Act Of Contrition



with Father Matthew Wilder

Scene Title Act of Contrition
Synopsis Elisabeth's childhood priest hears one more confession.
Date March 15, 2019

Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, NY Safe Zone

She stands in the apse of Our Lady of Fatima, her blue eyes looking up at the large crucifix at the front of the church. Elisabeth pulls her hands from her pockets and almost on autopilot she dips her fingers in the holy water font near the door and genuflects before she walks slowly up the aisle toward the altar. Her heart is pounding so hard it feels like it will burst from her chest.

An elderly priest watches from the shadows of the sanctuary. He rarely has duties anymore, over 90 years old and simply waiting for the Lord to call him home. Age spots and arthritis riddle his hands on the head of the four-footed cane as he rests them atop it. He was praying when she entered, sitting in the far back corner of the pew. She drew his attention merely because of her arrival… and then he identified her.

He watches her stop at the altar, weighing her choices. Sees the moment when her feet turn not toward the confessionals but the candles, rejecting absolution. Failing at finding the courage to even ask for it.

It breaks his heart to see this child that he baptized, so shockingly resurrected from the lists of those dead in the war years, hurting so deeply. He can see it around her as clearly as he can see his own death approaching. But his time hasn't come yet, and he has at least one more soul to soothe.

He rises quietly, making his way laboriously up the side of the sanctuary toward the front where she now kneels. So many candles. He's counted 15 in the time it's taken him to traverse the length of the aisle against the wall. And she seems not finished yet.

Lowering his body slowly to sit in the front pew behind her, he removes the stole from his pocket. Decades of long habit ingrained means that he never comes into the sanctuary without it. Kissing it softly, he whispers a prayer and slips it around his neck. Putting both hands atop the cane again, he watches her light candles. What must she have seen to have so many that must be remembered? He finally speaks in a low voice to her, knowing she'll hear him just fine.

"Do you remember your Act of Contrition, Elisabeth Maureen?"

Her body goes stiff in the candlelight as she comprehends the voice … and identifies its owner despite long years of absence. "Father Matthew," she whispers, the words barely audible. She remains on her knees before the candles, her hand outstretched as if to light more candles. The taper trembles violently and she slowly snuffs it out before she drops it. And still she cannot look at him, her posture one of shame as she hunches in on herself.

He watches her battle the urge to run. She's done it before. So much heartache in this child. "Oh my God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart…" he prompts gently.

Will she follow his lead?

Her voice is thready as she picks up the verse by rote. "In choosing to sin and failing to do right, I have sinned against others and against you. Lord, in your goodness have mercy on me: do not look on my sins, but take away all my guilt. Create in me a clean heart and renew within me an upright spirit." By the end, the words are all but silent, choked by her own tears.

"Tell me of your failures, child," he invites softly.

Silence goes so long that Matthew wonders if she'll be able to actually take the step. She needs to. It's as clear as the nose on his face that whatever she has been through has scarred her deeply. And so he waits patiently, aware that on her knees there before the candles she is silently crying.

It's a long time, his old bones tell him. But he has nowhere to be. The other priest within in the confessionals steps out and Matthew lifts his chin and silently urges the younger man to go on out the side door of the sanctuary.

And still he waits.

"I don't know where to start, Father," are the words that she finally opens with, her voice husky with the tears she's already shed in this sacred space.

He purses his lips. And can't help a faint smile. "Let's start at the very beginning… a very good place to start." The tease is a callback to old, old friendships — Elisabeth's mother was a huge "Sound of Music" fan and Christmas time often brought the younger Lizzie to church singing about raindrops on roses.

Her huffed laughter surprises even herself, he can see. Which was what he'd aimed for, so perhaps it would give her the opening she needs in the wall that surrounds her.

Her words are halting. "When I got… lost," she finally begins, "It was in a place where… people were living moment to moment, expecting to die at any time. I… needed to come home." Elisabeth goes silent again, seeking the best way to express it. "I encouraged them to fight with me. Told them that I couldn't… promise that we'd get out of there but that if we could, …. They could all come with me. It was dangerous." Because when isn't it? "We tried twice. The first time… " She swallows hard and goes silent.

