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The fiery priest

by Mel D’Souza

As young lads growing up in the village of Saligao in Goa back in the 1950s, my friends and I were always on our best behaviour whenever we attended a religious service in the Saligao Church or any of the several chapels in the village.

Talking in church was considered bad manners, and the congregation respected that rule except for a few young adults and crusty old-timers who attended Mass from the choir loft in the back of the nave, away from the disapproving womenfolk downstairs. The women conversed discreetly with their eyes, their pouted lips twitching in silent prayer, as they’d flick an eyebrow to draw the attention of a fellow-worshiper to another female member of the congregation in the Saligao Church who, for example, would have been revealing a lot more than the gold crucifix hanging from the chain around her neck.

My young friends and I would follow the service in the Saligao Church of Mae de Deus from the transept, a step down from the chancel. If we ever whispered to each other or, heaven forbid, chuckled for any reason, we’d be admonished with a sharp cut’to (‘koot-taw’), knuckle of the middle finger, on the back of our head by an elder.

But there was one incident that had all the kids chuckling, and it was not followed by the cut’to. It all happened during the vespers of the Feast of St. Anne, at the chapel in the ward of Mudd’davaddi.

The vespers was a solemn service held on Saturday evening on the eve of the feast day, and it concluded the preceding week of salves. The salve was a service held inside St Anne’s Chapel followed by a display of fireworks outside, and a live band to entertain the congregation against a backdrop of the chapel’s facade illuminated with coloured paper lanterns.

Priests would be invited from adjoining villages to add pomp to the service. They’d stand in two rows along the sides of the chancel, facing each other, each with a breviary and lit candle in their hands, and they’d chant psalms in Latin. The psalms were lengthy, and the priests would often raise their heads to ease the strain on their necks caused by looking down at the breviary.

On this occasion, one of the invited priests had a grey beard that came down to just above his belly. It wasn’t a very thick beard, but it was stiff, making it appear as if it had been starched. Whenever he moved his head, the beard maintained its alignment with the profile of his face.

Now, during the chanting of the psalms, this priest did what every other priest would do. He raised his head to ease the stiffness in his neck, except that the movement swung his stiff beard forward to make its tip come into contact with the flame of the candle. A whiff of burning hair made the priest look down, only to see a small sizzling flame at the tip of his beard. Instinctively, he slapped his beard against his chest with the flat of his hand, smothered the flame instantly, and continued nonchalantly with the psalm. But not before my buddies and I had seen what had happened.

We couldn’t help chuckling, but when we looked over our shoulder in expectation of the customary cut’to, there were none coming; the adults had also witnessed the episode and were having an uncontrollable chuckle, too.

As for the priest, I think the first thing he would have done on returning home was to shorten his beard to prevent himself from being fired up again with religious zeal!

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