Jackass for the Hour: Chapter 16 – What are you going to do, Father?
After six hours of continuous sleep, at 2:00 A.M., Father Alexámenos woke up refreshed and full of energy, grateful that he had been able to get in some sleep before any eventual sick-call. There were no religious images in the room, not even a crucifix. He opened his Liturgy of the Hour to the Office of Readings, whose page he had marked with a modern painting of the Holy Family. There looked to be two dozen children besides Jesus. The Gospels, he thought, didn’t necessarily point to the brothers and sisters of Jesus being merely his cousins; more probably, most were the adopted children of Joseph and Mary, the street urchins orphaned or thrown away by their “families.” He would have gone to the chapel, but he did not want to miss any phone call. He dressed, knelt down, and recited his morning offering and the Angelus, which he combined with the ‘Three Hail Marys’ prayer often recited at the end of Mass. Rising to his feet, as his custom was when not in chapel, he recited the psalms for the Office of Readings and Lauds. Remaining on his feet, he continued his prayer, dedicating his attention to the Mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.
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Pope Tsur-Ēzer had just begun a quiet prayer vigil at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in honour of Pope Pius IX, which was significant so early into his pontificate. He spoke from the lower part of the old Basilica, next to Pius IX, facing the tomb of Saint Lawrence, in front of which is the marble slab on which Lawrence’s charred body had been laid after being removed from the grill. The stains of his remains had seeped deeply into the highly porous “rock”.
Don Hash attended, but avoided the crush of people, remaining near the Blessed Sacrament in the side chapel of the main Basilica to fulfil more of his Penance, spending ten minutes in contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity. Unlike his experience in San Lorenzo in Damaso, he trusted that the Holy Spirit was drawing him through, with and in Jesus to the Father, so that he was presented to the Father by Jesus, whose priest he was. He was actually happy to somewhat cognizant of just how blinded he was to the reality of God’s Triune life so different from weakened and often sinful fallen human nature. It was because of the reality of the wounds upon the body of the Word Incarnate that kept don Hash attentive in prayer. He just finished when he was besieged with questions from a pilgrim about Saint Lawrence.
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The phone rang. Father Alexámenos looked at his watch. It was 3:30 a.m., more than two and a half hours to daylight. He knew exactly what the call was about. “Wi!” he said, trying to imitate what he had heard of the local accent which was hauntingly similar to what he remembered of the French of Benin.
A young lady’s voice explained in the local creole – which he had only some difficulty in understanding – that her grandmother was dying and needed the Last Rites, and that a car would pick him up outside of the Nunciature in just a few minutes. Father Alexámenos quickly found his way to the chapel of the Nunciature to get the oil used for the Last Rites, as well as the Blessed Sacrament. Outside, he didn’t have long to wait. He was pleased with that, as it was oppressively hot, even at that time of night. Haïti didn’t have a summer or winter, merely dry and rainy seasons, though he thought this must be the very hot and terribly humid season.
The car that came seemed to be articifically loud, disturbing residences far and wide on the mountainside. If he was still in the USA, he would have thought that this was merely a purposely shortened high-flow glasspack muffler, but he was in Haïti; the exhaust pipe had merely rusted off. He greeted his driver, who didn’t respond. Father Alexámenos wondered how it was that the seats did not fall through its floor. He could see the pavement through the many holes below his feet. He put head out the non-existent window as they lurched away, taking in the breeze as any dog might do.
From his bed, père Roger heard the car drive away, and laughed, only to sigh in depression.
As they drove out of Morne Calvaire, down Rue Lammare and onto Rue Panamericaine, Father Alexámenos tried to start up a conversation with his driver, a man in his forties, asking his name in French. His driver still didn’t respond, either because he was deaf or because he didn’t want to talk, or couldn’t talk. They drove further down into the Cul de Sac. “Right back to the airport,” thought Father Alexámenos. As they neared the centre of Port-au-Prince, they were stopped at various military checkpoints. They passed these with ease when the soldiers saw Father Alexámenos dressed in his cassock. Instead of continuing past the city, his driver headed to the new Cathedral, after which he deftly turned this way and that for another ten minutes, as if avoiding being followed. They seemed to be going in circles, but then they crossed some streets Father Alexámenos thought he had seen coming from the airport. The streets turned into a labyrinth of passages that could hardly be called streets. They were in one of the city’s shantytowns.
