The Bergoglio Contract

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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.

Deposuit potentes

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.

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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.”

“Or God?”

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.

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Carnival time. Bene merenti.

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Let me assure you that there are pink elephants under those tarpaulins. I have seen them. I have ridden upon them. They fly through the sky. They are not creatures of a heightened imagination or seasonal beverages. At some point in their orbit a gear slips and they go kerrrchunnkk  and all the elephants shudder. So do the passengers. My little grandson was alarmed. So was I. I hung onto him until the slipped gear became a familiar feature of the ride. ‘Do you want another go?’ I asked him. He shook his head.

We once sat in an aeroplane in Buenos Aires, waiting for departure. We waited and waited. There were noises off. Kerrrchunnkk. There followed some hammering and then some bashing. A slight technical problem was mentioned. ‘We will be departing very soon.’  That much was true. We departed back through immigration and on to a hotel. We watched some dismal Spanish language game shows and tried some restorative alcohol. We found Vatican Television. Big in Argentina at the time, probably mega-big nowadays. It explained the symbolic significance of the jewels in the various papal crowns and the different shapes of the papal hats. A papal beretta can signify a major shift in the Church’s attitude to social issues. You didn’t know that. Neither did I. Neither did the founder, a barefoot carpenter from Gallilee, Who never saw a Gucci shoe in all His life. A papal biretta is a different matter altogether. Think of the Vatican bank and poor Calvi dangling under Blackfriars bridge.

More refreshments were required to fend off dark thoughts. Pink elephants began to circle on the ceiling. Blackfriars! They have a higher body count than any other organisation in the mediaeval church, what with crusades and heretic burnings. It’s all a conspiracy. Send for Dan Brown. There was some bashing at the door. The Inquisitors? A voice cried out in the darkness: ‘Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus under-carriage,’ or words to that effect. We were consigned, not to the dungeons of the Inquisition, but worse, we were condemned to check-in and security for a second time. There was weeping and a lot of teeth gnashing but the under-carriage stayed on. Ah, the glamour of jet-setting.

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I knew glamour in my early days. I  knew Tofts’ carnival when it was big, Man. Bigger than the glum remnant that now occupies the site. Okay, it’s winter. Who doesn’t look a bit glum in winter? Everything was big, to a five year old. There were chair-o-planes as high as the clouds. There were swing boats, where both occupants pulled on a rope and screamed as the boat went higher and higher, threatening to catapult you up and away, out over the entire fairground. There was a carousel with horses that went around and around and up and down, in time to the music. There were dodgems, with sparks flashing from the pole overhead. There was a lot of screaming from the girls and a lot of hair oil on the nonchalant boys who drove like mad men, with one hand on the wheel and one arm protectively around the girlfriend’s shoulder. My sister minded me well. I was old enough for slides and the mini-roundabout with the cars, trains and motorbikes. No matter how much you turned the wheel or revved the throttles, it made no difference.  I vowed that as soon as I was old enough for hair oil and girls, I would be a daredevil on the dodgems. I look forward to that.

There were prizes for shooting at targets, but I was too low to take part. The big boys strutted and blazed away. I know that they were trying to impress my sister. Maybe they did. There was stuff going on there that was above my head…again. The centre of my desires was the Wheel of Fortune, with its bank of treasures. You could pick your own prize. There were dolls and crockery, teddy bears and sets of glasses, mirrors and knick-knacks, all the riches of the Orient.  One spin of the wheel could satisfy the dreams of avarice. I know that avarice is a sin, but I coveted the pair of china lions. I wanted them with a passion. Ming dynasty, Han dynasty, Hector Grey dynasty, It didn’t matter. I didn’t want them as an investment in Chinese artefacts. I didn’t know that the resurgent Chinese, along with buying the world, would probably have paid double figures for them in the twenty first century. I just wanted them because they were shiny. I wanted to bring them home as trophies, and look at them on the mantlepiece, testament to my incredible gambling skill.

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Una Fox won them. She bore them away in delight. Although my dream was shattered, I was quite pleased for her. I owed her. She put them in the fanlight over her door, flanking a stuffed pheasant. They crouched there for sixty five years, guarding that pheasant. I looked at them every time I passed. Sometimes the door got a new coat of paint. In summer it wore a striped canvas screen, like a vertical deckchair. But the lions never changed.

My landlord, many years ago, asked me if there was some major industry in Skerries that used large quantities of dark red and dark green paint. ‘Why?’ I queried. ‘Well,’ he replied,’every house in Skerries has either a dark red or a dark green door. I just wondered if people were stealing it.’ I was affronted at this slur on the good people of Skerries. ‘No offence,’ he went on,’ but I lived in South Shields, near a naval dockyard and every house in the town was painted battleship grey.’  Bloody cheek!

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There was another limestone slab parallel to the one in the photograph. There  were a couple of inches between them, forming a gully and a ramp. My sister wasn’t minding me very well on the day I stuck my foot in the gully. I was looking up at the, as yet unattended, pheasant. (I suspect those hair-oil boys again.) I screamed. I was trapped forever, outside Foxs’ butcher shop. She pulled and tugged, but it was no use. I heard the butcher sharpening his knife. Knives speak their name in Irish, scian, scian, scian.  I was terrified. So was she. How was she to explain that she had taken 100% of of me out for a walk and had come back with a mini Long John Silver? Scian, scian, scian. Una heard the commotion. She came out, uttering soothing words. She assessed the situation, then unbuckled my sandal and slipped my foot out, intact. Brilliant! Great God Almighty! Free at last! I owed her. I didn’t begrudge the lions. Her sister, Pat, received an honour from the Pope, for long years of service to church music. It was in a case, embossed with the keys of Saint Peter. Bene merenti. Fair play to both sisters.

The second slab has been removed by road menders, maybe in the interests of safety. I still retain a talent for putting my foot in it, nonetheless. Una’s heraldic fanlight is empty…. no lions couchant with pheasant rampant. The shopfront is listed. It stays as it always was. It has a nice coat of dark red paint. Hmmm! I wonder…..