Jackass for the Hour: Chapter 25 – You look like such a jackass, just so useless
Shaykh al-Hasan’s promised ‘mosquitos’, which were actually homemade, man-powered, ultra-light aircraft, had proceeded just above the waves toward Plum Island’s soon to be replaced NBAF. There were four operators. Two of them, well practised snipers, were now above the central bioterrorism research facility whose presence at the compound had always been vociferously denied. The snipers had just neutralized the guards outside the target building, knowing their schedules to the second. They then started dropping explosives around the target and nearby buildings as a diversion until they were killed, or until they killed themselves, as per their plan. Another bomb exploded just as another operative landed on a predetermined part of the complex, destroying part of the roof. The last of the group landed next to this hole in the roof just as the military island was alarmed to enter war mode. As he landed, he simultaneously threw himself into the gaping hole, deep into the building. He alone wore what looked to be a wet suit complete with air tanks. He had attached himself to his aircraft by a thin, retractable cable complete with winch before lifting off from the small barge they had rented the day before. The cable broke his fall and, before twenty seconds had passed, having obtained what he wanted, he was already departing from the facility in his ultra-light aircraft, returning to the barge. When the first two commandos saw that he was far enough away, they, as planned, blew themselves up in earth-rocking explosions at two other points next to the facility. Within thirty seconds, the remaining terrorist, now passing high over the beach, pressed a button on his phone, which he then destroyed and threw into the water. This had caused their rented barge, a half-kilometre offshore, to explode so forcefully that the shockwaves almost made his ultra-light aircraft stall. He detached the cable tying him to the aircraft and proceeded to the remains of the barge. What was left of it was burning, along with three Coast Guard gun boats which had surrounded it. He dropped into the water in the midst of the wreckage and, making use of the scuba gear a second time, swam down until he found the diving motor they had anchored to the bottom. He used this for twenty minutes, heading north-west, and then abandoned it. He knew that he would otherwise be ‘seen’ by any submarine which would soon arrive to investigate.
Within a few hours, a bioterrorism alert went out to the world’s governments and news media, saying that, although no incident had occurred, a breach of security had taken place. The warning was made that people should acquire masks and stock a six month supply of food and water. Although this put people into a panic for a few days, nothing seemed to come of the affair, and investigations were begun as to who would benefit from the acquisition of what had gone missing.
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A soldier with four years of service showed up at the church of San Lorenzo in Fonte at noon on that freezing February day. His superiors had told him how they had brought the priest to the temporarily abandoned church so that no one would know where he was. Father Alexámenos could be found, they said, locked in the ‘wine cellar’ of the church, whose entrance was just inside the entrance of the church, to the left. The soldier arrived dressed as a workman in a small vehicle, an Ápe 50, equipped with a small ladder and some paint buckets. He was to be the ‘gaoler’, the one who would feed the prisoner, keeping him alive for the trial. He grabbed a small bag, which had a piece of bread in it – he had forgotten to bring water – and entered the church through the adjacent residence, locking the doors behind him. Within the church, he saw the door to Saint Lawrence’s prison. It couldn’t be missed with the life-size statue of the saint next to it, and a sign over the door proclaiming it to be his prison and the site of the fount. He sorted through the key chain and eventually found the proper key. Opening this door, he came to a second. It was too dark to see, so he returned to the small building of the Oblates of Saint Joseph, whose entrance in the church was directly opposite the door to the cellar. He switched on all the electricity and lights, plugged in the space heaters he found, and turned on the water heaters. “At least they remembered to turn the electricity on, or maybe it had never been turned off,” he thought. He returned to the second massive door of the cellar and unlocked it. The door wouldn’t move. He threw his weight against it, budging it slightly. It was resting more on the floor than its hinges. He again threw all his weight against the door. This time it moved. He then shoved the door open. More keys were needed, this time for the metal gate. He tried to shove this open, but it seemed to be blocked. He shoved hard and pushed it open. He had intended to give his prisoner the bread, and then return to the residence. Instead, he dropped it to the floor.
Father Alexámenos, who had been sitting against the gate, had tumbled a few metres down the steps of the passage when the gate had been shoved open. He was already in a coma and did not come out of it even when he was kicked on his arm and was yelled at. The soldier saw that his face was covered with cuts and blood. He checked for a pulse on his neck. He wasn’t sure if he felt it or not. He checked his eyes. The pupils were dilated. He was as cold as a corpse, and was soaking wet. The soldier knew his prisoner would die if he did not regain body heat soon, if he had not just killed him by opening the gate, knocking him down the steps, causing his heart to stop. He couldn’t get any medical help, as he was under strict orders not to let it be known that the prisoner was there. If he died, he knew it would be a bad mark on his otherwise perfect record.
He carried his prisoner to a bathtub he found in the buildings adjacent to the church, dumping him in it, fully clothed. He turned on both the hot and cold water so that it was only slightly warmer than room temperature, pouring this over him continuously. He had received an entire half-days instruction on hypothermia. Warm the core slowly.