The shanties had corrugated metal roofs, often badly damaged. The walls consisted of scraps of any material, sometimes cinder-block, often just more rusty corrugated metal. Finally, there was no place for a car to move, except for the open sewer flowing across a depression between the rows of shanties. A footpath hugged the shanties on both sides of the shallow, fetid water. His driver did not hesitate. Somehow, they made it to the other side without getting stuck, although the tyres momentarily lost traction several times.
Just as they reached dry ground, Father Alexámenos thought he heard a piston going through the block. The silence was tangible. Such was the contrast of the loud engine unexpectedly quitting in the midst of the unexpected tranquillity of the shantytown.
Father Alexámenos noticed that there were no electric lights on in any of the shanties, just a few cooking fires being stoked for an early breakfast. The flickering glow of the embers could be seen through parts of the walls. There was one electric light, however, high up on a pole in front of a large, old house, which was just in front of where the car had come to a halt. The light was plugged into a car battery. Father Alexámenos wondered if this was the extent of the government’s care for the neighbourhood. “How ironic,” he thought. “The light illuminates corruption.” There was trash everywhere. The house was the only one built up on poles perchance to escape flooding. There was an open space in front of the house and, except for the roof, was made of wood, now severely weathered. It had a staircase made up of untreated planks leading up to a veranda which ran the eight metre length of the house. It looked as if it had once been a tiny school, convent, or both, but if so, he thought, that time had passed long ago. The driver motioned with his hand that this was where Father Alexámenos was to go. They both stepped out into the trash.
It seemed that, within seconds, the local people, whole families, had gathered around the house. Any car anywhere near the neighbourhood only came at night, and there was always some excitement to be seen. “The dying woman must be very influential,” Father Alexámenos thought, “and they are all gathering to mourn her impending death.”
But then a young man wielding a machete in his right hand came up to him and rested the large blade on the right, front side of Father Alexámenos’ neck. He looked to be no more than seventeen years old. It wasn’t that he wanted to hurt the priest, at least not yet. Father Alexámenos was the first non-white, non-mulatto, truly black priest who had visited them without previously having arranged for a meeting that would encourage violent, political change, and he wanted to get a closer look. Father Alexámenos could feel the sharp blade cutting him slightly, but since no one in the crowd reacted, he knew he was not in immediate danger. It was just that the blade was so sharp, as if the young man wielding the machete had nothing other to do all day than sharpen the blade. Father Alexámenos looked into his eyes in such a way as to say that they were brothers. This made the young man nervous. As was his custom, Father Alexámenos asked, “What’s your name?”
“Pòl,” was the answer, which made the growing crowd laugh, for Pòl couldn’t pretend to be very threatening with this kind of exchange going on, even if this laughter made him angry.
Father Alexámenos loudly said in his modern patois, “Pòl… je suis père Alexámenos. I am pleased to meet you.” Pòl was fidgeting, and Father Alexámenos could see that Pòl didn’t know that the machete was now more seriously drawing blood, but he could feel a trickle of blood running down his neck. “Pòl isn’t dangerous, but his fidgeting is,” thought Father Alexámenos. Father Alexámenos would rather have talked him into lowering his machete and let him save face, than do what he was going to do next, but couldn’t afford to wait longer.
Father Alexámenos had been in this situation countless times as a child soldier growing up in Africa. He had his opportunity when Pòl readjusted his grip on the machete. Like lightning, Father Alexámenos grabbed the handle of the machete with his right hand, brought it around his back, where he grasped the blade with his left hand and swung it the rest of the way around, holding the machete’s handle out to Pòl, saying, “I could have killed you, but I would rather see you alive in Christ Jesus.”
