported on board, I felt warm. Inside. I remember the feeling distinctly. The parishioners were all filing out and shaking my hand in Fellowship. They were genuine. That almost surprised me. I had been used to the lengthy debates that followed Mass in the Mission Field back on Earth. Of course, I loved those times. But now, I found it soothing to be among those who were responding to what I had said in their lives and not in their intellects.

     "Thank you, Father," a young woman said. "I had never heard the Holy Sacrament so simplified and clearly stated before. Bless you. Oh! I shouldn't be giving you blessings, Father."

     "Your blessing is welcomed," I told her. And it surprised me how sincere I had meant it.

     Tammy and Dane came up and the young woman hugged me more tightly than I felt comfortable with. "I can't tell you how meaningful our session with you was, Father," she said.

     "It's really opened up our lines of communication, Father," Dane said. And I was happy to see him growing like this.

     "I'm happy for you both." And I felt it. I was happy for them. They were just not words that were the right ones.

     And when the Chapel was empty, I had the feeling that something holy had happened in that place. It was a cleansing moment.

 

     The Protestant Chapel wasn't as filled as the Catholic one had been, but I felt a sense of connection, as I neared the end of the Sermon. "And In closing," I said, "there is only one teaching that is uniquely Christian. That's all. But that is enough. Jesus is Risen from the dead. And there is only one action that is uniquely Christian: the proclamation of the Historic Fact that He is Risen. Now go. And Proclaim. Amen."

     "Amen," somebody said in response.

     So, I moved on to the next order of Service. "Will the Congregation please rise, to sing the hymn of Consecration. We will be singing the hymn of Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is our God ...."

5

     It had been a long enough day already and the last thing I wanted was one more thing to do. I had just taken my cup of coffee from the synthesizer and walked over to the observation port where I sat down at a table in the Officers Lounge, when the word came over the intercom. "All Senior Officers assemble in Conference Room A. All Senior Officers assemble in Conference Room A." Sometimes, a Chaplain just can't use the more satisfying expressions. Now, Senior Officers meant Department Heads. And that meant me. And Conference Room A meant the Captain's Private Conference facility.

     I was wondering what was up, as I tossed out my hot cup of coffee and then made my way out into the long, narrow hallway. "Hello, Father," a young man greeted me. I couldn't remember his name. But I did remember I had talked with him before. I met with him. That meant I had discussed some problem with him. But about what? I wondered. The man evidently was not a Catholic. I detected that in the way he addressed me as Father. A little forced. I remember wondering if he resented me.

     "Hello," I said, trying not to sound in a hurry.

     "I know. I heard the call for Senior Officers, Commander. They always call a meeting a day out from Destination. To make preps for orbital approach. Last minute changes. Run down on local conditions before planet fall. Special Rules for planet debarkation. All that sort of thing."

     "Ah! Well, thank you, Lieutenant."

     "Sure. And thanks for the talk the other day. I sure feel a whole lot better about my experiences, now. I don't know if I could have really understood them without your help."

     "Any time," I said with sort of a chuckle. "I guess any time but now. Sorry. But I've got to run. Any more problems, just drop on by."

     "I'll do that."

     As I walked on, it started to come back to me. I greeted a few more Crew and passengers as I went on. I had talked to the man about his experiences. His Conversion experience. That was it. Yes, he was one of the Protestants. His experiences hadn't lined up with many of theirs. And he had been wondering if his experiences were real or his own fabrication. That's what some of his friends had indicated. He hadn't had one of those instantaneous experiences. I began to recall what he'd said when he'd dropped in.

     "All my friends said that their conversions were instantaneous, Commander. Why, most of them can cite the date. Some the time. But I can't. I just don't know." He had settled back onto the lavender couch in a despondent heap.

     I had wanted to comfort him. But I wanted to be honest with him, too. "We don't all have moments like Saint Paul had, who was knocked out of the saddle and blinded. Or like a Luther, who was climbing a flight of stairs laboriously on his knees. Most of us are -- well, we're slow-born into the Kingdom of God. It's like a woman who conceives life in her womb. The child grows unnoticed, until outward symptoms develop. But the child was there before the symptoms. We're born into the Kingdom like that. Oh yes, there is a time when we were born and we know the day and time. But that birth is just an outward sign of a life that has always been there. Since God brought it forth through the natural processes God created. So, you see, life proceeds birth." And I remember how he perked up at that.

     "You mean -- you mean I'm like a seed thrown by the wayside?"

     I shook my head. "No. Remember," I told him, "there were seeds that sprouted up immediately, but that grew no roots. They withered and died. But I have a feeling that you put out a strong root system first, my son. I'm sorry. I mean ...."

     "It's okay -- Father."

     So, I was smiling, when I walked into the Captain's Conference Room to attend the meeting. Everyone else was there and already seated around the table. There was a single chair vacant. Next to the Captain. So, I took it.

