Jackass for the Hour: Chapter 9 – I spend my time with jackasses and useless people
As don Hash drove through the Belvedere Courtyard and up to the guard below the Sistine Chapel, Cardinal Fidèle had been riding up the lift. As he came out, one of the new arrivals in the Secretariat of State, whom he did not know, asked if he could be of service. The Cardinal asked him to find another new official, who had also just started doing the required period of probation. Cardinal Fidèle did not answer the imprudent question as to whether he had an appointment, and was unceremoniously asked to wait in an oppressively small parlour just up a short flight of steps.
“I shall wait in the corridor,” Cardinal Fidèle replied, politely and sharply, as only he could.
As he said this, the Cardinal Secretary of State appeared from the direction of the Papal apartments and said, “Fidèle! I was told you were here. I’m happy you’re early. Come this way.”
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“We’ve been talking for two hours now, Mother. I had better return to my hermitage,” said padre Emet, referring to his ‘cell’ at his monastery. “But just before I leave,” he said, turning to Jacinta, “tell Mother Bernadette what you were saying the other week at Le Rinascite.”
“It was just something about Saint Paul’s observation about the Mystical Body of Christ, that if one member suffers, then all members suffer together, and if one member is glorified, then all members rejoice together. We see what is good in others, Christ Jesus, as if that good is our own – and it is – and we rejoice together; the time or place in which we live does not matter: His Body is inclusive of all times and places. Yet, if one member is suffering, if one member has not learned to glory in the Cross of Charity in Truth, then the other members must suffer with him, not by carrying his Cross – for the other one must do that with Christ’s grace – but by carrying one’s own Cross with all the more Charity in Truth. It’s not a ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ kind of thing. Instead, if someone is suffering, for instance, a weakness of Faith, then, even though I have Faith, if Christ wants me to intercede for that particular person, then I can suffer more intensely what I myself would be like in faithlessness, as if I were to be without the grace of God. That’s my Cross and has nothing to do with the other person who is weak in Faith, except for the fact that my own growth in friendship with Christ, learning more to depend on Him and learning more how to thank Him for all that He has done for me – and for all the members of His Body – was occasioned by the one who was lacking in Faith, a powerful intercession which…”
“You even have the syntax of Saint Paul!” exclaimed padre Emet, making them laugh. “I should really be going, Mother. I think you’re right that an extended retreat is not necessary inasmuch as you’ve come to know Jacinta well over the years in the United States.”
“The exception proves the rule,” said Mother Bernadette. “I’m happy that you’ve started a five day retreat for her here, which includes her reception of the novice habit.”
“A time appropriately including the Feast of the Cathedra of Saint Peter,” said padre Emet.
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Don Hash drove the same way back to the Missionaries of Charity, but then drove straight through the long tunnel and turned right at the Tiber River. He drove past Ponte Sisto and finally came to Ponte Sublicio, which he knew so well from the night before. He drove up the Aventine and came to Father Alexámenos’ college. He rang the bell and was let in. He went upstairs. Father Alexámenos was doing some last minute packing, and giving a final cleaning to his room.
“Hey!” said don Hash.
“I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again so soon,” answered Father Alexámenos.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” said don Hash. “We’re late. We need to see Absj.”
“Oh, right. I was on my way, but then I was distracted with the newspaper. Avian flu has killed off almost an entire village in a remote region of Vietnam. That’s the tenth wiped out in the last three weeks. It seems that there was a wedding celebration, and the locals were drinking their prized delicacy, raw duck’s blood. A friend of mine comes from near there. The government told the World Health Organization that there is no danger of this bird flu spreading further, but the survivors are in military quarantine, along with the doctors and nurses who treated them. I’m nostalgic for the ‘delicacies’ we had when I was kid.”
Don Hash thought of the feathers in the mouth of the dead cat he had seen the previous morning, as well as the dead chickens at Porta Portese. Just the memory of their stench made him nauseous. “I don’t think it will be long now, Alexámenos, whatever the strategic plans of the World Health Organization happen to be. As it is, they seem purposely lax about travel.”
“I suppose…” said Father Alexámenos. “We are way overdue for a pandemic.”