Matthew waited, giving her the space to find her own way to speak. His was not to question yet, it was to allow for safe space to say what needed saying.

"We killed a cage full of children, Father," Elisabeth finally whispers. "They were trapped and they were … leverage as we tried to … rescue the people whose help we needed to make our escape."

He didn't flinch outwardly, but the priest was shocked. Knowing her as he did, that action must be eating her alive.

"I didn't make the call," Liz admits softly. "But… I didn't stop the person who did." The confession is choked. "It haunts me. Knowing what we did that day. It didn't save us. It just… took away their leverage." Her shame rides her hard, but Father Matthew has heard a great many confessions in his time. He's also given a few that would shock people.

There is no judgement in his tone. "And the second attempt?"

"The second try was pretty much the only chance. It was a running gun fight, Father," she tells him starkly. "People… stayed behind to cover the retreat of others. People were killed standing right next to me. And… somehow I wasn't one of them." Elisabeth pauses and asks softly, "Have you ever wondered why you're always the last one standing? I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

Matthew closed his eyes. He has wondered. Has asked the same questions. There are no answers to be had. How to help this child?

"I lived this same basic scenario three more times before we found our way home," she murmurs. "Each time, we lost a few more of the ones that managed to escape the first situation." Elisabeth is still kneeling on the kneeboard at the candles and she lays her forehead on her clasped hands on the elbow rail.

"I never lied to them about the dangers. But I … couldn't save them all. And worse… when I had the chance to just… quit trying to get home, to stay in a halfway decent place where maybe we could have just gone into deep hiding and been okay…. I didn't stop. And that choice specifically got people I asked for help killed." Most of the others she can live with, but there are some choices that weigh heavily.

"I should have … given my daughter to her godfathers. Just… taken my chances and stayed put. Even if they killed me, they wouldn't have killed her."

"Wouldn't they?" Matthew asks in his calm way.

Her silence drags out again. And finally she admits, "I don't know. I don't know anything."

May you live in interesting times. Father Matthew Wilder has seen a great many interesting times in his life and career. He mulls over what she's said and what she's not said. Looking at his age-worn hands, he offers her a piece of his own life. "It's never easy, the aftermath of a war," he begins slowly. "The armchair quarterbacks start their analysis and there are always judgments of what was done and whether different choices could have brought better or different outcomes."

The old man goes quiet for a time. "I enlisted in the service in early 1944, in just enough time to be sent to Normandy. It was… a horrendous experience. It was actually why I became a priest after I came home," he tells her softly. "The things you see, the things you choose to do — sometimes they're not even really choices. They're just the only path forward that you can see. And usually there are no good choices, just the lesser of evils. You spend a lot of time afterward wondering what kind of a person you are, to make the choices you did."

She is clearly listening, for the first time Elisabeth's face is turned partially in his direction. Not because he's saying anything different than the counselors all say, but perhaps because of the way he says it. Or perhaps just because he has known her since she was a child — if she were evil, he would know… wouldn't he?

"In the end, did you make the best choices you could?" he asks her.

Elisabeth hesitates and admits honestly, "I don't know. I … would like to think so. But… some of them I made just because… I was selfish. I wanted to come home."

Matthew makes a small sound of understanding. "And now you're second-guessing every choice. Wondering if you're being judged."

"Aren't I?" Elisabeth asks. "I should be. Shouldn't I? Just… like anyone else. Like the people who have sat the Albany trials? Shouldn't I be judged by someone for what I did?"

The old priest pondered the question. It was not a simple one, not based on what she has said thus far. "Have you hidden what you've done or lied about it when asked?" he queries thoughtfully. Because he knows from her father that she spent some time 'in custody' due to her unexpected return.

"No," she replies in a subdued tone. "When we were quarantined by SESA," which she doesn't explain, "I told them everything." Elisabeth didn't want to hide her sins. "I told them the entire story, front to back, every detail they wanted to know."

Matthew figured, knowing her, she'd given them every detail and painted herself in the worst possible light. If she was considered the 'leader' of her group, she'd take the responsibility on herself for all decisions made. "I think, child, that man's law has already made its determination about your actions. Whether you agree with them or not, that judgement has been rendered. It is simply between you and God to find a way to forgive yourself. We are always our own worst critics — and you more than most," he observes drily.

