Chapter 1 — Estè carried her home, which was yet another brothel
Laughter rang out from Le Rinascite, an antique shop on Via del Pellegrino in Rome’s historic centre. The owner, Libero by name, was dedicated to revolutionary societal rebirths as a journalist for the communist newspaper l’Unità Romana. He claimed that he could set his watch by the laughter, 6:30 every morning, to the minute, for years. Libero gave free cappuccino to whomever wandered through the door, among whom were a number of regulars. It was a tradition that had started many years before when Cardinal Emet had come into his shop at that early hour – four hours before opening time – to argue about the price of a mediaeval tapestry depicting Christ preaching to the crowds. Judging from what could only be candle soot stains at regular intervals along its bottom edge, it looked as if it had been stolen from above an altar of one of the nearby churches. The Cardinal had not intended to buy it; instead, he energetically disputed the price with pedagogic irony, saying that it was too low, for what was portrayed was invaluable, the Sermon on the Mount, which opened with the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
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At the same time as this laughter, though on the other side of the Atlantic, little Ev, seven years old, was used as an alarm clock for the others in the brothel. They were not restaveks, but were all closely related. Ev hated to be kicked awake by the ‘Madame’ while she lay on her mat on the dry-rotted plank floor, that floor being her one luxury. Her scream of pain woke the others. Sleep was more desirable than waking up early. To be able to close their eyes was a kind of welcome death by which they could escape their ‘life’ in the shantytown of Cité Soleil, a commune of Port-au-Prince, Haïti. They had slept much longer than usual. The ‘Madame’ was not feeling well. It was already half past midnight. They were late for their waking nightmare. Ev screamed that she didn’t want to go out, that she was afraid. “I don’t want to die,” she shrieked again and again. “Don’t make me go into the dark!” Within fifteen minutes they would all be busy as ‘zombies’ for their tourist customers, including Ev. It was her first night out.
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Just then, back in Rome, don Hash, in his late twenties, also having overslept, woke up with a start at Casa Internazionale del Clero, not far from Le Rinascite.
He recited his morning offering and the Angelus while shaving, a routine distracting him from a haunting emptiness of heart. He put on his cassock and grabbed volume two of the Liturgy of the Hour, as he cleverly called a collection of Jewish psalms, the Liturgia Horarum, a reminder of the timeless Hour of Sacrifice. He was outside in minutes. It was unusually cold, more than an hour before sunrise.
The clergy living at the Casa worked at the Vatican, which they insisted on calling the Holy See. Many were measured, political creatures, especially those working at the Secretariat of State. Even the more down to earth clerics paid strict attention to each word, to what was said and not said, and to whom, and when. Guessing why was the entertainment for the day. Petty politics, thought don Hash, were not very virtuous for priests, nor were they very good at it. They were certainly not up to the stifling standard set at the Accademia Ecclesiastica, where the diplomats of the Holy See are trained. Don Hash himself had studied political science at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and, avoiding Bard College, did auxiliary studies at West Point on the Hudson in ‘upstate’ New York, thanks to a political arrangement made by his father.
As for himself, don Hash had just received his room at the Casa in anticipation of the job he had been offered at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, which was to begin just after the summer ferragosto holiday. Lodging was scarce in Rome, especially at the Casa, so he accepted. He didn’t like his suddenly increased cost of living, but the presbytery where he had been living outside of Rome in exchange for helping with Masses and Confessions was just too far away.
When don Hash came out of the building on Via della Scrofa, he turned left twice, walking in front of the church of the Augustinians. This was his third day to walk past this church. It reminded him to read The Confessions of Saint Augustine, which a friend, Father Alexámenos, had encouraged him to do. He was up to where Augustine describes time from God’s perspective, something much more than just time. He knew his own Confessions would be different.
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Père Jacques picked up his phone in his suite of rooms at one of the many small seminaries in Port-au-Prince, where he was teaching. “Oui,” he responded.
“Professor!” said Cardinal Fidèle over the crackling connection from Rome. “I hope it’s not too late for me to ring. It must be past midnight there. How are your courses going in Scripture… or ‘Liberation Applications’ as you call them?”