     "Now we can begin," Captain Boneventure said. Sharply, I thought. And I was beginning to have the feeling that this was definitely not a routine matter, as he continued. "Our destination has been changed."

     We all traded glances around the table at each other. And I wondered what could possibly be going on.

     "The Commander-in-Chief of the Outer Rim of the Vega System has diverted us to the Orbital Base, Fortunian I. For your information, Father, Fortunian I orbits Vega's sixth planet, Fortuna, a gas giant much like Jupiter. Now, Commodore Jerry Paterson has informed me that Callisto has been put back on the Contact Quarantine List. It is off-limits to outside contact. For an indeterminate amount of time. Until further notice." Captain Boneventure paused and looked around at the dozen-or-so Officers, as he folded his hands and placed them on the table in front of himself.

     "Commodore Paterson has assured me that there will be a number of Colony-wide tours available for our passengers. They will visit all of the planets and all the major moons of the Vega System. It should be very exciting. They will all be conducted by the Staff of Fortunian I." Captain Boneventure suddenly sat up more erectly in his chair and the small smile evaporated from his face.

     "Inform your Departments of this development and about these facts. Explain that more information will be dispensed, when it becomes available. Bridge Personnel have already made the necessary adjustments to comply with the Commodore's -- request. I will inform the passengers. There is no other business on the agenda. This meeting is closed." And with that, Captain Boneventure stood and marched out of the room in military fashion. Then they all marched out of the room, to inform their Department Personnel. And I was left alone.

     I had no one to inform -- but myself. That was difficult enough.

     So, there was to be no Callisto Mission, after all. The Viewer on the wall showed the starfield ahead. Black space. Sparse stars. An empty heaven. Empty for me, anyway. Evaporating vision.

     Slowly, I stood, turned on a heel, and then stumbled my way out into the hallway, where I felt the confines of a space ship for the first time. Before the meeting, it had been carrying me away to new territories. It had been opening new Mission Fields for me. But at that moment, it had started confining me from them all. A few unnoticed moments later, I stumbled into the dark Chapel, where I stood at the doorway for several unmoving minutes.

     I had been drawn there. But once arrived, I was repelled somehow. I wanted to go in, but I also needed to stay out. Finally, I forced my way through the thick atmosphere pushing against me, until I dropped to my knees.

     I was aware that I was alone in the great room with little light. I looked up to Mary, the Mother of God. "Mary, full of Grace," I whispered, "pray for me, as I pray for others. Everything is falling apart around me. My Vision that has made every step of life clear and meaningful has ended in a dead end. I don't have it to light my way anymore. Here I am. Here I am as a Chaplain. I'm not a Pastor. I'm a Missionary. I can't help these people. Give me your Grace. At least until I can find my way back into the Mission Field. But not my will. May the Lord's will be done."

     Things had always worked out before. I had always had my Vision before me like a lamp that had lighted my way. But its fire was dying out, I thought. And all that was left was this. This ship and these people. I looked up at Mary's face. It offered no comfort now. Not like always before. "How are things supposed to work out for good, when they turn out like this?" I asked. I expected no miraculous answer. I simply knelt for a long time. Praying nothing. Saying nothing. Thinking nothing.

     It had seemed like a long time had passed, when I had heard the footsteps enter the dim chamber of the Chapel. "Amen," I said aloud, as though I had been praying. Perhaps I had been in a way. In that silent, receptive way through which one awaits answers. I had the distinct feeling that with the interruptions crossing the threshold, that none were forthcoming. I stood and turned to find the Captain.

     He broke the silence. "Praying for all the disappointed souls on board, Father? You have the look of concern for them."

     "Something like that," I said.

     "I admire that in a man." Captain Boneventure walked forward and knelt, before he took a seat in one of the empty pews.

     "How did the passengers take the news, Captain?" I asked, as I took a seat in the pew just ahead of him and turned around.

     "Most: in stride. Some: not so well. One: very badly. He said he was from Kansas and wanted to see Port Turlane. After I stopped laughing, I told him he'd enjoy the tour more."

     "What do you mean by that?"

     "I've been to Port Turlane many times. Well, a dozen times. It's right in the middle of a flatland that reminds me of what West Kansas is. I've seen prairie fires, tornadoes, signs of drought and grasshopper infestations. Can you imagine traveling fifty light years through Space, just so you can see a familiar place? So you can do the same things?" He paused for a short laugh. "It would be like me going all the way to Andromeda Galaxy, just to be a Space Ferry Captain."

     "Don't you like ...."

     "I love what I do, Father. But when destiny takes us on new journeys, it's not just to go and do the same old things. Life takes us in new directions to grow." He stood and raised up his hands. "Life's exciting out here in the heavens, Father. We'll be seeing a lot of Callistos. And I'll take you down to see all of them."

     "You will, Captain?"

     "I will, Father. And I think you're going to like it. Come on, I'll show you the Bridge"

     "I think I will like it, Captain."

 

The End