Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907
Father Macdowell is an old, slightly deaf priest who always has “to hear more confessions than any other priest at the cathedral.” His vast tolerance and slight deafness seem to account for his popularity as a confessor, yet his massive size hints at another dimension to his character: He is gentle, but he is also formidable in the exercise of his priestly office.
One day, after hearing confessions for many hours, he is reading in the rectory when the house girl informs him that a woman is waiting to see him about a sick call. The tired, old priest asks hesitantly if he was specifically requested—he was. So he goes to the waiting room.
Miss Jane Stanhope, a fine-looking young woman, is there crying. She explains that her sister Elsa is seriously ill, perhaps dying, and wishes to received the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. In the Roman Catholic Church, this sacrament is administered to those in danger of death and involves the priest’s anointing of the sick person with oil blessed by the bishop. Father Macdowell replies that he hopes the situation is not so critical as to call for the last rites of the Church and offers to go with her and hear Elsa’s confession. Just before they set out from the rectory, Jane reveals the complication that explains why she was particular about seeing him and no other priest. Her sister’s husband, John Williams, is not a Catholic; the couple was married outside the Catholic Church two years ago; John is against religion in general; and the girl’s family, except for Jane, has ostracized them. Father Macdowell assures her that all will be well, and they set off.
During the short walk, Jane offers additional information about the situation. The two young people have been exceptionally happy together. Nevertheless, Jane has just come from Elsa, who desperately wants to see a priest but fears that her husband will find out that she asked for one; just before Jane left for the rectory, John threatened violence if a priest were brought in. Father Macdowell radiates confidence and warmth, and proceeds on his mission.
When they knock on the door, John opens it and is fiercely indignant at the sight of a priest with his sister-in-law. He rebukes her for bringing him and stands obviously poised in expectation of a counterattack from the massive old man. Father Macdowell smiles serenely at him, nods his head, complains of the disadvantages of his deafness, and slides by the astonished young man into the hallway.
As Father Macdowell starts down the hall, he asks John to speak louder so that he can hear him. John stops him again and tries to make it clear that he is not wanted there. John still is expecting, even longing for, a direct confrontation, partly to relieve his pent-up anger and pain. However, Father Macdowell once again disarms his rage with a gentle request to see the sick girl. Without waiting for a reply, he sets off down the hall, looking for her. Now John grabs his arm and restrains him physically. Once again, Father Macdowell refuses to meet anger with anger. He tells John that he is very tired and would merely like to sit a moment with the girl and rest. John hesitates to deny so modest a request from such a poignant figure; while he fumbles for a reply, Father Macdowell finds the girl’s room. John comes in after him.
Elsa is lying in bed. She avoids making eye contact with her husband and barely speaks to the priest. The little she does say, however, makes it clear that she desires the priest’s blessing but fears it because it means expressing sorrow for the sin of marrying outside the Church. In other words, she must express sorrow for placing human affection for John before religious duty.
The conflict of wills between Father Macdowell and John goes on as before, but this time John seems in control. He absolutely refuses to leave the room so that the priest can hear his wife’s confession. She weeps, seems resigned to the situation, and asks merely for the priest to pray for her. Father Macdowell, too, seems resigned to the situation. He kneels and prays silently for the girl’s recovery. While he prays, he comes to realize that John is even more afraid of losing his wife to the Church than to death. He also realizes that Elsa was willing to give up everything—friends, family, religion—to marry John. He has a glimpse here of their conjugal love and is surprised by its intensity.
Father Macdowell tricks John into leaving the room briefly to get him a drink of water, and in the interlude he hurriedly hears Elsa’s confession. John returns just as the priest is giving his blessing at the end. He is stunned to find that his wife needed something beyond his love, protection, and understanding.
Father Macdowell and Jane leave the house. For a moment, he is exultant that he rescued the soul of a girl in such peril. Then he feels some slight qualms about his pious duplicity in dealing with John. Finally, he wonders if he came between John and Elsa in any way: He marvels at the beauty of their staunch love for each other, tries to dismiss this beauty as “pagan,” but ends by feeling “inexpressibly sad.”
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