“Fidèle! Your Eminence! I thought it might be you at work behind the scenes. You are quite busy in your retirement from your post at…”
“So, you accepted the offer?” asked the Cardinal.
“I’m now the Rector,” said père Jacques proudly.
“I hope, Jacques, that you have nothing in your past which could embarrass us in the future.”
“No! Of course not. Not at all. Are you kidding? Not me, your Eminence. Why? There isn’t any trouble, is there?”
“Not concerning you, no… though Emet may interfere…”
“Not with me, surely…” said père Jacques, hesitantly.
“No, no. It’s just that Alexámenos is a friend of his. But never mind that,” said Cardinal Fidèle. “How is our little agreement working out?”
“You know that your wish is always my command,” said the new Rector.
“Don’t be such a sycophant. You worry me,” said the Prelate.
“Of course not, your Eminence. Not me! But… what is it in particular that you are worried about? I’ve already made a position available for Alexámenos. Well, I know about it anyway.”
“Teaching Liturgy?” asked the Cardinal.
“Just some courses on Greek, Hebrew and Latin to keep him busy,” said père Jacques. “He will have only one or two students in each class, perhaps none.”
“So, you don’t feel threatened that he’ll be teaching with you?” probed the Cardinal.
“I’m prouder of my abilities than that! Besides, I’m the Rector. What can he do to me?”
“I see,” said the Cardinal, knowing from this response the entire story. “Just testing.”
“Oh. Right. Good. I’ve always considered myself to be in your good graces, your Eminence.”
“I know you do that,” replied the Cardinal sardonically. “Anyway, let me know how he works out. Find a professor who will take him so that he can get his doctorate written. How about you?”
“Just what I was thinking, your Eminence. How about something on the inscriptions about shrine prostitutes and child-sacrifice found at the remains of some ‘high-places’ in Israel?”
Cardinal Fidèle, however, had already terminated the call, despising père Jacques’ ignorance.
Père Jacques wondered why the phone had gone dead. He put it down with a blank stare, but then he grabbed his wallet, car keys and, as he went out, the needles stuck in a toy voodoo doll.
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In the midst of the animated discussion about the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount in view of proletariat desperation – so many years before – some early rising pilgrims to Rome had wandered into Le Rinascite and, seeing a small painting they liked, asked if the antique shop would be open the next day at the same time. They then stayed, enthralled at the enthusiasm of the Cardinal and the obstinacy of the owner over the tapestry of Christ preaching the Beatitudes. The Prelate was trying to raise the price with religious and philosophical argumentation, even while the owner, Libero, was lowering it based on his being an atheistic philanthropist.
The pilgrims returned to buy the painting, only to find the Cardinal and the owner in another fast moving discussion about the tapestry. Some of the neighbours came in, wondering what was happening. Libero offered them cappuccino for the second day running. And so it continued. The get-together took on its own life. Weeks before those early days – now years ago– the Cardinal was appointed head of the Sacred Penitentiary, whose offices were alongside the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Damaso. He came to the shop daily. The tapestry was soon no longer for sale. The laughter this morning was particularly good, a recognition of one’s place before God.
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Don Hash crossed the street next to the University of the Holy Cross, which belonged to Opus Dei, wondering how much he was a sign of contradiction, or had uselessly walked away from controversy. He turned into Piazza Navona, which was devoid of crowds at that early hour. He thought about the events of the past days, surmising, due to the sudden turn of events in his life, that someone must have appreciated the defence of his doctoral thesis the previous week at the Pontifical Vigilanza University on The Excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I. Don Hash had no contacts to speak of in the Vatican, though some priests whom he did not know had attended his defence, including a Cardinal who had entered the room just after the opening prayer, and who left just before the closing remarks. He didn’t remember anyone having mentioned his name.
Following around Piazza Navona – which had been used for competitions in the days of the Roman Empire – don Hash raced through the events of the defence of his thesis. The defence commission chairman, the Rector of the University, had asked those in attendance if they had questions for the doctoral candidate, deferring firstly to the old Cardinal.
