Saturday, 26 January 2008

An Unreluctant American: A reluctant Cardinal

Cardinal Athanasio's head began to nod only a few minutes into his prayers.The tiny print of the well-worn Divine Office resting on his knees phased in and out of focus; yet his stubborn reluctance to search for his reading spectacles and predilection to squint attenuated his concentration .
Most times he would have recited the psalms and antiphons at the prie-dieu before the artificially lit bay window, but his knee had been an ever increasing irritation for weeks. Many decades ago a Soviet MGB agent's bullet had lodged in his leg , only seconds after the young priest had leapt from the trans-siberian express. It took the third office eleven weeks to find him amongst orthodox sympathisers in a village outside Novosibirsk. Incoherent and near-death,an eighteen day "journey through hell" followed and two of the group were arrested and summarily executed while smuggling him out. His subsequent infection and the muscle death which pumped toxins through his kidneys are horrors which should only be related in medical journals. Amputation would have been the safer treatment but no-one knew whether it would hasten or delay his demise. Divine mercy ensured Athanasio was rarely conscious throughout the subsequent four months in one of Mindszentsky's hungarian safe-houses; but even with the passing of fifty years the nightmares remained...

Failing to suppress a yawn during the Te Deum compelled him to apologise to the Blessed Trinity and limp over to the coffee maker. Downing the barely warm dregs he reached for his Gauloises Blondes,extracted one, and estimated how many cigarettes remained.
Following a minor stroke, and well aware that the pigheaded cardinal would never relinquish his nicotine-fixation, a despairing Doctor Tipaldi had limited him to five a day in the vain hope he would stick to fewer than ten; with the remote possibility that the cadaverous frame may regain its appetite and a few pounds? The Cardinal had always been too old to change. The Second Vatican Council had occurred while he was still a relatively young rural cleric, but even then, the "new ways" were not for him...
It was an almost herculean labour to remain under two packets of twenty ; for the cardinal it resembled being sentenced to a Lenten Fast in perpetuity.
Athanasio concluded that giving up smoking would not make him live any longer; it would just feel that way.
Collapsing into an armchair, he pulled the cord of the nearby standard lamp and reached over to the desk for the topmost folder.
Lighting a cigarette, he casually thumbed through "the american"'s file; the majority of which was courtesy of 'the eighth'.
[It was a minor misnomer as the cleric was Irish, but the title was more apposite as he "out-americaned" the natives.]
He skipped all the Parental, family, school and pre-seminary details. The seminary file was part of the directive, so he moved on to the reports of his life as a priest.

Apart from a minor run in with the feisty Bishop Kiel, early theological / liturgical skirmishes with various conservative parishes, school boards etc, and the occasional sailing close to the wind with his views on the church and feminism; his record was impeccable.
No financial irregularities [to be precise he had ousted three fraudsters in the diocesan chancery when the auditors had failed to notice anything untoward.]
No women [despite his ardent feminism], no men [ditto his gay equality agenda], a light drinker, an ex-smoker turned body-cultist [the cardinal gazed at the silver plumes of smoke emanating from his gauloise but defiantly refrained from extinguishing it].
Academically impressive but unexciting [Maritain,Lonergan, Rahner,Marcel,Tillich etc - all the trendy prevailing "personally relevant" pseudo-theology] Athanasio rolled his eyes. Typical long-winded and invariably incongruous heterodoxy for the chattering classes...Modern theology's intent was to imply profundity without any recourse to coherency or logic.

