Jackass for the Hour: Chapter 24 – Is that the way a priest should act?
“Do you remember my wedding pictures?” asked the commander.
“Sure,” Eliyahu replied. “The lesson was… Don’t trust anyone! But that’s old news.”
“We have a prisoner for you to guard, Eliyahu.”
“So, I’m being demoted?” asked the young soldier.
“Only if you fail,” came the quick reply. “He’s really very cunning.”
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Father Alexámenos and the old Rabbi walked off the plane together, with Father Alexámenos bringing the carry-on luggage for the Rabbi. They went through the passport control together. The passport officer looked for just a second at Father Alexámenos, and then at the computer screen in front of him. With an on-edge forced boredom look to his face – which anyone with situational awareness can spot a mile away – he glanced back at Father Alexámenos and, while already looking at the person behind Father Alexámenos, flipped him his passport. Father Alexámenos went through and waited for the Rabbi, who was being delayed. Looking back at the kiosk, he saw that the agent was making a phone call. “And so it begins,” thought Father Alexámenos with a sinking feeling in his stomach. The Rabbi’s passport was then checked without incident. Father Alexámenos went with the Rabbi to help collect his luggage, placing it on top of a push cart.
As they went through customs in area ‘A’, four military police took Father Alexámenos into custody. Though he didn’t resist, his arm was twisted behind his back, almost dislocating it, forcing him to fall to the ground, at which point he was hand-cuffed – arms behind his back – and then, stomach to the floor, was dragged away by the hand-cuffs, something which again almost dislocated both shoulders. As they started, violently yanking on the handcuffs, with Father Alexámenos still on the floor, one of the officers with his full weight was pushing a knee into his back saying, “Stop resisting.” The cuffs made deep cuts in his wrists. They were going out of their way to humiliate the priest since the media were there for the show. They had prejudged Father Alexámenos as guilty based on the reports they had heard about him. “All priests are pedophiles,” one of them shouted, parroting the homosexualist agenda that ably guided the zombified journalists to sensationalistically ignore due process and to ignore the fact that the abuse crisis had almost no cases of interfering with pre-pubescent children, the vast majority of cases alleged to have involved young men.
As soon as they were out of the view of the cameras, the police took off the hand-cuffs, had him sit in a chair, and bandaged the cuts they had just made. They didn’t like blood all over the chair and floor. They put the cuffs back on over the bandages. They did not question him. That was not their duty. He was to be transferred to another location; they did not yet know where.
The Rabbi looked up and saw the newly installed television monitors in the airport. All that was being shown were the pictures in Cité Soleil. He was now almost certain that the reports were a misrepresentation. He wanted to complain about the rough treatment he saw. He went to the Carabinieri and said that he was a Rabbi in Rome, and was a friend of Father Alexámenos, and would like to lodge a formal complaint about what he said was mistreatment. Normally, the Military Police would have treated the Rabbi with utmost respect, but they discounted any discourtesy proffered to Father Alexámenos in view of the orders they had. The two officers with whom he had been speaking went back into their office without saying anything. The Rabbi remained where he was. The officers had also been watching the television monitors and knew the gravity of the complaints lodged by the Arab states against the Holy See and Italy, and the Rabbi’s complaint in favour of the priest in front of the television cameras was making for an impossible situation. After ten minutes the officers came out to tell the Rabbi that the priest would be treated well.
“Where is he going to be kept?” asked the Rabbi.
“It has been decided that he will be detained at an undisclosed location,” they said. “In fact, he’s already been taken away five minutes ago.”
This was televised live, not that the Rabbi intended this. He was speaking only for himself, not all Judaism. But appearances were what they were. The reporters played this up, with Judaism on one side, Islam on the other, and the Pope and Father Alexámenos in the middle. The media had just started to broadcast the conversation between himself and Father Alexámenos on the plane, providing subtitles for the modern Hebrew, while broadcasting pictures of himself standing at the door of the Carabinieri’s office where Father Alexámenos had been taken. The reporters were already assuming that the nations involved would find a public trial put on by the Holy See to be expedient to their own interests.