A half hour went by. He checked his pulse. He still could not tell if he felt it or not. If the priest was breathing, it was so shallow it could not be perceived, even by holding a small mirror to his nostrils. It struck him that the pulse he thought he might feel on the priest’s neck was actually from his own fingers, and that he had been trying to bring a corpse to life for a half hour. A sinking feeling swept over him. His stomach went into convulsions. He dropped to his knees and endured a session of dry heaves over the toilet. Recovering from this, sweating, he pulled the plug in the tub, draining it slightly, only to add some hot water, keeping the temperature just slightly warm. He recommenced pouring this water over the head of the priest. This went on for another half hour.
He drained more water, adding some hot water again, and started to pray in Hebrew the same psalm which Rabbi Shelomoh had prayed for Father Alexámenos earlier: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”
Father Alexámenos opened his eyes slightly. “Si!” exclaimed the soldier. Father Alexámenos said nothing, nor could he, not yet. “I am Eliyahu,” said the soldier, now in modern Hebrew, happy that he himself would not be demoted.
He drained the water entirely, letting the still corpse-like Father Alexámenos slump down. He then went to the kitchen and found some packets of sugar, emptying them out into a cup which he filled with hot water from the tap. He brought this back, turned on the cold and hot water once again, pulling Father Alexámenos up into a sitting position, having him sip the hot sugar water. It was this, more than anything, which would bring him back from the edge of death, warming his core from the inside.
This went on for another hour, at the end of which Father Alexámenos began to shiver, a little at first, but then uncontrollably for a full forty minutes. This became more sporadic before ceasing altogether. The room was now quite hot. The bar heater had been on its highest setting the whole time. Seeing that Father Alexámenos could keep himself from sliding underneath the water, Eliyahu went through the cabinets in the various rooms of the residence until he found a heap of tools, among which was what he was looking for, a small grinder. He took this, as well as a chair.
“Sit on the edge of the tub with your feet in the water,” said Eliyahu, ignoring the risk of electrocution for what he was about to do. Father Alexámenos just looked at him without emotion. “I see,” said Eliyahu, grabbing Father Alexámenos under the arms and pulling him up. This was not easy, as Father Alexámenos was almost dead weight, being able to help Eliyahu only slightly. He was, however, able to sit without falling. Eliyahu slid the seat of the chair under Father Alexámenos’ handcuffed hands, seeing their mangled, bloody condition for the first time, that some of the fingers were clearly fractured. He leaned over to look at the face of the priest again, not understanding why he wasn’t complaining about his hands. “You must have a high threshold of pain,” he said.
Eliyahu had also trained with some Americans at black sites for interrogation of combatants near the Italian mainland and was well versed in levels of tolerance of pain. Much of it was psychological. He knew that Father Alexámenos had either been specifically trained to tolerate pain – in which case they had someone here who had fooled everyone about everything and was extremely dangerous – or he had a long history of learning about suffering from his own happenstance life history, which, because it was not artificial, not in a controlled environment, was always a better teacher, always more far-reaching into the soul and mind and spirit and emotions.
Eliyahu plugged in the grinder, and quickly cut through the chain of the handcuffs. Eliyahu lowered his charge into the tub, saying, “You’re free,” not intending to be sarcastic, and not yet realising the spiritual freedom Father Alexámenos already enjoyed. Eliyahu’s primary objective was not interrogation, but simply to secure the prisoner. Yet, he could not but employ some of the techniques he had learned, the most effective of which, he thought, in this circumstance, would be playing the good cop. “You look like such a jackass, just so useless, just like me when I was hazed during my first night in the military.”
He saw Father Alexámenos’ eyes come to life, as if he wanted to laugh. Eliyahu thought he could safely put more hot water in the tub than he had before. “I didn’t know that boiling an ice-cube was possible,” said Father Alexámenos haltingly. His speech was almost unintelligible.
“You had a touch of hypothermia… probably no serious frostbite though,” Eliyahu replied, knowing they still had a long way to go. His prisoner thought the water was hot, though it could still only be considered somewhat warm.
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That afternoon, don Hash went to San Lorenzo in Lucina, where the gridiron on which Saint Lawrence was burned was kept as a reminder of the Charity of the Lord in him, a life stronger than death. He knelt before the Blessed Sacrament and, this time, felt entirely empty, as if he were nothing, distant from the Most Holy Trinity. “Who would I be, the one burned or the one lighting the fire?” he asked in his prayer. He let these words hang before the throne of the Most High, knowing that his words had arrived there, spoken as they were, in dependence on grace. The ten minutes of his Penance seemed to take an eternity. Only at the end did he begin to realize that worldly fires meant nothing. The only important fire was that fire eternally issuing from the throne of God, purifying those who wanted to receive this merciful purification, but devastating hell for those who rejected this Charity who God is. He knew he was being nurtured by these flames of the Most Holy Trinity, a Purgatory and Pentecost at the same time. He spontaneously offered his own purification during his own earthly pilgrimage for those who would also accept these flames of Charity while on this earth, as well as for those who, in Purgatory, hadn’t been as generous with this fire as they could have been before they died. They needed to know how to thank the Lord more for their redemption and salvation, just as he was learning to do himself.
