Chapter 15 – The terror on the face of the little boy froze in his mind
Father Lia-Fáil soon arrived with the gray car don Hash had seen. Padre Emet took the front seat so that don Hash and Father Alexámenos would benefit from the tinted windows of the rear seat.
“Times are certainly changing,” said Father Alexámenos as they started to drive away.
“The car looks terrible on the outside, but the engine works well,” replied Father Lia-Fáil. “Diocesan bankruptcies due to fear of extortion have reduced the amount the Holy See receives in contributions,” he added as he sped down the hill of the Vatican gardens toward Santa Marta. “One of the first things Pope Tsur-Ēzer insisted upon is a draconian cutback in the extravagance of all that is connected with the Apostolic Palace. It was always Spartan, but it looks more like a monk’s cell than anything. I once thought that it would be a financial crisis which would change the minds of some of the more outrageous bishops, but that is not the case. That was my mindlessly secular version of ultramontanism. I’m now depending on de Colines to present some decent episcopal candidates to His Holiness, bishops who will transform their seminaries to be what they should be.” Having said that, he sighed. The comment was a test of the others in the car, whom he did not know except for his having briefly met Cardinal Emet a half-dozen times since the election of Pope Tsur-Ēzer.
“Of course,” said padre Emet, “seminaries don’t carry all the blame. The problem is almost exclusively with those who were ordained during or soon after the Second Vatican Council. Much of the younger generation of seminarians and priests have seen through the rubbishing of doctrine and morality by the bishops, administrators and teaching staff of the seminaries in many countries. But you don’t have to go outside of the Pontifical Universities in Rome to find a cesspool of heresy. The Congregation for Education simply washes its hands to the effect that…”
“To the effect that so many of the faculty and administration think that everyone is infallible, except for the Pope,” interrupted Father Lia-Fáil. “And with heresy following on heresy, corrupting into immorality, they then think that they are immaculately conceived, sinless, everyone, of course, except for the Blessed Virgin. I was saved from all that since my bishop – God rest his soul – taught me himself. He despised seminaries no matter what kind of apostolic visitations were carried out. To him, it was all damage control having little to do with encouraging the students to know Christ, to adore Him, to have a union of charity with Him in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in such a way that they knew that, in their priesthood, they would be married to the Church in that Holy Sacrifice. He was a great bishop.” For a change, Father Lia-Fáil drove out the gate near the Holy Office, doing so, as always, without braking. The Swiss Guards jumped back, now getting used to the driving habits of the new papal secretary.
As they drove past the front of the Holy Office, Father Alexámenos, who also studied outside of the seminary, added, “Of course, if one doesn’t know Christ in His Holy Sacrifice, a priest becomes, at best, a glorified ‘social worker’ with a bit of ‘hocus pocus’ added on the side, just for show. In rich countries, this ‘social work’ amounts to encouraging childless families in favour of what they pretend to call the protection of the environment, while in poorer countries, he inevitably becomes the very kind of oppressor from whom he pretended to liberate ‘his’ people.”
As they waited for the traffic light to change, don Hash said, “I know what you mean. We do a great deal of social work in Italy, but few of us know how to serve Christ Himself in the least of the brethren among us. If we take a prostitute off the street, we think that we have done such a good work that we are excused if she is provided with an abortion referral if she wants one.
“Corruptio optimi pessima est,” padre Emet interjected.
“They think that only they could ever know the signs of the times…” added Father Lia-Fáil.
“… but instead, they violently thrust their own opinions onto others,” interrupted don Hash, “after they’ve transferred to themselves the lowest common denominator of their ‘culture’…”
“…a method of proceeding which cannot long endure,” added Father Alexámenos, citing the Apocalypse, “for God will vomit out of His mouth these lukewarm beasts of the lowest common denominator, of the damage control which attempts to appease fallen society and oneself.”
The traffic light had changed, and Father Lia-Fáil had already turned right, going as far as the overhead Vatican railway bridge. Padre Emet and don Hash stepped out onto the footpath and were turning around to say goodbye, but Father Lia-Fáil was already speeding away.
