By John Affleck
When Monsignor Sweeney visits our fifth-grade classroom, everybody gets geeked up, even more than when we’re in Sister Madeline’s English class.
Usually, we get about 30 minutes notice, like an air raid, before Sweeney shows up. Our homeroom teacher, Sister Noreen, announces the visit in a formal tone — we’re lucky enough to have a guest today, our pastor, blah blah blah — which is followed by a series of threats and pleas, along with orders to wash all the graffiti off the desks. The chalkboard is wiped down by somebody in the front row. Clip-on ties are handed out to the boys who say they have forgotten theirs today. Sister Noreen makes me leave my regular desk and move toward the front of the room, one of a series of moves, like Stratego. Nerds and altar boys arrayed like bombs and scouts.
In comes Sweeney. Monster of a man, with a thick and longish neck that always makes his Roman collar seem a half-size too small, and makes his face slightly red, or maybe that should be slightly redder. He walks heavily, awkward guy. My parents love him, because he celebrates Mass quickly. My brother the track star says Sweeney wants to be the first Catholic priest to break the barrier of the Four Minute Mass.
Sweeney says he wants to ask us about something very important today. He wants to ask us today about the Eucharist.
What is it, he says.
Silence. All we know is whatever we say will be wrong. More silence.
Then he makes us walk through the Last Supper. He starts picking kids to tell little bits of the story. Sister Noreen is playing with the crucifix at her neck the whole time.
And then what happens, he asks over and over.
So what are the bread and wine, he asks finally.
The awkwardness gets to me. I’m the youngest of five. It’s hard to handle silence.
“They’re symbols,” I say. Sister Noreen nods.
“No,” Sweeney says. Noreen’s nod somehow shifts to a shake of the head. “They’re not.”
“No, they are the body and blood of Christ.”
“Really? We believe that? But –”
“It’s a mystery,” Sweeney says with finality.
Sister Noreen cuts in. “Christine has a question, Monsignor.” Christine is a curly headed kid. She always wears dresses.
“Does my dog have a soul?” she asks.
Sweeney: “Who thinks Christine’s dog has a soul?”
Nobody moves. Dead quiet. Then two kids in the back raise their hands simultaneously. Then everybody raises their hands except me. I’m done having opinions today.
“You all know! Of course her dog has a soul,” Sweeney says, and he claps his hands together. “Dogs have dog souls. Cats have cat souls. Carrots have carrot souls.”
“Wait,” I say without raising my hand. “Carrots have souls? Then they have — free will?”
“I said ‘Carrot souls,’” Sweeney says knitting his brows together. I have no idea what that means. Sister, who has been standing in a corner, walks to the front of the room, blocking my view of Sweeney, and thanks Monsignor for coming.
Later, we’re having dinner at home.
Dad says to me, “Why aren’t you eating? You like salad with Italian — eat your salad.”
“I can’t. Eating carrots is murder.”
“Monsignor came to class today and told us that dogs and cats and carrots all have souls. So I don’t want to eat them. It’s disgusting. I can’t imagine being a carrot, sitting there in the ground with my soul. Just stuck there.”
“That’s crazy,” Mom says.
“I swear on the Holy Bible, Mom. Sweeney — Monsignor Sweeney said it.”
“Listen,” Dad says. “Thing one, don’t swear like that. And thing two, that carrot was dead long before you ever knew it had a soul, so you might as well eat it. Otherwise you’re wasting food — and that is a sin.”
Thus ended the lesson.
John Affleck wrote an autobiography when he was 8 years old. Not much had happened, and the story wasn’t very good. He has since gotten better at writing, having won awards both as a journalist and as a journalism professor. He’s also tried his hand at commentary, memoir and short fiction. A collection of short stories, Winning and Losing, was published online by Great Jones Street, which went out of business, though Affleck is still going. He splits his time between State College, Pennsylvania, and upper Manhattan.