Sister Grace has prepared her class for this moment for the past year. Their First Communion. The Gospel reading of the Good Shepherd. An old man turns it all upside down.

Enjoy the story.

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A Broken Leg, A Broken Heart

Bob Gillen

Sister Grace radiated with joy on this April Saturday morning. She beamed looking at her second-grade class lined up at the rear of the church. First Communion day for the children at St. Maurice School. The girls looked like little angels in their white dresses and gauzy veils. The boys – well, maybe not angels so much as fish out of water. Uncomfortable in navy blue suits, ties to match, hair slicked and combed.

From above them, in the choir loft, voices chanted the glory of the moment. Sister Grace nodded to the altar servers, who began the procession down the aisle. From the pews parents and relatives craned to get pictures of the children. Sister Grace had chosen the time for the ceremony with great care. Mid morning. As the children walked down to their pews in the front, the sun burst through the stained glass window behind the altar, spraying the aisle with color. Reds, blues, yellows, golds dappled the white dresses of the girls as they passed. A breathtaking display.

Sister Grace simply bubbled with pride as the children took their places. They would now know the joy she feels being close to her Lord.

Bringing up the rear of the procession came Father Francis. A shock of white hair, bushy white eyebrows, hands gnarled with age, a network of creases webbed on his face. He reached the altar, greeted the children and their families, and began the ceremony. Several well-rehearsed children read selected passages from the Bible. 

Father Francis climbed the steps to the pulpit for the Gospel reading. The story of the Good Shepherd. A favorite of Christians everywhere. Sister Grace had learned a week ago that  Father Francis would be performing the ceremony today. She had sent him a note explaining what she had taught the children about the Good Shepherd. How he persisted out of love to search for and retrieve the lost sheep. How he had cradled it in his arms and returned it to the safety of the flock. How he reflected the love Jesus has for the lost, for all of us. Her first note had been typed, but she thought better of that and sent a penned note instead. More personal, she felt.

Father Francis finished the Gospel reading and directed all to sit. He smiled at the children, welcomed their families once again, and opened his sermon. The raspy lilt of an Irish brogue hung on his words. 

“I want to welcome all of you to this wonderful occasion.” He gestured to the children in front of him. “These beautiful spirits will, in just a few moments, join with our Savior in a most wonderful way as they are united with Jesus himself. A spiritual union, a source of nourishment, that begins today and will continue with them for the rest of their lives.”

Father Francis directed his next comments to the children. “I know you are familiar with the story of the Good Shepherd. How he searched diligently until he found the lost sheep. But do you know what the Good Shepherd did when he brought that sheep back to the herd?”

There was a dramatic pause. Father Francis stared down at the children. A few of them shook their heads, no. 

He pointed at them. “Let me tell you. There is a lesson here for you…indeed for all of us. Straying from the flock brings with it a consequence, an accountability.”

Sister Grace felt coldness blooming inside her.

Father Francis spread his arms wide. “When the shepherd reunited the stray sheep with the flock,” he made a snapping gesture with both hands, “he broke one of its legs to prevent it from wandering away again.”

The children’s eyes popped wide open. There were audible groans from many of the parents and relatives.

“Yes, the lost sheep needed to be disciplined for wandering away, for its sinful behavior. And limping about, it now stood out among the other sheep as a sign of what happens when you stray from the flock. From the community.”

Sister Grace felt tears running down her face. One of the boys sitting in front of her turned and said to her, “Is that true?”

She patted his shoulder.

Father Francis concluded, “Let us not grow weary of being united in the fold of Jesus.”

Sister Grace’s tears continued to flow as the ceremony continued. She told herself, I think I am allowed a crude thought. One whole year’s worth of teaching, now gone down the toilet. All because of a couple of words from this clueless old man.

At the altar Father Francis intoned, “Let all God’s people say Amen.”