As they drove up the hill, Father Lia-Fáil mentioned what he knew about Father Alexámenos’ destination, spouting off facts on Haïti in general and Port-au-Prince in particular, as if he were a travel agent describing tropical delights that would soon be seen. When he saw that this wasn’t making Father Alexámenos laugh – which wasn’t until they turned onto the Grande Raccordo Anulare – he began describing the devastating poverty of Haïti and the effect recalcitrant priests interfering with politics had on the country. Father Alexámenos listened with intense interest.
As they neared Fiumicino Airport, Father Lia-Fáil said, “When I mentioned the lack of contributions coming into the Holy See, I didn’t mean to say that I didn’t have more than a sufficiency of funds myself. If you need anything, Alexámenos, let me know,” he added, shoving a roll of currency into the hands of the traveller.
✵ ✵ ✵
The flight was non-stop to Miami, and was uneventful. However, Father Alexámenos’ early morning, connecting flight quickly turned problematic. American Airlines had temporarily cut its multiple shuttle flights to Port-au-Prince down to one flight on account of a spate of violence in Haïti, by far the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.
Since there was nothing he could do at the airport – even the ‘chapel’ was closed – he walked to Miami along the Airport Expressway, and then back again, however dangerous this was. Like the transatlantic flight, it was a good chance to let the events of the last two days sink in. At least he had found a Catholic parish after walking past Interstate 95, whose priest let him offer Mass after being shown his faculties from the Roman Vicariate at San Giovanni in Laterano.
Back at the airport, as his ticket was checked before entering the plane, Father Alexámenos was told that it wasn’t possible to get on the plane yet, and that his seating had been changed.
He discovered the reason for this after the other passengers had boarded the plane and he was finally allowed to enter. The gentleman sitting next to him on the more than eleven hundred kilometre flight from Miami was a C.I.A. agent, though not covert by any stretch of the imagination. He was only interested in good public relations with the Holy See. He gave Father Alexámenos a bottle of expensive whiskey to give to the Nuncio, even though Father Alexámenos hadn’t said anything about any Nuncio or Nunciature. Then he remembered that he had written the address of Pétionville on one of the new embarkation cards issued at Fiumicino Airport. “The Americans sure are careful,” he thought. “I wonder what message this bottle is meant to convey.”
Father Alexámenos wondered if his seat number had been changed just for this. Even on that single flight, more than half the seats remained empty. Some of those on board looked like tourists. Others were clearly business men, who were busy with their computers, eager to ascertain the direction of the most recent market fluctuations before landing in Haïti. They knew just how to cripple the half-island nation further by supplying goods which, although they did not compete directly with local products, still had the effect of people neglecting their own goods in favour of those which were imported. There were also a handful of missionaries, government workers and some of the more well-to-do Haïtians on board. Father Alexámenos did his best to ignore the agent, trying not to wonder what terrible thing the agent had done so as to receive the punishment of pandering after clergy, giving them bottles of liquor.
As they neared Haïti, Father Alexámenos thought he could see not only all of eastern Haïti, but also much of the Dominican Republic. There were only a few clouds in the sky. He could see the devastation that had been caused by the most recent hurricane the previous September. Low lying areas were obviously the domain of the poor. The shantytowns took the brunt of the storm.
Just as the landing gear of the plane touched down on the excessively long runway, a few bullets ripped through the skin of the plane, though Father Alexámenos did not know this until he was disembarking, noticing that two of the windows had been pierced. The small thuds they had heard could have been anything. No one had been hurt. It didn’t enter his mind to be concerned for their safety as they stepped down onto the tarmac, since they were so far from the point where they had touched down. As he stepped out of the plane, he was hit by a wave of stiflingly hot, humid air, mingled with the stench of burning rubbish.
Soldiers with M-16s, looking bored during their security shift, were everywhere to be seen. They had obviously not yet been alerted to the shooting incident when they landed. This relieved Father Alexámenos. He knew that such ‘terrorism’, a first for the carrier in Haïti, would uselessly make their own exit from the airport all the more difficult if it were known. This was surely why the travel-wise passengers had also held their tongues.