Don Hash continued his pilgrimages over the next few days, finally fulfilling his penance, the best one he ever received in his life. It was truly medicinal. He prayed for his Confessor, padre Emet….who, he thought, must be praying for him as well.
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Having drained the water, Eliyahu saw the reason why the water was so dirty. The priest still had his sandals on. When Eliyahu took them off to put them in front of the bar heater to dry out. It was then that he noticed that there were cuts on his feet which had dirt and oil ground deeply into them when Father Alexámenos had been dragged along the subway tracks. He shook his head in disgust, thinking the wounds had to be cleaned lest they get infected, requiring a doctor, in which case he would fail his mission. Given the busted up hands of his captive, he knew he had to do it himself. He did so, playing the good cop again.
Eliyahu laughed out loud, the situation making him recall what he knew about Catholics. He explained to Father Alexámenos the theology of washing feet. Here he was, a Jew, telling something to a Catholic priest, which he knew the priest should preach about every Holy Thursday at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Eliyahu had often slipped into the churches of Rome during Holy Week to hear the homilies that would be given. He never heard any blaming of the Jews for the death of Christ as he expected. He was dismayed, however, at what he thought was trite nonsense about the symbolism of service being expressed through the cleansing of feet. Corporal works of mercy were important, he knew, but there was another symbolism at work. This was his opportunity to teach a Catholic priest a lesson. He had a captive audience.
Eliyahu spoke of the Garden of Eden, how the serpent would have to eat the dust to which the body of Adam would return on account of his having sinned at the Serpent’s instigation. He then contrasted this dust cursed by God with the ground around the burning bush, which had been made holy by the presence of the Most High, a reason for Moses not to wear sandals. The ground had been taken out of the realm of Satan. Seeing that Father Alexámenos was nodding his head in agreement, Eliyahu continued, speaking of Jesus commanding his disciples to kick dust off their feet when their preaching had been rejected by a village, symbolising that the dust of Satan was being kicked back in the villagers’ faces. He then spoke of the Last Supper, when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples and said that his Apostles were to imitate this service, which referred especially to the cleansing of people from Satan’s presence as part of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. “Not all of the Apostles were clean; Satan entered Judas.”
“Thank you,” said Father Alexámenos, struggling to pronounce the words. “God bless you.”
Eliyahu looked at him with curiosity, not knowing if he had a Judas priest in front of him. He had seen the news stories earlier in the day, but had seen enough setups in his few years to know these could be false accusations. He wasn’t going to judge anyone. The trial would sort things out.
“Stay here,” commanded Eliyahu needlessly. He then left Father Alexámenos so as to go buy some groceries at a shop a couple of hundred metres down Via Cavour, returning in minutes. He heated the soup he bought in the kitchen and fed this to Father Alexámenos, who couldn’t hold a spoon in his mangled hands. When he was finished, he said, “I’ve put plenty of people in the hospital. I’ve never taken care of anyone.” He thought that the fruits of his being the good cop would take some time to harvest, but that he was surely making the necessary preparations.
With that, Eliyahu lifted Father Alexámenos up to the edge of the tub, and then dragged him out, trying to get him to stand, which he just managed. With Father Alexámenos’ hands being useless, Eliyahu stripped him of his cassock and wet clothes. He was stunned at what he then saw, instantly becoming furious with him. “What in hell happened to you?” Eliyahu shouted. Father Alexámenos didn’t say anything at which point Eliyahu hit him across his face, opening up some of the wounds under his eyes. “What in hell happened to you?” he shouted again. Only half out of his coma, Father Alexámenos said nothing. Without calming down at all, Eliyahu surmised with a tone of prosecutorial accusation: “These scars aren’t all recent. They’re from different times, and not from any accident.” “You’ve been tortured. A lot. Interrogated. Meaning you’re a spy. Damn you!” With that he couldn’t help himself. He had dropped into the darker side of black site interrogation mode and hit Father Alexámenos so hard that he knocked him out, which wasn’t difficult given his hypothermic condition. He dropped like a corpse to the floor. “Damn you!” Eliyahu said, but this time to himself, frustrated that he had lost it. He left Father Alexámenos as he was, figuring the heater would do it’s work just fine where he was in front of it. He had plenty else to do, including throwing the wet clothes into the clothes dryer. He vowed not to lay his own soul open again the way he had just done. Making oneself an open book was not the way to interrogate someone else. Before throwing his cassock in the dryer he found the Fisherman’s ring and put it in his own pocket, telling himself he would ask about it later.
