In the two decades he had been on this earth he has passed through three distinct arched doorways—the first he entered often, the second twice and the third only once, fortunately just that once. In each case he entered a primeval chasm aligned somewhere between a tumbling heaven and a gaping hell, a lapse suffuse with all the uncertainty of a limbo.
What the three had in common was a heart, at intervals sacred and rent, caged and cold. He never intended for it to be cold but it was life or death.
The first entry was Church of Sacred Heart in Greensburg. He was an altar boy, committed to the service of Our Lord. He not only memorized the Latin required for mass but he learned the language. One Sunday before the 11 o’clock high mass he told Father George Sefl that he wanted to be a priest. The juvenile admission arose when a colleague of the priest mused aloud where the next generation of clergy would come from. Sefl turned to Finney and the second altar boy, both decked out in their red robes and seated on a bench with their legs swaying unable to reach the floor. He asked if the priesthood was something that they wanted to pursue. Immediately Finney’s partner said yes. For his part Finney hesitated. The nuns had always told him that because of his high intelligence and empathetic soul he would make an outstanding servant of the Lord. The way Finney saw it Sacred Heart’s three Benedictine priests had little to do except on Saturday afternoons with confession and Sunday with mass. He feared such a calling would bring him to distraction and possibly sin. Despite his misgivings he surveyed all the inquiring faces in the sacristy and uttered a yes.
“See,” said Father Sefl proudly to his colleague, “it’s boys like these who will follow our lead. They will take the church to greater heights.”
That response set the groundwork for Finney to embrace his future as a cleric. Warming to the idea was made easier after Father Sefl told all the nuns and Finney’s parents of the boy’s decision to enter the seminary. He literally could do no wrong and when he realized this he tested the waters. First he masturbated. He enjoyed it so much that he did it often and questioned why it was a sin. He waited for the warts. When they failed to materialize he took to shoplifting. This was an altogether different thrill. The more he probed its limits, confiscating merchandise while standing in front of proprietors and clerks, the greater his enjoyment. From there he took to drinking, to sneaking out at night while his parents slept. There were Sunday mornings when he showed up in the kitchen reeking of booze. Neither mother nor father said a word. Even in the crowded church there was not one glance cast.
All these sins, most venal but some mortal, never affected him or how he was perceived. He was still the future Father Finney. Perhaps that was not entirely true, for Finney felt at times guilty such as when he broke into the coin box under the votive candle stand in front of the statue of the Blessed Virgin. In confession Finney mentioned none of this, intoned the usual litany of taking the Lord’s name in vain, of thinking bad thoughts, of minor disobedience infractions, nothing major like the miscellany of theft and debauchery or tours through self pleasure and lust. He laughed at the notion of telling a priest he paid a black woman a dollar for the thirty minutes it took to ejaculate. The imagined reaction of the priest was downright risible. The episode with the black woman was so overwhelmingly divine that he propositioned Jessie, the house maid. He offered her a nickel. She accepted. Before long he didn’t have to pay her. The performance of white girls at school paled in comparison to Jessie.
Finney’s religious education ended when he entered Greensburg High School. He not only abandoned his uniform but his beliefs. The latter proved extraordinarily easy to forget. What wasn’t forgotten, though, was the future Father Finney. He was still the pride of the parish and lest the pedestal crash, he willingly told anyone of authority, be it religious or otherwise, that his plans called for life-long service to the Roman Catholic Church. There was actually a small going-away ceremony at the rectory when Finney departed for Georgetown University to learn the Ways of the Cross under a Jesuit regime.
The second portal was Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart. A now very serious-minded Finney took note of how similar the two entrances were; the same color brick, the same pointed arch. The one difference was the stained glass window over the door; Dahlgren’s splayed like a fan while in Greensburg it was a circle. Finney wondered if this was why he chose Dahlgren over all the other chapels on campus. The truth probably resided more in its proximity. It was a short walk to McDonough gym where he boxed.
