Just then, across the Pacific Ocean, Father Li, a Chinese priest, shouted, “Why do you say Mass without our permission? You are doing great harm to the Chinese people, to the Chinese government, to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association!”
The aged ‘underground’ Catholic bishop, frail with decades of imprisonment, torture, ‘re-education’ in labour camps, calmly answered: “There is no greater love than Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who is love, offering Himself in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He loves the Chinese…”
“That’s not good enough! Christ wasn’t Chinese!” screamed Father Li, who was watched by members of the Chinese ‘Religious Affairs Bureau’. Father Li slapped the bishop hard, too hard. It looked as if the bishop was unconscious. Father Li was afraid of getting reprimanded. The purpose of the gathering was an interrogation, not simply to make the elderly bishop suffer. The bishop had not fallen to the floor since he was tied to one of the cement structural posts in the basement of the ultra-modern hospital which they used for interrogations.
However, the Chinese ‘Pope’, as he is called, rose from his chair and shoved the bishop’s head against the cement and, feeling his neck, roared with laughter. “You are one of our best interrogators, Li!” he exclaimed, laughing again. Father Li looked at the ‘Pope’, half frightened, half proud of himself, wanting an explanation. The ‘Pope’ said flatly, “You’ve killed him.”
“But this failure of mine means that I cannot return to Rome to…” Father Li began to protest. The ‘Pope’ interrupted him by commanding his servants to dispose of the body. They untied the bishop, letting him drop to the floor. They began to drag him toward the hospital’s incinerator, but the ‘Pope’ stopped them, saying, “No. We should get more use out of him.”
The head servant protested, “We can’t harvest his organs for sale to the West since we’ve pumped too many toxic chemicals into him. Toxic organs would ruin the business. He’s useless.”
“That’s not what I intended. It’s time to
send cadavers around the world as ‘artistic medical exhibitions’. We must keep the school children of the West desensitised even as they buy tickets to see our cadavers. Have him play poker. Have his skin stripped off. Make sure to leave muscles over the bones that we’ve broken over the years. I’m sure they haven’t healed properly. That would make the Westerners too squeamish, for now. He’ll need a partner. How about you, Li?”
“I would rather live for the good of the Chinese people!” Father Li exclaimed as nervous sweat beaded on his forehead.
“I thought you might like to live,” said the ‘Pope’. “So, then, repeat my order to my servants: ‘Go outside and get the priest waiting to take me to the airport’.”
“But he’s my friend!” Father Li protested again. “He’s done nothing wrong. He still has his whole life to live. He…” Father Li stopped abruptly, knowing he had made a mistake, again. The ‘Pope’ stared him into submission. “Go get him,” said Father Li.
“Don’t worry, Li,” said the ‘Pope’. “The Foundation won’t know. He’s been missing for years. Here’s your ticket. The plane will wait. You have another driver. You’ll soon be a bishop and the rector of our seminary south of Beijing. Say ‘Ciao’ to the Roman Pope!”
✵ ✵ ✵
Don Hash was distracted from thinking about his doctoral defence as he walked across Piazza Navona when he tripped, almost falling to the street. He turned to see what it was he tripped on and immediately felt nauseous. It was the lion-like cat he had seen in those days, prowling about, looking to devour something. It was dead, with feathers sticking to its mouth. “Disgusting!” he said. He turned around again and picked up his pace, all the while trying to dismiss accusations from his conscience that he had been a hypocrite in his defence. “This was virtuous damage control,” he thought, smiling with a tinge of triumphalism. His walking became as brisk as he was proud of himself. He had so easily forgotten any shame he had just felt in thinking of his own imagined Confessions compared to those of Saint Augustine. It did not occur to him to apply to himself his thought that the amateurish politics at the Casa del Clero were not very priestly.
Don Hash was coming up to Bernini’s fountain depicting the four rivers of the Garden of Eden. He glanced up and instantly stopped in dread. He saw the large metal dove carrying an olive branch, which capped the obelisk on top of the fountain. As with the dove of Noah’s Ark, it symbolised the triumph of peace and mercy brought by the Holy Spirit through the New Adam, beginning in another garden, an olive grove, Gethsemane. Don Hash felt this mystery had passed him by, that he was standing at the throne of judgment. This was not a mere pang of conscience, or even a panic attack. Being weighed in the balance, and being found wanting, was so very real.