An hour later, Eliyahu returned to dress Father Alexámenos, who was now able to stand on his own. Father Alexámenos was looking for revenge, of sorts, and thought he had the opportunity when he saw strings hanging from either side of the waist of Eliyahu, from underneath his untucked shirt. Father Alexámenos knew that they were tassels of a prayer shawl worn by orthodox Jews. He reached out to grab one only to be reminded just how injured his hands were.
“What are you doing?” asked Eliyahu, annoyed with the one he was certain was a spy.
“I’m noticing that with these strings, these tassels, you wish to be reminded that you are to keep the law of the Most High, as the Book of Numbers 15:38 says in the Torah, you hypocrite,” answered Father Alexámenos with some severity.
Eliyhu felt himself falling back into black site interrogation mode, ready to strike Father Alexámenos again, but this time he caught himself being caught out, and so simply asked, “Hypocrite? You say that?”
“Moses established judges who were charged with rendering justice… with due process…” Father Alexámenos responded.
“Touché, priest, touché,” answered Eliyahu. “You are interesting, aren’t you?”
“In the Gospels,” explained Father Alexámenos, struggling to talk, “everyone was touching this tassel on Jesus. There was a woman in particular who had a haemorrhage for twelve years who had come up to Jesus and touched this tassel. She was healed instantly because she believed that Jesus was innocent, the only one of all of us who was actually keeping all of the Law always.” He said all of this in modern Hebrew, for he had heard Eliyahu’s prayer for him in Hebrew before he opened his eyes, before he had been knocked unconscious.
“Amen,” Eliyahu said quietly, now impressed with this priest, but wondering if he wasn’t being manipulated. He would get the story of the scars later. Intent on playing the good cop again, he said, “Let’s get you to bed.” The bed consisted of a bare mattress, but Eliyahu threw a pile of blankets on him, leaving his busted up hands on top. “We’ll get splints on your hands later.” Father Alexámenos thanked him and asked it he could offer Mass in the church later on. Eliyahu didn’t answer this, but just said again, “I’ll take care of your hands later,” closing the door behind him. He locked the outside doors and went to a chemist to buy some bandages and something for pain. Sleep was a cure-all, but no one could sleep with too much pain, some of which he had caused and was feeling guilty for it. He needed his prisoner to be in good health. He was guessing that Father Alexámenos might have some broken ribs as well from the way he had been breathing.
Eliyahu knew what the accusations were against Father Alexámenos and that the whole world seemed to be against him. But, as he was going to the pharmacy, it struck him that, had a picture been taken with the scene in the bathroom, when Father Alexámenos had been stripped down, the caption could have been misleading, “Naked priest attacks worker.” “He could very well be innocent,” he thought. He vowed not to mistreat him just in case he was innocent. After all, he thought, the Egyptian gaoler of Joseph took care of Joseph well.
When Eliyahu returned, he stopped in the kitchen to get a wooden spoon, and then into the bathroom to get the grinder. In the bedroom, he saw that Father Alexámenos was still awake, as predicted. Eliyahu threw the bandages on the bed, plugged in the grinder, and shoved the wooden spoon under the manacle of one of his hands. The grinder made quick work of he had been told were unpickable handcuffs. With much antiseptic, he then placed bandages on his feet and hands, trying his best to make splints of pencils he had found.
Almost two weeks went by with Eliyahu taking care of Father Alexámenos. Everyday, Eliyahu’s superior would come, also dressed as a worker, to check that the priest had not broken out. He was unconcerned with Eliyahu’s report of hypothermia, broken bones and chronic shallow breathing. During these visits, Eliyahu would lock Father Alexámenos in the cellar.
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The Ambassadors of the United States and Haïti in Italy, as well as Italy’s Secretary of State finally met with Cardinal Elzevir at the Haïtian Embassy on Via di Villa Patrizi. They were complaining to Cardinal Elzevir that they were under a great deal of pressure from the Arab States to ensure that Father Alexámenos was punished severely. Haïti was especially susceptible to eying the flow of Arab “donations” to the poor island nation. Cardinal Elzevir, who was always loyal in these situations, reported that the Holy Father, who would like to judge the case himself, could not sentence Father Alexámenos without a trial. They replied that they were quite pleased that the Pope would like to judge the case, and then took up the cause, insisting that there had to be a trial.
“His Holiness is unaware of the location of Father Alexámenos,” complained the Cardinal.
“You can have him,” said the Italian Secretary of State, “if you guarantee a public trial.”
“That is acceptable to the Holy Father,” said the Cardinal.
“The transfer will take place tomorrow,” said the Italian Minister.
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During these weeks, after Eliyahu had heard the long version of his captive’s childhood torture under the rebels in his country, they set about discussing religion in the ever intense Rabbinic fashion, with every question being answered by a question which itself jacked up the stakes. Eliyahu referred to his rabbi as Rashi, so, Father Alexámenos, after some days, said, “Rashi was a great Jewish exegete of the middle ages.”
