Chapter 3 – I’ve learned that America burns well
As the guard at San Calisto was about to ring the apartment high up on the roof of the palace, Cardinal Fidèle’s housekeeper, his Italian cousin, Signora Gagno, arrived for the day, coming up behind don Hash with her twenty five year old son, whom she could not leave alone. The guard handed her letters for the Cardinal, and then introduced them, explaining to don Hash that her son was called Carpe Diem, ‘Seize the Day’, a play on his name sake, Saint Polycarp. As they walked to the lift, don Hash noted the directory indicating the floors on which some lesser departments of the Holy See could be found, wondering why ‘Culture’ was far from ‘Dialogue’.
Carpe Diem stared at don Hash continuously. Signora Gagno, seeing this, said, “Carpe Diem is autistic, but he’s also a savant, of sorts. Instead of playing the piano or working with numbers, he sizes people up by repeating what they say with a twist that I’m sure he doesn’t understand himself. It’s beyond the usual echolalia. He repeats sound bites from films or conversations, but… It’s just that I’d swear his guardian angel speaks through him at times. He has no absolutely no social graces, but he does have a good heart.”
“Do you have a good heart?” asked Carpe Diem, still looking intently at don Hash, and flapping his hands in front of himself. Don Hash recalled the comment about the guardian angel.
They came out of the lift onto a covered walkway, which flanked all the truly palatial apartments of the cardinals. At length, they arrived at a set of doors and entered, Carpe Diem rang the bell as long as he could before he was scolded by his mother. Carpe Diem went straight to the kitchen, down the hallway to the right, as he always did, looking for food.
Signora Gagno followed Carpe Diem, who was already turning the water on and off, causing the pipes in the apartment to bang loudly. Before she left the entrance way, she turned and silently motioned to a room on the left. It was a chapel. The Cardinal was there, on his knees, where he stayed, motionless. It appeared that he was intensely looking right through the tabernacle door, though he had his eyes closed. Don Hash did not often see priests praying, but he thought it was a good thing, and dropped to his knees as well, though he could only think of being weighed in the balance in another chapel on the other side of the river. Somehow, he did not feel right kneeling before this tabernacle. The Cardinal genuflected – with the pain which accompanied his age – and left the chapel. Don Hash followed.
“I’m pleased to meet you, don Hash. I quite enjoyed your defence.”
“Your Eminence… It was truly a privilege to have you there,” was the careful reply.
“I never miss a worthwhile defence. I do not attend many. Did you recognise Sens? I see that it took him a whole day to find you. He works in the Secretariat of State, just as you will.”
“Monsignor Sens, is it? He didn’t tell me his name.”
“He does need to learn some manners. He is always so careful. Typical of the Secretariat of State! Tell me, Hash, you do feel well, do you not? You look rather empty. Not to worry. I’m sure that Signora Gagno will bring us a cup of tea.”
“But I feel fine,” he protested, even as he thought, “with your help, Lord.”
“Good,” said the Cardinal. “Come now. Let’s go into my study. I shall inform you of your duties.” They walked down the corridor leading away from the kitchen. It was lined with bookcases. Don Hash realised it had been the Cardinal who had arranged the job at the Secretariat of State, his room at the Casa, and this, unsure if he should be thankful or upset.
They entered the large study and don Hash was impressed with the great fireplace, which took up much of the length of one wall. He recalled many happy memories associated with his own family’s wood-stove, which had been the only source of heat in the winter. He was jolted out of these thoughts, tripping on the room’s heavily piled oriental carpet, which covered most of the large hardwood floor. Don Hash said, “Your Eminence, I’ve never seen such a carpet before. It looks new. It must be worth a fortune.”
“Oh, it’s a gift,” said Cardinal Fidèle.
“Really? From whom?” asked don Hash, imprudently but purposely testing him.
Cardinal Fidèle stopped and looked at him. “I forget,” he said tersely, but then added, “I have never suffered even once in my life. I have always had the admiration of all.”