The Prelate stood up labouriously, cane in hand, and said, “I have two questions. You have inferred that Regnans in excelsis was an exercise in damage control. Is the same to be said of burning Giordano Bruno at the stake, sacrificing him for this end as if he were to be despised as being no more than a shrine prostitute of ancient Israel?” The Cardinal remained standing for the answer, putting more pressure on don Hash. The Rector of the university laughed under his breath. None of the examiners had presented him with such a charged question.
“In the case of Elizabeth,” responded don Hash, “the aim of the damage control was intended to favour the persecuted Catholics, though nothing of the sort resulted from this bulla, this decree, Reigning from on High, of Pope Pius V against the Queen. Another kind of damage control, that of appeasement of the Queen, was eventually to reign, it seems, as the policy of the Holy See.”
“So why do you call the Vatican, the Holy See, ‘holy’?” a student in attendance taunted.
“The case of Giordano Bruno, as you point out, is a prime example,” continued don Hash, ignoring the outburst. “Bruno was, for a short time, the closest friend of Elizabeth. His political intriguing was useful, and the virulent attacks of this Dominican priest on Rome not only helped her cause, but also had entertainment value. His attack on religion itself, however, was soon understood as a threat to England and, in effect, to the Queen herself. Being forced out of England on the pretext, however justified, of his having plagiarised the thought of another at Oxford…”
“The Queen’s got more sense than any Pope!” added the same student, only to be shushed.
“Calvinists and Lutherans on the mainland had excommunicated Bruno and sought his death,” don Hash added. “In Rome, he was imprisoned by the Inquisition for years. Bellarmine helped to oversee this case. Since Giordano Bruno did not repent, an example could be made of him at just the right time. Bruno was burned at the stake on 17 February, 1600. Given the discrepancy between the Gregorian calendar in Rome and the Julian calendar in England, it happens that he was burned on the thirtieth anniversary of Elizabeth’s excommunication, if I remember correctly, down to the very hour. So, your Eminence, this was more Elizabethan era damage control and, as you say, the usage of someone taken to be no more than a shrine prostitute of ancient Israel. Giordano Bruno was committing a kind of religious adultery, running from one group to the next, never finding completely like-minded pantheists like himself. Perhaps it was thought that burning him would placate the gods of the new age. But only Christ Jesus is a worthy Sacrifice.”
There was a round of applause which quickly turned into tense silence; the Cardinal remained visibly unmoved. “‘Down to the very hour’ is not at all accurate,” he said, slightly undermining the cleverness of don Hash. “My second question is this,” he continued, in control of everyone’s attention: “Given your distinction of motivation in damage control, attempting to assist one side or appease another, would you agree that a third motivation can develop later, so that damage control risks becoming a habit, a virtue… your ‘policy’, a new inquisition in which burning the truth – as that which is not expedient to ecumenical unity – is rewarded?”
Don Hash just stared at the Cardinal without answering. The question was, of course, outrageous, however warranted, for the Cardinal had cited don Hash himself. Those who still had phones turned on started filming the event. Yet, don Hash and the Cardinal remained motionless, glaring at each other. Don Hash seemed to be damned whatever way he answered. He was trying to buy time to think of an answer when the Rector of the University stood up to intervene. “Your Eminence… of course… it is not the personal sincerity of don Hash which is under scrutin…”
“Yes,” whispered don Hash, interrupting the imprudence of the Rector.
“Excuse me…” said the Cardinal. “Speak more loudly.”
“Yes!” repeated don Hash, this time strongly, but with the quavering of an unpractised liar. The Rector sat down.
“Go on,” said the Cardinal sharply, making it impossible to know what answer he wanted.
Never losing eye contact with the Cardinal, don Hash continued. “The suppression of truth, ‘burning truth’ as you put it, is not a risk, but is a present reality for those who engage in ecumenical so-called dialogue with the wrong motivation…” Don Hash hesitated when he glanced over to the Rector, whom he had interrupted, and who was clearly disappointed with the way his answer was turning out. “However,” he continued, clearing his throat, again looking at the Cardinal, “the motivation of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church, is not to be questioned. Damage control may be both heroic and virtuous.” Don Hash knew that his answer was correct, taken simply. Yet, in context with the Cardinal’s summary, he also knew it would save him from the wrath of the politically correct university, even though his own Faith and that of others could be endangered.