He shook his head, as if trying to wake up from a lifetime of stupor. He had never had this kind of experience, nor had he really thought about judgement, however much he had studied this aspect of the Faith, and preached on it, sometimes with ferocity. He never questioned the Faith, but neither was he living the Faith with any intensity. “My life is not the Truth’s splendour that it should be,” he thought. “I’ll add that to my own Confessions.”
He had to hurry if he wasn’t going to be late for the Mass which the Parish Priest of San Lorenzo in Damaso had asked him to offer in place of offering Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica, where don Hash had been put off by a guard near the Holy Office. The young Swiss soldier had said that he had to be somebody to offer Mass in the Basilica. Don Hash had replied that Christ is the Priest, and that all other priests are nobody. Turning the tables, commiserating, he added that it must be difficult not to be anti-clerical while working in the Vatican, where a few of the clerics thought that they were somebody. The greatness of Saint Peter, don Hash continued, is that he knew he was a nobody, having his executioners crucify him upside-down.
Ignoring the crosswalks, don Hash crossed Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, dodging the traffic. He entered the Basilica and went to the Confessional nearest to the main doors, that of the retired Cardinal Emet, who had been recommended by Father Alexámenos. He went to the front of the Confessional to greet his Confessor. The Cardinal cheerfully announced, “You are a day early, Hash,” and then held out a small card. “It’s a copy of a painting finished just last week. The artist has quite an imagination. It’s Saint Michael surrounded by flames of glory, sheathing his sword on the top of Castel Sant’Angelo, proclaiming the end of part of the trial the Church is suffering, a persecution from within. It has a unique view of the monument. It makes a good bookmark.”
The Confessor noted that the picture had a deep effect on his penitent. “Thank you, your Eminence,” don Hash said, placing it in his Liturgy of the Hour as a marker Ad Completorium. “It will illumine my Night Prayer. I have been sleeping through the dark night of trial the Church has been suffering.” He then went to the side of the Confessional, knelt down on the well worn wooden step, and said, through the grill, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…”
✵ ✵ ✵
Jacinta, Father Alexámenos and Luc continued their run along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. They took a shortcut to Ponte Sant’Angelo to their right. On the far side of the Tiber River, they went down the steps of the flood wall, continuing along the river. They ran up to street level just before Tiber Island. They crossed over again at Ponte Sublicio and finally made their way to Via San Anselmo on the Aventine Hill. Both Father Alexámenos and Jacinta lived on that street, though he lived far up on the southwest side of the hill, closer to the Benedictine Monastery, high above the river. Luc, instead, lived another half kilometre away.
When they had still been running along the river, Father Alexámenos asked, “Jacinta, do you remember when we fetched pails of water together from the Niger River back in Benin?”
“How could I forget?” she asked. “It took the two of us – as if we were two donkeys yoked together – to lift up that crossbeam with the full pails hanging from either side of it. Running along this river together with you does bring that to mind. Those were happy days.”
“As are these,” said Father Alexámenos. “Africa is taking over Rome. The universities and religious congregations are filled with nuns, priests and seminarians from Africa, but it may end up being a The Niger River flows into the Tiber kind of experience.”
“Currents change unexpectedly in merging rivers, drowning the naive,” said Jacinta.
“And don’t forget Ukraine,” said Luc, knowing what was said about Africa was true.
“What about when the Rhine flowed into the Tiber?” Father Alexámenos asked them both, calling to mind the title of a popular history of the Second Vatican Council.
“Happily, with an irony only the Lord could bring to His Church, the Rhine now flows into Ijsselmeer once again, for one of their own was made Pope, who even seemed to be Catholic. But I hope you’re not predicting that you’ll someday wear the triple tiara,” Jacinta exclaimed.
“There are different ways to be a jackass with our Lord,” Father Alexámenos replied. “Politics aren’t the rivers of paradise, or any river of grace flowing from the Heart of the Lord. He then asked: “Do you remember when you asked me how many children I wanted to have with you?”