“Forgive me, your Eminence.” Don Hash didn’t know what to think, except that he didn’t like the reaction of the Cardinal, even if he had been wrong to ask. There could be any number of acceptable explanations, but it was surely dangerous for any high ranking official to take gifts from anyone for any or no reason. With a slight tone of sarcasm he did not want to hide, don Hash added, “It is quite an accomplishment to be liked by all.”
“Is it? Is it really so? Whatever happened to being a sign of contradiction, a sign of Truth?” asked Cardinal Fidèle with the same tone of voice. “But never mind that for now. We want to start off on good terms, don’t we? Your first duty is… to light a fire.”
“Your Eminence?” asked don Hash, wondering if Cardinal Fidèle could read his soul.
“In the fireplace, of course,” replied the Cardinal. “We’ve been criticized for polluting the air, but this is San Calisto, which is part of the Holy See. The wood comes from a friend near Switzerland. It is too heavy for me to lift. You do know how to light a fire, don’t you?”
“Oh… sure, your Eminence. It can’t be all that difficult,” don Hash replied.
“No, certainly not for a doctor summa cum laude. I will watch you. It is better to light a fire than to be burned by a fire, wouldn’t you agree?”
Don Hash stared at him, thinking of the mural of Saint Lawrence burning on a metal grate, and then, in a much different way, of the statue of Giordano Bruno.
“To begin with,” continued the Cardinal, smiling, “I suggest you use some wood.”
“Yes, your Eminence.” Don Hash put some logs over the metal grate which, he noted, had never been used. There were no traces of any ashes. None of the logs had been split open, and it was the wrong kind of wood to use. The fire was likely to spit live embers out onto the carpet. He didn’t see any kindling, nor even any paper that had been set aside for the purpose. He positioned the logs and proceeded to hold some matches next to them. Don Hash knew everything about lighting fires and knew that the matches would be useless. He preferred, however, to see what the reaction of the Cardinal would be.
When he had used up a few of the matches, pretending to be frustrated, the Cardinal held out what looked to be Famiglia Cristiana, or The Tablet, but was, instead, some editions of the journal America, saying while he did so, “Now, try lighting the fire using some paper. Holding a match to a heap of wood on its own can’t possibly work. Open the flue in the chimney with the lever on top of the mantlepiece before you start; otherwise, we’ll suffocate from the smoke.”
“Of course, your Eminence.” Don Hash wasn’t sure if he should regret taking the job. To add injury to insult, smoke began to fill the large room, even with the flue open.
“Throw open the windows for some fresh air,” said the Cardinal. “The smoke of Satan has entered.” The old prelate waited for a response to his obiter dictum, but don Hash merely grunted at such a loaded combination of quotations attributed to the two popes of the Second Vatican Council. The smoke was present before the windows were opened. The outside air was freezing, but the windows were soon closed. The flames soon radiated their warmth.
“Your Eminence, I’ve learned that America burns well.”
“You learn quickly,” the Cardinal, immediately rejoined, glancing at don Hash, pleased. “America burns like the very fires of hell.”
The wooden chairs they used flanked either side of the great hearth. The chairs were far enough away from the opening of the fireplace to be sheltered from the flames while still permitting their occupants to enjoy the heat. The Cardinal’s chair had a good view of the door of the room. His chair had a small table next to it, which held a phone and two pieces of paper.
The Cardinal wanted to talk about the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, much to don Hash’s delight. After an hour of lively discussion, almost an interrogation to see just how much don Hash really knew outside the topic of his thesis, the doorbell rang. Don Hash rose to his feet, but the Cardinal stopped him, saying that Signora Gagno would answer it. They could hear the door opening down the corridor and then laughter and lively greetings being exchanged.