“That wasn’t his real name,” said Eliyahu. “It’s an acronym. My Rabbi shares the same name. He hates when we use the acronym with him since he says that he’s not worthy to be called after Rashi. We’ve also nicknamed him ‘Ben-Nato’ since the election of Pope Tsur-Ēzer.”
“Why?” asked Father Alexámenos.
“Your Greek is not very good is it?” joked Eliyahu.
Father Alexámenos knew Attic, Koine and modern Greek, but still didn’t understand.
“I’ll leave that one for you to figure out in a quiet moment,” said Eliyahu, “but you should know what I’m talking about. It shouldn’t have to be a riddle. It doesn’t mean ‘Son of NATO’.”
Eliyahu would speak to Father Alexámenos about the questions which Rabbi ‘Rashi’ was presenting to his students. The present question was the list of the books of Scripture. Father Alexámenos guessed that Eliyahu’s Rabbi was his companion on the plane, Rabbi Shelomoh, so that ‘Rashi’ was short for Rabbi Shelomoh ben Yishaq. Part of the conversation that Father Alexámenos had with the Rabbi on the plane covered similar ground. Father Alexámenos related some points which the Rabbi had made. Eliyahu was impressed again, but then Father Alexámenos confessed that the insights came from Rabbi Shelomoh, not himself.
“He’s an intellectual giant and charismatic leader in his own right,” said Eliyahu, “whose Faith is lived out in every aspect of his life. He puts many of us to shame. He’s encouraged us to have a living Faith, pushing us beyond suffocating political correctness.”
“Many of us Catholics have been asphyxiated for decades,” replied Father Alexámenos.
Eliyahu was amazed that the priest in front of him, accused of such horrible crimes, was speaking in the same way as his revered Rabbi. He knew that they had spoken on the plane, but it was, in fact, all too much.
After a week, Eliyahu would lock up Father Alexámenos in the cellar for a short time so that he could go speak with Rabbi Shelomoh. It took no time to go to the Jewish Ghetto by going past the Mamertine prison – where three famous Jews had been imprisoned, Simon Bar Ghiora and Saints Peter and Paul – then running up the Scala dell’arce Capitolina, past Romulus and Remus, down the staircase on the other side of the Capitoline Hill, and taking the shortcut next to Portico di Ottavia. Eliyahu could not tell the Rabbi that he was Father Alexámenos’ gaoler. The questions of Eliyahu were, however, so much like the conversation he had had with Father Alexámenos in the plane that the Rabbi suspected this to be the case. At the end of a week, the Rabbi’s curiosity got the better of him. He saw Eliyahu to the door, watched him turn the corner, and closed the door, only to open it a few seconds later so as to follow him. When Eliyahu arrived at San Lorenzo in Fonte, he had trouble with the keys of the door, giving the Rabbi a chance to catch up. As Eliyahu was going into the church residence, the Rabbi entered behind him.
“You cannot come in here,” said Eliyahu, afraid of the consequences, which could be severe.
“But I must speak with Alexámenos,” said the Rabbi.
“I’ve never said anything about him,” said Eliyahu, unwittingly revealing the truth.
The Rabbi ignored him, walking further into the residence. Eliyahu locked the door behind them, shaking his head. They then entered the church. Eliyahu was going through the key chain, about to open the door leading to the cellar, but the Rabbi, staring at the far end of the church, tapped his shoulder. Eliyahu followed his line of vision. They saw Father Alexámenos offering Mass as Eliyahu had permitted him do everyday. Eliyahu, knowing that he had forgotten to lock the doors, was relieved that Father Alexámenos had not escaped, but was worried that the Rabbi’s imprudence would get them all into trouble. As they went up to the main altar, he said, “Your conversation with him on the plane is the reason why he’s here in the first place.”
The Rabbi was not paying attention to Eliyahu, but was looking intently at Father Alexámenos. They walked up to the altar and saw what they could not understand. Father Alexámenos was holding up the Host, clearly seeing something which they did not see. He was witnessing, in Jesus, in the Blessed Sacrament, the reality that all things work for the good of those who believe, whether tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, the sword, death, life, angels, principalities, the present, the future, all powers, height, depth, everything in all creation. This reality brought him to understand more fully the saying of Jesus that, when we arrive in heaven, we will not have any bitter questions to make. This brought him to understand more of the crushing and, at the same time, uplifting truth of Jesus, God, offering Himself in sacrifice so as to fulfil the righteousness of justice in having mercy on us.
After half a minute, Father Alexámenos was able to lower the Host to the Altar and genuflect. The scene was repeated with the Chalice. His sotto voce voice was loud enough to be heard by Rabbi Shelomoh and Eliyahu. The Rabbi knew the Latin Mass well. After these weeks, so did Eliyahu. They were impressed that virtually every word of the Mass was to be found in the Bible, most of it in the Jewish Scriptures, with references to Sacrifice, to Abraham, to Melchizedek.
