“In the interest of the church—“ his gilded robes settled on the floor as he eyed the preoccupied priest. “—Father? Are you even listening to me?”
But the tattered pages that rustled in his hands were far too engaging to be given only partial attention. They smelled of rotting water and the edges were frayed – so frayed, in fact, that the discoloration from months of abuse had brought tears to the very center of the text. It was hard to make out even the boldest lettering. Nonetheless, Father tried to glean the meaning from those faded words – something important.
Bishop Vendetti sighed, turning his head to stare out the stone framed window over the rooftops of Venice. The city was calm on Sundays, quietly enduring the heavy clouds that sagged mere feet above the thatched roofs. Sundry noises crept and burst in this pocket and that of the many causeways of the city; the clattering of wooden wheels and horses’ hooves could be heard in symphony across the many districts. Occasionally, a coherent proclamation could be heard in one of the many squares. The idle, the impoverished, and the lame were always the audience – forever seeking the revolution that would improve the sad state of their decrepit lives. But the bishop smiled at this revelry, wondering what of the world if Venice didn’t stand so tall among its city brethren. How after all, could the holy Church resolve to be so powerful if cities such as Venice did not afford the degraded masses that needed redemption? In the hearts of the destitute lay the advance of the Church, and, in a more specific way, the rise of Bishop Vendetti.
“Your eminence,” Father began, but whatever should have followed was cut out from under him. His mouth hung open, hands finally still. The air hung dry with silence.
“Yes?” The less-than-patient bishop turned, rearranging his robes as though he were perpetually in pose for a portrait. “Do you have an opinion on what to do with the letters? If anything, let it be said now. The Holy Father will not hear suggestions from a parish priest.” At the descent of his final words, Bishop Vendetti lowered his brown, forehead wrinkling, the rings on his interwoven fingers shimmering in the morning sunlight.
“I was going to suggest,” Father softly proceeded, “that we keep the letters from the Holy Father until we know who they came from.” The words fell flat on the rotting wooden planks of the floor. They had no strength, no surety. But above all, his fingers began their racket again, tugging at the corners of the pages in his hands. He had stopped reading it now; it was simply a distraction, a nervous tick.
Bishop Vendetti rose from his oeuvre by the window, coarsely stumbling to the stick-bone priest. Pausing in a fit of coughs, lunging for a simple, unadulterated breath, he pursed his lips as he raised his bulbous head, eyeing the minister in his eyes.
“It will serve as an example.” Rough words, jagged at the edges met Father at the cusp of his anxiety. The man was racked with worry, dragging the demons up and down inside himself. And who could say why? None but he. And the presuming bishop, being ever-involved in himself, could do nothing but think on it as a mixture of intimidation in his presence and a fear for the fate of the Church. So he walked – hobbled, rather – across the creaky floor to the stairway. Father stood frozen in front of the window, alternating gazes between the vast waterways of the city and the incredulous incrimination of the few papers he held in his hands. The death of some was imminent in this great offense against the Church. Nothing more was to be said; the bishop had spoken.
* * *
Streams of vagabonds and class elites fell into the church on Sunday. Resounding in the great beast of a cathedral were heard the ever-favorite chants of Pope Gregory. Fumes buffeted the crowds, pew on pew, as the many acolytes descended on the faithful. There were so many sinners there: the rich aloof who do not care to know God, but deign to feign His worship; the trying middle class who wear the marks of some success, but are never sure to praise themselves or God for this inheritance; and then, the unsuccored, dilapidated many. They stratified themselves inside His Church, the poorest of spirit and richest of means being at the very front. Their host was the most pure, offered by the bishop himself. And the poor? Who should care to give them anything; if they stole the holy Eucharist, the better for them. If given the remnants and crumbs by acolytes, the more their salvation. But nothing was given to them; it was earned. It was taken.
At the helm of this gigantic mess, presided Bishop Vendetti. His gesticulations were embellished, his words enunciated with artificial pomp. But this congregation took it in – not because of him, by any means, but because the state of one’s appointment is such that offices are rendered some attention. If there had been another obese pontiff in that high-backed chair of his, the noisome faithful would not object. Therefore, enamored of himself and willfully ignorant of the weight of his position, Bishop Vendetti mouthed the Vatican-sanctified prayers. He hummed the chants, at horrible rhythm, collapsing any state of holy ceremony there might one have been. To make matters worse, the Church’s long affair with incense dulled the vigor of his voice; he hacked out Latin with a certain belch that careened across the faces of the noble fronters. This was the circumstance of Bishop Vendetti’s mass.