As he walked into the arrivals area, he was just about to toss the bottle of the overly expensive liquor into a waste container when someone said, “I’ll take that! You must be Alexámenos…”
“Yes, that’s right. Be my guest, I guess… Not everyone gets my name right. You must be?”
“Jacques. The Nuncio always asks me to pick up our guests. Welcome to Haïti, I guess…” he said, preoccupied with placing the bottle in a small bag he was carrying for the purpose.
“Are you O.K.?” asked Father Alexámenos. “You seem preoccupied.”
Père Jacques simply replied, “We’ll get your luggage later, tomorrow.”
Father Alexámenos thought this was odd, but didn’t want to be rude, and so didn’t protest. It was the first time he had been in a poor country since his early teenage years. As they pulled away from the airport in the incongruously expensive vehicle owned by père Jacques, Father Alexámenos shook his head at the attempts the various governments had made to conceal the poverty of the country, lining the highway between the airport and Port-au-Prince, as they did, with an endless stream of flags. “This show of flag-waving nationalism,” said Father Alexámenos, “only seems to highlight the seething poverty of the country. It’s like a megaphone proclaiming ongoing government corruption.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” said père Jacques, momentarily self-conscious.
“Hurricanes and floods must do terrible damage here,” said Father Alexámenos, pretending to change the subject.
“Oh, we’re well sheltered where we are up on the hill,” replied père Jacques. “We even have electricity and water every day, unlike the riffraff down here.”
Father Alexámenos just shook his head in disgust. He was leaning forward in his seat, looking ahead and into the side-view mirror at the same time, not wanting to miss anything. Some movement in the mirror caught his attention, and he watched as, far behind them, some military vehicles turned off the highway and into the remote parts of the airport. This was followed by the deafening peal of sirens all around them. Father Alexámenos hadn’t told père Jacques about the plane having come under fire. Hearing the sirens, père Jacques accelerated.
As they entered Port-au-Prince and were driving along ‘Grand Rue’, père Jacques was busy describing the beauty of Hispaniola’s tropical paradise, but, unlike Father Lia-Fáil, this seemed to be, for him, the full story. The U.N., national embassies and the Parliament were off to their right a few streets away. A road block had just been set up and they could go no farther. They could see that there was trouble ahead. They turned left along ‘Avenue Paul VI’ and ‘Avenue Jn. Paul II’. Père Jacques then pulled off on a side-street, taking what he thought would be a shortcut. He soon became lost, turning this way and that. Father Alexámenos enjoyed the tour, though, after some minutes, he began to wonder about the driving ability of père Jacques.
Through the window of the air-conditioned car, Father Alexámenos was looking ahead to the right side of the street at a group of children rummaging through a hill of garbage, which was partly on fire, spewing out putrid, acrid smoke, causing the sunset to appear as if it were madly ablaze with anger at the injustice of the scene below.
As they came nearer, one of the older boys, about seven years old, was climbing onto his donkey-cart, standing just inside the cart itself. He was readjusting items he had collected from the heap of garbage. As he did this, a large paint can fell over and trapped the end of the reins. The donkey, feeling the movement of the rope, lazily sauntered out onto the road, not realising the danger. Père Jacques didn’t seem to see him. The car was bearing down on them. Father Alexámenos yelled, “Look out! You’re going to hit them!”
As the boy freed the rope from underneath the paint can, he saw the car some twenty metres away. Like lightning, he turned around and yanked hard on the rope with the little body weight he had, while pushing against the front of the cart with his legs, causing the donkey’s head to be pulled up and to the side. In his fright, he pulled the donkey slightly off its front hooves, causing the donkey to pull its front legs in. Even though this saved the donkey from having its head and legs crushed by the car, the side-view mirror smashed the pole of the cart against the donkey’s left shoulder with a loud crack, breaking the end of it over the donkey’s chest. The donkey was deeply gashed by the wood and the broken plastic of the mirror.