Besides trumping up the political angle, the media were billing Father Alexámenos as the heretic of heretics, an idea being insisted upon by Cardinal Fidèle, who was holding a press conference in which he spoke of certain difficulties with the theology of Father Alexámenos. The connection between doctrine and morality was easy to accept in the circumstances.
As the military police awaited orders, they continued to watch a television turned on in the office where they were keeping Father Alexámenos in custody. They were mocking him, the priesthood in general, as well as the Church. At one point, one officer, in seeing the images of the children in Cité Soleil rebroadcast beyond his endurance, shouted at Father Alexámenos, “Is that the way a priest should act?” Father Alexámenos did not answer. “Is it?” the officer shouted again. When Father Alexámenos still would not answer, the officer slapped him so hard across the face that Father Alexámenos fell backwards in the chair to the floor. The Captain had been working on a report with his back to them, and, without turning around, quietly told them not to exaggerate.
They knew that Father Alexámenos could not be placed in any prison or gaol, where he would be a disruption. He could be killed by other prisoners over the accusations of child abuse. Any Muslim prisoners might want to kill him due to the reports of what he said to the Rabbi. Reporters and various pressure groups would be causing endless difficulties. The military police waited until the middle of the night to bring Father Alexámenos from the Airport to Rome, to a place no one would suspect, transporting him in a small, nondescript Fiat Panda.
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That evening in Port-au-Prince, père Jacques was sitting in front of a television in the common room of the seminary, waiting for the seminarians to arrive. It was Cultural Night at the seminary, during which video highlights of père Jacques’s ‘missionary’ excursions were shown.
The seminarians, however, had left the seminary after lunch, when Leo had returned from the shantytown full of enthusiasm, inviting them to come with him. Some went out of pity, thinking that he needed some ‘affirmation’ after being thrown out of the seminary. Others suspected that he had the poor in mind and they wanted to help out. All of them went with him, and became so involved in transforming the neighbourhood of the old brothel that they forgot about any commitment to sit and watch videos with the Rector.
Père Jacques began to watch the videos alone, but soon went in search of the seminarians. Not finding them, he suspected what was only now forming in the minds of the seminarians as they walked back to the seminary, singing and laughing. A boycott of everything at the seminary was in the offing, lectures, prayers, meals. They would go to Mass at the Cathedral the next day.
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Two soldiers in plain clothes showed up to transport Father Alexámenos. They drove him to the junction of Via Leonina and Via Urbana, the lower entrance of the Metro stop on Via Cavour. The trains were not running at this time of night. It was unusually, bitterly cold, even for mid-February. Father Alexámenos had been blindfolded, but was listening carefully, trying to discern where they were taking him. They unlocked the gate and brought him in, locking it behind them. They went into the station and turned to the left, walking along the platform. There were no steps, no escalators. Father Alexámenos was counting the paces. Before they came to the end of the platform they simply pushed him off, blindfolded, unto the tracks, a four and a half foot drop. He landed hard on his back between the rails, on the rocks and cement ties. The momentum of the impact rolled him over onto his face against one of the rails. His head had hit hard and he had been knocked out for a few seconds. His hands were still hand-cuffed behind his back. He had landed on them. The soldiers jumped down next to him, spraying rocks into the back of his head. They dragged Father Alexámenos by the hand-cuffs for a short distance, but then lifted him to his feet, pushing him, along the tracks, having him stumble along in a north-easterly direction toward Stazione Termini. Father Alexámenos was still counting. At exactly one hundred and forty paces, one of the soldiers put his foot out and shoved him hard, causing him to fall once again onto the rocks and cement ties between the rails. Because of the way he was tripped, he fell directly on his face, opening the cuts next to his eyes once again. He had instinctively tried to break his fall by holding out his hands, but since they were shackled behind his back, his violent pulling on the handcuffs only managed to cut his wrists more, right through the bandages. He was again knocked unconscious for a few seconds. He knew he was on subway tracks, and wondered if being run over by a subway train would be his fate. He heard the two soldiers busy behind him, making metal on metal noises. They were opening a manhole cover situated between the tracks. They rolled him onto his back and dragged him into the hole, letting him drop. They heard him hit the water below and started cursing at him loudly, trying to get a reaction out of him. When this didn’t work, they repeatedly kicked rocks into the hole. They heard him try to move out of the way, splashing in the shallow water. He wasn’t unconscious. He wouldn’t drown. They had done their work. They replaced the cover, bolting it down, hiding it again with the stones.