Some, he knew, were utterly naive, and could lose what Faith they thought they had at any moment. They could perceive his statement as a blessing of popular ecumenical methodology which ignores doctrine and morality, anticipating with hollow emotion a unity which does not yet exist, creating deeper disunity in the future while giving true ecumenism a bad name in the present. It was don Hash himself who had now inferred that the Holy Spirit could have a good motivation for suppressing the truth as a way to achieve ecumenical unity, something some ecumenists would applaud, but which effectively equated the Holy Spirit with the Father of Lies, Satan. Don Hash felt he had sold himself out for an academic degree.
His ‘careful’ answer seemed to please the Cardinal, who let don Hash’s words hang in the air. “Grazie,” the Prelate finally said. The glazed eyes of the others now sparkled during the applause.
Don Hash continued to stare at the Cardinal for another few seconds. He did not know if he had been purposely entrapped into saying what he did, but any thought of manipulation had to be dismissed. “I’m such a hypocrite,” he thought, “exercising damage control on my own behalf.” But these thoughts evaporated as the applause continued and when he saw that the faces of the examiners were beaming with pride. “No one seems to realise,” he thought, “the irony of what has just happened, including the examiners. I’ve burned the truth.”
Yet, one of the examiners was clearly not impressed, and started whispering loudly to the Rector. When the Cardinal saw this, he knew he had to save don Hash, who just demonstrated how useful he could be. “You are from Puglia, are you not?” he asked.
“From the southern slopes of Monte Calvo. How do you know?” don Hash responded.
“It is unclear, then, whether you are called ‘don’ because you are a priest, or because you are a godfather of the Sacra Corona Unita, ‘don’ Hash.” Since mafia godfathers of Puglia are called ‘don’, this brought laughter, and preempted any troublesome followup.
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Libero was highly educated, and took pride in declaring that he was an atheist if anyone talked about religion, as if education and religion could have nothing in common. Yet, he claimed he was not afraid of hearing any point of view. He felt that the more he listened to religious things and did not convert, the more he was justified in being an atheist. He thought that the fact of free will itself indicated truth in the sense that truth only has a meaning relative to one individual being in confrontation with another. He thought that putting his 1960s cappuccino machine into action every morning was a small price to pay for this entertainment. He did not yet realize that his desire to be distracted by this escape of mere self-affirmation faded into insignificance compared to the patience of the Cardinal. Up to now, Libero was enjoying the increased business he received; some tour books for Rome had even started to mention the sometimes outrageous conversations which could take place at Le Rinascite as a way to start the day in “the real Rome.” To his credit, Libero despised the celebrity status he was provided by l’Unitá Romana.
For Libero, this particular morning, so much like others throughout those years, was, nevertheless, different. For the first time, he was nervous, not laughing like his friends. The more they laughed, the more afraid he became of himself, though they were not laughing at him. Indeed, he had joined their joking, which was not at all subintellectum. He watched as the group poured out into the dark, cold winter street, with a few of them braying like donkeys and with the rest laughing again, hearts warmed with mirth. “What a jackass!” said one. “The best jackass I know!” exclaimed another. “El Jackass!” exclaimed others in unison as they went their separate ways down the narrow, cobblestoned streets, returning to their apartments, or going to work, down Vicolo del Bollo or through the winding Arco di Santa Margherita.
Among them were three regulars, the reason the others continued to come. One was the same Cardinal, now eighty years old and retired, always dressed in his black cassock, red sash and skull cap. He was nicknamed ‘don Filippo’ after Saint Philip Neri, a compliment for anyone, including this Shephardic citizen of Israel. He was now going to San Lorenzo just down the street to hear Confessions before Mass began, as had been his custom all those years.