“Listen, I’ve got a car with a permit for the historical centre of Rome, but only for an hour,” said don Hash. “Let’s go.” On the way to the Pontifical Vigilanza University don Hash told Father Alexámenos about the meeting the Cardinal was to have with the Holy Father that morning as well as about what was now turning into an ongoing discussion about Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Father Alexámenos spoke about the seminary at which he was to teach, and the Apostolic Nunciature where he would be staying until a room was fixed up for him.
Since the piazza where they were going had been renovated some years before, parking was scarcer, so he parked in front of the Pio Decimo Centre, though he knew this was annoying to the students who were on foot. Anywhere else in the world this would be a campus restricted to non-vehicular traffic. “I’ll see Absj first,” said don Hash. “I know you want to say your goodbyes to the librarians; they’re your family. I’ll meet you at the coffee bar at the Vigilanza afterward.”
Don Hash crossed the piazza, which was named after a Spanish game played with balls. The piazza was nicknamed Lépanto by some, since the renovation of the piazza involved what looked like many enormous cannon balls or, with some imagination, beads of an oversized Rosary. The same could be seen in many piazzas around Rome. Don Hash went to the residence of the Pio Decimo Centre. He asked for padre Absj and was directed into one of the many parlours. The priest soon appeared, congratulating don Hash for his defence, and showing him the schedule of courses he was being asked to teach that semester. After some discussion of the content of each of the courses, he thanked the professor, saying that one begins to learn only when one teaches. He then made his way to the Vigilanza, where he met some friends.
Father Alexámenos, meanwhile, had been saying goodbye at the Pio Decimo Centre library. He knew that doctoral students at that Centre regularly disappeared without defending their theses. Few said goodbye to the members of the close knit research community, not wanting to publicise their misfortune. Instead, Father Alexámenos, though not enrolled at the Centre, having degreed out there previously, made his way around to all the tables of the library, to its offices and to the reception desk below. After leaving the library, he stopped into the Sacred Heart Chapel, where he had spent many hours during the years. All twenty five angels were still there. “Amazing,” he thought. Coming out, he checked his watch. The propaedeutic lectures were just about to finish. He pressed the lift button and went to the top floor, walked to the end of the corridor, turned right, and went to the entrance of the residence. The Hebrew lecture had just concluded and the professor came out the side door. Father Alexámenos knew him, and so said his goodbyes, though following him into the residence, saying that he had to say goodbye to padre Absj.
“You know the way,” said the professor, not commenting on his departure before finishing his thesis at the Canterbury Institute, which he began while finishing his licentiate at the Centre.
Father Alexámenos made his way down to the courtyard of the residence, turning left to go to the reception desk. He saw padre Absj through the glass door, saying goodbye to don Hash. Father Alexámenos waited until he left, and opened the door before padre Absj could leave.
“I have to say goodbye, padre.”
“Alexámenos, good to see you! I was hoping you would stop in. Come up to my room.”
They climbed the large staircase, bypassing the lift, and finally came to the room of padre Absj above the piazza. “I thought I should say goodbye, padre,” repeated Father Alexámenos.
“Please, sit down, Alexámenos… I’m sorry to see you go. I thought you had potential. But – I will get to the point – you’re naivete has finally shown itself. It’s as if you’ve been looking for the Holy Grail. Those who begin the search almost never stop until they meet a bad end.”
To the delight of padre Absj, Father Alexámenos swallowed hard, for Father Alexámenos wondered if, in fact, he had been naive. “No,” he thought, “truth will win out in the end. One must begin somewhere.” He ignored the out of place comments about the Grail, and said, “Cardinal Fidèle thought you might want to see some of the comments he wrote in the margins.” He got up and placed the large study on the desk.
Padre Absj stared at him hard, but then picked it up, giving the marginal notes only a precursory examination, dismissively. “I’ll not be able to look at them now, Alexámenos. I have another class to teach this morning, and then there is the community Mass, and lunch. I am sorry. But I must say that Cardinal Fidèle is not pleased with this supererogatory effort of yours.”
“He gave me a copy of his letter to you,” replied Father Alexámenos.
“I will admit,” said the professor, “that his objections, although many, are rather inconsequential. There are only two typographical errors, a title that he thought would read better another way, an argument that he said was too developed for the study in the place in which it was inserted in the structure of the paper, and so on. Cumulatively, however, the letter has the appearance of being devastating, the worst I’ve read, almost as if he has an axe to grind. Does he, Alexámenos? For my part, it seems that you have gone from one subject to the other, not keeping to the topic of the study. It is for that reason that it cannot be published.”