It was then so absolutely quiet that Father Alexámenos could hear his pulse in his ears. He was in no sewer, which would be full of noise. This water was stagnant, and there were no rats. He rubbed either side of his forehead against the wall immediately in front of him in an attempt to remove his blindfold. It took him five minutes of scraping, but he finally succeeded. He could feel blood trickling down his face once again. What he then saw disappointed him. He didn’t see anything. It was pitch black.
But then he heard the rocks being weakly scraped away from the cover, and then some feeble struggling with the bolts… to no avail. He then heard his name being called, “Don Alexámenos… don Alexámenos…” He recognised the voice. It belonged to Signor Kondrat, an engineer from Sophia, Bulgaria. For the crime of believing in God, his parents and his priest had been burned alive in the local communist era gulag, in which even cannibalism was not an uncommon fate for many Jews, Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics. Father Alexámenos had rescued him from the Roman street mafia, which had amputated his left foot and maimed his right hand, so that he had to make his way by hopping on one crutch. After his wounds healed, he lived in the subway tunnels at night – loving his independence – finding it easy to avoid detection by the security cameras at the ends of the subway platforms during the early morning and late afternoon rush. He would sleep in the adjacent storage areas of the tunnels under whatever material was there. During the day he volunteered for some religious Sisters as a greeter of visitors to their street hospice.
Father Alexámenos didn’t even try to respond to him, knowing that he had been almost totally deaf for years. He concluded from this, however, that he must be close to the hospice, since Signor Kondrat couldn’t walk very far. Father Alexámenos then heard him start singing, entirely off key, “Holy Mary of the Way.” It was the trademark begging song of Signor Kondrat: “While life proceeds, you are never alone: Holy Mary of the Way will always be with you.” He was not singing it with his usual joy, but with the sense of the hour of death, as at the end of the Ave Maria. Father Alexámenos wept, though not for his own impending death, but for the death of Christ, in whose hour he thought he might now very well participate. “Come, O Mother, in our midst; come, Mary, down here: we will walk together with you toward liberty,” continued Signor Kondrat. Father
Alexámenos was not surprised at the ‘coincidence’ of the old man’s presence. Such things often happened, as he knew from personal experience, for those who truly live the life of the family of God. He thought that, should he survive, it would not be the last time he would meet Signor Kondrat, the strength of whose voice was now fading: “When anyone says to you: ‘Nothing will ever change,’ fight for a new world, fight for the truth.”
Father Alexámenos now took stock of his situation. The hole he was in had about thirty centimetres of water in it, and was hardly larger than the manhole cover, but was fairly deep. He could feel with his head that there was a hole in the wall to the right, which rose about half a metre above water level. The floor level rose above the water on the other side of the hole, but there would be enough room to squeeze through. The risk was that he would be completely soaked with the freezing water if he did this, though he was almost entirely soaked already. There was no guarantee that there would be enough room for him on the other side of the hole, yet, it was a lost cause waiting for someone to rescue him there. Signor Kondrat could not leave the metro station until morning. After much effort, he finally pushed himself onto the dry dirt floor.
He was able to stand up, and wondered where he was. Signor Kondrat was a clue, but there were any number of subway stations not terribly far from the hospice. With his hand-cuffed hands, despite the injuries, he felt diamond shaped rocks making up the lower part of the wall behind his back. He moved a foot about and, not encountering any obstacles, he took a step to the left and hit his head hard on a suddenly low ceiling. Being effectively blind was a new experience for him. He moved along another step and immediately came to a spiral, rock staircase. Taking a few steps up, he stopped. Both the ceiling and the staircase were sealed off. Coming down the steps, crouching down, he slowly went in the opposite direction, scraping his elbow along the wall as a guide. He seemed to be in a narrow passageway, the low ceiling of which – as he could feel with his head – was smooth concrete. As he cautiously used his feet to sense any change in direction in what seemed to be a catacomb, he noted that the floor fell away. It was a staircase. He walked down a half dozen steps, suddenly sitting down on the lowest step, having lost his balance on what he then realized were two wobbly planks having water on either side. The ceiling was very low once again. He now knew exactly where he was. The low concrete ceilings were the bottoms of the subway tunnels which cut through the historic site. He had been here a number of times on pilgrimage. The church entrance was one hundred paces from the Metro stop, which was the only one in Rome without an escalator or any steps, inside or outside the station, and whose platform was not on an incline. It was another forty paces down into the prison from the church to the point where he had been dropped into the water.