The other two patrons looked like they were a married couple in their mid-thirties. They were both dressed in running gear, as this stop marked the halfway point for their daily nine kilometre run. He was, however, a priest, who was in Rome for his doctoral studies in Liturgy. He was a penitent of the Cardinal, and had been coming to Le Rinascite for two and a half years, hardly noticing that it was an antique shop. His slightly younger companion, whom he had known since childhood, would enter the postulancy of some cloistered nuns in just a month’s time, the vigil of Palm Sunday. The nuns, the Paraclete Adoration Sisters, were now fulfilling their tenure at Mater Ecclesiæ convent in the Vatican Gardens. They were looking forward to the entrance of this bright young woman, who was coming to them after having become a medical doctor who had specialized, finally, in psychiatry. She had known the religious community in the United States for years, doing retreats with them and, once, an extended ‘come and see’ experience lasting three months. She had only now been able to get her affairs in the world in order, leaving two people she had personally trained to take over her responsibilities. She had come to Rome two weeks before, joining in the priest’s run every day since she arrived. It was he who recommended that she come to Rome to go on a directed retreat which would be given by the Cardinal to help her with a final discernment. Her entrance at the Vatican would be most unusual, to say the least, especially for the Secretariat of State. Yet, since the Mother General was at the Vatican, there would be no problem in her being assigned to a convent later.
The priest, Father Alexámenos, had been jokingly nicknamed El Che rather ineptly by the others because of his thirst for justice and his violent background, which they had come to know in detail over the years. The priest was now an American citizen, but had grown up in Africa, in the northern reaches of Benin. He had been adopted by Americans in the midst of tragic circumstances. The future nun, Jacinta, came from the same village, and was also adopted by a family in the United States near the young Alexámenos, thanks to the careful consideration that had been given to both of them.
Cardinal Emet could not tolerate that Father Alexámenos had a moniker honouring Ernesto Che Guevara. Having thought of something truly ironic, the Cardinal decided to do something about it this very morning, and so brought a picture of the original Alexámenos with him. The picture showed part of a wall which had been salvaged from the Imperial School on the south-western slope of the Palatine Hill during the 1800s. Greek words had been scratched into it along with a drawing of Christ as a crucified jackass, who was the recipient of the worship of a boy named Alexámenos. As the picture was passed around, Cardinal Emet explained that the graffito dated to the persecution of Catholics by the Romans in the mid-third century, and that the words, ALEXAMENOS SEBETE THEON, meant Alexámenos [says:] ‘Worship ye God!’ or, because of the artist’s poor orthography, Alexámenos worships God, so that he wanted to write SEBETAI THEON, which were pronounced the same way at the time.
When they had all seen the picture, the Cardinal said, “Alexámenos – the name means Defender – was surely a Jewish convert to Christianity, and a student at the Imperial School on the Palatine Hill. He risked his life by telling the others to worship Christ, at least with his own example. The response of one of his fellow students shows that Alexámenos may well have been put to death for this evangelization. It is even probable that he is a martyr, perhaps put to death by the Emperor Valerian. As you know, Rome’s Palatine Hill overlooks the Colosseum, built by Jewish slaves, the Circus Maximus, which faces the Imperial School, and the Roman Forums, where Catholics were put to death one after another, in all these places.”
“What happened to the artist?” asked Jacinta, fixing one of the long braids of her hair… which would all be cut off later when she ‘took the veil’ during her religious profession of vows.
“It’s unknown,” said Cardinal Emet, “but mockery arising from fear, or later, grief, can be an occasion when God’s mercy works conversion. The blood of the martyrs waters the seed bed of the Faith. It’s good to be a fool for Christ’s sake. What do you think, Alexámenos?”
“I think that Christ was and still is a Jackass in the eyes of the world,” replied El Che. “It’s an honour to be a jackass for Him and with Him. He rode a donkey in humble triumph on His way into Jerusalem, on His way to His own crucifixion, so much did He identify Himself with us, His poor ones, who, along with Israel, had always been symbolized by the donkey. But I guess one must have the spirit of the Beatitudes – of being poor in spirit – to be able to know that.” With this remark, he looked at Libero, not with pity, but, to Libero’s surprise, with a look of almost mischievous enthusiasm. Father Alexámenos immediately stood up and let out a donkey bray while he stomped his feet as if they were the front hooves of a donkey, making the others laugh loudly. Jacinta immediately followed suit, imitating Father Alexámenos’ own imitation of a donkey. It was an entirely ridiculous sight, and an entirely ridiculous sound – donkeys with a non-Italian accent – which brought more laughter.
