“What’s the half of two and two” asked Fr. Maloney. I knew the answer as he had asked the same question many times before. I wasn’t sure if he was forgetful or whether he just liked to hear the answer. Some of the other altar boys preferred to indulge him by giving the wrong answer so that he could gain great delight from explaining it. I swapped about, sometimes giving the right answer and sometimes the wrong one.
“Two”, I replied.
“No three” he said.
“Why is that?” I indulged him.
“What’s the half of two” he asked.
“One” I replied.
“So what’s one and two” he asked and waited for the trap to be sprung and realisation to happen.
“Three”, I said, caught again by his ruse.
That pleased him a lot.
Fr. Maloney was a very holy man. He was proudly Irish, proudly Catholic and proudly priest. He wasn’t one of those holier than thou religious people. He wasn’t using his religion or position to feel better than other people or to look down on them. His holiness was genuine.
However, it was now time for his half-a-crown question.
“So what are you going to be when you grow up?” he asked.
This, of course, was another question that he asked heaps of times. He asked the other altar boys as well, but he asked me the most. He knew that my father was in hospital with tuberculosis and that my mother was struggling to get by, and there wasn’t much spending money.
Vow of Poverty
Priests, although they take a vow of Poverty and are supposed to own nothing of their own and get no pay, get bits and pieces from parishioners. If they officiate at a wedding or a funeral they tend to get a ‘bung’.
I don’t know what most of them do with it, but Fr. Maloney tended to look for ways to give it away again. He was a redistributor of wealth in his own small scale.
When he first asked his ‘career’ question, the altar boys gave all sorts of things that they wanted to do when they grew up. However, we had worked out long ago that ‘footballer’ or ‘doctor’ was not the right answer.
The Right Answer
I think that I was the first to say ‘priest’. The other altar boys were still slightly behind the times. After a while they started to say ‘priest’ in answer to teh question or if they were feeling brave ‘bishop’. However they weren’t ambitious enough.
“Pope”, I replied, whereupon he immediately fought his way through his cassock to pull out a lovely big silver half-a-crown.
“Here you are” he said delightedly. “Get something for your brothers and sisters too”.
The other altar boys usually got a sixpence if they got anything. I was never sure if it was my brave replies that got the half-a-crown or whether he was just looking for a way to give me the money anyway. I suspect it was the latter.
My father was in hospital with tuberculosis and my mother had a family of seven to bring up on her own.
This was a princely sum of money and he gave it on a fairly regular basis.
Whenever he met my mother he would tell her, often in my presence, that I had told him that I wanted to be a priest. He would put his hand on my head and look delighted. My mother looked suitably delighted too that her young son had brought her such kudos from the local holy man.
Gradually it grew in my head that a priest was a good thing to be. It seemed to be a career with a lot of kudos and my mother would be in seventh heaven to have a son who was a priest.
I’m sure that I could look back and say that Fr. Maloney was not all that he seemed, that he was a conniving person who gradually brainwashed little boys, using cash rewards, into wanting to join the ranks of the priesthood.
I’m sure that, like many others in the church, he was worried about the falling numbers of boys who wanted to become priests. However, it was the profession that he had chosen, which seemed to give him personal fulfillment, and which, I’m sure he felt he could recommend to other people.
However, I suspect that if it was the local Accountant who was dispensing money for the ‘right’ answer to his question about what I was going to do when I was older, then there is a good chance that I might now be an Accountant (although I’m not sure what the equivalent of Pope is in that profession).
To my mother, and many of the people of the parish, priests were the local equivalent of pop stars or movie stars.
Maybe not too many people aspired to become priests, but those who did received a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for doing it.
So that was how the idea formed in my head that I wanted to be a priest!