“Now, don’t forget, I was only six years old, and you were only seven!” said Jacinta.
“‘Sixteen,’ I said, but I was happy with what God would give us,” replied Father Alexámenos.
“‘A dozen!’ I objected, though I also said that God knew best how many children to give us.”
“Wow,” said Luc under his breath. “Our family only had ten children.”
“Then I would attend a ‘Mass’ you would pretend to offer, using a rock as an altar,” recounted Jacinta. “At least your preaching was short. All you said each time was…”
“‘Goodness and kindness. Goodness and kindness. Jesus loves us so very much!’ I remember,” he interrupted.
“I’m always thankful to hear you say that after the hell we’ve both been through,” she said.
After a moment, Father Alexámenos stated, “I wonder how many children we’ll have now.”
“El Jackass!” she exclaimed. “You should know why you’re also called El Padre. Those children brought to the Lord by grace can’t even be counted.”
“What does that say about the primary and secondary ends of marriage, begetting children and union with one’s spouse?” he asked, testing. “Are love of God and neighbour simultaneous?”
“The purpose of being a Christian in any vocation is to be united to God,” she said, “but the primary purpose of religious life as such, like marriage, is to bring children into heaven, even while the logistical secondary purpose of both is to be assisted in being formed into the image of God.”
“Clever! But surely there’s a limit to spiritual children, even to love of God,” he jested. “Exaggerated attempts to convert others even by way of vicarious suffering and prayer, are to be aborted, so to speak.”
“Why? What’s the limit? I couldn’t imagine poorer, more trying, more murderous circumstances than those into which Jesus was, in fact, born,” she said. “His Mother wasn’t afraid. Why should I or you or anyone be afraid?”
Father Alexámenos could only smile. “Weren’t you heading off for a month long Ignatian retreat today?” he asked.
“Tomorrow morning, early. You’re the one who set it up. You know it’s more Carmelite than Jesuit. If it turns out alright at the end, I’ll go straight to Mater Ecclesiæ convent from there.”
“Have you decided on the name you’ll take?” he asked.
“That isn’t until I take the veil. But I would like Fātimah of the Most Holy Trinity,” she replied.
“Nurtured by the Fire of the Most Holy Trinity,” he repeated. “I’m impressed.” After some seconds, he stopped dead. She slowed down and stopped, walking back with Luc.
He didn’t explain why he had stopped, so Jacinta asked, “Is it a cramp or something?”
It had been their custom over the years to make ridiculously platitudinal assertions reflective of the society around them – and, occasionally, of themselves – in an attempt to bring the best out of the other; in this spirit, Father Alexámenos took both hands of Jacinta into his own, holding them to his chest and, looking into her eyes, said, again with mischievous enthusiasm, “You’re going to break the hearts of many young men. You know that, don’t you?”
“Oh, give me a break!” exclaimed Luc, who knew Father Alexámenos was joking with her, but knowing there was some hint of truth in the midst of the banter.
Jacinta laughed, knowing Father Alexámenos was roleplaying a psychobabel vocation director as he sometimes did. Beaming, she said, “Loving wholeheartedly demands a broken heart, like that of Christ in the agony of the Garden, on the Cross, and now, with those wounds still on His risen body, in His Heart, in heaven. The Last Supper was His Wedding Banquet prepared by our Heavenly Father; His words, “This is my Body, given for you in sacrifice… This is my Blood, poured out for you in sacrifice…” were His Wedding vows. Luc was amazed at the intensity in her eyes and the exactness of her diction, emphasizing every syllable. “The consummation of this Wedding was His love unto death on the Cross, He standing in our place, the Innocent for the guilty, having the right in His own justice to bring us to Himself. His Immaculate Bride, the Church, becomes one with Him.”
After some seconds of her words hanging in the air as Christ did on the Cross, Father Alexámenos broke the silence, his words equally punctuated with emotion, testing to see if she would get the right meaning: “Yes, of course, but I will have a broken heart.”
“It’s freezing out!” cried Luc, jumping up and down, trying to keep the momentum of his running.
“Come now, Father,” Jacinta taunted. “You don’t mean it.” She knew what he was doing.