Father Alexámenos remembered don Hash having spent a day during the previous summer taking him around to all the churches dedicated to Saint Lawrence, who, don Hash said, was imprisoned here, in the cellar of the Centurion Hippolytus, just before he was burned to death on the hill above, on Via Panisperna, in 258 A.D. Father Alexámenos remembered don Hash’s passion in recounting Lawrence’s ‘crime’ of having distributed the goods of the Church to the poor so that, when asked by the Emperor where the treasures of the Church were, Lawrence pointed to the poor, who were themselves the treasures of the Church. Father Alexámenos knew that, for a few days so long ago, that cellar, deep underground, witnessed great rejoicing in the Lord. Don Hash had said that Lawrence’s fellow prisoner, Lucillus, was blind, but, after being catechised and baptised by Lawrence, was cured. The Centurion, seeing this, also desired to be baptised by Lawrence. When the Centurion Hippolytus proclaimed his conversion to the Emperor Valerian, he was dragged to death behind horses along the Via Sacra just below the Palatine Hill. Father Alexámenos wondered if the first Alexámenos had witnessed the martyrdom.
The tiny church above the prison had been quite active, but when the old priest, its rector, an Oblate of Saint Joseph, died, the Oblates did not want to send a replacement. The church and its residence were closed against the protests of the sisters who also lived there. The Vicariate of Rome was not about to send a diocesan priest there, since they were trying to send more priests into the suburbs of Rome, where most of the people lived. The parish down the street, to which the small church belonged, did not want to be burdened with the responsibility of keeping this small church open. There were more than a dozen churches within a five minute walk. The city officials had taken over the property. They did not do this because they wanted it. They would soon return it. They just wanted to assert their authority. All abandoned churches belonged to the government. They were encouraging the Oblates to find someone to send, since these historical sites attracted tourists to Rome. The Oblates knew this, and hadn’t removed anything from the residence.
Father Alexámenos knew that if he followed the passage up, he would only come to a metal gate. Yet, the air would be less humid higher up. Seeing that he was soaking wet, that would be a plus. He crossed the wobbly planks, which required total concentration. All pilgrims would steady themselves with both hands on the walls to either side of the passage as they bent over atop the planks. He, however, was handcuffed. Finally reaching the other side, he walked up the steps of the winding passage and pressed against the metal gate. It was locked. He couldn’t decide if it was colder there or colder further below. As he stared at the gate, seeing only the pitch black of the darkness, his teeth chattered for the first time, and he shivered. He sighed, knowing what this foreshadowed.
Sitting down on the steep steps, he thought about this move of the Italian government, putting him in the prison of Saint Lawrence. Surely they were keeping him out of the reach of the media, and surely he was out of the way of causing trouble in public or military prisons, where he himself would be in danger because of the crimes with which he was being accused. This would certainly be the last place anyone would think to look for him, but there were a multitude of such unknown places. Why here? Were they sending a message to the Holy See as to the kind of punishment they expected for him? He thought of how Saint Lawrence had pointed to the poor when asked where the treasure of the Church was, and that he himself would not have the same opportunity, for he was accused of crimes against the poor themselves. “Italians appreciate irony,” he thought.
It was the coldest part of winter, and the coldest part of the night. He guessed that the temperature was below zero, and that his wet clothes were not freezing hard, perhaps because of the little body heat that he had left. He knew that he should keep moving in order to keep warm, but he was afraid that if he did so he would pass out on his feet from a combination of pain, lack of sleep and the confusion that comes with hypothermia. He could not afford to fall down the steps. Sitting crouched up to conserve body heat was a dangerous option, but was the only one he had. His hands, like his feet, were now completely numb. He could not even tell if his hands were touching the floor behind him as he sat with his back to the metal gate. Yet, some vertebrae and ribs were so painful that he could hardly breathe. Distracted by his pain, he didn’t remember that the gate opened inward.