“I find it interesting,” said Father Alexámenos, “that his Eminence has formed an opinion which is diametrically opposed to yours. If you read the marginal notes, you will see that he is of the opinion that the reason the study cannot be published is that I have stayed on the topic too much, beating any objection to death so much that it doesn’t seem to leave room for dialogue. May I ask you, padre, if you have even begun to read the paper?”
“I am very busy, Alexámenos…”
“Alright, I will admit that even though I’ve been encouraging you all along, I only read ten pages of what you’ve written. It is not easy going, Alexámenos. Your style is difficult. What I do know is that you are naive. You must never involve Cardinal Fidèle, ever. You have stolen his time and put him through much suffering. Regardless of whether your paper is worth anything, you have not helped the image of the Centre. You have involved the Centre by involving me.”
“But the Cardinal was one of the few who had the academic and political means to verify in the Secret Archives what I wrote… and he did, going out of his way to strengthen my arguments.”
“That does not change anything. You have embarrassed us,” insisted padre Absj.
“I see,” said Father Alexámenos. “Do I get the copy of my paper back?”
“No, Alexámenos, but tell me. Why didn’t you come to us first, I mean, as a student?”
“I did. You were too busy. I then asked the Secretary of the Commission, past Rector here and still a professor at the time. You could almost consider him papabile if he weren’t so old…”
“And so…” pushed padre Absj.
“I asked if he would moderate a thesis on the necessity of faith for exegesis. He said that since he was about to retire, he would be the second reader, and would intensely follow the progress of the work, with enthusiasm, but that I should get the Rector – with whom I did my licentiate – to be the first reader. The result would, politically speaking, have to be read, he said.”
“Hah! I can’t believe it! Why didn’t you do it!?” asked padre Absj.
“You know already,” said Father Alexámenos. “And so did he. I wouldn’t get the degree since, as he said, the Defence Commission would most likely end with two against three, if it became impossible to find another professor who could reconcile Faith with Dei Verbum, §24.”
“You are so naive, Alexámenos. “It’s time for you to remove yourself from this place.”
“I guess I will let myself out then, padre…” Father Alexámenos left the room, walked down the corridor and went down the steps. In the street once again, he smiled at this triumph in the midst of what could be seen as a failure by others, thanking the Lord again for His faithful mercy.
He went up the steps of the Pontifical Vigilanza University, wondering about the veracity of its name, and went to the coffee bar. Don Hash had a cappuccino waiting for him, and the librarians of the Centre, now on their break, bought a cornetto for him. Father Alexámenos said more goodbyes until don Hash, who had been busy talking to some professors, said they had better be going.
They walked across the piazza to the car. Father Alexámenos looked up at the Centre’s residence. Padre Absj was staring at them from his window. “Don’t look now,” said Father Alexámenos, but I think you’ve just been blacklisted yourself, being seen with me.”
“Absj, is it? Never mind. It’s a justice and peace thing,” said don Hash.
“Meaning?” asked Father Alexámenos.
“Well,” said don Hash, “the professors are big on social justice. He can’t complain if I spend my time with jackasses and useless people, with all of the marginalised of society, could he?”
They both laughed. Father Alexámenos offered another loud rendition of a braying donkey. This made the passing student priests and nuns laugh. Padre Absj thought he was seeing another of the many nervous breakdowns he had seen among students over the years. He said, “Al-hamdu lillaah,” to himself. One sister, who was standing in the entrance to a building to their right, walked up to Father Alexámenos, and said, “You’re a sick man, but I can help you.” But the two priests kept walking, with don Hash explaining that she was the infamous Sister Nice, infelicitously named after the French city of her provenance along the Côte d’Azur.
On the way back to the Aventine Hill, Father Alexámenos recounted the meeting he had had with padre Absj. Don Hash did likewise, enumerating the three courses he was to teach that semester, ‘The History of Ecumenism from Erasmus to Benedict XV,’ and ‘The Life of Cardinal Agostino,’ and ‘The History of Ecumenism from 1970 to the Present.’
