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 Assyrian came down, like a wolf on the fold…

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I went to Mass yesterday to mark my parents’ anniversary. It was the feast of St. Dominic of the Order of Preachers, scourge of heretics everywhere. My father’s cousin, Fr.Vincent Ryan, was a Dominican, an affable man whose great delight was to go down to Yarra Bank, in Melbourne, near the cricket ground, on a Sunday morning, to engage the heretics in discussion. He enjoyed the Australian sense of humour, ‘but,’ he warned, ‘you have to give as good as you get.’  Theological discussion was lively. He often got a roasting, he said, but nobody was burnt at the stake. He went on to Rome, to teach at the Angelicum University. I thought fondly of him yesterday.

But I also thought about Saint Dominic, a man whose body-count would rival that of Pol Pot. The pun on the Dominicans in mediaeval times, was Domini Canes, The Hounds of The Lord. Their job was to seek out heretics, Albigensians, Cathars, Witches, The Poor Men, Manichaeans, and burn them. Sometimes, in surgery cautery is the only treatment. Dominic used it extensively. He preached a crusade against his fellow Christians. The towns of southern France were blackened with the soot of burning heretics. Did it work? Did it ensure  a single, unified church? Not quite.

One point of dispute was the nature of God. Some argued that there are two gods, a good one and an evil one, locked in a cosmic struggle. All the evil in the world is the work of the evil god. One clarification offered was that the good god created man down to the waist, (‘Man’ in this context embraces  ‘woman.’) while the evil god made all the bits below the waist…..Ah!….       Wise words on the subject from Saint Paul [women must cover their hair in church]: ‘It is better to marry than to burn…’ (Amen to that.) and from Ogden Nash, on the subject of women wearing trousers: ‘You may clothe your nether limbs in pants/Yours are the legs, my sweeting./ You look divine as you advance,/ but…. have you seen yourself retreating?’  Nash introduces a fore and aft element to the heresy. What would the Domini Canes say to that? The mind wanders in church. Stand up. Sit down. Kneel down. Stand up. Catholics get a good work-out at Mass.  Muscular Christianity, the Victorians called it.

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The Old Testament reading was from the Prophet Nahum. He frightened the life out of me:- wars, gleaming swords, shining spears, corpses everywhere, Nineveh in ruins, the anger and vengeance of God. Some say that Nahum prophesied the destruction of Nineveh in 615 B.C. before the event, while others claim that he foretold the destruction of Nineveh, in 612 B. C.  after the event. Prophecies after the event are more certain. ‘There! What did I tell you?’  If I were a prophet, I wouldn’t dwell with wild beasts in the desert, eating locusts (yecchh!) I would win untold wealth on the horses and go about the world doing good works, alleviating suffering  and bringing peace and love to all, (except the bookies.)

Peter O Toole, speaking of the relevance of Lawrence of Arabia, said: ‘Open your morning paper. Open the Bible. It’s still the same news.’ Sadly, Nahum was right on the money. He describes the Middle East as it is today. The swords still flash. The weapons gleam in the blistering sun. The smoke rises from burning towns. The followers of various gods and of the same god, inflict suffering on one another and on the innocent. Creeds and sects go to war with their own kind and with ‘unbelievers.’  Dissent, (heresy) results in hideous punishment.

Apologies for the quality of my scans.(Double-click for details.) They are copied from Nineveh  by Austen Layard, Murray’s Reading for the Rail, 1853, an abridged version of his eight volume edition,(Price 36 shillings) which you wouldn’t attempt to read on a commuter train. You could read one and sit on the other seven, as seats can be scarce. I bought it fifty years ago for half a crown, in Webbs at the Ha’penny Bridge. Layard excavated a city of vast winged statues, bas-reliefs and a clay library detailing the origins of law, writing, mathematics,accounting, science and the arts of war. They liked lions and fish. There are swimmers with aqualungs, in a depiction of naval warfare on the great rivers. Nahum saw a city filled with lies, robbers, unbelievers and prostitutes, ripe for destruction by a vengeful god.  He could say the same thing today. He is bound to be right somewhere, some time.

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Profoundly disturbed by the latest news from Nineveh and its environs, I went across to the fish shop and bought some prawns. They are the marine version of locusts, I imagine. Maybe I should try locusts in marie-rose sauce. Maybe I should go into the prophecy business. The first thing I will do is, respectfully, ask God to stop taking sides in disputes, pogroms, genocides, jihads, crusades, ethnic cleansings and massacres. Lay off the vengeance and wrath. Go easy on the plagues and locusts. Stop sending Medes and Babylonians and their modern equivalents, as scourges.  Calvin approved strongly of Nahum’s version of God. That’s not a good recommendation.

Layard described the Turkish Bey of Mosul, in Iraq, a man hated by his subjects for his cruelty and avarice. Every so often he would circulate the news that he was fatally ill. The subjects perked up. The news came that he was dead. The people broke out in celebration and feasting.  Laughter and song could be heard in the streets and in the market-place. At this point, the Bey and his cavalry galloped forth from his palace to punish his people for their disloyalty. After sufficient blood had been shed, they withdrew, until the next time. He’s dead now, thank God, not that Iraq is any better off.

