by Fr. Pat McNulty.
We nick-named him "Billy" after Billy the Kid, that infamous cowboy and bank robber because our new arrival was also short, stocky and cocky, and he walked like he made his living riding horseback out West. But you could tell by his heavy accent that was not where he was born.
The day of his arrival in my life was uneventful, but I certainly remember the day of his departure.
Cocky little Billy had shown up out of the blue at our small parochial school. He was a bit too old for grade seven but was obviously not ready for secondary school either.
Billy had not yet made his First Confession or Communion, so Fr. Dillon, our pastor, would now and then have us all say the Act of Contrition out loud together during our religion class to help Billy learn it by heart. But Billy didn’t have a yen for religion at the time; his yen was for creating crises wherever he went.
The nuns and Fr. Dillon did everything they could with Billy and his parents, but after a rather historic day he was finally expelled from school once and for all.
On that memorable day, some of us were still in the classroom after school. Fr. Dillon was there talking to the janitor about something and in walked Billy.
He had been suspended from school that day, and he had been severely abused at home as a result, we found out later. He snuck out of the house, walked to school, a distance of about four miles, came into the classroom unannounced, sashayed all the way from the back of the room to the front like he was fixin’ for a fight he had already won.
He walked right up to Fr. Dillon, pulled out a small gun from the back of his pants—I was in 7th grade and it looked like a cannon to me—and he pointed it right at Fr. Dillon’s forehead. He said, "You know that prayer you bin tryin’ ta teach me—that acta contrition thing? Well I hope you know it by heart ‘cause yer gonna need it."
I thought Father was gonna get killed for sure, but I forget about his lower lip.
It was common knowledge that you never messed with "The Reverend Thomas Emmett Dillon" if his lower lip started to quiver. And when Billy pulled that gun on him, his lower lip was jumpin’ up and down like it had the palsy.
Fr. Dillon walked right up to Billy, took the gun out of his hand like it was carved out of soap, and said, "Billy! Sit down!"
Billy stared first at him and then at his empty hand, and then he sashayed back out of the room without a word. That was Billy’s last day in school anywhere.
I had a premonition that he and P.J. McNulty were in each other’s lives for some strange reason. Then we lost track of each other.
Thirty years later, I was walking the neighbourhood in our rather poor inner city parish, and I stopped to talk with a man and wife seated on the porch of a house a few doors down from the church. And—voila—Billy the Kid and Fr. P.J. McNulty were face to face once again.
He couldn’t wait to tell me that he had just gotten out of prison on a murder charge. And while in prison he "got religion," obtained a minister’s license through a Correspondence Bible Course, "and now I got my own church right in my own house. I ain’t bin in a Catholic church since I left school in the 7th grade!"
He said it like he had just earned another Boy Scout Merit Badge.
"That’s OK, Billy," I said as I cocked my thumb and index finger and pointed it right at him like a small gun and said, "You know that acta contrition thing? Well I hope you know it by heart ‘cause you’re gonnna-need it."
There was a nervous moment of silence, and then the whole neighbourhood rang with a colossal laughter that was thirty years in coming.
And there it was again: that inner sense that there was some mysterious reason why our paths had crossed again after so many years.
We would visit with each other for the next year or so. As his ministry grew, he was always prodding me about leaving "my church" and coming over to his. I used to kid him and say, "I would, Billy, but y’all ain’t got no acta contrition thing!"
For a while, good things seemed to be happening in his life, but I knew in my gut there was something wrong: it was too sanitary, too ideal. Then one night, there was a terrible episode between him and his wife and children, and in the end she shot Billy dead in bed.
One of his kids rushed down the street and hurried me back to the house. I was in shock when I walked into the room where his body lay in all that blood. But I could almost hear Fr. Dillon quietly and gently say, "just kneel down and recite the Act of Contrition with him, Pat. Come on. Kneel down.
"Oh My God, I am heartily sorry …."
By the time I was finished, the police had arrived and declared the house a crime scene. We all went next door where I spent some time with the family, and then I went back to the church and knelt before the Blessed Sacrament.
I knew I needed to just sit with those thirty years. I pondered how two young snot-nose kids of similar social and economic backgrounds who first met in grade seven—kids whose paths crossed only twice in a lifetime ended up praying "that acta contrition thing" together in such far-fetched circumstances.
Some might say, "But he was probably already dead when you got there. What good would the Act of Contrition do him now?"
Well, I knew deep in my heart that this situation was too remarkable to be figured out in my head. And even though I learned within an hour of his death that he left behind a sad history of denial and abuse, I also know it was wrapped in a mysterious paradox of faith just as the incident with the gun and Fr. Dillon had been those many years before. (None of us knew it at the time, but Billy’s gun wasn’t even loaded.)
There in church, I turned to Sacred Scripture for some words of consolation. I was just praying and fast-paging through the Gospel of Luke until I came upon those famous last words spoken from a cross on Calvary, words which every simple Christian knows by heart: Remember me, Lord, when you come into your Kingdom (Lk 23:42). The "good" thief on the cross. Thief on a cross? Of course! Billy!
Famous last words? Of course! "Oh my God, I am heartily sorry …. Remember me when you come into your kingdom."
The unlikely three: Fr. Thomas Emmett Dillon, Fr. P.J. McNulty, Billy the kid? Of course! It’s all part of Christ’s own creative way of watching over each of his children unto the very end according to their particular life history. None of us comes into each other’s lives by accident.
I closed my Bible and prostrated there in the sanctuary. I could not thank God enough for all the wonderful, though sometimes weird, people who have passed through my life, each one teaching me something about "that acta contrition thing."
And I prayed over and over, "Remember each and every one of them, Lord when you come into your Kingdom."
And P.S.: "Don’t forget me!"
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