Since it had all happened too quickly for Pòl, Father Alexámenos had to wrap the right hand of Pòl around the handle of the machete and step back one pace, giving Pòl some room to think. Although everyone saw what Father Alexámenos had done, no one laughed at Pòl again. They were too amazed at what they had just happened. Taking the machete would be one thing. Giving it back again was quite another. Some of the men in the crowd had guns supplied to them by political agitators. While the machete was being given back to Pòl, they took aim at Father Alexámenos, who, although he heard what they were doing, ignored them, knowing they would figure it out soon enough. Those who only had machetes just looked at each other, impressed at what they had seen.
“It’s not that I trust you, Pòl, nor even the fact that I’ve been quicker than you, this time…” continued Father Alexámenos. “It’s rather that our Lord has entrusted Himself to you just as He has entrusted Himself to me, making both of us brothers in His presence.”
Pòl looked him curiously, but not because of what had just been said. Looking intently below the newcomer’s eyes, Pòl’s own eyes widened. He had not been expecting to see them, and so didn’t see them until this moment. Pòl held out the machete toward Father Alexámenos once again, with the tip of the blade almost touching Father Alexámenos’s left eye. Father Alexámenos guessed what was coming, and tolerated it as a way to conclude the encounter. Pòl deftly made some shallow cuts next to both eyes, which then began to bleed profusely. This wasn’t shocking to the crowd which had gathered, since they knew of Pòl’s penchant for continuing the tradition of scars. They knew Pòl had accepted Father Alexámenos as if he were a brother. It was a moving scene for those who also had the scars, the last thing they expected to see that night. The one who hated to see this was the driver of the car, who was getting visibly agitated, fearing that his mission with Father Alexámenos on behalf of père Roger was going to fail. The rest of the men also looked disappointed.
Father Alexámenos kept the same expression on his face, always looking into the eyes of Pòl, even though he could feel the blood running down his face and neck, and into his cassock. It was clear that this group of Haïtians were steeped in tribal and religious superstitions, which Father Alexámenos thought he had left behind in his younger years in Benin. He knew that this was Pòl’s way of confirming him as part of his family, for the cuts made by Pòl merely reopened the scars that had already been there, scars which were identical to those of Pòl. Father Alexámenos knew that most Haïtians had come as slaves from west Africa, and many had come from around Benin. Pòl’s ancestors were from his own tribe.
Pòl then held out the machete to Father Alexámenos, handle first, not so much as a sign of trust – which would have been redundant – but as a gift. Father Alexámenos responded, saying, “I am sorry that I have no gift to give you in return.”
Pòl became instantly angry, grabbed the machete and, stepping back, flung it at the feet of Father Alexámenos, who didn’t move. The machete entered deeply into the dirt just between his feet. The recognition of brotherhood was not broken, but Pòl thought that this emptyhandedness of Father Alexámenos was a lie. “No one ever comes to this house without any money, or at least something to eat,” he exclaimed. Pòl began to go through the pockets of Father Alexámenos’ cassock, not knowing quite what to make of the unusual uniform.
When Father Alexámenos’ driver had seen Pòl throw the machete, he rushed around the car waving his arms in protest. The driver was more interested in getting a cut of blackmail money from père Roger than what he thought was a strange form of robbery. He backed down when he was threatened by Pòl, who, though young, could easily have trounced the older man. To make sure he did not interfere any more, Pòl picked up the machete and slashed the back tyre of the car, which couldn’t have moved anyway with its blown engine.
Pòl then handed the machete back to Father Alexámenos, handle first, and continued searching through the pockets of his cassock. It took him no time to find the golden Fisherman’s Ring given to Father Alexámenos by don Hash just before the trip to Haïti. Father Alexámenos’ heart sank. He had forgotten about the ring, though it had been inspected without fail at all the airport security checks. Father Alexámenos explained that he had truly forgotten about it, and then blessed Pòl, asking God that he come to know deeply the power of Christ’s love for him soon. There was nothing else he could do, afraid that if he reacted differently, he would be outnumbered, and would not be able to protect the Blessed Sacrament which he still had in a bronze pyx hanging around his neck underneath his cassock.
With this blessing, Pòl once again looked at Father Alexámenos. He couldn’t see anything threatening, no anger, no fear. Instead, he had the sense that he was held in high esteem by Father Alexámenos. Pòl stepped back, thinking of a way to stop what he knew was going to happen to his new brother that night. He then turned and went off to carry out his plan.