“I do mean it,” he continued. “When I took my promise of celibacy, marrying the Church, nurtured by the fire of the Most Holy Trinity, I fully expected to find one such as you, in front of me, now. I didn’t leave anything, deny anything, repress or suppress anything. My marriage with the Church is all very positive, and you’re part of the Church I love with all my heart.”
“Yes…” she said, putting her hands flat over his heart pounding from the running. “That’s a heart beating in your chest that’s been loving with Christ’s own broken Heart long before your promise of celibacy,” answering better than he had expected.
“Hello! I’m leaving! Hello! Here I go!” Luc insisted, continuing to jog down the river.
Father Alexámenos looked at her for a moment and said, “Jacinta. You’ll continue to confirm my vocation as you did during my childhood make-pretend Masses, and when we talked about how many children we would have. Always stay close to Christ… hidden with Christ in God.”
“All I know,” she replied, “is that I want to bring as many to heaven as I can, and that I want to go to heaven… and that I want to go now.”
When they caught up with Luc, Father Alexámenos said to Jacinta, “If you should make it to heaven before me, don’t forget to pray for me.”
“And you for me,” she replied. “That’s been our deal since forever. But I don’t think you’re going anywhere soon; only the good die young.” All three laughed, but the look she was giving Father Alexámenos had such a radiant enthusiasm, such blessedness, that it betrayed she had long ago been espoused to Christ. “I fully intend to make it to heaven before you… but, should you insist, I’ll race you!” With that, she took off like a shot along the river, leaving them struggling to catch up, but soon they were all running together again.
It was still dark, and they didn’t pay any attention to a heap of garbage piled against the high flood wall a few metres to the side. But then Luc stopped with a hushed cry and sprinted in the opposite direction. Jacinta and Father Alexámenos jumped as if there had been a hurdle in front of them. They jumped a few more times, feet flailing, bounding ahead until they were out of danger, and then kept running, not turning to look at the dreadful sight. None of them were afraid of rats, but many dozens had been feeding on the garbage – some as large as cats – and had scattered under their feet as they came closer.
“I think I landed on one of them,” said Jacinta with a subdued voice.
“Me too,” he said. “You weren’t bitten, were you?”
“No, I’m sure I wasn’t,” she replied.
After some seconds, Father Alexámenos slowed the pace and purposefully made a platitudinous statement about the rats: “I suppose that, in running to heaven, one has to make one’s way through the unexpected dangers the world has to offer.”
But Jacinta, stopping for Luc, shot back with her usual emphasised precision, “Number one: Christ laid down His life for us, letting His heel be crushed by the fatal bite on behalf of all of us, the members of His Mystical Body. Number two: Don’t think we’re running to heaven as much as we’re being drawn by God. We just move our feet so that, pulled along by His grace, we don’t fall over. Purity of heart. Agility of soul. Chaste prayer. You know Augustine!”
Jacinta was a voracious reader, often insisting that Father Alexámenos read this or that work, especially by Saint Augustine. He was more pensive, continually pondering over the Word of God, which shone through in his preaching as he attempted to draw his listeners into the Sacrifice of the Mass. Their mentor through the years was a priest, who would later become their bishop, and who would bring them more deeply into the mysteries of the Faith along with both sets of adoptive parents.
After a moment, Father Alexámenos responded to Jacinta’s comment on grace by saying, “We are to be on the lookout, though, for there are plenty like Judas, who raised his heel against Christ. They do not hesitate to try to crush those whom Christ has taken to Himself.”
Just then, Luc caught up with them, filled with talk about rats.
✵ ✵ ✵
“I am likely to be distracted at each step,” confessed don Hash, kneeling in the Confessional.
“Is that relevant?” interrupted Cardinal Emet. “Be clear, complete, concise and contrite.”
“I know, I know: the four Cs, don Hash replied, then continuing: “I have deluded myself in my prayer life, resting in a complacency of servile fear. Only this morning I realised something I had done to have been an endangerment of my Faith and that of others, a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That was a week ago, in my doctoral defence. I can’t believe I’ve offered Mass daily without confessing. I have preached hypocritically – for years – about the Faith to which I gave superficial assent, avoiding its reality, especially the final judgment, my being judged. I’ve been ministering to myself at the expense of others. I include all the sins of my past life, especially since my ordination to the priesthood. I’m just so stupid.”
