By Brett Younger
Joseph came to Santiago, Chile, in 1974 as the new priest at a two-priest parish. Early each morning and late each evening a young woman walked past his window. After several months, he asked where she was going.
Isabel said, “My brother is being held a few blocks from here. If I go every day they may be less likely to kill him. They need to know that someone cares.”
When Joseph learned that she was traveling two hours each way, he said, “You should stay here.”
She did secretarial work a few hours a week to feel better about accepting their help. When her brother was executed, the church offered her a full-time job.
The kind priest became her boss. They loved the church and enjoyed each other’s company.
After a few years Isabel confessed to Brian, the second priest, “I’m in love with Joseph.”
Brian answered like he was supposed to, “Never say that again. Joseph has made a vow to God.”
She didn’t say anything.
A few months passed before Joseph confessed to Brian, “I’m in love with Isabel.”
Brian said, “Never say that again. You’ve made a vow to God.”
Joseph and Isabel did not tell one another how they felt for 15 years. Then, on a visit with his mother in the United States, something changed. Joseph decided that God approved, even if the church did not. He called Isabel in Chile and began with, “Will you marry me?”
They had never been on a date, shared a kiss or confessed their love.
She said, “Yes.”
They had a civil wedding and immediately lost their jobs and the places they lived. Their savings were held by the church — which was not happy with them.
They admitted that they had no money to a landlord, who said, “I love your story. The first three months are free.”
Isabel became pregnant. The doctor said, “I love your story. I’ll take care of your baby for free.”
Joseph got a job. They continued to petition for a church wedding. The religious bureaucrats sent a form to Joseph that included the statement that when he took his vows he was mistaken. Joseph knew it wasn’t true. He had been a good priest for 15 years. He wouldn’t sign it.
The church did not relent for 11 years. When their marriage was finally allowed, Joseph and Isabel asked Brian, who was amazingly still their friend, to perform the ceremony. Their 10-year-old daughter Elizabeth cried through the wedding.
I met Joseph at the funeral of a 90-year-old woman who loved Joseph and Isabel. Joseph told the congregation how the woman pretended to be serious though she loved to laugh. He suggested the woman was so kind, her last words could have been, “Make sure you thank the doctors. They did their best.”
I rode from the church to the cemetery with the woman’s three daughters. They talked about how Joseph continued to be their mother’s priest after the church told him he wasn’t a priest, how he cared for their mother after their father died, and how he visited as her health failed. They asked me not to share his real name —
which I have changed for this column — because he wouldn’t be comfortable with the attention.
At the cemetery I tried to get Joseph to tell me more. “During the funeral you spoke like someone who has spoken in church before.”
He answered, “I’ve been there and done that.”
Joseph looks like Clint Eastwood. Isabel is a Chilean Yoko Ono. The most amazing part of these weathered saints’ story is that they are still devoted to the church.
The next time I am in a conversation about ordination I will think of them. Joseph must have been a great priest, but he may be an even better ex-priest. God’s ordination and the church’s may not have much in common.
The next time I am in a hurry I will think of them — 15 years of waiting, 11 years of waiting. I want everything now, but God’s saints live with patience.
The next time I want to complain about the church I will think of them. Some days the church shows little kindness, but if Joseph and Isabel can continue to love the church, I can, too.