The file continued unremittingly:

The priest was a phenomenal workaholic , ambitious, accommodating, socially mobile but his effusive character prevented the necessity of , what do the americans say? "apple-polishing" seemed to be the politest metaphor.
More of a "human doing" than human being. A common flaw in the less-spiritual , but more excusable than the pervading indolence and neglectful [if not downright disrespectful] irreverance increasingly found amongst western clerics.
Psychological assessments gave a classic warrior-leader profile. A myers-briggs ENTJ. This man ran the store, expected others to know it, but also [in "analyst-speak"] he accepted the necessity of mutual appreciation, respect and responsibility [On record he had few qualms in ruthlessly dismissing the inept or those non-conducive to his "life-motivating" programs]. Athanasio had some respect towards those with the courtesy to stab their enemies in the front, but it did not delude him from recognising a bastard when he saw one.
Decisions are made by the people who show up,and this guy always did : committee,delegation,quorum,deputation,council,clade....he belonged!
The media soon caught on to this, and the priest who had a soundbite, a joke and a "fortune cookie" truism for every situation; ended up as a regular commentator on practically every religious or social "hot topic". During which he became adroitly adept at humouring all while offending none.
When it came to enemies,they were solely amongst the less popular, almost "irrelevant" clergy ; most hostility and resentment admittedly resulted from envy and therefore remained the subject of gossiping phone-calls or the more alcohol-laden priestly gatherings...
The antipathy was less against him and more to do with his position as a "camera-hugger" and a renowned religious "voice of common sense". Even a minor association with him was enough to impress the average parishioner, so the majority of priests claimed him as a personal friend.
For ordinary catholics this man was the epitome of hope for the contemporary priesthood, he was truly a man of the people who had time for everyone, was inoccuous,enthusiastic and promoted "sensitive christian" values wherever he went. The banner he hung above the doors of his first parish church read : "There are no strangers here"....and that message seemed to be an ongoing fundamental tenet of his ministry.
This cleric was certainly no stranger to popularity.
Laminated sheets of press cuttings were in abundance: Preaching at Lay ministry conferences, Chanting at charismatic renewal events for world peace, walking the streets of Sacramento protesting for immigrant rights, opening a new hospice for A.I.D.S. sufferers,a protective arm round a hollywood starlet as she leaves a drug rehabilitation clinic, visiting prisoners on death row,dressed as charlie chaplin collecting money for the homeless on public service tv, Receiving a standing ovation at the world council of churches for his speech on child labour in the developing world,giving a sombre testimony to congress where he broke down in tears regarding violence against women...
Photos from numerous ceremonies where awards were dished out for charitable works.
His presence on the platforms at "socially relevant" campaign events. Whichever charity was "flavour of the month" he would be centre stage.

The cardinal's antipathy towards the cleric slowly intensified as the images revealed ever-more clearly that this young priest had abandoned his true calling of service to the faithful from almost as soon as he was ordained !
The International Youth Rally where he gave general absolution to the crowds in forty-one different languages. A memorable record of his consoling a famous film star's widow at the dedication of a new chapel in the great comic actor's name at the metropolitan cathedral. More images of him playing football with Angolan orphans, engrossed in a checkers game with a photogenic asian youth and reading children's stories to kosovan refugees, laughing or shaking hands with celebrities,politicians,nuns and clerics of every rank,denomination or race...

The Cardinal felt a modicum of guilt by finding the whole dossier unimaginably boring.

One saving grace was that at least there was no guitar in tow!
He'd seen all this many times before; usually among bishops : men just recovering from their mid-life crises, and, with the realisation that time was running out, they went full steam ahead, all cannons blazing...vain attempts for a minor role in history....
But this man was only thirty-seven and he'd lived the lives of a dozen of his more renowned contemporaries?
Not only was this priest destined for high office, practically everyone expected it imminently. Even his bluff ,officious archbishop who begrudged sharing the limelight with his "wonderboy" was on the record as saying , ostensibly without the tiniest hint of irony "the only truly annoying thing about him is that you find it impossible to dislike him...."
Only those who have spent many years around the clerical argot and psyche would be able to understand that this sincere declaration was clergy-speak for "I hate the bastard"
The Archbishop was not alone in being more than slightly disconcerted when the request to make this "blue-eyed boy" a monsignor was delayed with procedural hesitancy and vatican red-tape.
Then came the summons to Rome.

Athanasio envisioned an american archbishop in ecstasy . A call to Rome indicated two possibilities: Promotion and/or a clerical position in either Rome or some far-flung hell-hole. Whichever outcome , the american was out from under the archbishop's feet.