Soon four Cardinals appeared in the study. Both don Hash and Cardinal Fidèle rose to their feet, with the new arrivals insisting that Cardinal Fidèle should remain seated. Ignoring don Hash, they warmed themselves in front of the fire loudly lying about their own “impoverished” living conditions. The loudest in the group was Cardinal Froben, who had a similar fireplace, living, as he did, just a few apartments down the walkway on the top of San Calisto.
Cardinal Fidèle sat down and asked, “Froben, how did you become President of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity? The world needs good example, not bombastic extravagance.”
“Did you hear that, Francisco?” asked Cardinal Froben. “The ancient dragon is on the attack!”
Cardinal Francisco, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responded, “Ah, have a little respect for the old man!” Since Cardinal Froben was also over eighty years old – when Cardinals can no longer vote in a conclave – this made the rest of them laugh and tell stories about what was sure to happen in future conclaves which Cardinal Froben would miss.
“Anyway, I’ll be happy not to attend The State of the Church in the World Address before the first ballot,” said Cardinal Froben. “It’s depressing if the speaker doesn’t know about dialogue.”
“Froben! You hypocrite!” exclaimed Cardinal Fidèle. The others knew well enough to stop their banter and permit their host to voice whatever incisive words they knew would follow such sharpness. This was the price for participating in these events. “Froben, you’ve always been proud of being more scandalised than anyone. Your political manoeuvring is transparent to those you despise. Your I-know-all-about-it-but-have-survived,-so-just-learn-to-have-compassion-by-tolerating-anything-so-as-to-broaden-the-horizons attitude launched against those innocent of your faithlessness doesn’t permit your cowardice to masquerade as the bravery you think it to be.”
Don Hash was saddened by this carrying on, knowing all about it first hand at his defence. This ‘brave leadership’ of self-congratulatory faithlessness that stomps on the pious left him with a sense of remorse. Not wanting to listen to the unrepeatable things of any Conclave, don Hash caught the eye of Cardinal Fidèle, who then said, “Gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to don Hash.” The four of them suddenly became quiet, turned to don Hash and introduced themselves to him, though with a condescending attitude both benign and aloof. Cardinal de Colines, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal Elzevir, the Secretary of State, looked at don Hash, sizing him up. They said in unison, “This ought to be interesting.”
“Don’t be rude, gentlemen,” said Cardinal Fidèle, annoyed. “Please, be seated.” They did so, each taking a place on four antique, upholstered chairs which had been arranged there for the purpose, about five paces back from the hearth. Don Hash wondered what he was getting himself into. Perhaps, he thought, the Cardinals enjoyed an occasional refresher course put on for them by Cardinal Fidèle and any doctoral student whose work he had found interesting.
Signora Gagno came in with a large tray of tea and cake, which she set down on the coffee-table in front of the four visiting Cardinals. While they helped themselves, she gave Cardinal Fidèle a cup she had already prepared. She quickly moved an end-table near don Hash’s chair, placing his cup on it, along with an extra large slice of cake. He thought that this was odd for Lent, but he could not say anything. Carpe Diem, long known to the Cardinals, had followed Signora Gagno, and was eating some of the cake. As the Cardinals prepared their tea, she handed Cardinal Fidèle some checks to sign, and took some letters from him to post by way of the guards. He included a package, asking her to deliver it by hand that afternoon. She looked at it, and said, “I know where this address is, but you’ll have to watch Carpe Diem this afternoon.”
As she was about to leave the room, Cardinal Fidèle said, “Just a moment. Give the package to Cardinal Elzevir, please.” She did so, and waited. He opened the package. “Just glance at it, Elzevir. There is no need to read the whole thing,” instructed Cardinal Fidèle.
“It’s a plane ticket and some kind of dissertation, which looks to be about two hundred and fifty pages long… which has your own handwriting in the margins,” said Cardinal Elzevir. “I never heard of the author. I can’t even pronounce his name. Who is he?”
Cardinal Fidèle looked directly at don Hash and said, “We’ll get to that jackass soon enough. Just pass it along.” When they had finished, it was Cardinal de Colines who gave it to Signora Gagno. She then excused herself, leaving the study.