In that instant, Father Alexámenos was taking in the scene as if in slow motion. The terror on the face of the little boy froze in his mind. In one motion, Father Alexámenos unbuckled his seat belt and fully turned around in his seat to see their fate. The force of the impact had thrown the donkey and the small cart one hundred and eighty degrees and then over in a heap.
“Aren’t you going to stop to see how he is? to see what damage you’ve done? to see how we can help?” shouted Father Alexámenos. As he did, he saw that there was some movement among the scavenged items, the donkey, cart and boy. Some of the items were being run over by passing traffic. The little boy immediately tended to his donkey, which lifted up its head.
Father Alexámenos looked at père Jacques in disbelief. Père Jacques appeared unperturbed about the event, except for being annoyed at the reaction of Father Alexámenos. “I had the right of way,” he insisted. “They’ve broken my mirror. They’re lucky I don’t stop. The cost of the mirror and repairs will be almost G 2000. It will take at least a month. This car is an import from Germany.” He accelerated again lest Father Alexámenos open his door and force him to stop.
Father Alexámenos felt nauseous and told père Jacques that he was going to vomit.
“You can’t use that as an excuse to have me stop…” said père Jacques. “I’m not going to…”
But it was too late. Father Alexámenos couldn’t control the convulsions in his stomach, and soon sprayed vomit all over the dashboard of the car. The volume was small, as it consisted only of the remains of the tiny ‘snack’ provided during the flight from Miami. However, it did carry the unique stench which would surely prove impossible for père Jacques to remove from his car. Until then, it had still sported a ‘new car smell’. Father Alexámenos wasn’t sorry about this in the least. It wasn’t the accident itself that made him sick. It was the attitude of père Jacques.
Père Jacques was livid, but did not stop even then, and didn’t make any comment. He knew he had to control himself lest his real mission of finding out more about Father Alexámenos be thwarted. He put the fan of the air-conditioner on high, gasping on account of the overpowering stench. Nevertheless, with almost superhuman determination, he started asking polite questions, and actually waited for an answer instead of continuing to talk as Father Alexámenos had hoped. Père Jacques remained on the topic of the studies Father Alexámenos had been doing. The young priest described his liturgical studies, but père Jacques wanted to speak about his special study in detail. Father Alexámenos was not sure if père Jacques understood what he was saying or not, though he seemed to be following every word, asking questions which seemed to betray ignorance and incisiveness at the same time.
There was plenty of time for all this, for they had to wait in line at many check points, far from the scene of the little boy and the donkey-cart. At one of these check points, a soldier examined the mirror, seeing that it was broken, and had hair and blood sticking to it. He rubbed his finger along the outside of the window, cleaning off the small shards of the broken mirror which were still on top of the lower rim of the passenger window. The soldier walked around the car, looking for further damage, and then to the driver’s window. As père Jacques pressed a button to lower the window, the soldier asked what had happened. Père Jacques, instead, shook the soldier’s hand. The soldier struggled momentarily with this hand shake.
“Noli offerre munera prava!” commanded Father Alexámenos, disgusted with the bribe he thought he might be seeing.
But even as he said this, the soldier, smelling the vomit, had covered his nose and waved them on, saying that passengers should wear seatbelts. As he was saying this, père Jacques was already accelerating even as his window electronically returned to its closed position. As they drove up to the southeast corner of Port-au-Prince, Father Alexámenos asked about his luggage again.
“Don’t worry. Our guests never get their luggage the same day that they arrive,” interrupted père Jacques, lying, “unless it’s included in a diplomatic pouch. Is it?” he asked sardonically.
With that, Father Alexámenos knew that his driver was undoubtedly a priest – for it was not clear from the way he dressed – and was either the secretary to the Nuncio or one of the professors or administrators of the seminary where he would be teaching.
It was 5:45 P.M., and the sun was about to set as they left Port-au-Prince and headed up to Pétionville, which was slightly higher up the lower reaches of Massif de la Selle. The sun had set by the time they arrived at the Nunciature, which was sixteen kilometres from the airport if one took the circuitous route that they had taken. When they pulled up to the front of what looked to be a ranch in what Father Alexámenos thought had to be the richest area of Hispaniola, père Jacques simply stopped the car and waited for Father Alexámenos to get out. “Perhaps I’ll see you tomorrow so that we can go get my luggage,” said Father Alexámenos as he closed the door. But père Jacques pulled away without answering, oblivious to the needs of the new arrival.
