Succession

By Maxwell Dziabis

“May the Lord accept the sacrifice at our hands,

For the praise and glory of Their name,

For our good and the good of all Their holy Church.”

Peter lifted his hands, the sleeves of his fluffy white vestment sliding down his scrawny arms. He closed his eyes and recited the preface, not needing to look down at the tattered old missal in front of him, illuminated only by two candles resting on the wooden altar. As he began the Eucharistic Prayer, he strained through the dim light to look into the weary faces of his fellow celebrants circled around the old table. The harvest had not been very bountiful that past summer and they’ve had to make do with the least since the flood. Peter could vividly imagine the texture of sandpaper on those eight rough faces, tilted up with their blistered hands toward the circular skylight, through which the last traces of the blood-red twilight sky peeked. He continued the prayer and the celebrants turned to face Peter as he crossed his hands above the measly bit of unleavened dough that passed for bread on the plastic paten—an old gift from the community that Peter suspected was an old coaster painted golden yellow—and a miniscule puddle of wine in the plastic chalice—which definitely was painted and had now started to flake off gold chips. Peter said the all-important words of consecration and elevated the dough host, then the chalice, hoping somewhat futilely that he would feel that old rush of spirit into his heart, like the kind he felt when he had watched priests elevate the Eucharist as a kid. But as the other celebrants knelt down around the altar, he felt nothing but the all-too-familiar void in his chest where, he supposed, God was supposed to be.

After the Mass was ended, in the old office-turned-sacristy, Peter untied the thin green ribbon around his waist and hung up his vestment. He had made it out of an old white throw blanket (which he had won at a White Elephant with his mom’s family so many Christmases ago) by cutting a hole in the middle for his head to fit through. Next to his spot on the coat stand, Madison and Peyman hung up their own vestments—which had been sewn out of old bedsheets by Madison herself a few years back—and started boarding up the sanctuary for the night. In the before times, Peter would have rolled his eyes at calling their church ‘the sanctuary’; the phrase reminded him too much of the bland Protestant worship spaces he had visited with some friends in high school. Back when he began celebrating Masses in the old library, he had floated around some potential alternate names like the Ararat Church or St. Florian’s Church (this was back when he still had a sense of humor). But since the building was still used as the community’s library, plus as an informal schoolhouse, synagogue, mosque, and all-purpose quiet space, ‘the sanctuary’ was simply the most natural name for it. Peter put on his coat and facemask and headed for the front entrance, overhearing the two deacons talking as they put the shutters back onto the windows.

“Nervous about tomorrow?”

“Uh…a little bit.” Madison gave a little shaky chuckle that betrayed her understatement. “I mean, it’s not like there’s that much to mess up. And it’s not like Father Pete can fire me if I do.”

“He could defrock you.” Peyman sharply groaned, presumably from being elbowed in the gut by Madison. He tittered and added, “I’m kidding, I’m kidding! Petey’s not gonna do that! You’ll do great.”

“Good night, you two!” Peter called inside as he pushed shut the big wooden door installed where the glass sliding doors used to be. Hearing their affirmative response, he reached to his side out of habit before remembering Madison had the keys—he had put her in charge of locking up some time ago. A wry smile crossed his face as he turned and set down the path, stepping slowly and carefully in the cool October breeze. The orange overcast rolled on in the night, and Peter couldn’t help but feel melancholic at the thought that clear skies and moonbeams were going to be less and less common with each passing year.

Madison was one of very few people who called Peter “Father”; the only others still alive who did the same were an older couple, the Mandels, Sunday regulars who never went to the Saturday vigil Masses on account of needing rest after the day’s farming. For the fifteen years Peter had been ordained, he never encouraged any of the townsfolk to call him by any sort of title, even though he technically had a rather long one: His Excellency, the Most Reverend Peter J. Kaczmarek, M.A., Bishop of New Tri-City. This might have sounded impressive, except that Peter was only the bishop of the town’s eighty-five residents, only a third of which were baptized Catholic and less than half of that third still attended Masses, so there wasn’t an opportunity for him to develop much of an ego or clerical attitude about it. He depended on his fellow townsfolk for food, and they depended on him to keep watch over the public buildings during the workday in the fields, except at peak harvesttime when all able hands were needed. Even when Peter was keeping watch, he always dedicated some time to other public services, like catching fish on the Fox Bay, clearing blockages in the irrigation trenches, serving as the librarian in charge of organizing books (and currently researching more efficient farming or water cleaning systems), and struggling to grow a scantling of grapes next to the town kitchen and mess hall, for liturgical use only…mostly. His vocation was to serve his community, after all.