After the four Cardinals had settled down, Cardinal Fidèle looked for some seconds at don Hash, as if making a decision. He then pressed a speed-dial button on his landline phone. Don Hash recognised the voice of Monsignor Sens. The Cardinal did not pick up the receiver for his calls during the day, using instead the speaker-phone mode so everyone in the room could hear.
“Pronto…” was the greeting on the other end of the phone line.
“Only one ring. You are very efficient,” said the Cardinal.
“Your Eminence! Good morning. Did Hash not find you?”
“He is here. Thank you. We are having a splendid conversation in front of a roaring fire.” Cardinal Fidèle looked at Cardinal Elzevir, Monsignor Sens’ boss, and continued, “Tell me, Sens, things are going well at the Secretariat of State, are they not?”
“Yes, your Eminence. Thank you.”
“Yes, your Eminence?”
“I need you to do me another small service,” said the Prelate.
“I am always ready,” was the prompt reply.
“There are some things of a deceased Cardinal waiting to be sorted,” said Cardinal Fidèle.
“Ah yes, in the office of the Dean of the College of Cardinals, those of Cardinal…”
“Before the relics of which saint did we kneel last month in the Church of Saint Ignatius, praying for a special intention?” asked the Cardinal. “It was the third altar on the Epistle side.”
“I do remember,” said Monsignor Sens. “The pilgrimage was difficult for you. It was…”
“We shall await your arrival later this evening,” interrupted Cardinal Fidèle.
“I think I understand. But, your Eminence…”
“Nothing… your Eminence… I look forward to seeing you once again.”
The Cardinal pressed another button on the phone to end the conversation, and said, “You must learn to be a diplomat when speaking to anyone in the Secretariat of State, Hash.”
Cardinals Froben, Francisco and de Colines laughed at the expense of Cardinal Elzevir.
“I should warn you that Sens works for me, not for you,” said the Secretary of State.
Cardinal Fidèle did not respond. Instead, he again looked at don Hash for some seconds, until this was noticed by all present, and then pressed a long list of numbers on his phone.
“Your Eminence. Good to hear from you. I haven’t heard from you since before Christmas.”
Don Hash’s eyes widened. It was his friend, Father Alexámenos. He had no idea that the Cardinal and Father Alexámenos knew each other. He turned to stare into the fire, which was noticed by the Cardinals, including Cardinal Fidèle.
“You have to excuse me, Alexámenos. These past weeks were very busy with the death of the Holy Father, his funeral, the conclave, and then, these early days of the new Pontificate.”
“Everyone was ecstatic when he was elected on the first ballot,” said Father Alexámenos.
“I have no doubt that this was at least partially due to the preacher chosen to address the conclave on the state of the Church just prior to the election,” asserted Cardinal Fidèle.
“Cardinal Emet, yes. I have a lot of respect for him. But, of course, the Holy Spirit was moving in this conclave!” exclaimed Father Alexámenos.
“Yes, the Holy Spirit,” repeated Cardinal Fidèle, his voice suddenly serious. “Alexámenos, I must tell you that I read your analysis over the Christmas holiday.”
“Thank you,” said Father Alexámenos.
“You have a very difficult style of writing,” said Cardinal Fidèle. “I must admit, though, that I learned quite a few things.”
“Your Eminence, you didn’t go to the Alps?”
“What you wrote made me cancel my trip. It took me three weeks to go through it. I went everyday to the Secret Archives to verify what, at this point, you could only have surmised. I am impressed with your accuracy. Those parts of the Archives will not be made public for decades.”
“I don’t know what to say, your Eminence. I am in your debt.”
“You may not like what I have to say, Alexámenos.”
“Please, your observations are invaluable,” he replied.
“Alexámenos, you cannot publish this study of yours. It would only harm the Church.” Father Alexámenos said nothing. Cardinal Fidèle let his own words about harming the Church hang in the air for some seconds, and then asked, “Do you remember Signora Gagno?”