As Father Alexámenos approached the Nunciature, a man in his early seventies came out to meet him. “Oui?” he said, eying Father Alexámenos in disgust.
He was about to turn around, leaving Father Alexámenos where he was, when Father Alexámenos asked, “Is this the Nunciature?”
“It is,” came the answer. Who are you?” though the old man knew the answer already.
There was no response. The old man continued to size him up with a look of repugnance.
“Is it my clothes?” asked Father Alexámenos, who was wearing his cassock.
“Aren’t you intelligent?” was the answer. “Cela va sans dire.”
“What’s your name?” asked Father Alexámenos.
“Roger,” the old man replied, who, pleased to be asked his name, indicated that Father Alexámenos could enter the massive property.
“Are you a priest?” asked Father Alexámenos.
“Le Père Roger,” said the old man. “That’s me, alright… le père Roger.” This reply was given in a self-mocking, depressing tone of voice, which set Father Alexámenos on edge. But then père Roger added, “That’s Monsieur l’Abbé to you.”
“So, are you a Parish Priest?” asked Father Alexámenos.
Père Roger glared at him and said, “Just come with me. I’ll show you your room.” They went down to the end of a corridor. “Here,” he said, turning on the light. “Now, let me explain the house rules for guests like you, Father Alexámenos. You see that phone? If it rings, it’s for you. Pick it up, no matter what time of night it is.”
“I’m afraid that my Haïtian creole isn’t up to scratch,” said Father Alexámenos.
“Never mind that,” said père Roger. “The deal,” he said, “is that the Nunciature takes some sick calls during the night in the poorest districts of the Archdiocese in exchange for keeping a percentage of the weekend collection taken up at our chapel, which adds up to quite a bit in this neighbourhood. The diplomats here never go. If we don’t have guests like you to help out, I go myself. I’m sure you can appreciate that, can’t you, Alphonsus?”
“Whatever,” said père Roger. “If you get a request, don’t worry. The people always arrange a vehicle, of sorts, to take the priest to wherever the dying person is. They know we sometimes send our guests who don’t yet know how to get around. But this will certainly help you get your bearings, bringing you deep into the centre of the life of the real city, Cité Soleil. It’s my service to you. You do know something about Liberation Theology, don’t you, Aloysius?”
Father Alexámenos wondered what he was getting at with the names of these particular saints. He knew that Alphonsus was a moral theologian whose novice, Gerard Majella, was also a saint, and that Aloysius – remembered by the Church for his great purity, and whose spiritual director was Saint Robert Bellarmine – died as a young religious taking care of plague victims. In answer to the question about Liberation Theology, Father Alexámenos merely began to cite the words of Christ, “As you have done to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me, and…”
“There’s more to it than that!” exclaimed père Roger, shaking his head. Then, grinning wryly, he added, “I hope you have an interesting night…” Père Roger’s face suddenly became contorted. He then repeated himself, this time finishing the sentence with a tone of extreme sarcasm: “I hope you have an interesting night, you filthy rich illegitimate American black…” He poured fourth a string of epithets in perfect Parisian French, the language of the upper class of Haïti. “Don’t worry,” he continued, this time with a caricature of the English of the southern United States. “We all treats niggardly folks likes you just as if they were real people.”
Père Roger closed the door just before Father Alexámenos, stunned with this behaviour, could wish him, bonne nuit. The words, instead, echoed in a hollow manner off the walls of his room. This was the first time since his teenage years in the United States that anyone had referred to the colour of his skin, which, he knew, was much darker than that of père Roger, who was a mulatto, as was père Jacques. Father Alexámenos did not yet know that mulattos, whether they liked it or not, were perceived by some to belong to the ‘élite, ruling class’ of Haïti, however false this was. He shook his head at the reference to being rich. Did it refer to his cassock, or to being American?