In the short time Finney had been at Georgetown he, like all his peers, changed, not necessarily for better or worse but in outlook. A dark reality loomed; America was going to war. The uncertainty was when; it made men do strange things. Such as enter Dahlgren Chapel.
Like the church back home, the confessionals in the chapel were on the right and left as you entered. He chose the one on the left only because he always went to the one on the right at home.
“Bless me, father, for I have—I have lied… I lied twelve years ago in the sacristy of the Church of Sacred Heart …. And in so doing, I have lived a lie. I no more belong here in this Catholic institution than Satan in heaven. I can’t—“
“Is it really all that bad?” asked the priest from behind a dark screen.
“That’s the point, father. It’s neither good nor bad. It is worse, it is nothing.”
“What was the nature of this lie?”
“I told a priest that I planned on becoming a priest.”
“I had no intention of becoming a priest. I became a sinner quick enough.”
“Young man, I am having trouble following this line of thinking.”
“Father, when I was growing up everyone saw me as perfect, so I rushed toward imperfection. I lived a Dorian Gray life. And I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t lied to Father Sefl.”
“Are you sorry for this and all your other sins?”
Finney paused. “No. I am neither sorry nor unsorry.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Frankly, I’m not sure.”
“Would you prefer we discuss this outside the sacrament of Confession?”
“I don’t—I suppose we could…although I don’t see why we should. I mean, what’s the point? What’s done is done.”
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ’s mercy?”
“The vice-less one? He was a man like any other.”
“Oh, really?” The priest hesitated. “When you came in here the first words out of your mouth were bless me. Who did you think would bless you? Certainly not me?”
“Father, that was a formula, a format, just as my entire religious instruction was a formula.”
“The purpose of a formula is to solve, isn’t it?”
“Do you want to solve your guilt? Or better yet be absolved of your sins?”
“Then, young man, I agree. There is no point. Please leave.”
At the gym that afternoon Finney knocked out his opponent in seconds, the protective headgear notwithstanding.
The third portal emerged over Normandy during Operation Overlord. The C-47 came in west of Utah Beach at night. With a freshly sculpted Mohawk haircut and war paint, Finney was first in his stick of 19 paratroopers. He assumed the proper exit position as he stood in the opening. The clacking drone of the Rolls Royce Merlin calmed him. He peered down at a cloud bank. What he saw amazed him. Although dark, a strange light parted the clouds, creating what he recognized as a doorway, an arched doorway. It came to him that he was either on a special commission or in the throes of exile. He had once been the pride of Sacred Heart parish, but then he had gone to war against such an angelic image. He fought then as hard as he was about to fight now. He asked himself if he had lost that war; succumbed to evil without any chance of ascension. Hovering at the opening with the engines, the wind, the tension roaring through his mind, he gasped for breath—his very soul was on the line. If he had fallen before and so easily, the question now was could he get up, could he fight for his soul as well as his life? He figured the answer was somewhere in the free fall; his headlong descent into the abyss. Some much depended on the parachute.
There on that precipice, waiting on the command to go and the Wehrmacht waiting below to cut him down, Finney resolved to reclaim his faith. Even to express such an aspiration was difficult, but to accomplish it now or ever was as fearsome an exercise as Mission Albany. Faith was not a paradise to be lost and regained; faith brought out all the hardships of paradise and made of itself something to be earned. Immediately Finney realized that earning back his faith would cost him a lifetime. He told himself that he had to go on living, that he so desperately needed the time; otherwise, he was truly lost.
Finney lowered his chin to his chest, braced his elbows against his sides. He placed his hands over the ends of the reserve chute, spreading his fingers. He bent at the waist with feet and knees together. This position, the exit position, was a safeguard against the jumper tumbling and his parachute not deploying. It mocked how casual was his leap from faith, one minute grounded and the next in a free fall.
Finney counted, “One one thousand, two one thousand…” At four he went out the door—at the behest of a beating, caged red light.