When I was a kid, our summertime church was the church near my parents’ camp. The gentle pastor, an old Irish priest, liked kids and frogs. He had a whole collection of frogs, in fact, stuffed frogs, statues of frogs, toy frogs, even an original painting of a frog done by Fairly Famous Local Artist. It’s always hard to figure out what kind of gift to give a priest so once the word was out that he liked frogs, people latched onto that idea and soon this well-loved priest had every frog knickknack that had ever been designed.
He kept these frogs on the side altar. “Adults are not allowed to touch the frogs,” Old Irish Priest would say. “But kids are allowed to play with them whenever they want.” And during Mass, you’d see kids going over to play with the frogs: the stuffed ones, the bone china ones, the expensive crystal ones.
I was too shy to go up and grab a frog, but I would stare at the collection and imagine them hopping over pews, croaking during the readings, filling the church with song.
This same priest would try to get the kids in the church to come up during the Sign of Peace, a ritual that involves shaking hands with your neighbor. He’d gather a pack of children on the altar, he’d whisper and joke with them, and then he’d send them weaving through the crowd to shake hands with the congregation. My brother and I would crouch down in the pews during the Sign of Peace, too shy to go up to the altar, but sometimes he’d see us and motion for us to come with one crooked finger.
The organist at that small town church knew only one song: “Let there be Peace on Earth.” But she played it faithfully, every Sunday, and we all sang along. Old Irish Priest would ask pregnant women to stay after church for a special blessing: he’d sprinkle their rounded bellies with holy water.
The local people were mostly poor, so Old Irish Priest would ask the tourists and summer people to give extra money to keep the church warm all winter: “the fuel collection” he called it. In return, he promised to keep his sermons to exactly one minute. “I can save your soul in sixty seconds,” he joked.
I don’t think he felt any pressure to save souls. His faith seemed to be in the frogs and the children and the women about to give birth.