“How fitting,” said Father Alexámenos. “That will all be knowledge you will be able to use sooner than later. It’s quite providential, really. You can do some reparation for yourself as well.”
“I thought so,” said don Hash. “It’s a good way to make up for my doctoral defence.”
As they drove toward the Colosseum along Via dei Fori Imperiali, Father Alexámenos took out his mobile phone and requested that a taxi-van be sent to his college on the Aventine. “I have to go to the airport early, Hash. It will take me all day to have those two large trunks put through security to be sent on the air-freight service.” As they drove up to the college, a taxi from the Piramide had already arrived. They helped the driver move the seats of the small van forward, and lifted up the large trunks for the driver. Don Hash then sped off to the Vatican.
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“Your Holiness, it is not your blessing for this project which I want, merely, shall we say, your benign neglect.” This explanation echoed flatly off the walls of the Papal Apartment high above Piazza San Pietro, toward the conclusion of the meeting of the Pontiff with Cardinal Fidèle.
They had both been seated. But now Pope Tsur-Ēzer stood up and walked to the corner window of his apartment, the one next to the famous Angelus window. He had his back to Cardinal Fidèle. The shutters were closed, but the lower right slats were angled in such a way that he could look out without distracting the pilgrims in the piazza. He was stunned by the enormity of what Cardinal Fidèle was putting before him, and needed a moment to think. He looked out at the Cross on top of the enormous obelisk raised in the piazza in 1586 by his predecessor, Sixtus V, as a move against the rampant superstition of the day. Previously, since the days of the emperor Caligula, the obelisk had been situated on the left side of the present Basilica, acting as a virtual marker of the place of Saint Peter’s upside-down crucifixion, which took place within decades of Caligula’s death.
The Pope thought of what was inscribed in large lettering on the pedestal which held the obelisk, encouraging words about the powerful protection with which Christ shepherds His own flock to this day: CHRISTVS VINCIT ◂ CHRISTVS REGNAT ◂ CHRISTVS IMPERAT ◂ CHRISTVS AB OMNI MALO PLEBEM SVAM DEFENDAT ◂ He noted, without making any reaction, that Cardinal Fidèle had become suddenly nervous while he had read these words silently. The Pope ignored him, and inaudibly repeated from memory – as he now often did for the good of the Church – the words written on the other side of the pedestal: ECCE CRUX DOMINI ◂ FVGITE PARTES ADVERSAE ◂ VICIT LEO DE TRIBV IVDA ◂ It was an exorcism which commanded Satan’s minions to flee before the Cross of the Lord, who conquers as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
“Keyfa! Stop saying that!” commanded Cardinal Fidèle, using an Aramaic synonym for the Pope’s name. The order was almost surreal, for it was spoken with a voice which had suddenly become weakened, even frightened.
An elegant cuckoo clock hung high on the wall. It was a medieval version of Ktesibios’ water clock, and had been in the Pope’s family for many generations. Just when Cardinal Fidèle had said, “Keyfa! Stop saying that!”, the clock went into action. A life size, wooden rooster appeared and crew loudly, disappearing behind its doors just as quickly as it had appeared.
The Pope, still looking the other way, ignored the clock, thinking instead about the fact that he had not said anything out loud. “Perhaps Fidèle is not feeling well,” he thought, humbled at the name change to Keyfa, used for Peter in the New Testament. Still looking away, and without saying anything, he asked the Immaculate Conception for her intercession against the influence of Satan in the world and in the Church, a practice which he had had since his first Confession and Holy Communion. It was her very purity, the clarity of her reflection of the grace of God, the indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity, which made her intercession so powerful. The more transformed by grace she was, the more far reaching was she in her intercession – especially for exorcism – giving birth to the Church by the suffering her heart went through under the Cross, her labour pains for the rest of the Body of Christ.
Looking down at the obelisk, the Pope purposely let himself be distracted, clearing his mind, watching the workmen below, who were deconstructing the enormous Christmas scene which had been built around the base of the obelisk at the beginning of Advent every year since the first years of the pontificate of John Paul II, so long ago. He thought that in future years he would have this scene moved nearer to Via della Concilliazione, and then build a permanent shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes next to the obelisk, careful not to block the words of the exorcism. The Mother of the Church, the Immaculate Conception, he knew, was so powerful in exorcisms. He thought of her words spoken in patois to Saint Bernadette, “Que soy era immaculada councepciou.”