“Rubbish,” asserted the Cardinal. He knew that what don Hash said in his doctoral defence was grave; he heard about it from Father Alexámenos and Jacinta the morning after the defence as they accompanied the Cardinal, for a change, from Le Rinascite to the Basilica. Don Hash was ready for a reprimand, but did not respond to this provocation, so the Cardinal asked, “Do you think everything and everyone revolves around you?”
At a loss, all don Hash could say was, “I am sorry, and I did confess my…”
“Confess?” asked the Cardinal. “You are concerned with yourself, thinking yourself to be clever when you think you have nothing on your conscience. Then, when you do have something to confess, you come here to absolve yourself. You’re sorry that you’ve offended your pride. You are a danger to yourself, the Church and the world. Who are you?”
After a moment, don Hash said, “I would like to include a lifetime of Confession in which I’ve been confessing to myself, only pretending to confess to the Lord, making myself feel better. Instead of being thankful for the Lord’s mercy, and being lifted from grace to grace, I have not become a priest after the Heart of Christ. I place myself before His mercy. Stercus sum.”
“De stercore elevat pauperem – from the dung the Lord is raising the poor. But don’t say it to impress me. Hash, you have much to learn. Stercus does not constitute the brains of saints. Don’t be afraid when the Lord draws you into closer friendship. When He does, you will not take pride in this. But do not look to your misery cut off from His mercy. Praise Him, in thanksgiving, for His goodness and kindness, as your friend insists. Jesus Himself will draw you into reverence, adoration, communion. Who we would be without His grace, stercus, as you say, compared to what He has done for us, raising us up, is too much for us. He lets us taste reality only inasmuch as He enables us to be enlivened by it, by Himself. Otherwise, we would be crushed by the weight of the glory of His Charity. Seeing Him risen, you will see His wounds. For your penance, offer a Divine Mercy Chaplet for the priests in the fires of purgatory. You should make Saint Lawrence your patron. He burned in this life instead of the next. He’ll help you in your prayers. Also, pray a Rosary for those scandalized by priests…”
“Yes, padre. Thank you,” interrupted don Hash.
“I’m not finished!” exclaimed Cardinal Emet. “You are to make pilgrimages to chapels, churches and basilicas named after Saint Lawrence. In front of the tabernacle, you are to contemplate the Holy Trinity for at least ten minutes. And some almsgiving would do you good.”
Don Hash had never received a penance anything like this, but knew it would be good for him what with the reprimand the Cardinal had long waited to make. He prayed the act of contrition he had learned as a boy while visiting the United States: “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because I have offended Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with Thy grace, to do penance, to avoid the near occasion of sin, and to amend my life. Amen.”
After the absolution, the Cardinal said, as if because of a premonition, “If there is ever some reason why you cannot find me, just ask Saint Michael to help you.”
Don Hash nodded his head, indicating that he understood, though he didn’t. It was just going on seven o’clock as he went into the sacristy and put on the Mass vestments spread out for him on the tall, wooden vestment cases, which seemed to be as old as the Basilica. Knowing much about political science and history, don Hash enjoyed the atmosphere of the Basilica. The first church had stood there for more than a millennium, but was knocked down to provide the foundations for the present building, which was already more than half that age. North America had not yet been ‘discovered’ when it had been reconstructed, and the circumstances helping to pave the way for the Reformation had only been beginning to develop across Europe.
The Mass vestments were violet. Lent had begun. The sacristan rang the bell, announcing the beginning of Mass even before he finished vesting. After the Gospel, don Hash gave a short sermon about the founders of the Order of Servites, on their devotion to the Blessed Virgin and their early work with the poor. Everything went smoothly until the consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. The same sense of being weighed in the balance came over him which he felt in Piazza Navona, causing him to lower the Host and Chalice quickly to the altar. He completed the Mass without incident, but almost physically felt weighed down by the glory of the fierce judgment being made about him in the heavens even before he died. He vowed to take his prayer life more seriously.