The Rabbi was expert in classical and ecclesiastical Latin. He was studying the documentation of the things which were now open to perusal in the Vatican’s Secret Archives at the time of Pope Pius XII. He wanted to read everything first hand, not depending on translations, which could very well be biassed one way or the other. Eliyahu had learned Latin by attending the Latin courses near the Pantheon, as did many of his fellow Jews, though Eliyahu, with a special permission, had begun the course immediately after his bar mitzvah. Eliyahu could speak Latin fluently, surpassing the other students, who were mostly Catholic priests and nuns.
When Mass was finished, they saw Father Alexámenos having difficulty taking the vestments off in the sacristy and helped him. His hands were still in a bad way. The Rabbi said, “The media is making you into the heretic of heretics and the leader of immorality. You’re a scapegoat. All scapegoats are put to death. I want to know why they are claiming you to be a heretic. Is it because of your view on the would-be sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham? The Roman Curia has been smothering me in these days with half-truths about child-sacrifice in the Jewish Scriptures. It sounds to me like they are doing damage control on behalf of Islam. They’re scared to death about our conversation in the plane about the would-be sacrifice of Abraham’s young son in both Genesis and the Qur’an. They keep insisting that ‘Everyone is nice, Christians, Jews and Muslims’.”
“That has something to do with it,” replied Father Alexámenos. He then explained his study on the biblical manuscripts.
“But they can kill you for saying that,” said the Rabbi.
“But Rabbi, it must be this way. The last thing I want to seek is martyrdom, which, then, isn’t martyrdom, but entrapping people into killing you. Instead, I simply witness about what I believe, and if that leads to my death, then…”
Father Alexámenos was interrupted by violent blows made against the doors of the church.
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Eliyahu went to see who was outside, but the soldiers had already forced open the church doors, not knowing enough to ring the bell on the residence next door. The wood was so old that the doors gave way, despite their having bars – two vertical and one horizontal – holding them in place. Four soldiers in full uniform came in with the Red Crystal, an ad hoc politically correct offshoot of the Red Cross. Many more soldiers were outside. All the media were there. Since two weeks had gone by, the Red Crystal complained, gaining publicity, that they had not seen Father Alexámenos; they said they wanted to check on his health and give him letters from his bishop, family and others. The Italians agreed, having secured a guarantee of a public trial from the Holy See.
Padre Emet and don Hash, who had been following the news closely, also found their way to the little church. Both were wondering about the significance of the site.
“Saint Lawrence was imprisoned here,” said padre Emet.
“Before he was burned to death,” added don Hash. “I hope I do not have to light any fire.”
“It is the Lord who came to cast fire upon the earth, the fire of His mercy, purifying some, but destroying others who reject It, who reject Him,” replied padre Emet, always consistent.
Finding Rabbi Shelomoh inside was embarrassing for the soldiers. This would feed Islamic discontent within Italy and elsewhere. Eliyahu was told he would be severely punished.
The soldiers put handcuffs on Father Alexámenos, ignoring the bandages still around his hands. He was grateful that they did not put his hands behind his back to do this. Father Alexámenos asked the Red Crystal to put the letters they brought in the breast pocket of his cassock, which once again contained the Fisherman’s Ring. The soldiers brought him outside and told the media that Father Alexámenos would be transferred to the care of the Holy See. Many groups were there to protest the presence of the priest in Italy, but then they protested even more vehemently that he would be given over to the Holy See, saying that this would just encourage another cover up. The soldiers said that they were merely following orders.
Bishop Athanasius had come to Rome a week before, and was now in front of San Lorenzo in Fonte, but had been violently pushed away by the protesters.
The soldiers put Father Alexámenos in the military transport, letting don Hash and padre Emet get in as well. The soldiers knew that these two clerics now had special clearance.
Since the media had stationed some of their cameramen at the end of Via Urbana and up Via del Boschetto, the soldiers turned up through Piazza Zingari, winding their way up the hill through the steep labyrinth of streets. On Via Panisperna they passed the church built over the spot where Saint Lawrence had been burned. “How providential,” thought Father Alexámenos. Leaving Via Milano, they went through the tunnel and then raced high above the city along Viale Trinità dei Monti, leaving the media far behind. They had no problem crossing the river and then circling Vatican City. They turned into the Vatican through the gate behind Domus Sanctæ Martæ. The Vatican guards would not allow the military vehicle to enter, and stopped them there. Having grabbed the chain of the handcuffs, one of the soldiers promptly dragged Father Alexámenos out of the vehicle and onto the pavement. Don Hash and padre Emet quickly followed him out, taken aback by the unwarranted violence. The soldiers left immediately, refusing to unlock the handcuffs. It was not their duty to unshackle a prisoner, merely to deliver him, perhaps alive. The soldiers had seen that some tourists were watching the transfer, and wanted to prove that Italy couldn’t care less about the fate of Father Alexámenos, especially after the Rabbi had been found at San Lorenzo in Fonte. It was a statement of damage control.