But then Jacinta flapped her arms, saying, “If you’re a jackass, I’m a duck. Quack! Quack!”
Having laughed still more, they soon became silent when they saw that the Cardinal was not laughing at all, but had the most solemn look on his face. He stood up and commanded with all the authoritative airs he could muster, “Down on your knee!”
Father Alexámenos bent his left knee to the floor in mock obeisance. Cardinal Emet, taking his cane, placed it on either side of the young priest’s neck, as if it were a sword of heraldry, and said, “From this day forward, you shall no longer be known as El Che, but as…” The Cardinal hesitated, looking at the others around him, and then back at Father Alexámenos. “Henceforward, you shall be known as El… Jackass!”
This made everyone laugh once again. The hearty laughter of Jacinta, Father Alexámenos and Cardinal Emet made them laugh all the more, until tears came to their eyes. Even Libero said, “E che asino che sei!” but then quietly, wistfully turned the remark on himself, “And what a jackass I should be.” The comments about Christ being a jackass had shaken him. “Christ had to be a jackass in the eyes of the world,” he thought. Having left the shop, it only took a minute for the Cardinal to arrive at the Basilica. Father Alexámenos and Jacinta continued their run, accompanied by Luc, a seminarian from the Ukraine, who often ran with Father Alexámenos.
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Having done what he came to do, père Jacques complained to Simon, the owner of Petits et Petites, the Papa of this and other brothels he owned in Port-au-Prince, which offered sex-tourists a voodoo experience. Père Jacques said, “Next time, not so many complaints.”
Simon replied, “Not to worry. Your wish will surely be her command.”
As père Jacques left, he shoved a roll of money into Simon’s hands, saying, “That’s what I like. My wish is her command.” Père Jacques was the first and only customer of Ev that night.
Simon then turned and glared at little Ev – one of his new children of the house, one of his little leaves – who was squatting in the middle of the room, naked, face against her knees, her hands between her knees and chest. She was crying, almost screaming, as if there were no tomorrow, which, in her case, may very well have been true except that Simon thought he could still make some money out of her. After all, he thought, she was so young, and she was family.
Simon shook his head in disgust, intending to punish her for her protestations. He grabbed her by her arm and easily dragged her off her feet. She was small, even for her age. But then he saw the reason for her complaints. Her chest, just over her heart, was pierced with five large pins.
Père Jacques, thought Simon, had used her as if she were a living voodoo doll, thinking that a living child-sacrifice would be powerful to obtain the ends he desired; he had some worry to tend to, and wanted his enemies to suffer or die by way of the heart.
“Did he do you?” shouted Simon, violently ripping each of the needles out of her flesh, making her scream each time. “Well, did he?” he yelled. “Even if you’re not a restavek, you’re there for that. He was not upset that she had been mistreated, but that his own services of voodoo priest had been ignored and even trumped.
Since she could do nothing but screech uncontrollably, Simon threw her down on the bare mattress, the only piece of ‘furniture’ in the dirt-paved room. He then looked at the wad of money in his hand, counting it twice. It was more money than all of his establishments put together made in a week, very much, considering what some tourists paid. He laughed as he left the room, ignoring Ev. But then he turned and said, “Give him what he wants, or it will be your head.” She knew what that meant. Simon did not hesitate to practise the worst side of Haïtian voodoo.
She went through a fit of dry heaves, and then went to the next room, looking for her sister Estè. A tourist was having his way with her, but Ev, ignoring them, went in and sat in a corner, covering herself with a discarded sheet. No one would know she was even there, she thought: “I’m very small, too tiny to be noticed.” She suddenly went quiet, convinced she had no heart, not knowing that her heart was growing even as it was breaking. Ev fell asleep, still dead to the world when Estè carried her home, which was yet another brothel.
Next up: Chapter 2: The Vatican’s Pentagon
© International 2005-2018 – George David Byers