✵ ✵ ✵
“Being crushed can be a sign that one is on the Way,” stated Jacinta, “when one has been given an unbreakable confidence that, for those who love God, all things work to the good.”
“Such a one does not look to the past or to the future,” concluded Father Alexámenos, “but only to the Father through Christ, with His members, who live in every time and place. That’s how we see the Father. Jacinta, Luc… We see Him, well, not see, but in Faith, through the Eucharist, Christ…”
They had done it again. Their own platitudes had brought them to a better place. None of them spoke again on that run, except Luc, who couldn’t help but make comments about Roman traffic.
✵ ✵ ✵
After taking off the Mass vestments, don Hash took his Liturgy of the Hour and turned left as he came out of the sacristy. He went to the Chapel of The Crucifix, and knelt down. He offered a thanksgiving for the grace he had received in Confession, along with the prayers he always prayed after Mass. After some moments, he rose and began to pace along the dark side-aisles of the Basilica, reciting the psalms of Morning Prayer. He then went to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel on the Gospel side of the Basilica, and knelt down at the marble altar rail. He tried to contemplate the Trinity for ten minutes in this Basilica dedicated to San Lorenzo, but his intellect, memory and will had nothing to offer before the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He enumerated mediaeval scholastic mnemonic formulae: one God; two processions (the Father speaking the Word, His Son, and the Father and the Son spirating, so to speak, the Holy Spirit); three Persons; four relations (the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father, the Father and the Son to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son); five notions… He superficially considered that, for Trinitarian relations to be subsistent in Truth and Charity, the Holy Spirit had to proceed from the Father Filioque, and the Son. After ten minutes, feeling dry and far from God, he began to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet, continuing his Penance. He did not yet know the joy of the Holy Spirit, of being one with God, instead of his frenetically pretending to do something for God.
✵ ✵ ✵
From his apartment on the other side of the Tiber, at precisely at 8:00 a.m., Cardinal Fidèle, content with his recent conversation with père Jacques, phoned Monsignor Sens, who did not live at the Casa del Clero, and who had just arrived in his office at the Holy See’s Secretariat of State.
“Pronto,” answered Monsignor Sens.
“Sens!” said Cardinal Fidèle.
“Your Eminence,” replied Monsignor Sens, “I’m sorry that I could not find Hash yesterday.”
“You must go to find him now. He is, perhaps, still at San Lorenzo in Damaso.”
“But, your Eminence, this morning I must…”
“It is imperative that you do this now, Sens.”
“Yes, immediately, your Eminence…” But the phone line went dead as he spoke these words.
✵ ✵ ✵
In the Basilica, when don Hash was only half way through the chaplet, he forgot about any priests in the fires of purgatory, and let his eyes wander to the mural in the apse of the Basilica depicting Saint Lawrence being burned alive on a metal grate. By the time he was finishing the chaplet he was completely absorbed in the horrific scene of torture. At the final words of the chaplet, “Have mercy on us and on the whole world,” don Hash laughed out loud when he thought of the saint’s sense of humour even as he died, asking to be turned over on iron grate on which he burned, for he “was already done” on that side.
Don Hash was happy with the suggestion that he take Saint Lawrence as his patron saint. Lawrence had been in charge of distributing alms to the poor. At his trial for the crime of being a Christian, he was asked where he was hiding the treasures of the Church. His answer was to point to all the poor people who had gathered for the trial, saying that they were the treasure of the Church. “I don’t know if I would have the courage to be burned,” don Hash concluded – far from thinking of any legitimacy of the death penalty for heretics – “but I do know for sure that I would never burn someone like Saint Lawrence, no matter what.”
At that precise moment of hypocrisy – so soon after he had gone to Confession and offered Mass – a blinding light came over him with such force that he involuntarily bowed toward the tabernacle even as he continued to kneel. His soul could not support the weight of what seemed to be the glory of God emanating from the Blessed Sacrament, the same weight that had crushed him twice before that very day. The Basilica faded from his sight. The tabernacle itself disappeared, and he beheld what seemed to be the Blessed Sacrament, whose appearance immediately changed. He was looking at someone in the Garden of Gethsemane, at night, covered in a sweat of blood, looking into his soul, weighing him in the balance. Don Hash was being shaken by both shoulders, as if this would shake him out of a stupor he had not recognised before that morning. He heard himself being called “Friend,” the same name which was used for Judas in an attempt to convert him at that last hour. He then heard this repeated in a disquieting, sarcastic melody: “Friend, friend, friend…”
Don Hash put his head down and, in desperation, cried out, “But Lord, who would I be, the one burned or the one lighting the fire?” When he looked up he saw only the elegant chapel next to the great mural of Saint Lawrence’s burning. He buried his face in his hands, realising he had spoken out loud.