The driver, not knowing that the engine of the car was destroyed, set about changing the tyre, even though the replacement looked to be in almost as bad a shape as the one which was slashed.
Father Alexámenos now took closer stock of the people who had gathered on that sweltering night. All the men carried machetes. If someone also carried a gun, a machete would be tied to his belt. Knowing the cost of guns – though they were halfway homemade – Father Alexámenos could see that that part of the shantytown was a rebel holdout in the turbulent city. He saw just how poor they all were, suffering from malnutrition, for some of the children had distended stomachs, while others were quite thin, though stunted in their growth. He noticed that there was a certain faction among the boys – aged anywhere, he guessed, from seven to fifteen years – who each had the same marks next to their eyes and, like Pòl, wore what looked to be grossly oversized welterweight boxing trunks, as if they were some sort of pitiful street gang. The boxing trunks were manufacturing rejects which had been stolen from a charity shipment of clothing which was otherwise sold to the locals. As was the case with everyone else in the crowd, except for those who had carried rifles, all were barefoot.
“Where are the girls?” Father Alexámenos wondered. “There are very young girls or middle-aged women, but no one the same age as these boys.”
Like clockwork, a girl came out onto the veranda and beckoned Father Alexámenos to enter. “My grandmother is going to die soon,” she said with anguish. The girl, of diminutive stature, was covered more by her costume jewellery than by the few wisps of pricey looking material she had on. He saw other girls in the house, ‘dressed’ in the same state of undress, with the same kind of jewellery, looking out at the scene through the window frames which contained no windows. No matter how many times they had seen this kind of situation because of Mari’s dealings with père Roger, it was always an entertainment. They all put on sombre faces, as Mari had instructed them to do when they heard the car arrive. The light was just strong enough for Father Alexámenos to see that they had the same scars next to their eyes. “They’re really exaggerating with the scarring,” he thought.
He recognised that it was a brothel filled with mostly underage girls. “Thank God!” thought Father Alexámenos. “They knew enough to call a priest for the Last Rites.” A wave of déjà vu came over him. Because of his own childhood, he felt like a brother to any prostitutes that he saw. He didn’t yet know the story of this brothel, but knew God could draw good out of evil, as had happened in his own life. There was no time to think, only to trust that the Lord, who, having permitted him to be in this situation, would act for those whom He loved so much as to die for them. Miracles of grace, he knew, abounded everywhere, though more frequently here, according to the words of the Lord, than in the corridors of feigned power of some of those in Church bureaucracy. Father Alexámenos took a step toward the plank staircase leading up to the veranda.
Just as he did so, an old woman next to him, who had been watching him closely, loudly said, “You are not to go in there,” much to the protestations of the girl on the veranda.
The crowd did not like the tone of voice that the girl was using with the old woman. Yet, as if taking the side of the girl on the veranda, Father Alexámenos explained, “It’s a sick call,” also loudly enough for all to hear.
When he made this comment, some of the men started to laugh, but they immediately stopped, as if they had seen similar circumstances play out before and didn’t want to compromise the scenario which they guessed was about to follow. Father Alexámenos looked over to them, and saw a video camera with a flashing red light, but the man with the camera disappeared behind someone else in the crowd. The girl on the veranda repeated that her grandmother was dying, and that he should come in now. But as she spoke, he saw a girl in a window of the house who also had a video camera in action, with its red light flashing. She did not realise that, even though there were no lights on in the room behind her, the street light was more than enough to see the camera in her hands. The camera, he thought, was surreal, given the poverty and the tragic circumstances of impending death. Yet, he did not want to jump to conclusions. People, he knew, had differing reactions to the dying of a loved one.
Yet, he thought that it could, in fact, be a trap. He had often heard of this kind of situation in countries where the government wanted to discredit the Church, or at least a priest or bishop. He didn’t want to be suspicious of père Roger, and prayed that the Lord might act now. He didn’t for a second presume that his own experiences in life would somehow enable him to deal with this kind of situation. A ‘been there, done that, and now I’m better than you, so you had better let me help you’ condescending attitude wasn’t going to be of help to anyone. What was needed was the love that only the Lord Himself could give. “Please, Lord,” he quietly prayed. “You died for each of us. Bring us more closely to yourself. We all stand before you, equally in need.”