"How do I do that?" Elisabeth asks, finally looking at him, regret and sadness clear in her expression. "How do I look in the mirror and just… forgive myself for the people who were sacrificed along the way? I tried to be honest with all of them about the risks, the people who came with me and the people I asked for help. But… there were so many others who were just… collateral damage, Father."

His jaw tightens and he nods slowly, sympathy for her heartache in his expression. "You accept that you're human and you're going to fail and make mistakes. That sometimes you are going to be selfish and that you're going to hurt others, with or without meaning to. You put your faith in God that there are reasons for everything. You pray a lot. And then you get up and you keep moving forward, trying to do better every day." He smiles gently. "I seem to recall having this conversation with you before. Pretty sure it was about the time you came back from some top secret craziness and thought you'd lost your young man. And … I think we had it again about the time that you threw away a very promising career — which ultimately turned out to be a very good choice on your part, in my estimation."

There's a bit of a teary chuckle at that. Elisabeth can't help it. "So… same old crap, different day?"

Matthew shrugs his shoulders and comments, "Well… I guess that depends on whether you like beating yourself up about things. You forgive everyone else their weaknesses and flaws so easily. It is only yourself that you mistreat so badly."

Elisabeth sighs heavily and pushes off the kneeboard to move to where he sits, lowering herself to sit next to him. "It's an old habit," she admits quietly.

"Mmm." Matthew purses his lips. "It's one you need to break. Are you speaking to someone about all that is happening?"

"Yeah," she replies. "And they say basically the same thing you do. It's just…."

"Much easier said than done," he completes her thought.

Elisabeth simply nods.

He sighs heavily. "You don't need my forgiveness any more than you needed SESA's. And genuine repentance you clearly are already feeling, so God's forgiveness is already yours. It is forgiving yourself that is the hardest part of coming home," Matthew reminds her softly. But he gives her the symbolic prayers that might help her begin to find peace. "Your penance is three full rosaries on your knees. While you pray, think about the sin of pride that taking so much upon yourself exhibits. When you leave, be a little kinder to yourself." His tone is kind but Matthew is nothing if not firm.

"And when you next visit your therapist, have a conversation about the things you're actually proud of. Because I think perhaps you forget… there is balance to all things. You dwell on the failures instead of the successes. It will take time. But you can find it." He reaches out and makes a sign of the cross on her forehead. "Go forth and be absolved."

If only it were so easy. Elisabeth makes the sign of the cross and simply says, "Thank you, Father Matthew."

They sit in silence in the pew, absorbing the serenity that is found in sacred spaces. She leans her head sideways to lay it on his stooped shoulder, and he brings his hand up to stroke her hair. He reflects on the years that he's known her family, the horrors that they've faced and the miracles they've experienced. Whether they realize it or not, the Harrisons are one of his own touchstones of faith — who could watch all that has happened to them and not believe there is a greater power?

He rests his cheek atop her head and a faint smile quirks Matthew's mouth. "Sing for me?" he asks of her.

Elisabeth sits up and looks surprised.

Matthew simply watches her.

Elisabeth begins to stand, the piano in the corner drawing her attention, but then she shakes her head slightly. Instead, she closes her eyes and tips her face up toward the crucifix over the altar. Father Matthew's favorite hymn is a simple one and she doesn't need the piano to layer sounds through it. Her voice begins low but soars through the church.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me…

Matthew's heart filled with quiet joy. Her choice of hymn was telling, and he could see the way her posture straightened and her heart lightened as she sang. Her ability fascinated him, and he listened with pleasure to the pure, clear tones.

She was going to be alright. In time.

March 16, 2019
Beloved NYSZ Priest Passes; Services To Be Held

Father Matthew Wilder, a beloved figure at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in the Safe Zone, has passed away at age 92. A native New Yorker and World War II veteran, Father Wilder devoted his life after the war to ministering to the faithful of the city. Though he retired from active preaching in 2004, he remained a steadfast presence in his parishes through 9/11, the Midtown blast of 2006, and the tumultuous years before and during the Second American Civil War. He continued to counsel parishioners until the end of his life. Mass will be said at Our Lady of Fatima…

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