What only a handful of people—including Madison—knew was that, when he could find the time, Peter had been writing a memoir of his turbulent forty-five-year life, from growing up during the before times in the Chicago suburbs, to his early career as a religion journalist for America in New York, to surviving COVID and the Second Civil War and the steel disasters which made most direct air exposure unsafe for years, to the tornados, fires, and the great flood that destroyed most of Chicagoland, to arriving in New Tri-City three years after its founding on the west side of the former Fox River, now the shore of Lake Michigan. It was as close as he would ever get to his childhood home, which no longer existed.

He integrated well enough with the townsfolk, survivors from Batavia, Geneva, and St. Charles who made it to the Fermilab bunker in time before the great flood hit them. They had reinforced the small coalition of buildings that were still standing (including the library, thank the Lord), set up some private tents and shacks, and started over with very little. The electricity was long gone, and what precious gasoline there had been was used up within a couple months, scavenging the local areas until the cars and trucks sat rotting and motionless forevermore. The air was not actively harmful at such a distance from the old urban areas, and a couple of the survivors had studied agricultural engineering at the University of Illinois, so in the early days relatively few people died of hunger or exposure, which could not be said about the amount of people who died by their own hand. 

Peter stopped his contemplative walk near the southern shore of the town, and turned his head toward a clearing on the right side of the path, where too many mounds of earth laid unevenly in neat rows, some covered in flowers, others with twigs, others with rocks. A chill from the crisp night ran through him when he realized that since tomorrow was the Solemnity of All Saints, that would make tonight…All Hallows’ Eve. He signed himself and briskly continued on his way until he reached the shore. He had hoped that the open horizon would have shown him some kind of sign that the amber overcast would pass, but the heavens remained cloudy. Peter sat on the rocky ground, first checking to ensure he wasn’t about to impale himself on some sharp metal or crush a beached piece of litter, then he closed his eyes and listened to the gentle course of the lake. At least it wasn’t storming. He should be able to sleep in peace tonight.

The many violent storms and floods in the years following his arrival in town had turned New Tri-City into an effectively self-sustaining island, discouraging marauders from crossing the lake to raid them but making travel in and out of the town difficult. But that hadn’t been the case when Peter first drove here seventeen years ago, and it still wasn’t the case two years afterward, when a frail old man with a bursting backpack walked in from the south, coughing and wheezing. Peter had been gathering firewood when he spotted the man coming and brought him to the town’s infirmary. He was literally on his deathbed when he asked for a Catholic priest—the de facto doctor told him there weren’t any in the town, but old Joseph down the road used to be a nondenominational Christian pastor if he wanted him. The old man just scoffed and asked if anyone knew anything about Catholicism. Peter actually had been a theology major in college and had practiced the faith up until the war broke out, and so he told the old man as much. The man then requested the doctor leave he and Peter alone, to which the doctor hesitantly agreed. Their brief conversation changed the course of Peter’s life.

The sky was darkening too quickly now, and Peter still hadn’t admitted to anyone—except his deacons—that his eyesight was not nearly as good as it used to be. He methodically retraced his steps back to the sanctuary, next to which he had erected a small rectory in the form of a sparse wooden shack. Inside, he removed his facemask, finally rested his sore legs, and laid down on his mattress, reaching behind his pillow to retrieve a small cloth bag. Inside were the meager personal possessions that rarely saw the light of day anymore: his old (dead) cell phone and frayed pair of earbuds, his wallet and keys, a small green book that was creased and hopelessly dogeared…and a silver ring with an embedded red stone. He fingered the ring carefully and remembered all of the stories the old man had shared with him that fateful afternoon—the news of the novel viruses spread during the Third Vatican Council, firebombs destroying D.C. and St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and the difficulty finding travelling parties that would take a sick old man westward, in his quest to find a Catholic priest to whom he could pass on his bishopric and ensure apostolic succession continued. Peter hadn’t been entirely sure if he fully believed these stories, or who this man claimed to be. But then he asked Peter if he would be ordained and carry on the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church.