He had hardly finished this prayer when the old woman next to him, who looked to be in her nineties, stared even harder at Father Alexámenos. Then, in his own west African tongue – of which the others could only pick out a few words – she said, “You’re being set up. The girls are going to sell the compromising pictures that they’re going to take to a priest at the Nunciature, père Roger, who visits here, driven by his friend, your driver, Toma. They do this from time to time, and you’re just the next victim. If the priest doesn’t cooperate, the boys are always ready to drag him into the house to make sure the pictures are taken.”
“But how do you know this?” asked Father Alexámenos, also in his native tongue. “And how do you know my language? I am overwhelmed.”
“I know,” she said, “because the ‘Madame’ inside, who’s pretending to be dying, is my own daughter, Mari. She does this as a service for père Roger.”
“But why are you telling me this if there have been so many others?” asked Father Alexámenos, sceptical as to the motives of the old woman.
“It wasn’t because I saw the scars next to your eyes, which mean that you’re from my own tribe in Africa, but because I saw how you dealt with Pòl, my great great grandson, treating him like a gentleman, not looking down at him. That’s the first time anyone treated him well. Did you see how he looked at you before he ran off? You’re a brother to him now, and to all of us who have these scars. I don’t know where he’s gone, but he’ll be back. He’s my favourite. He’s so much more profound than the others, who look up to him. You did a lot of good, and when I saw that, I thought there might be a chance you would listen to me too.”
The crowd moved closer to them, trying to follow their conversation. The girls in the house now came out onto the veranda, even though the voice of an older lady, Mari, was scolding them. The girl, who had been on the veranda before the others, came down the steps and listened behind the rest of the crowd.
“I know your language,” stated the old woman, this time in the local Taíno-French/west African pidgin, so that all the others could understand. Father Alexámenos did not have much difficulty with this, since it was mostly French mixed with forms of some of the words he learned as a boy in Benin.
She continued, “I learned it when I was a little girl from my great, great grandparents, who learned from their own parents, who were born along the Niger river, but had been taken to Haïti when they were just small children on the last of the slave ships in the 1790s. When I saw your face, I knew you were from my own tribe,” she repeated for the sake of the others. “You can see that I, like the girls and boys, are all from the same tribe. I have the same scars next to my eyes that Pòl supplied for you once again.”
“I don’t remember everyone getting the scars in Africa,” said Father Alexámenos.
“They exaggerate to create a sense of identity, of security,” she replied.
They revered the old woman as their link to the past. She had reached twice the average life expectancy for the women of the nation, and more than that for the poor of this neighbourhood. The attitude of a few in the crowd toward Father Alexámenos changed markedly. It was as if they were meeting their own ancestors in him. Others were still interested in the money they think they could still make.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
“Filmèna,” came the answer. She then reverted back to her west African language so that no one could understand except Father Alexámenos, saying, “It breaks my heart that père Roger pays them so well for those pictures he gets. Even though its only once in a while, the girls make more money taking a few embarrassing pictures than they do the whole rest of the year put together. If père Roger didn’t ask for the pictures, they would have sold the brothel and moved on with their lives.
Father Alexámenos just looked at her, astounded at the irony of père Roger’s style of ‘Liberation Theology’, but then asked, “Does anyone from the Church come into the neighbourhood here?”
“I’m a volunteer for the Missionaries of Charity. I try to do what I can. But my daughter is very powerful in her control of the people’s voodoo superstition. She blocks me every chance she gets. But I know the sisters have long been wanting to turn the brothel into one of their houses. They want to use it to care for Christ in the poor by providing hygiene, medicine – especially for the deworming of these little children – as well as an orphanage, elementary schooling, some beds for the terminally ill, catechism instruction for everyone… and the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.” After some moments, she asked, “What are you going to do, Father?”