He then realised his mistake in sitting down; he began to violently and uncontrollably shiver. He perceptibly felt heat escape his body in successive waves, but he felt too weak to get up. He remembered don Hash telling him about some military exercises in the Italian Alps, when one of the soldiers came down with hypothermia. “To sleep is to die,” he said.
In order to keep himself awake, he began reciting the mysteries of the Rosary out loud, but soon found himself drifting into longer and longer periods of reciting the prayers only in his mind. The prayers he did manage to say out loud made him wonder if he had been drugged, for his words were unclear even to himself. He finished and said, “No gaoler yet.” He added two more mysteries, favourites of John Paul II, the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, and the exile of the Holy Family in Egypt, along with a decade in honour of the Immaculate Conception and then the Litany. He recited the end of the Salve Regina in earnest: “and after this our exile, show unto us the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, O Clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.”
When he finished these words, he was still shivering, though with much less vehemence. As the hours went by, his body was going through various stages of shutting down, becoming so cold that he could not move even with concerted effort. He was dying. He knew it. He couldn’t even open his eyes. He watched his own confusion, as if from a distance. He didn’t realise that, medically speaking, he had already slipped into a coma.
He started to recite Psalm 22 in Hebrew, but only reached the first line, uncharacteristically not remembering the rest. He repeated the first line in Aramaic, words which Christ Himself had quoted upon the Cross: “Eli! Eli! Lema sabachtani? My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” He knew the cry spoke of an ongoing relationship, filled, like the rest of the Psalm, with filial love and praise of the Father… Jesus was speaking with the Father, who was listening. The abandonment – in the eyes of those on Calvary – confirmed the sign of the greatest love, that of the Son dying for us, as sent by the Father. The abandonment manifested their unity, just how completely Jesus, continuing in obedience to the will of the Father, took on what we deserved for our sins. These thoughts swirled through his head. He was trying to stay awake…
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Don Hash was due to offer Mass in a half hour’s time at San Lorenzo in Panisperna, where Saint Lawrence was burned to death. Before doing so, he stopped at San Lorenzo in Fonte, where Saint Lawrence had been imprisoned immediately prior to his death, and where, unbeknownst to don Hash, Father Alexámenos was imprisoned. Although the tiny church was closed, don Hash couldn’t resist stopping there, so close was it to Via Panisperna, and so important was it in the life and death of his patron saint. Although the Blessed Sacrament was now not present in the church, he leaned against its large doors for ten minutes, contemplating the Holy Trinity, continuing the penance he had received. He again looked to the Father, so to speak, through, with and in Jesus. Yet, this prayer was being tested by the urgency of the passing circumstances. No one knew where Father Alexámenos was. This time, his prayer was, “Father… for the sake of Jesus’ sorrowful Passion, have mercy on Alexámenos and on the whole world.” The time flew by, and don Hash walked up the hill, through the winding streets, to nearby San Lorenzo in Panisperna.
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Father Alexámenos suddenly became intensely aware, though not in mind or body, but in soul, as if he were detached from his body. He saw heaven in the far distance, but hell was directly below him, which he presently looked at… frozen in fear. Instead of looking to heaven, to Christ, and moving forward, he trusted in himself, and tried to take a step backward, but could not do so. He was paralysed in his fear as he looked into the depths of hell. He was falling as he looked, falling headlong into its cavernous abyss, tumbling deeper at ever increasing speed. The words of Christ on the Cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit…” would not come to his lips. He was looking at his own misery, the way he would be without the grace of God. His soul, it seemed to him, was, in fear, precipitating ever downward… ever more quickly. “No redemption is possible” was the only thought in his head.
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Don Hash was looking at the Father through, with and in the Eucharistic Christ as he held up the consecrated Host half way through the Mass he was offering for Father Alexámenos. He only saw the Host, but he knew, in Faith, that it was the very Body of Christ, risen, but still with the wounds of slaughter upon Him. As he held up the Chalice, adoring the Blood of Christ, a prayer spontaneously came to his mind: “Father, by these wounds of your Son, by His Blood, you save us from hell. Save us from hell now!”