Even if the american had not been intrinsically linked to the Levi directive , he would have been the perfect choice for the mission he was about to be given.
Amenable, amiable and although probably as untrustworthy as the next fellow; he could make enough melodramatic overtures to appear plausibly sincere to the more fervent cynic.
He also had immense experience in the procedural labyrinth of administration,detente and the interminable composition of "never-to-be-read" reports.
Exemplary in all things detestably secular : This man was "made for the job".

There was also the distinctly vituperative anonymous letter to consider...

It was a simple twist of fate that it was read in full, let alone noticed.
Monsignore Genovese usually controlled the tiny office that dealt with Papal correspondence and he was renowned for training his select staff to speedread the first few lines of any letter to deduce the full content - prayer requests, complaints ,letters of thanks , invites to visit the writer's country etc. Genovese was in hospital for an operation on his prostate, and in his absence, some of the postal backlog was transferred to the local convent of the sisters of charity. A young novice read the two unsigned typewritten A4 sheets with an avid interest only an amateur could possess. It was quite probable from the letter's details that ,with a strict adherence to Canon Law, absolution from a bishop was required.
Once the superior was notified , it was decided that the distinct possibility of the letter's authenticity necessitated discernment from a higher office.

The accusations entailed within were,of course, misinformed and erroneous; but it required negation with substantial corroborative evidence.

Athanasio savoured witnessing the american's reaction to the letter. He considered suggesting a small wager with Monica that the american's opinions would hardly be congruent with the pseudo - "Perigord interpretation" of events the letter detailed.

When Cardinal Listener, the man chosen to head the operation, took on the mantle of the Levi directive he was going to have a rough time separating fact from fiction; the american would be a valuable asset in bringing "Levi" to a "workable" close.

The whole scenario unsettled Athanasio, there was something very wrong with the letter.

Its unknown author [although he had his suspicions] was being wilfully misleading ; aware of intricate details but making impossible errors concerning the order of events,locations and the dramatis personae involved.
Generally this would have meant a formulaic positional addendum to a file,date-stamped, signed-off and archived.

There was the rub...through highly irregular circumstances the ninth office had become involved; albeit in the latter stages of an operation which, were it to come to light, would be an embarassment to all, enrage the South African Church and rock the Irish establishment to its foundations.

Athanasio would never forget that Sunday evening in early June, a heated and colourfully-worded disagreement amongst departmental heads being abruptly brought to an immediate halt by a phone call: An almost incoherent young man screaming profanities and pleas for assistance in equal measure.
After a few short questions, the cardinal informed the anguished youth that he must remain calm and stay where he was while he was put on hold. Athanasio had pushed the telephone silence and speakerphone buttons for his fellow officials to hear...
The Cardinal knew exactly what he was about to do ; irrespective of his fellow clerics opinions on the matter. In later times Monica would dub these as the cardinal's "Van Helsing moments" ; in allusion to Athanasio's uncanny resemblance to the Dracula-Nemesis portrayed by Peter Cushing.

On most occasions the sallow-faced cleric looked no more than a wizened old man a mild gust of wind would sweep away; but there were instances when a spark of divine fire seemed to emanate from his eyes and to any who had experienced it, few would question the cardinal's ability to vanquish the powers of hell let alone deal with any earthly crisis.
The young man's sobs of

"Oh God...please don't die!!!"

echoing throughout the office, dissuaded any opposition from the listeners.
Sr Filomena, the ninth office executive deputy at the time, hastily blessed herself, eyes closed tightly in prayer.
Ng Hoc's incredulity at the situation forced him to break the silence.
"Excellency . what are you doing ?"
Cardinal Athanasio rarely scowled, but did so now...
Yet it was Bishop Zwimmer who rapidly interjected with unexpected determination and tenacity:
"Whatever he can !! As will we all your grace!!!"
Athanasio opened a drawer in his desk and pushed a black button within...
Richard Perigord was only half-way through a choking desperate prayer - the "Memorare" to the Blessed Virgin - when Athanasio returned to the phone....
"Richard? Listen carefully...."