“I do,” said Father Alexámenos, with a noticeably emotionally subdued voice.
“On her way home, after lunch, she will deliver your work to you. I have made comments in the margins, almost on every page. There is also a copy of the letter I sent yesterday to Absj at Pio Decimo. I remember you telling me that you gave a copy of your study to him as well.”
“Thank you, your Eminence… But, if I am so wrong about this, what is to become of me?”
“The Lord will take care of you, Alexámenos. Trust in Him. But for now, start packing. I hear there is a job waiting for you, teaching in one of the seminaries of my home town. I taught there myself before coming to Rome. You can continue to write about Liturgy at the university there. It will take you no time. You have all the tools already. It’s not a well known university, but it will have to do. Your ticket is in the package with your study. You leave tomorrow night. Your bishop is quite in agreement that a good teaching experience would be good for you.”
There was silence. The Cardinal waited. Finally, Father Alexámenos said, “But your Eminence, why can I not continue my studies here in Rome? This will delay the completion of my work by at least a year. What I’ve written in the paper you’ve read was something that grabbed my interest. It has nothing to do with my doctoral thesis.”
“I just think that it is better for you and the Church that you leave Rome, at least for now,” replied Cardinal Fidèle.
After fully ten seconds, the response came, “I’m such a jackass, your Eminence… I’m useless.”
Don Hash was astounded at these developments, but knew Father Alexámenos well enough to detect from his voice that he had not lost his almost mischievous enthusiasm. “What’s he up to now?” he asked himself, impressed by Father Alexámenos’ acting ability.
Don Hash glanced over to the Cardinals, and could see that, for all their seeming superficiality, they were quite moved, except for Cardinal Fidèle, who clearly expected to hear this from Father Alexámenos, immediately answering, “Nonsense, Alexámenos. Every jackass has his day, for which our Lord prepares us all. You are being prepared for yours. You will, then, carry Christ on his way into Jerusalem.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, your Eminence. You know my past history all too well. I’ve been carrying Christ into Jerusalem like any jackass my whole life. The name Alexámenos…”
“You are quite the sad case, aren’t you?” asked the Cardinal, interrupting him, for he was well aware of the origin of the name Alexámenos. “Tomorrow, take a few minutes to say goodbye to Absj. Give him my regards. Bring the copy of your study that Signora Gagno will give to you. I’m sure you will want to discuss some of my marginal notes. Then, when you can, let me know how your flight was, and of your reception by Archbishop Cromeu in Pétionville. He will send a car to the airport of Port-au-Prince for you.”
“Yes, of course, your Eminence. Thank you.”
The Cardinal pressed a button, ending the call, and said, “Fait accompli.” Don Hash did not know if Cardinal Fidèle knew of his friendship with Father Alexámenos, and so said nothing, though he knew that the Cardinal watched his reactions during the conversation, and knew he would remember Father Alexámenos being at his defence. The Cardinal rang someone else.
“Yeah?” came the response.
“Absj!” said the Cardinal.
“Yes, your Eminence…”
The Cardinal eyed don Hash as he spoke to padre Absj about Father Alexámenos. “He’s very rambunctious, that boy. It seems to me that he thinks he found the Holy Grail, the way for Christianity and the world to be rejuvenated.”
“Your Eminence! You mean Alexámenos? Yes, he does seem to be convinced that his study has definitive importance, a kind of map to the Holy Grail, as you say, though I must admit that I haven’t finished reading it yet.”
Don Hash couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He continued to stare into the fire.
“I spent Christmas vacation checking his work in the Secret Archives,” said Cardinal Fidèle.
“Your Eminence,” said padre Absj, “I regret that you must have suffered just to travel back and forth to the Vatican. I am sorry that Alexámenos has stolen your time. I will…”
“Don’t be. It was my decision to read it,” said the Cardinal.