But even as Filmèna was speaking, the young prostitute listening behind the crowd insisted, “I don’t know what you are all talking about, but my grandmother is dying, and you’re supposed to come in and give her the Last Rites or something.”
Father Alexámenos couldn’t anoint the ‘Madame’. He would never get the chance. There was no dying woman. Many were still interested in pictures. If he didn’t go inside, they could pretend to be offended that he wasn’t going to anoint a publically ‘repentant’ sinner on her deathbed. According to Filmèna, the boys had been ready to drag him into the house. He knew they all knew it and that it would be counterproductive to say something against the actions of Mari and the girls. Father Alexámenos figured out long ago that there was no such thing as a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. The only choice, always, was to trust in God’s providence and do the right thing.
He turned to Filmèna and whispered, “The Holy Spirit will do something, you’ll see. Just pray. These are also the tribunals before which our Lord told us not to think of what to say, for the Spirit of our Father would speak through us.”
“Heavenly Father,” prayed Father Alexámenos silently, “for the sake of Jesus’ Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us, and on the whole world.” Repeating the words of Filmèna’s question, he silently addressed God the Father, “What are you going to do, Father?” As he let these words hang before the throne of God, he remembered the words of his bishop in Louisiana, who often quoted Martin Luther King’s rejection of the tranquillising drug of gradualism, saying that only a greater love than the love of evil can convert anyone; that greater love, he said, was immediately available with sanctifying grace.
Just as Father Alexámenos silently besought the Lord – “What are you going to do, Father?” – Filmèna took out her Rosary and started to fumble with the beads. When Father Alexámenos saw this, he knew that his prayer was being answered. “Filmèna!” he exclaimed, loud enough for everyone to hear, “you are to pray.” Then, turning to the rest of the people, and eyeing them all, especially the men, he said, “You are to respond to her prayers.” He could get away with this because of the respect that they had for Filmèna. This would appear to be a preliminary prayer for the Last Rites.
Filmèna said the few opening prayers of the Rosary, and some of the other women sheepishly answered with the second half of the prayers, which they still remembered from their childhood. Father Alexámenos announced the mystery. He didn’t know the idioms of the pidgin which the people spoke, but he did not want to speak to them in French alone, so he mixed his French with west African vocabulary, repeating the difficult words in French. He was pleased to see that they understood him well. He knew that although perhaps all of them were Catholic, few would have even heard of the Rosary, especially the youngest among them. He would have to explain the mysteries with simplicity, which didn’t rule out brutal honesty in the face of scepticism.
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Jacinta lay awake, not used to going to bed so very early. She thought of her experience of the glory of God that morning in the convent chapel, which, perceived in utter weakness, had exhausted her. The passage from Ezekiel she had read even earlier that morning came to mind. She did not feel ripped apart in every possible way; instead, in the midst of changing abundance or want she came to know stability in Christ. Although her feelings were still those of devastation, of being far from God, cut off from Him, even despised by Him – and although she had emotions of rebellion along with those feelings – she could, nonetheless, sense that Christ had a grip on her soul, and was drawing her to Himself, immersing her in His mercy. Whatever way she felt, she, in Faith, knew her soul to be in reverence before the Father. She knew, in this way, that Charity unites us to God and neighbour at the same time. Despite many conflicting feelings and emotions – which would otherwise have had her curse the Living God and die – she thanked the Lord for all the things in her life that she could remember, knowing that He drew goodness from all things. She remembered returning to her village as a little girl, carrying water – this time without little Alexámenos – only to find her family dead, as was the family of Alexámenos, though he was missing. Sitting in the midst of death for hours on end, she recalled how some Dominican sisters had adopted her when they saw her. They spent much time with her over the years, as if it were a five year novitiate. The teaching sisters were sorry to see her go – but knew it was for the best – when, at eleven years of age, Caritas visited the area and helped find an adoptive family for her, close to another villager, Alexámenos, in Louisiana. Jacinta couldn’t help but marvel that she had always been nurtured by the fire of the Most Holy Trinity. She found herself transported in prayer, as if before God’s throne, interceding for Father Alexámenos.
Up next: Chapter 17 – A wave of reality swept over more of them
© International 2005-2018 – George David Byers