At the fountain in the piazza that morning, and then at the consecration during Mass, he had recognised that, despite himself, he had been drawn into reverence before Christ. He knew that this human assent to Faith was not due to any holiness of his own, as if he were some sort of saint receiving visions from God. He had always felt a real revulsion against those who came running to him, claiming they had seen a vision, congratulating themselves, telling themselves how holy they were. But now, here he was, with his own ‘vision’. He was on the verge of cursing himself for being such a hypocrite, such a sinner, such a Judas, that the Lord had to do something special for him. “Thanks for your patience, Lord,” he prayed. But then he thought that any good done through his priesthood would only redound to the praise of the Lord’s ironic humour. But this clever thought did not leave him in peace. Something was not right.
He straightened himself up, but only with difficulty, for he was horrified at the void in his chest, as if his heart had been removed. But even while he felt empty and desolate, seemingly far from God, he knew, as it were, by assent to the Faith, that Christ was drawing him into adoration. He knew he needed a change of heart, and that he could not bring this about himself. He thanked the Lord for the mercy he could not comprehend. Yet, the ‘vision’ bothered him. He rose, genuflected and, noting that his Confessor was gone, walked outside. As he did so, the void did not heal. His question did not leave him. “Who would I be, the one burned or the one lighting the fire?”
Don Hash did not return to the Casa, but went in the opposite direction, walking slowly along the great expanse of the Basilica, which also formed the wall of the Cancelleria or Chancellery of the Church, which previously housed the administration of the Papal States. He thought of the historic decisions enacted by the Roman Rota, Sacred Penitentiary and Apostolic Signatura which had only been there since the mid-twentieth century. Queen Elizabeth and Giordano Bruno had their cases prepared by formidable personages for the tribunal and for the Pontiff himself. He wondered if his work at the Secretariat of State would influence justice for his own desired end.
At that precise moment of repeated, cynical hypocrisy, the ‘vision’ flooded into his soul once again. He stopped walking, putting a hand on the frosty travertine stone of the building, feeling as if he was being pushed to his knees before the Lord of heaven and earth. The sense of not having a heart was excruciating, though there was no physical pain. Despite the walls of the Cancelleria and the Basilica, he again thought he was looking into Christ’s face in the Blessed Sacrament. It was as if his soul had been splayed open by a double-edged sword, and was being weighed in the balance. He saw that his heart, as if stone, had been left there, coldly, on the altar rail where he had been kneeling, an unacceptable offering. It fell, and, hitting the marble step, shattered into pieces like ice on the floor of the Basilica. “Oh Lord…” he prayed. The vision disappeared once again. He could not feel emptier. He again almost cursed himself, thinking that hardly anyone receives visions. He recalled the discernment of Saint John of the Cross, who was often cited by his Confessor: A vision, to be true, must draw a soul into humble adoration of Christ… but even then, one should ignore the vision. “Lord, free me from delusion,” he prayed.
After some hesitation, don Hash continued to walk slowly along the great palace of justice, hardly able to bear the weight of his emptiness. Following the advice of his Confessor, he tried not to dwell on his own misery, but thanked the Lord. “Now I know, Lord,” he prayed silently, “that I will always be the one who will light the fire, burning the martyrs to death, and never the one giving witness to you, being burned as a martyr, unless it be you who gives me the strength, the heart to suffer as a bearer of your Living Truth in this world.” Instantly the sarcastic sing-song, “Friend, friend, friend…” came to mind, stopping him dead in his tracks. After hardly two seconds of discernment, he said to himself, “I’m so easily duped,” realising that the ‘visions’ of ‘Christ’ were diabolical in origin, a mockery of Christ’s desire to save, even while the ever present need of having his heart of stone replaced by Christ with another kind of heart was all too real. “I’m surely damned to hell if I’m not united with the Lord,” he concluded.