“Of course, your Eminence. I read your letter just now. I suppose this means that he should not publish his study.”
“Clearly you have not yet read the last fifty pages of his work. He must not publish. It would do great harm to the Church.”
Don Hash glanced up at him from the fire, only to see that the Cardinal, with eyes on fire, seemed to be looking directly into his soul.
“I did not want to admit,” said padre Absj, “that I have not read his final pages, though, I must say, I was very pleased with what I’ve read. He has only spoken in praise of ecumenism, and he uses unparalleled scientific rigour, answering every possible objection to…”
The Cardinal sharply interrupted him: “Alexámenos uses the last pages to make his opponents checkmate themselves according to the arguments both he and they have already presented. If you have any concern for ecumenism and the freedoms that Catholic exegetes have won for themselves you will treat this matter with urgency. If we do not move now, he will succeed in turning the clock back fully half a millennium, ending ecumenism as we know it and making the Pio Decimo Centre look foolish. You, Absj, were foolish enough to agree to read what he wrote.”
“I couldn’t it figure out,” said padre Absj, “but now I see that, in his lack of sincerity…”
“Lack of sincerity! You fool!” said Cardinal Fidèle, raising his voice slightly. “I have not met anyone more sincere than Alexámenos. It is just that he goes about things the wrong way.”
“Your Eminence. Please, forgive me. What is to be done?”
“We shall discuss that here, tomorrow afternoon, at a meeting being arranged now. You will bring to that meeting all copies of what he wrote. Today, you will finish reading it. As for Alexámenos, he is out of the way for now. In two days, he will be living at the Apostolic Nunciature in Haïti, near my home town, until a place is made for him at my old seminary.”
“Well then, is that it?” asked padre Absj.
“Not quite. You also went to don Hash’s defence. What did you think of it?”
“That we must have him teaching,” replied padre Absj. “I have arranged some courses for him this semester at the Vigilanza, but have been unable to find him these last few days.”
“I am sure he will see you tomorrow morning,” said Cardinal Fidèle.
“Excellent!” said padre Absj. “It will be good to have him on board.”
“Also, Absj, I am sure Alexámenos will also stop in to see you tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll make sure he knows just how childish he was to approach you about it, your Eminence. I will make sure that he will never do such a thing ever again.”
The Cardinal, though pleased with such prompt cooperation, shook his head in dismay at the kind of people he had to deal with. He pressed another button, ending the call.
“A bit rough, Fidèle,” said Cardinal Elzevir. “No wonder you were never Secretary of State.”
The others laughed weakly, knowing Cardinal Elzevir thought of himself as the Secretary of the Church, and had no equal in political manoeuvring. They were met with a severe look from Cardinal Fidèle, who was waiting for a reaction from don Hash, but a reaction did not come.
✵ ✵ ✵
“Infidel! Go to hell!” shouted Shaykh al-Hasan, the Ambassador of Arāk to Italy, who was vacationing on the border of Syria and Iraq. He was having an incident filmed on behalf of Hezbollah. In order to protect his office, he was wearing a balaclava and gloves, and had the audio on the camera turned off. He was standing behind his seated prisoner, holding his sword under the victim’s chin. Tired from the interrogation, he decided that his victim, a Muslim from England, who had been volunteering in Iraq as a medic, had nothing to offer but a good example. The prisoner had a canvas bag over his head that was so tightly bound on his neck that Shaykh al-Hasan could not untie it. Instead, he deftly cut away the canvas in front of the prisoner’s face for the sake of the camera. One of the captors then held up a printed message: “This is for trying to steal our faith away from us.” The same man then lifted one of the feet of the prisoner to the wooden table in front of them. Shaykh al-Hiasan hacked it off with one chopping motion of the heavy sword. Within a second, another captor, well practised, put the opposite hand of the victim on the table, and it immediately met the same fate. This was an oft commanded punishment for thievery in the Qur’an. Another message was then flashed before the camera: “This is for continuing to steal our land.” The Ambassador then cut off the remaining limbs of his victim. “This is for the West’s blasphemy against Allah,” the next message read. The victim, still alive, was then decapitated so forcefully with the sword swung full circle that his head remained in the air long enough for the Ambassador to catch it, tossing it, then, in the direction of the camera.