“Please,” he had rasped, “There’s no more time…” Peter, not knowing what else to say to this guy on his deathbed, just said, “Okay.” The old man told Peter to retrieve a vial of chrism from his backpack. Peter sifted through the bag, past missals and hymnals, to find a crumpled plastic water bottle, filled with an oil that looked like viscous amber. The man dipped a spindly finger into the chrism and made a cross with it on Peter’s palms. He laid his hands on Peter’s head and breathed some quiet words before letting his arms fall with a last relieved exhalation.

Peter remembered how long after the bishop’s death it had taken to come to terms with everything he had asked of Peter. Yes, it was true that as a teenager he had toyed with the idea of entering the seminary, and his interest in historical and comparative theology had once been something on which he could build a career, but since the calamities he hadn’t given much thought to the Church, or really to anything. He had been desensitized, and he feared the tidal wave of pain he would unleash upon himself if he dared to start believing in anything and watch it be washed away again…how did he find the strength to choose faith and start celebrating Masses? He couldn’t remember where it came from. Instead, all Peter remembered now was a premonition he had had as a teenager, a deep sinking feeling in his stomach he had never forgotten, a moment before everything when he understood that the world he knew was already lost, that it was only a matter of time. Peter curled up on his mattress and started to shake as he felt his thoughts unravel, bouncing from image to image, emotion to emotion.

Standing out on a cruise liner’s balcony, looking at the cool indigo night, the world of stars flowing overhead. Then shut inside a tiny capsule of a room, no windows, metal doors, tossing and turning on the waves. This is like a bunker. Like the world’s already gone. This is all that’s left. There’s nothing I can do. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air, and in all forms of life. Lines I’ve read over and over from the small green book, simple text on the front: Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff Francis, On Care For Our Common Home¸ Laudato Si’. A post-it note on the inside cover: For my theology boy ❤ See you soon!! -Emily. Oh, Emily. I wish I knew what happened to you. I won’t ever know if you’re in some other corner of the continent, in a totally different life than the one we promised to spend together, or if your bones are being picked by trout at the bottom of the lake. We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth.Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded. Madison and Peyman’s bright faces in catechism school…so young and so curious. They don’t remember anything from the before times. So much has been lost, and so much more will be lost forever as we die and our memories dissolve into the void. It was all our fault. It was always all our fault. We killed God and then we killed God again and now we’ve killed ourselves. If this is God’s justice, or God’s wrath, do I really want this God’s love? Why do I pretend that I believe in this God anyway? How do I keep choosing faith every morning? Why should I hope beyond hope?? The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Why? Why?? No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stopstopstopstopstopstopstopstopstopstop

Teardrops leaked through the corners of his eyes as his shaky breathing gradually, gradually, gradually…steadied. 


Streams of light from the scarlet sky shot through the sanctuary’s skylight and illuminated the gold-painted oak chair that Peter designated as his cathedra. He sat in the chair in quiet contemplation, fiddling with the silver ring, too big to fit snugly on his finger. He had just preached a homily about the historical formation of Scripture, how God’s chosen people Israel had survived the catastrophes of the Babylonian and Roman destructions of Jerusalem by dramatically restructuring their own writings and practices to create new meaning out of chaos. Almost the entire community of New Tri-City had gathered in the sanctuary that morning, and everyone in the room had understood what Peter was saying through his sermon. He had already made some inclusive liturgical changes in the past, accommodating and integrating the worship of the Orthodox and Protestants of the town, but this was a whole new step. Peter’s wry smile returned when a ridiculous thought occurred to him—if this goes right, maybe my memoir will be considered inspired Scripture one day. Finally, he stood from his seat, and the entire town stood with him, save for one: Madison, the candidate for ordination, faced the rest of the townsfolk and knelt to the ground. Peter walked over to her, Peyman following closely behind with the bottle of chrism. According to the Catholic Church’s canon law, if Peter went through with this, both he and Madison would be instantly excommunicated and, if they did not repent, were damned for all eternity. Peter turned this over in his head one last time. He looked down at Madison’s face, shining at him as brightly as he had ever seen. No matter Peter’s faith in God, she had faith in him.

So Peter anointed Madison’s palms, laid his hands on her head, and chose faith.

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