So many years had passed, but remembering it still brought a shiver to the ageing cardinal.
There were many people who wanted to give Richard Perigord a medal, others would have relished the opportunity to wring his neck. The sheer audacity of the man to...well?

The Secretariat were all too willing to cast Perigord to the wolves, and reprimand the ninth in the process, but Reinhardt intervened for the sake of both propriety and avoidance of scandal.
There were procedures. Interviews, briefings, archiving etc : but what was originally intended as a three day assignment with Sr Monica at the head of a four man team of canon lawyers and archivists; turned into a harrowing seven week psychological "bender".
Monica returned to the ninth laden with four ring binders of transcript, an embarassing expenses bill and a sheer disbelief that nothing,absolutely nothing regarding this was known by anyone in the entire Secretariat. She wanted heads to roll and intended to request a clearing of her desk to investigate this "bombshell".
Sister Filomena [her predecessor, now deceased ] firmly informed Monica that Athanasio was briefing his Holiness at Castel Gandolfo, immediately thereafter proceeding to Tripoli with a mandatory communications blackout and was therefore unavailable [which was vaticanese for "he's under orders not to speak to you"] .It was obvious the General Council were not involved [they couldn't be trusted], therefore the decree came directly from Firenze , the Secretary of State, if not higher. She recognised this process.
Ten days later Athanasio returned to the ninth, summoned Monica and Filomena to his office and informed them that yes, an unknown murderer would remain unpunished, [possibly] able to kill again; but if the case were to be re-opened at this time, the lives of three individuals were definitely at risk. Protective custody was not an option for these people; there was even the remote possibility that one of them was a murderer. The identity of the killer being so uncertain, any attempt to question, investigate or even be present at certain locations in an official capacity could compromise many more people's safety. The eight main people under suspicion were to be grey tagged [Sr Filomena's arena] ; but Monica had seventy-two hours to devise an operation which would ensure this case achieved dormant status within three months.
It was exceedingly more than Monica had expected; far less than she had desired. As for the "cover-up"/"witness protection" very little was required as the majority of provisions had already been implemented. Ironically "the dead" were burying "the dead". It was ingenious. Risky, but neatly open-ended. Were things different a certain young man would have been invited to join the ninth. Monica was more content than she thought possible, given the circumstances; but that grim resolution to avenge was barely constrained beneath the surface. Yet like all wise women, she knew the benefits and opportunities that could be bestowed upon those who wait.

She was however, oblivious to the knowledge that Cardinal Athanasio had threatened resignation to ensure the dormant status : The Secretariat had recommended a "binding" - All records to be sent to the fourth's archives in Switzerland - the silencing under pain of excommunication for all operatives; their mandatory short-term reassignment becoming an imperative.
The three people at risk were to be "plumb-lined" :persuaded, coerced, bribed,blackmailed or inveigled into accepting positions in locations solely at the discretion of the Secretariat [i.e. where surveillance required the least expenditure and manpower - invariably a monastery]. This was usually a practice only enforced upon misbehaving clerics .

The whole thing was being buried, and buried deeply. Something the ninth could not allow to happen.
Athanasio was crestfallen , and all too aware that this deliberation was not in the remit of the Secretary of State; this reeked of Cardinal Reinhardt.

The Reinhardt crest declared "Frangas non Flectes" - roughly translated "break but will never bend". Athanasio thought a more appropriate motto would be "turn the lights out and they'll think nobody's home".

Wise despots maintain a popular sense that their subjects are helpless and ineffectual.This was the way the Secretariat under Firenze was run and it invariably kept the departmental heads in contention and in an intermittent state of internal disruption; only the stronger-willed like Athanasio could confront this "divide and rule" policy 'head-on' and survive.
Wiser ones like Reinhardt allow minions to believe they have autonomy and absolute power over the irrelevant ; it deceives them into presuming their superiors are in more control of global forces than is actually the case...The "fake it till you make it" agenda can be beneficial to those who inaccurately perceive minor limitations as insurmountable; but giving a man a pair of ice-skates is not teaching him how to walk on water. Too many of Cardinal Reinhardt's functionaries flew high ; only to fall like Icarus....