At his side, meekly clad in blackened robes, stood Father. His face was often toward the floor, hands crossed at his waist. He said nothing; with small gestures, he crossed himself, with humble motions, he offered up the gifts to the most venerable bishop. He was a poor assistant – not in act, but in nature, caring more to be the unseen arm of the persona Christi than a fellow celebrant in such distorted ceremony as this high mass. But while this was the common arrangement Sunday mornings, Father’s eyes – when seen – held a duller light than they usually did. His face was dryer, his features sagged. And yet, in this seeming depression there was hid a tension. He was in conflict, and yet continued his procession in the way of life he had chosen within the Church.
The soon recession at the end of all the chanting met at first the vast crowds of alms-takers. Shooed away by the bishop, Father could do little more than nod in empathy at their desperate circumstance. It was a weekly affair, and the many regulars who lined outside the church’s doors must have seen the care in Father’s eyes; every Sunday, they held out hands first to him.
In the sacristy, as cloaks were shed and ornaments tucked away for Sundays yet to come, Bishop Vendentti heard a knock on the door. In panic, he turned to Father.
“Well, answer it! For God’s sake, don’t stand there half dressed!”
Father quickly unrobed, laying his holey attire on the back of a chair. He swiftly reached for the handle on the door, waiting a brief moment for the bishop to make himself presentable. Then, he opened it.
Standing at the very edge of the doorframe stood a man of tremendous height – almost too high for the ceiling. His features were notably angular and angry, bent in such hard ways that only years in hate can accomplish. His hands cradled a portfolio of sorts. But his hands did not move; his features stood perfectly still. Until he spoke.
“The Most Reverend Armand Vendetti, the Pope seeks audience with you. As His Holiness is abroad, he has sent me, Cardinal Augustine, to conduct his affairs.”
The bishop hardly knew what to say. Nearly undressed, certainly not prepared for portrait-appearance, he straightened his crooked back as best he knew how. Stroking the curves of his graying beard, he dotted his eyes about the room.
“Well, Cardinal, won’t you come in? Sit down, please. Can I get you anything?” The Cardinal stood in pale still, choosing to answer in silence. Slowly, he walked into the room, eyes never straying from the figure of the bishop. However the rooms felt, or seemed, however things were arranged that might counter the authority and majesty of the pontificate, he did not seem to care. Instead, as Father crept away to the recess of the sacristy, the Cardinal uncomfortably situated himself in a crooked, half-broken wooden chair. All the while, Bishop Vendetti stared at him from under his breath, coughs hitting me like seizures intermittently. At last, in the strained quiet between their unrelenting stares, the bishop let himself down to his pillowed seat. There, he inhaled as much as air as his lungs would allow. Letting it out in one fell gust, he demanded more of the visitor.
“What would the Holy Father want of me?” Child-like inflection dealt some innocence to the affair, but it was all too artificial for the Cardinal. Again unphased, he unpacked his collection of papers without once looking at them. Finally, selecting one from among the dozens on his knees, he lifted it up to his eyes.
“It has been found, that in the city and diocese of Venice, there have been published letters that illustrate the homosexual proclivities of the Catholic clergy, being a common and uncastigated act within the purview of the Catholic Church.” Here, he stopped, choosing to let down the page for a short moment to see the reaction on the bishop’s face. Eyes forever in trance, mouth wide open, the cracks of his lips toying with drops of saliva, the bishop was as he usually was: unaffected.
The Cardinal continued, “It is my authority, as Holy Pontiff and Leader of the Church, to see to it that the commandments given to us by Scripture, confirmed by Tradition, and set forth in the world through the Magisterium should be upheld in all times and in all places wherein the Catholic Church resides. Furthermore, it is the decision of the Cardinal who holds audience in my person, to what end correction should be enforced and in what ways these commandments aught be confirmed. Signed, His Holiness, Gregory I, by witness of Cardinal Augustine.”
The Cardinal kept the letter in front of his eyes, lowering it only as the silence fully reconvened. Bishop Vendetti sat mouth agape, hands pressing hard on his knees, back crooked again, hair straggling in his face.
“Do you have the letters?” Cardinal Augustine pressed, his mouth forcing the words with an insulting tone. The bishop sat dumbfounded.
“I asked you, bishop, do you have the letters?”