Cardinal Fidèle was fidgeting so much that his cane dropped to the floor. The Pope heard this, but still did not turn around, and was soon lost in thought, now trying to figure out what to do about Cardinal Fidèle’s proposal. Almost without thinking, the Pontiff silently repeated the exorcism for the sake of the whole Church: “Ecce crux Domini. Fugite partes adversæ.”
“Stop! We will sift you like wheat!” said a strong voice behind Pope Tsur-Ēzer. Again the rooster appeared and crew once again. The movement of the clock had been so violent that the perch of the centuries old clock broke. The rooster fell to the floor, as if dead. Both the words of Cardinal Fidèle and the action of the clock had been unexpected. As a boy, Tsur-Ēzer had examined the inner workings of the clock, and knew that the rooster could appear if the gears slipped for whatever reason, but that there was no longer any mechanism to have the rooster return to its perch inside the clock so that it could then come out once again. The Pontiff’s heart sank. He asked the Blessed Virgin’s intercession once again, as well as that of Saint Michael. The Pope turned to face Cardinal Fidèle, and walked toward him, speaking the exorcism audibly, with a firm voice, holding out the Fisherman’s Ring which the Augustinian nuns had again prepared for him. “Ecce crux Domini. Fugite partes adversæ.”
Cardinal Fidèle’s eyelids were wide open, unnaturally so, but only the whites of his eyes could be seen, presenting a ghastly sight. Yet, he was following the eyes of the Pontiff with extreme precision. The Pope waited for an answer, which came in the form of a question which was presented with a much different, mocking, incredulous voice: “What could you want with us?” The threat was then repeated. “We will sift you like wheat.”
Even after two millennia, the Evil One still did not understand the irony of the Eucharistic terminology that he was using, or, perhaps, in his perverted pride, he pretended he knew it only too well, and that he was going to have victory still.
“Dear Lord,” prayed the Holy Father, “forgive me for any way in which I have betrayed you.” The Pontiff then proceeded, from memory, to run through the exorcism he knew as a young priest and bishop, ending with, “…qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos, et sæculum per ignem.”
It was to no avail, for now. Much prayer and fasting would be necessary. The Pontiff sank to his knees before the crucifix dominating the room, and began to pray the First Sorrowful Mystery.
Finally, Cardinal Fidèle came to himself and noticed the Pontiff kneeling beside him. “Your Holiness, please, excuse me. I seem to have fallen asleep. I was reading late into the night.” He was completely unaware of what had happened.
It was unknown to all that the Pope had had a great deal of experience as an exorcist in the younger days of his priesthood, and then, later, as a bishop. The bishop who had first appointed him was long dead, and the people whom he had been able to help had kept their word to him that they would keep his secret. Publicity was never of help to an exorcist. Even the Catholic media seemed bound to exaggerate what was, instead, a most humbling, prayerful experience.
The Pontiff ignored the apologies of Cardinal Fidèle, and went to his desk, writing a petition for prayer and fasting. He sealed this in an envelope, opened the door of his apartment and told his private secretary, Father Lia-Fáil – who had been waiting there – to personally deliver the message to the Mother Superior of the Paraclete Adoration Sisters at Mater Ecclesiæ convent. He also told him that Cardinal Elzevir was to be summoned to the apartment.
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“I think that you are not such a loser after all,” remarked Shaykh al-Hasan to Archbishop Ahan as they drove away from the lunch they had had together on the banks of the Nile. They were on their way to Al-Azhar University where the Grand Mufti was to meet them.
“I can only see such an advance in dialogue among Shi‘as and Sunnis as beneficial to the West,” replied the Archbishop, “though I must say that asking for a Shi‘a friendly Imam to be appointed for Sunni Rome is rather extraordinary.”
“But with the delicacy of your diplomatic expertise… your Excellency, the Italian Muslim Association won’t have so much sway over the Italian government. They interfere at all the wrong times. As it is, our academicians have a hard time permitting the Mufti to meet with this Pope.”
Up next: Chapter 10 – Your Holiness, I speak of evil
© International 2005-2018 – George David Byers