ONCE THERE WAS a fine old monsignor I used to see around (in another city) and he had searched the gospels, no doubt, without finding any commandment to stay thirsty.

And he especially flourished at wedding receptions, where the euphoria of Cana got to him, and you could hear the heathen say:

"There goes the monsignor, zonked out again."

They said he was expert at finding lost sheep, however, and a few goats and calves and pigs as well, and as far as anybody on the outside could tell, they lived pretty well together in one fold.

You used to hear rumors of piety and charity. He was a Roman Catholic, however.

But this monsignor understood the world and if he saw a bucket he was likely to pick it up by the handle instead of calling on archangels and the judgment of God, etc.

He built a church with the finest apse in town, and old Bessie (who was not, of course, a Roman Catholic) once told me there was right smart personal holiness in the old man, though nobody knew how she would know.

He must be dead by now, unless he had a supernatural liver, and I haven't thought of him for years. Except that suddenly it has struck me I never heard anybody say he wasn't a good shepeherd, wine aside, and everybody could see why his superiors may not have wanted to tangle with him. He had brains, for one thing.

Possibly he bent his elbow too much.

That must have been a thorn in his flesh, so to speak and the Lord only knows what distress it caused him. Maybe he got help later on, or maybe not, and it never occurred to me to pass judgment on him one way or the other.

But at least he knew his spse from his elbow, and whether or not the testimonials to his holiness (which one kept hearing from quite odd sources) were true, at least he could mingle with your ordinary sinner without raising hackles.

That man knew what was severely dangreous to his position and what was not.He should have quit drinking, no doubt of it, but nobody ever knew him to bring ridicule or contempt or fury on himself or his institution, which -- now that you think of it -- is rather surprising in a tippler. He knew how to turn away anger.

He had a core of grace, as you might say, that did not escape anybody's notice, so that what would have been a fatal weakness in an Anglo-Saxon did not seem to do him much damage beyond a temporary confusion, sometimes, at wedding receptions.

Nothing ever got out of hand at his church, and if there was some irregularity in the bingo department -- from time to time questions arose -- and everybody sat back to await the great scandal and enjoy the discomfiture of the Romans, somehow it all came to nought and once the monsignor concerned himself with the crisis, that was the end of it.

It took a few decades,manbe, before it began to dawn on everybody that the monsignor could negotiate a canary out of a cat's mouth.

The thing is, he knew how men's hearts operate, and he was extremely good at not throwing coal oil on a fire.

If he was morally superior, he kept the matter quiet because he was born with a sheep-crook in his hand and cared more for one sheep, people often said, than for five glorias, with or without excelsis.

His virtue was apparently so settled he did not have to be right about anyting, and yet he kept his bridges unburnt and even managed to carve himself a quite secure niche in the rock, as it were, so nobody should imagine he floated around in the clouds dripping righteousness.

Save the goddamn sheep was his motto, in nutshell, though himself (for all we knew) he may not have saved, salvation being a technical matter beyond our competence to know.

I never knew who invented the concept of no-fault insurance, but probably this monsignor. You simply could not deflect him form his sheep-hunting by rattling a lot of correct propositions at him. His whole demeanor acknowledeged that you were right, almost certainly, and he had got everything backwards because he had not thought with as much care as you had, and it was therefore almost impossible to win any argument with him, or impede his calling.

Well, everybody has good points and bad points, and my own secret admiration of the monsignor does not mean he was a fine cleric. Maybe the opposite.

But then it has always been clear to everybody that the main weakness of American religion is that there are not enough thieves, (though they may be increasing) and whores and tavern types to keep it sweet.

Nothing entrusted to him, probably, was very much wasted or very much lost. He had enough sweat to keep him juicy and enough animal wits to spot a wolf from a lamb -- a primary distinction between a shepherd and a jackass.

Once I shamefully joined some merriment at the old monsignor's expense, when he was in his cups and I was younger and not then ultimately wise. Indeed, it was only later that I saw his skill, his strength, and -- excuse me -- his loveliness (for he was round as a tub).

Man, could he navigate his way around. That's because he didn't sit there admiring his moral navel while the hungry sheep looked up.

In exchange for a snotty wisecrack I once made about him, I retract it now and send him greeting, across more miles than are likely bridgeable. Better send two -- he'll know which one best fits him now:

Have a snort for me.

Thy rest be this night in peace, smid the light and folded in.