✵ ✵ ✵
Cardinal Fidèle pressed the issue, showing he knew Father Alexámenos well, speaking to no one in particular: “Alexámenos knows Attic, Koine and modern Greek, Biblical and modern Hebrew, classical and Church Latin, Nestorian Syriac, Arabic, Aram…”
“What’s so special about that?” interrupted Cardinal Froben, feeling left out.
“Besides those,” continued Cardinal Fidèle, still testing don Hash, “he knows the French of the Alpouro, the English of the Atchafalaya, the Italian of the Tiber, the German of the Neckar…”
“Who cares?” said Cardinal Froben, who was fluent in a half dozen modern languages.
“He grew up within twenty kilometres of Mayzégoukoara on the southwest bank of the Niger river. That’s clear from the scars on his face,” Cardinal Fidèle said. “He’s continuing to perfect his knowledge of Songhay, Ghurma and Atlantic, along with Mande, Chadic and Bariba.”
“At least those languages would be useful to the Bible Societies,” interjected Cardinal Froben.
Cardinal Fidèle ignored Cardinal Froben, examining any reaction of don Hash. “It’s amazing,” he said, “what one can get with home-schooling. His adoptive parents are to be congratulated for what they’ve done with him, starting so late. Thank God he wasn’t sent to Germany. I met Alexámenos’ adoptive parents when I passed through Marécage a few months ago after having spoken with another bishop about common ground. I met his… shall we say… friend, Jacinta, at his house. She was stopping in on her way home from the Special Children’s Hospital she founded.” Don Hash knew that this last statement about meeting Jacinta was a lie, as was the insinuation with the emphasis on the word friend, but the tactic had its effect. Don Hash lifted his eyes to look at the Cardinal, who immediately asked, “Alexámenos is a friend of yours, isn’t he Hash? Not to worry. He can take care of himself.” The Cardinal waited.
Again, there was no reaction, except that don Hash looked into the flames of the fire once more. He was racing over the conversation they had had before the arrival of the four Cardinals. He had been impressed with Cardinal Fidèle’s vast and accurate knowledge joined with an agility of mind he had not previously encountered. His fluency in many languages was confirmed not only by the brief phone calls he received during that hour, but, in their own discussion, by his citations from various ancient manuscripts of the Bible in their original languages, Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, as well as from some of the early versions in their various languages… all from memory. He thought that the Cardinal would have been one of the few, early favourites in the latest conclave, even though he had already surpassed the age limit for being an Elector.
Yet, as was the case in his defence, it was difficult to pin down just where the Cardinal stood on any particular issue. He was always adding new perspectives and layers of profundity to what was being said, though not allowing any conclusions, at least not yet.
Don Hash was thankful for the experiences he had had earlier that morning. The emptiness, which he still strongly felt, did not rule out attentiveness, but rather sharpened it. He was not so much in need of the skills used at conversations at the Casa del Clero, where what was said and not said, and to whom, and when, and why were so important. Instead, what he needed now was a heightened spiritual awareness, a kind of immediacy by which each word, each event was to be placed in reverence before the judgment of Christ. It struck him again that it was not his own heart he needed. That was useless. Just shattered stone. He could only look to Christ’s Heart. An involuntary wave of suspicion against Cardinal Fidèle swept over him, which he tried to fend off.