The last words on good and evil, from Ogden Nash:

‘The rain it raineth every day/Upon the just and on the unjust fella/ But mainly on the just/ Because the unjust hath the just’s umbrella.’

That Assyrian in the chariot has a nice umbrella. I wonder whence he plundered it.

p.s. I want my big, white umbrella back or verily I shall wreak a terrible vengeance upon thee, as God is my judge.

Triumphal Arches, Haircuts and Birdsong.

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An Eskimo dad sat in an igloo, reading nursery rhymes to his little son. Little Jack Horner/sat in a corner/ eating his pudding and pie. He put in his thumb/ and pulled out a plum/ and said what a good boy am I!  It’s a good rhyme. To which the puzzled little boy replied: Hey, dad, what’s a corner?

The Greeks built magnificent temples but there were so many pillars holding up the roof,  there was not much room inside.  So they transacted their business outside. They sat in doorways and porches, out of the glare of the sun. They knew about corners and all the other great questions of life. I have no doubt that on many occasions, the friends of Socrates hid around corners when they saw him approaching, with all his questions. Socrates had no small talk, an essential qualification for corner-boys. The image left to us of Greek architecture is rows of beautifully proportioned pillars on dusty hillsides, where the gods once sat and laughed at mankind.  Sometimes the pillars and columns lie in their component parts, shattered and scattered by earthquakes or the relentless force of gravity. Tennyson’s Ulysses says: Yet all experience is an arch, wherethrough gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades forever and forever, when we move. To which his companions may well have asked, ‘What the hell is an arch?

The Romans take the credit for discovering The Arch. The principal is that of two drunks staggering home from the alehouse. They are locked together in mutual amity and esteem, at the shoulders. The weight is thrust downwards and sideways. The footing may not be too secure. Take one away and the other inevitably falls down.  The arch is a balance of all these factors. It enabled the Romans to span valleys with aqueducts and viaducts and send armies to dominate the known world.Through this arch, in the Colosseum, you can see some of the remains of Nero’s house. After the expenditure of staggering amounts of treasure and the lives of countless slaves, he was able to say that at last he could live as befitted a human being, in a decent house. The dome is simply a development of the arch.  Framed in the arch you can see tourists, who have come to gawk at the place where the Romans enjoyed recreational slaughter and execution. Rome 2012 021

What tributaries follow him to  to Rome, to grace in captive bonds, his chariot wheels?  Caesar drew bigger crowds than this. They came to cheer and to marvel at the plunder. The victors processed through triumphal arches, along the Sacred Way. The prisoners were sold into slavery or set to die in the arena on festive days. Admission free. This is the arch of Constantine, not the worst of the emperors. He went for three arches together. He used spolia, salvage, bits of older arches and sculptures, a man after  me own heart. You must put a road through it and then walk under it, pointless but no doubt symbolic of something, perhaps birth or rebirth. Everyone likes an arch. We got one by accident.

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It began as a bird house on a pole, not Doric or Corinthian, just a wooden pole from John Kingston’s hardware. I’m sure if we had requested an Ionic column, he would have had a couple out in the yard, but we are humble folk, unlike the Caesars. We have never conquered anyone and put them to the sword. We planted a clematis to take the bare look off the pole. The clematis throve and spread. It became necessary to get an arch to support the sudden growth. You can see how conquests can grow into empires, bringing further responsibilities. The arch was a spindly metal thing but it served for a few years.

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We had to put a road through it. The clematis was in sore need of a haircut. (Ronald Reagan’s hilarious Irish joke: What Irishman stands outside your back door all winter?  Paddy O’ Furniture. Boom, boom!) The arch turned deciduous. We tried spolia , a bit of wavin pipe, a strut from a lobster pot, cable ties. I couldn’t reach the top to give it a good cut. In the triumphal arch building trade, it is necessary to have a good head for heights. A philadelphus shrub grew up to take the weight on one side. The arch existed only in theory. The philadelphus, groaning under the weight, refused to flower. A plan was required. We went to Woodies to buy a barbecue and came home with a sturdy, build it yourself, wooden arch. Construction time 30 mins. The diagram showed two stylised  human figures. Their heads, appropriately, were not attached to their shoulders. The plan: construct the arch (30mins) and slip it under the clematis (5 mins).

However, after an hour or so constructing the arch, it became necessary to shorten it, dig some trenches and remove the supporting spolia. The mass of clematis began slowly to sag towards the ground.We became aware of a blackbird sitting on her nest in the depths of the vegetation. She was no more than two feet from the ground. She fled with loud protests to a nearby fence. We couldn’t leave the nest—and the eggs within reach of cats. We set about lifting the entire mass and inserting the arch with the minimum of disturbance (3hours).  A sturdy spouse, as indicated on the diagram, is essential, in the absence of slaves. We secured it and waited in some apprehension. She came suddenly, back to her nest. We waited some more. She didn’t forsake it. She is still there, in the thicket, sitting patiently.

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She came out this morning for her breakfast. Now, that was a triumph worthy of an arch. The haircut will have to wait.