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By an utterly gratuitous gift of grace, the words of his Confessor came rushing back to Father Alexámenos: “Never look to your own misery, only to the mercy of Christ.”
Forgetting himself, he cried out of the depths, “Abba, Father…” He soon felt himself lifted up, as if into the bosom of Abraham, but the arms he felt despite his coma did not belong to anyone already in heaven.
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The media networks which had correspondents resident in Haïti had already found the ex-brothel twelve hours before. They took images of the squalor to further condemn Father Alexámenos. They did not find or hear what they expected. People were happy, labouring to clean the neighbourhood. The brothel they expected to find had a small sign hung to the side of the entrance proclaiming “Missionary Sisters.” There was a large Cross and a statue of the Blessed Virgin. Simon and Toma had already commandeered some culvert piping and a back-hoe, which was being operated by Simon. As they did the interviews, dump trucks were already filling in the open sewer. The reporters took down the real story, but did not use it, wanting to ride the wave of popularity which would come their way by accusing yet another priest of abuse. They would be especially heroic in that they had brought the story to the public from the squalor of the poorest area of Haïti, and the most dangerous, they said. They continuously aired the ‘abuse’ images alongside pictures of desperate poverty elsewhere in Cité Soleil, pointing out the double tragedy that they said was being perpetrated. They knew that if they ever had to tell the real story, perhaps after some months, they would be prepared for that as well. Instead of any half-hearted apology, they thought, they would be able to return and find that at least some of the children had gone back to prostitution, with one or two having been injured or killed for not doing so, not calling it prostitution, but just a cultural expression of the local brand of voodoo, thus championing the people’s cultural rights against imperial, ‘missionary’ Catholicism. The priest would be blamed for death and destruction.
The media were also airing interviews done by their reporters in other parts of the world with faithless Catholic bishops who were saying that there would be a reduction in abuse if priests were married. Some of the Catholic reporters liked this, but others thought that throwing marriage at the priesthood was superstition by definition, and would not cure anything, or would merely open up new families to incest for those very few who had perverted the purpose of their lives. More orthodox bishops said that heresy spawned immorality, and called for the removal of heretics and those living disordered lives, but only with due process. In witch hunt mentality, they were immediately reprimanded in the press for themselves being defenders of immorality.
Al Jazeera made much of what they called the Haïtian affair, claiming the moral superiority of Islam and insisting that Father Alexámenos had blasphemed Islam worse than any one ever had since the time of Muhammad. Al Jazeera aired interviews of Imams speaking of the great Satan who wanted the death of Muslims, the end of Islam. The priest had to die, and had to die now.
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Without the knowledge of père Jacques, the seminarians showed up at the Cathedral of Port-au-Prince for the Mass offered by Archbishop Pòv. Afterward, they asked him to come with them, which he was happy to do. They brought him to the ex-brothel, telling him the whole story on the way. He didn’t tell them that the Sisters had already met him before Mass, and that he had already given them permission for the new house and chapel. The Archbishop offered another Mass in the shantytown, and then stayed to eat. It was truly a banquet, for Simon brought the best food of his best but now just closed tourist voodoo brothels to the new convent. This scene was to be repeated for many days to come. Archbishop Pòv was listening, putting pieces together, worried about what could be done with the seminary. In a quiet moment, Leo approached him and said, “Isn’t it wonderful how the Good Shepherd is so humbly with us here in the Blessed Sacrament, saving those held by so many to be unsavable.” These words had a deep effect on the Archbishop, who was sick of priests who would, from time to time, offer Mass in a local brothel so as to make a statement in support of the working rights of the so-called sex-workers. Leo ended up staying many weeks in the shantytown with Jozèf’s family after the Missionary Sisters had moved into the new convent. It was during this time that he came to know Archbishop Pòv as a close friend. The Archbishop put him in charge of organizing a Eucharistic procession that would wind its way through the shantytowns of Port-au-Prince.
Up next: Chapter 25 – You look like such a jackass, just so useless
© International 2005-2018 – George David Byers