✵ ✵ ✵
The donkey opened its eyes, awakening with a start. Something was wrong. It was lying down just inside the door of the small house as it always did for the night. It was now part of the family. It held its head high, sniffing the wind as if it were a guard dog, but then stretched its nose over to the face of little Pyè, who was charged with the responsibility of taking care of the donkey. Pyè was only pretending to be asleep, lying down on the dirt floor of the one room house as did the rest of his family. The donkey snorted loudly in his face, so Pyè lifted his hand to stroke the donkey’s nose. The beast soon put its head down once again and fell asleep. Donkeys expected good treatment and responded best when this is what they actually received. Pyè, however, couldn’t forget the sound of the screams of his neighbour Ev earlier that night, and had been lying awake with silent tears rolling down his face. “I don’t want to die,” she had said. “Don’t make me go into the dark!” Pyè looked at the silhouette of the little statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that they had in the house, and prayed more than he ever had before.
✵ ✵ ✵
Cardinal Fidèle, had taken another phone call, this time in Chinese. Don Hash rose to put another log on the fire, and slightly burned himself as he placed it on the others. The Cardinal ended his phone call and said, “It is better to light a fire than to be burned by a fire, wouldn’t you agree? Now, Hash, what of this American friend of yours, Alexámenos?”
Don Hash then repeated the Cardinal’s words as a question, “Great harm to the Church?”
“Do not rush. We will come to that,” said Cardinal Fidèle, smiling, content with the way the conversation was going in front of the other Cardinals.
The phone rang just then, and Cardinal Fidèle, as usual, pressed his speaker-phone button.
“Salve,” said Cardinal Fidèle.
“Cardinal Fidèle?” asked the voice. All the Cardinals in the room instantly came to attention, recognising the heavy Irish accent of the Pope’s personal secretary, Father Lia-Fáil, a convert from Irish paganism. There had not been an Irishman in that position for many decades.
“Yes,” said the Cardinal.
“Your phone has been busy, as usual,” chided Father Lia-Fáil.
“I regret this,” the Cardinal replied flatly.
“The Holy Father will meet with you at 10:00 A.M., tomorrow. He is giving you a full hour, your Eminence, off the record, as requested.”
“I shall be there,” said Cardinal Fidèle.
The line went dead. The Cardinals stared at Cardinal Fidèle, waiting for an explanation. “You shall receive a report tomorrow afternoon,” was all he said.
“I trust you have an up-to-date driver’s license, Hash?”
“Of course, your Eminence.”
“Arrive here at 9:00 A.M.”
All the Cardinals expected to meet regularly with the Holy Father in the course of their work. But this meeting with the new Pontiff was unusual. Not only was Cardinal Fidèle retired, but the meeting was to be off the record, and was to last an hour. None of them commented, however, knowing that Cardinal Fidèle had not picked up the receiver during the conversation for effect.
The Cardinals relaxed as the discussion between Cardinal Fidèle and don Hash continued on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Their conversation was spirited, carrying them throughout Europe, touching on most of the personalities involved in those turbulent times, and on what enabled them to do what they did. This went on throughout the day. Don Hash’s other duties had been to eat a sumptuous lunch prepared by Signora Gagno, to add new logs to the fire as it burned down, and to pray, in the chapel, with the others, the Angelus and Sext, the sixth hour of the breviary, the Liturgy of the Hour. Only Cardinal Fidèle was able to recite the Latin psaltery from memory. He would complain that the Latin previous to the Biblicum intervention was better.
✵ ✵ ✵
Father Lia-Fáil laughed when Pope Tsur-Ēzer told him about what his homily for Palm Sunday would be in place of the one that had long been prepared for his predecessor. “Your Holiness, what kind of donkey shall I find for the procession?” he asked.
“Any jackass, Lia-Fáil,” replied the Pontiff. “Our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem just before He was crucified was glorious because of its humility. It will remind me of processions I saw in Jerusalem as a boy, when the Latin Patriarch rode a jackass. Keep it in the Vatican Gardens where it will have plenty to eat. It must be in good health for the great hour.”
“Every donkey has his hour!” said Father Lia-Fáil.
“Yes, every jackass, Lia-Fáil.”
Next chapter up: Chapter 4 – It is better that one man die
© International 2005-2018 – George David Byers