“Discernment is so important.” A remote sense of peace came over him, only to be overshadowed, though not replaced, by foreboding. His anticipation was intense. “If I worry, it’s all about me. Lord, help!”
He came to the corner of the building and stepped into the street, turning to look into the adjacent piazza, Campo dei Fiori, which was anything but a Field of Flowers. From there he could see the towering, grotesque statue that he had heard so much about, but never saw, or wanted to see. It dominated the whole piazza with its oppressively dismal appearance. “What a dark face,” he said. “These are not the tears of things,” he continued, negating the words of Virgil, “Non sunt lacrimæ rerum.” He walked the short distance, just seventy five paces, a stone’s throw. It was Giordano Bruno in full Dominican habit, hands bound, but holding his heretical writings. He was burned to death there more than a century after the present San Lorenzo had been constructed. He realised that today was the anniversary of his execution, and that of the excommunication of Elizabeth I. As he was looking up into the almost demonic face of the statue, thinking that he didn’t feel much different from what he saw – and wondering why an apology had been made for his burning – a priest, whom don Hash did not know, came up behind him and grabbed his shoulder. He jumped, startled, thinking again of his experiences just moments before. He turned around fully expecting to see yet another Signorelli style anti-Christ.
“I’m sorry,” said don Hash. “I thought you were… well, never mind. I was lost in thought.”
“Friend… I didn’t expect to find you here, in front of Giordano Bruno,” said the other priest.
“Can I be of help to you… Monsignor…?” asked don Hash, noticing that he looked like a bishop, but had no episcopal ring.
“Not to me, but to Cardinal Fidèle,” the Monsignor replied.
“I’ve heard of him. Quite a scholar,” said don Hash. “But what does he need from me?”
“But Hash, he was the Cardinal asking you questions at your doctoral defence!”
“Yes, of course,” said don Hash.
“Not many can follow his quick mind, as you did,” said the Monsignor. “At any rate, He’s getting elderly, and could use a personal secretary. Could you meet him this morning?”
“Well, yes. Sure. I could do it for a while anyway,” offered don Hash. “I do need the money.”
“Good. You’ll find him at San Calisto,” said the Monsignor. “Why not go there now?”
“Thanks,” said don Hash, “but what’s your name?” The Monsignor just waved as he quickly walked away. “What’s the shortest way there?” don Hash yelled out after him. The Monsignor turned around and pointed south. “Thanks,” said don Hash, but he was gone. “How strange,” thought don Hash, “or providential.”
The emptiness he felt was over-whelming, crushing… Reality is what Cardinal Emet had said the cause of it would be. As he continued discerning, he realised that the comment that he had so easily followed the quick mind of the Cardinal was not true. He had been manipulated. “But did the Cardinal do this on purpose?” he asked himself.
Dismissing these thoughts, he took out his Rosary, and turned to walk into Piazza Farnese and then across Ponte Sisto, a walking bridge spanning the Tiber River, and under which Father Alexámenos, Jacinta and Luc had run less than two hours before. Don Hash walked slowly, praying for those scandalised by priests. “So many are damaged by damage control,” he thought.
He entered Trastevere – part of which had been given to the Jews by Caesar Augustus, though they had already been there – and was faced with a labyrinth of tiny, winding streets. Asking directions, he finally emerged onto the spacious Piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere, next to the imposing Apostolic Palace of San Calisto. Don Hash entered the gate of San Calisto and went to the security booth, but the guards were busy with a delivery. Don Hash walked through the arch of the building and looked into the inner courtyard. When he saw its shape, he smiled, despite his emptiness, at the description of the building which popped into his mind… The Vatican’s Pentagon. Yet, he was convinced that the centre of the storm was to be found in the Secretariat of State at the Vatican. A guard soon called him and asked with whom it was that he had an appointment, making a show of being miffed that he had been able to make it past them without them seeing him.
Up next: Chapter 3 – I’ve learned that America burns well
© International 2005-2018 – George David Byers