The Swiss Guards had a vehicle waiting for the transfer, and brought all three priests to the Courtyard of Sixtus V in the Apostolic Palace. They were taken by other Swiss Guards to the lift, bringing them up to the Papal Apartment as was requested by the Pontiff himself.
Upon arrival, the Holy Father, without greeting them, asked don Hash why Father Alexámenos was still shackled. Father Lia-Fáil had the Vatican police come to remove the cuffs.
For almost two hours Father Alexámenos answered the questions of the Holy Father about his stay in Pétionville, Port-au-Prince, and, finally, at San Lorenzo in Fonte. But then Cardinal Elzevir came to the apartment, asking to speak with the Holy Father. When he entered, he ignored don Hash, padre Emet and even Father Alexámenos, telling the Pope about the crowds protesting below in the piazza, and commenting that the optics of keeping Father Alexámenos within Vatican City itself were not good. The media were making the best of this and, indeed, had spent these hours doing their best to incite a public outcry about the transfer of Father Alexámenos.
“Dear Lord…” Father Alexámenos prayed.
“Your Holiness, I have arranged, if it be pleasing to you,” began the Cardinal, “that Alexámenos is to be kept in custody at the Papal Apartment on top of Castel Sant’Angelo. That would deflect media attention. He would be in Italy. The symbolism of him being there does not hurt us either, for that is where Popes Alexander VI and Clement VII fled during persecution.”
“I am fully aware of what my predecessors have done or not done, Elzevir.”
The Holy Father walked over to the window and verified for himself what the Cardinal said.
“The Italians want to use effective methods of crowd control,” added Cardinal Elzevir.
“Absolutely not!” exclaimed the Holy Father. “They only want to look efficient.”
“Castel Sant’Angelo and its surrounding park is already being closed down for the duration of the trial,” reported the Cardinal. “Given the fact of the aboveground Passetto between Castel Sant’Angelo and the barracks of the Swiss Guard at Porta Sant’Anna, it will be a convenient residence while the trial proceeds in the Paul VI Audience Hall. The barricades inside have been breached in preparation.”
“An announcement is to be made in the piazza that there will be a press conference in the Paul VI Audience Hall for members of the Holy See Press Corps,” said the Holy Father. “Both the new residence of Father Alexámenos and the date of the commencement of the trial – whatever date is convenient for all concerned – are to be announced.”
After Cardinal Elzevir left, Father Alexámenos recounted to them in more detail the friendship he had with Rabbi Shelomoh and Eliyahu, and how the discussions had centred on child-sacrifice, from Abraham to the Holy Mass. The Pontiff did not respond but was quite moved, remembering his own discussions on this topic with Shelomoh when they were still boys.
Instead, the Pope pointed to the bandaged hands of Father Alexámenos. Since there was a small medical clinic in the Papal Apartments, the Holy Father directed Father Lia-Fáil to summon his own doctor as so to tend to him. The doctor discovered that he had two fractured ribs and many bones broken in his hands. He also found that his lungs had some fluid in them, giving Father Alexámenos a kind of walking pneumonia. When he noticed that Father Alexámenos could hardly lift his upper arms and saw the wounds on his wrists, he surmised the abuse he had received from the handcuffs. He didn’t ask Father Alexámenos about the scars he bore, seeing they were old.
“The ribs will take some time to heal,” he reported. “The same goes for your hands,” he added as he re-bandaged them with real splints. “I can’t believe you weren’t brought to a hospital.”
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Afterward, Father Alexámenos was escorted by don Hash and the Swiss Guard to Castel Sant’Angelo. The passageway from the barracks of the Swiss Guard to Hadrian’s funerary monument – which had been turned into a fortress and now into a prison – were cleared and secured by the Swiss Guard in cooperation with the Italian Military.
After they arrived at the top of Castel Sant’Angelo and the Swiss Guard had taken their posts to protect the prisoner, Father Alexámenos asked don Hash to take out the letters that the Red Crystal had placed in the breast pocket of his cassock. He read the good wishes from his bishop, his family and friends. He also read some letters from those who wished to condemn him or pray for his conversion. He prayed for all of them, thoroughly understanding their concerns with the images that they had seen, as well as their thirst for effective interreligious dialogue. There were also many who sent letters stating that they were in the process of sending petitions to the Pope in his favour. Father Alexámenos particularly regretted these letters. The petitions could only do him damage if people heard about them. They would surely think that the petitions had been instigated by himself.