With His Holiness succumbing to even more frequent and prolonged bouts of illness; and the only potential Clerical counter; Cardinal Joachim von Sturman , the Bavarian Silver Fox , head of the Holy Office ; being encumbered with a perpetual deskload of intellectual and moral battles , rather than secular; it gave Reinhardt an almost free hand ; and Reinhardt was a frequent problem...It was one of the vatican's deepest ironies: One of its most capable men was among the most incompetent . What made things a million times worse for anyone who despaired of having "the ostrich" in such a position of authority was Reinhardt's intrinsic moral decency and almost saintly affability. There are few things more frustrating than having a superior who would have made an excellent father confessor or spiritual director, but in a crisis would waver,meander and hesitate . A man whose only decisions were to delay or. if possible, to avoid making decisions. Evil may thrive when good men do nothing , but when those good men prevent others from acting ? Chaos reigns.

Athanasio agonised over confronting the "Second most powerful man in Rome" . The meeting was inelegant. Athanasio knew where the bodies were buried and guaranteed he would wreak havoc unless the perigord files remained dormant. The hurt in Reinhardt's eyes was almost unbearable to witness, through moistening eyes he acquiesced and even thanked the cardinal for his candour; but the retributional Firenze ,Secretary of State, would ensure that Athanasio would not go unpunished for the showdown with Reinhardt ; despite Reinhardt's orders to the contrary.
Athanasio got the least of what he wished for ; for a price many would have considered too high given the minor nature of the case.
Unless the pope were to intervene, the vindictive Secretary of State made it known that there would be no pleasant Nunciature Athanasio could retire to; instead he was to lead the ninth "until he dropped" or became "unfit for duty" and carted away to the purgatory of San Benedetto's Rest Home.

That was twelve years ago, much had changed.
The english have a perfect word for it: Shabby.
The Vatican was no longer just tarnished by scandal, pragmatism and ever-increasing hostility from every corner. It felt shabby !!
Every day it became more of an internal struggle to maintain that [some may think naive] idealism which was once so readily available to the faithful who dwelt at the heart of the Church - The Mystical Body of Christ once seemed to universally nurture those who served the "servant of servants", but recently more and more seemed to be burdened with a world-weariness they could not shake off.
Certainly there had always been a form of "tainting" which the clergy experienced once they became over-familiar with Rome. Not so much a Cynicism, more a readiness to assume less of people. The age old catholic mantra of "hate the sin, love the sinner" had a predilection to revert to the humanist "nobody can be expected to be perfect". Moral relativism and ill-informed psychobabble seemed to all too readily equivocate away any ethical issue and subsume itself in pragmatism for a peaceful life.
There was also a continual danger of adopting a "haughty spirit", especially among those who were too young to endure Roman legalistic arrogance without being slightly contaminated...
but now? a gauze of fear, loneliness,neglect and insincerity seemed to blot out the sun....

There were reasons for this. Reasons Athanasio was incapable of confronting...

Twelve years. Conditions and perspectives now leaned towards the actuation of the Levi directive. Monica's wish was coming true, but far from the way she wished it to happen...She was also older,wiser and experience had been a cruel teacher. Just because you are present and aware of an injustice does not make you the ordained executor of retribution.Sometimes the hardest thing in the world to do is to walk away...and wait till the right person comes along to finish the fight. Even if they are ill-equipped,less experienced and hardly capable of enduring the battle; they are the ones destined to serve their purpose in this way....

The Cardinal raised himself up,wearily rubbed his eyes and gazed intensely into the mirror above the fireplace.
Whispering "Be careful what you wish for" he hesitated, almost as if his reflection would give a disconcerting ensure this didn't happen , and that he remained moderately sane, Athanasio winked to the eidolon and,turning quickly, resumed his seat of power behind the desk.

The clock struck eleven, Athanasio checked and subsequently ignored his pager. Monica would be here in ten minutes for the mid-morning briefing. Enough time to read another chapter of the Balzac he'd been attempting to finish for weeks...

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