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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The Godfather

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I could never figure out why the trams didn’t get hopelessly tangled up in the overhead wires and incinerate all the passengers. There was a zip and a buzz about Dublin life, with a crackle of electricity and sparks flying. Writers of ‘colour pieces’ use metaphors like these to describe Dublin’s night life. I’m writing literally. I don’t remember top hats but I have vivid memories of the cobbled streets and the tracks. There was a Skerries man who ran his Austin 7 over a policeman’s toes at the bottom of Grafton Street. He also ran into a tram in O Connell Street. He had been sampling the buzz of Dublin’s social life and was tired and emotional at the time. He maintained in court, that the tram was on the wrong side. He ran into five cars outside his own pub in Skerries but…sin scéal eile, for another day. Fortunately he never gave us a lift to visit Aunt Nellie, in Glasnevin. We would have missed the tram, unless of course, it was on the wrong side.

Aunt Nellie lived at the top of Whitworth Road, near Cross Guns Bridge.  The handiest way to get there was to get off the Skerries bus in Drumcondra and walk up Whitworth Road, taking in all the sights. There is a canal  with thundering lock gates and a partly hidden railway. We looked at the looming bulk of Mountjoy Gaol, where they hanged people, but we never got to see that. Half way up the road there was a man in bed in a glasshouse. You could look at him through a gap in the hedge. He was there for years, not allowed to get out of bed. He didn’t do anything at all. It must have been frustrating and embarrassing for him to be stared at by curious children. If he had been in the whole of his health, he would have chased us away with a stick. It was probably a succession of men over the years, in truth, but we always had a good gander at The Man in the Glasshouse. This was. of course, Drumcondra Nursing Home and he was a T.B. patient. I wonder if he ever got better. T.B. was the great scourge at the time. ‘You couldn’t buy that house. There was T.B. in it.’ ‘You can’t marry into that family. There was T.B. in that family.’ I got a touch of pneumonia a few years ago. My doctor sent me for X Rays. I rang the Health Board to make an appointment at a clinic. ‘Are you an old T.B. patient?’ asked a voice. ‘That clinic closed twenty years ago.’  ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m only an old patient.’ It was as if I had tried to pass myself off as somebody important. Many thanks, Noel Brown, for the campaign against T.B. It worked.

The other way to get to Aunt Nellie’s house was to take a train to Dublin, (an adventure in itself) and then get the No.19 tram. That was ‘the business.’  There was noise. Other trams came at you with crackling lances and sparks. It was like being a knight in armour. At the last minute they funked it and turned aside. Sometimes there were cattle on the road. There were horse-drawn coal carts, drays and bread vans, Kennedys’ Bread, Johnson, Mooney and O Brien, James Rourke.  ‘Johnson, Mooney and O Brien bought a horse for three and nine…’  I forget what happened after that. There were laden carts going to the fruit and veg market. They all scattered away from our progress. It was even better than the other route, the man in the glasshouse, the roaring lock gates and the dark, looming prison. We got off, reluctantly, at Cross Guns Bridge and made a little detour to see the marvellous painting on the pub. That’s Brian Boru exhorting his troops before the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.  Brian won; Vikings nil. At least, that was how we learned it, the good guy, the Christian warrior. The old painting gives an impression of a barbaric contest in the making. The later version shows him as a well-groomed mediaeval knight, with all the romantic panoply of feudal warfare. He has had a make-over.

P. HEDIGAN Wine Merchant   Family Grocer. It’s a pub, for God’s sake. The two lads on the left are ‘Grocers’ Curates.’  The two on the right are there for the beer and , more importantly, to be immortalised as typical Dubliners. I doubt if they dropped in for a pound of sugar or a loaf of bread. ‘Don’t eat Kennedys’ bread. It will stick in your belly like lead. It will rumble like thunder and your mother will wonder, sooooo don’t eat Kennedy’s bread.’

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Aunt Nellie Barry was my father’s aunt, not ours. She wore black, as befitted a widow, but she had more fun in her than people half her age. She also made  apple tarts, with cloves in them.  There was a tennis club at the end of her garden. We were drawn by the laughter of sophisticated, glamorous young men and women in white tennis costumes. I recognised them years later in the suburban poetry of  John Betjeman. That was Betjeman the spy. He looked at everything and described what he saw, so they decided that he was a spy. He spied on Miss Joan Hunter-Dunne and Mefanwy on her bicycle. He caught the wonder of a young lad looking through  a gap in the hedge, at those glittering creatures in Glasnevin Lawn Tennis Club.  (I was rubbish at tennis. I got bored after a few minutes of retrieving the ball.)  There were yarns and reminiscences in the Barry house. There was a Kevin Barry in the family. He was not the poor lad who was hanged in Mountjoy Gaol. At the time of the Rising, in 1916 ‘our’ Kevin received a revolver in a shoe box, with orders to report to the G.P.O. for active service. He was fifteen years old. His father urged him to go. His mother wouldn’t let him.  I heard how my father and Jack used to call on relations on Christmas Day to convey the compliments of the season. Jack was a charmer, always reluctant to leave the company. My father always got the blame for keeping everyone waiting for Christmas dinner, an injustice he resented for the rest of his life. The rest of his life could have been very short, according to another story I heard. A man tried to shoot him in the Clarence Hotel, but the gun jammed. The Civil War was a time for random killing and grudge killings and sheer bloody- minded killings. I heard the identity of the man in question by accident, some sixty years later, a bleak, mean-minded tee-totaller (my father’s natural enemy) who distinguished himself in public life and spawned a couple of sons. I heard them speak about him. They didn’t like him either. I will come back to him another day.

Colm Barry was my god-father, a man of great ability and transient enthusiasms. I gathered that he had a weakness for ‘the jar’ . He was a brilliant linguist and a not so brilliant wood worker. He had a workshop full of expensive equipment, even a lathe, in the garden, where he turned…some dowels. He gave a load of tools to my brother, setting him out on a lifetime of making and measuring and fixing things.  He subjected me to a quiz about colours and pigments. I did not impress.  (Nobody believes that when I started school, we used to chew the ends of matchsticks to make paint brushes. Match sticks!  Bloody luxury!) He gave me a box of Windsor and Newton, artists’ quality watercolours in a ‘Japanned tin’ box and a bunch of sable brushes, a relic of another of his faded enthusiasms. I used them for years. I imagine that Colm nipped around the corner to the Family Grocer, too often to make a career in art or wood turning. He was a nice man with something of the aura of a lost genius about him. His one unforgivable crime was to mistake my brother for me, his godson, and give him half a crown. Like The Mafia, you never forget something like that.

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I wanted to paint pictures like the one on the pub, but all I could paint was cowboys on mis-shapen horses. ‘Do you never paint anything but cowboys?’ my father asked. Was that the ‘discouraging word’ mentioned in Home on the Range? I have tried other subjects since then. If I had persisted, I could have rivalled Remington. I could have had my paintings in The White House.  They say that Remington didn’t so much as paint the Wild West. He invented it. We all invent  and re-invent our world and our history.

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Perhaps it’s time to repaint Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, as the Godfather, Il Capo di Tutti Capi.  It’s only a matter of time until Russel Crowe gets hold of his story and , like everyone else on television, goes about with a sword, eviscerating people. He will be the next big thing. Now where did I leave those paints?