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The press conference had been announced immediately over the loud-speakers in Piazza San Pietro. Members of the Press would be allowed into the Paul VI Audience Hall for the conference to be held within two hours. Many hundreds of reporters had been newly accredited in those weeks. Cardinal Fidèle arrived just before this time had passed. The announcement was simple, and there were no questions allowed. The scheduling for the trial was such that the media would have time to continuously run the story, building it up to fever pitch, without danger of anyone losing interest. This care was hardly needed, for the drama was continuously fuelled with staged ‘Arab unrest’ daily depicted in flag burning and statements which they thought surpassed those of Father Alexámenos for their inflammatory effectiveness.
“In agreement with those concerned,” said Cardinal Fidèle, “the first session of the trial will be held here in the Paul VI Audience Hall on Monday morning, in two weeks time. Prosecutors are ecclesiastical and civil. The accused has opted to defend himself. He has two people for his counsel. All sessions are open to the public. However, members of the press who are registered with the Press Office of the Holy See will be given preference.” Cardinal Fidèle then added his own comments, praising the media for what he called their honesty and accountability.
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The two weeks passed quickly. A large crowd of reporters were lined up outside the Holy Office to go through the security screening within the colonnade of Piazza San Pietro. The process would not begin until 7:00 A.M., but they had been there for hours, hoping to be rewarded with good seating in the Paul VI Audience Hall. The line would make a u-turn through the colonnade, backtracking to the gate next to the Holy Office. The reporters all had their specially issued passes in hand. The first session of the trial was set to begin at 10:00 A.M.
The reporters and technical crew of Vatican Radio were already in their glass enclosed rooms high above the left side the Audience Hall. Reporters from l’Osservatore Romano were taking their seats in the front row down on the floor of the Hall itself. They soon found that they had the worst seating in the house, for they could hardly see through the tangle of large tripods being used by the major television networks of the United States and Europe which had been allowed, as an exception, to invade the Hall. This was in accord with the recommendations of the United States Episcopal Conference to be open and accountable.
Although Father Alexámenos, as a United States citizen, was anything but a hero, the Americans were following the pitches given to them by the media, who were saying that they could be heroes themselves by rallying against the priest. Some reporters were conjecturing that Haïti – a volatile country with an extremely weak government – wanted the Holy See to judge the priest in case its citizens, who were mostly Catholic, had a different view of Father Alexámenos than did the government. Some news anchors were also speculating that Italy and the United States were using the Holy See in order to get out of the impossible problem created by Rabbi Shelomoh supporting the priest even while the Arab states were calling for his blood.
Not all the television cameras were inside. For variety, some were in Piazza San Pietro, reporting on the progress of the avian flu in Europe. That morning, there was a large number of dead pigeons in the piazza. It was curious to see a cameraman kneeling down to get a shot of the last, strained breaths of a pigeon, even while the pilgrims were uselessly throwing bits of food at the few living birds as they would do in all other piazzas of the ‘Old World’. People were filling the piazza, wanting to follow the trial on the large screens which had been standard fixtures of the piazza for many years.
Inside the Audience Hall, three tables had been set up on the high stage. Each was supplied with many microphones, mostly belonging to the media, though some were for the sound system of the Hall itself. Since it was a media event, all tables on the stage, though in a slight semi-circle, faced the audience and cameras.
The central table was reserved for Cardinal Francisco of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who, in his role as the Grand Inquisitor, would officiate at the sessions. He would be flanked by his Archbishop Secretary.
On the far left – if one is facing the audience from the stage – was a table for the Prosecutors. Even farther to the left, and closest to the front of the stage, a small table was also added for Cardinal Fidèle, as had been agreed more than a month before. Opposite them, on the right, was Father Alexámenos, as well as don Hash and padre Emet. Although don Hash was a strategist and padre Emet the foremost canon lawyer in the Church, their services, at this point, were mostly for moral and spiritual support. Opposite Cardinal Fidèle’s table, a chair and microphone had been set up for any witnesses that either side may wish to have.
The scene at the back of the stage, which had dominated the Hall since its construction, had just been removed some days before, according to one of the first orders of the new Pontiff after his election. What had been there was an image of Christ rising out of primordial ocean crud – for there was no other way to describe it – so as to become a necessarily unapproachable, impersonal, cosmic figure of biological and spiritual evolution. It was meaningless expression of post-modern, pagan mythology, a fitting expression of the mistaken view so many had of Revelation, of the Word Incarnate, the Revelation of the Father. The new Pope had ordered that this ‘artwork’ was to be replaced by another ‘ocean’, but this time, a rich blue velvet curtain as wide and high as the entire expanse of the back of the stage. In front of this curtain were hung two items, a large Crucifix of San Damiano and, just below and to the side, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The lights reflecting off the golden colours of the crucifix and the rays of the sun emanating from the Blessed Virgin were strikingly beautiful against this blue ‘ocean’, changing the entire atmosphere of the Hall. The scene spoke of God being with us, personally, making us part of His Holy Family, instead of a scene implying that God was making Himself absent.
Up next: Chapter 26 – Revealed religion sacrifices children
© International 2005-2018 – George David Byers