Robert of Sicily, brother of Pope Urbane
And Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine
Apparelled in magnificent attire
Bishop Hagen remembered the words from somewhere long ago and very far away. What was it? A king of Sicily put down from his throne.
De sede et exaltavit humiles.
And has exalted them of low degree. It can happen: a cardinal dismissed from the Vatican’s highest court and made chaplain to the Knights of Malta. This pope, Bergoglio, has something of an obsession with the humble and the poor. That is all very fine but there are practicalities to be taken into consideration. He had always had some sympathy for poor Judas, the treasurer for the Disciples. Judas tried to balance the books. He was no miracle worker, more of a Micawber, really. That alabaster box of ointment could have been sold to provide alms for the poor, if you must provide alms for anyone, instead of lashing it all over the feet of Christ. Judas had a point. Structure , order, strict accounting, the rule of law. Bishop Hagen was proud of his contribution. He loved the law, the law of the land and the parallel laws of the Church, the accumulation of two thousand years of study and meditation. The rigor of the law. No one should be able to bend the law, not even the Pope.
” You are troubled, Don Bartolomeo. In what way can I help you?” He regarded the man sitting opposite him, a small, perspiring man, with a neatly trimmed moustache. The man was dressed in a plain grey suit, like a merchant or small-town haberdasher from the south. Nothing ostentatious or flamboyant.
“I am a man of honour, Your Grace. I represent some other men of honour. I have come to speak privately with you, because of your background and out of respect for your father, the consigliere. I know that you will understand our situation.” He paused to take a handkerchief from his top pocket and dab his brow. “I had a great respect for your father’s wisdom, when he was adviser to Don Vito.”
Bishop Hagen inclined his head. The past is like a can tied to a dog’s tail. The more he tries to shake it off, the more racket it makes. He looked at his episcopal ring. The jewel caught the light from the partly shuttered window. It glowed crimson. He was married to no woman, but to the Church. This newly elected and disconcerting pope, Bergoglio told him of the Bridge of the Woman, la Puente de la Mujer, in Buenos Aires. At one end of the bridge is a soup-kitchen for the homeless, while at the other end, the wealthy dine in the most luxurious restaurants, with their lap dogs snuffling in silver dishes by their sides. There are waiters bowing and scraping and on sunny afternoons, opera singers entertain the beautiful people in all their finery. Bishop Hagen withdrew his right hand from the shaft of sunlight. The jewel became a stone.
It is not a very long bridge, he had said, but the void between the people at either end, is vast. ‘I am the Pontifex, the builder of bridges. I must try to bridge that gulf. I know the man who runs the soup-kitchen. He says that he will strive until the children of the poor eat as well as the dogs of the rich. I hope’, the Pope had said, ‘that I have a portion of that man’s courage.’
“Respect,” said Don Bartolomeo. “We respect the Church. We have always been generous to the Church. For a thousand years. We defend and guide our people. That is our business, cosa nostra. We ask only some respect in return.”
“Many of the things your people do are barbaric,” the bishop replied. “They are un-Christian. What about that man and his child burnt to death in the street?”
The don shrugged his shoulders, his face a study in regret. “That was most unfortunate, but do you deny that the Church in times of crisis, used barbaric means to enforce good order?” He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “Where should I begin? The Inquisitions? The burning of heretics? Was that Christian?”
“They were different times” Instinctively the bishop fell back on old arguments. “What are you asking from me?” His voice was cold.
“I ask in all humility, that you request the pope to lift his excommunication on our organisation. The rites of the Church are important to us. We have lost face before our people. In Sicily a man’s standing in his community is important also.”
“So your pride is wounded. You want the religious processions to halt outside your houses again.”
“We ask only respect.”
“You know what you must do. You must repent and ask humbly for forgiveness. You must abandon your evil ways, or Heaven is closed to you for all eternity. That is the law.”
“That is impossible,” snorted Don Bartolomeo. “If I did that, someone else would take my place. How would I live then? How would I protect my family?” He clenched his fist. “No one will push me from my seat, not even a pope.”
Don Bartolomeo sat for a time in silence. The bishop rotated the ring with his thumb. In the beginning it was loose enough to fit over a glove. There was a time, when he was younger, that he could push the ring off with the thumb and fingers of his right hand and move it from one finger to another, over and back, over and back. Now he was older and heavier. The ring no longer slipped so readily. He had become easy in the comfortable surroundings of The Curia. He had accommodated himself to too many things.
“It was better, ” began the don, “when the popes were true Italians. They understood.”
“So you would change the pope?” Bishop Hagen laughed derisively.
“No. You and your kind must change the pope or he will cast you out also, from your comfortable positions. When you have provided a new pope, a proper pope, we can go back to our old arrangements. It will be to our mutual benefit.”
“And what then of the poor?”
The don leaned forward, looking directly into the bishop’s eyes. “The poor have no power. That is why they are poor. The first man who tried to make the Church a church for the poor, was crucified. And by Romans too.”
“You are not suggesting…?”
“It could be done today, if I gave the word. He makes the mistake of trusting people. He has no cunning.”
Bishop Hagen shook his head. “Don Bartolomeo, you came to me for advice. You have helped me, although you don’t know how. My father counselled evil men. He prospered from it. He sent me away to be educated. I have always felt that I enjoyed the fruits of his prosperity. I will give you my legal opinion. I could call the police and have you charged with uttering threats against the Holy Father, but I will not. I will act like a good consigliere. I tell you to go back to your men of honour and make this clear to them. No person in the world, now or in the future, can lift this excommunication, except Jorge Mario Bergoglio. If he dies, his decree of excommunication stands forever. That is the law. The gates of Hell will slam behind you. Think about it. You must do your business with him. Now go.”
Don Bartolomeo flinched. He was not used to such disrespect. He stood up and reached for the bishop’s hand. He made to genuflect and kiss the ring, to re-establish the old courtesies, the old ways, but the bishop waved him away. “No. No,” he murmured impatiently. “That is not necessary.” The don shrugged and left quietly, putting on his hat. The door closed. The lock didn’t click. That always annoyed Bishop Hagen. He could never work in a room where the door didn’t click shut. A loose end. He walked to the window and looked out at Rome. He turned the ring in the sunlight. Apparelled in magnificent attire. He began to pull it off his finger. The finger resisted. A ring of fat held the ring in place. He pulled harder and the ring slipped off, reluctantly and with some discomfort. He weighed it in his palm, his symbol of power. A crimson stone and a gold circle. The sunlight shone again through the stone. There was a seal engraved on the stone, a pair of scales. Weighed in the balance. He smiled ruefully. It was time to seek some other work in the Church, where he might lose some weight. He placed the ring on his desk and went out, shutting the door behind him. The lock clicked.