Father Alexámenos had his Liturgy of the Hour with him. He made good use of it in the plane, and only had the psalms of night prayer remaining. He felt at home praying the Jewish psalms. Though in exile, they pointed him to heaven. He was sound asleep by 8:00 P.M.
Though it was easy to figure out that père Roger was not one of the diplomats, Father Alexámenos did not know that père Roger had been taking refuge in the Nunciature for some years, waiting for the various ‘administrations’ of the country to change. He was a persona non grata, not only to the dictator of bygone days, ‘Baby Doc’, but also to all the successive ‘administrations’ and governments, though he had effectively been under house arrest only for a few years. Père Roger was a flamboyant ideologue of dialectical materialism, and had made himself an enemy of many, for he had a gift for pointing out corruption. It was understood that père Roger would not be taken by force if he stayed at the Nunciature, though he had not been accused of any crime. This tolerance was an attempt to retain good diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
Power, in Haïti, had long been an absolute end in itself, and had attracted priest and layman alike. It was very much like the voodoo – or ‘spirit serving’, as they called it – which was practised on that part of the island. Père Roger was no different in this power game. Like all ideologues, he never did anything for the poor. He was just good at parroting condescending Marxist sayings about ‘the people’. He didn’t want to realise that those very ‘people’ belonged to a different, ‘lower’ class than propagandists like himself. Père Roger imagined that he was riding on waves of popular support, not knowing that most people saw through his hypocrisy. They didn’t have any politics except to stay alive the following hour. They had nothing.
Père Roger kept himself busy as the guest master of the Nunciature, and entertained himself at the expense of the guests. Every time a guest did not come up to his standard, he arranged that one of the girls from a brothel in the poorest shantytown of the city should ring the number in the guest room of the Nunciature, saying that her grandmother was dying and wanted the Last Rites. Père Roger would pay them well for any compromising photographs which would be easy to take. The girls were happy enough to go along with this if they saw that the priest would balk at going into a brothel. The pictures usually consisted of the priest being surrounded by the girls in various states of undress. If the priest was condescending, they would strip him, for which père Roger would pay more. He made money for the poor, he thought, with the ensuing ‘blackmail’. No one knew that, long before he had taken up residence at the Nunciature, père Roger had been the one to arrange that a previous Nuncio – who was causing trouble for the more extreme of the Marxist priests of Hispaniola – would be stripped naked and paraded through the streets, a way, it was thought, to make those in the Nunciature cease to insist on Catholic love for one’s neighbour. Père Roger rang the ‘Madame’ of the brothel as soon as he returned to his own room.
“Wi,” she said.
“Mari!” exclaimed père Roger, suddenly full of life as a new adventure began yet again.
“Happy to hear from you again, Roger!” was the answer.
“The priest we talked about last night just arrived,” said père Roger. “Make sure you give him the full treatment. It seems he is particularly important.”
“Pictures like that will cost you extra, Roger.”
“Blackmail always pays, Mari. We will see each other later to celebrate. Au revoir.”
“Au revoir,” she said. She thought for a moment, collected what money she had, and sent some of her girls out to get batteries for the cameras. She assigned other girls to clean up the veranda as well as the inside of the house. A presentable brothel was necessary for pictures.
The Nuncio, who was new to the job, knew that this was the practice of père Roger, but did not stop him. “There are legitimate sick calls,” he rationalized to himself, “and one cannot distinguish one from the other on the telephone. There’s no saying that a new priest could not work some conversions at the brothel.” The Nuncio was also pleased not to have extra work.
Père Roger’s activities were a standing joke among the diplomatic corps. They pitied anyone going there, knowing that the game would end someday, leaving the Nuncio humiliated.
The practice was also known to Cardinal Fidèle, who didn’t arrange that anything untoward would happen to Father Alexámenos, but knew that he could be compromised sooner than later. If Father Alexámenos were to be discredited, that would save them all much trouble at the trial.
Up next: Chapter 16 – What are you going to do, Father?
© International 2005-2018 – George David Byers