Whatever loud happiness Alfonso experienced on his walk with Fr. Anthony was promptly tempered the next day.
The young priest sprinted to the Jesuit Infirmary and made the 9 AM appointment, with but a minute to spare. The delay was his fault: he had already set off early, and was well on his way to being half an hour ahead of schedule, until he reached the hallway to which the reception desk directed him.
It was a sunny summer morning outside, glittering with birdsong, glimmering with dew, and gently swaying with trees bright in their green robes. All the sounds of the world, however, and all the supposed majesty the dawn had cast on earth – everything disappeared in a cloak of shadows, beneath a sudden silence that seemed to pound out of the infirmary walls.
Alfonso had the good sense to pray, almost immediately, the way that Fr. Anthony had reminded him.
He felt himself swallowed, as it were, by an invisible weight that seemed to play with the syllables of his prayers. There was no St. Michael who had ever stood at the head of a heavenly army, no cavalry of creation charging against its own brothers, no scattering of angelic fire or spilling of celestial blood. There had been no battle – and humanity was alone.
He tried to step forward, tried to remember the prayer, and felt as though he were swimming through a sea sweet with despair.
Oh God – what was the next line? Deliver us from the wickedness –
“Nessuno qui,” Alfonso swore he heard, behind the doors of one room, into which an orderly had just entered.
There had never been anyone. No angels, no battle, no salvation.
There were only memories of summer, and no known paths in the darkness of the future. Long hallways with creeping shadows and corners that seemed to tingle with chittering. Mere shells of humanity in masks and starched scrubs swiftly moving from room to room, with no sound or soul. Doors that held back the mumbles and moaning of the dying and the dead.
“Ah! There he is, and just in time!”
The voice was that of both the doting grandfather of the night before, and a priest whose words were like fiery daggers in a cold desert.
Alfonso came to, as the voice’s owner gave him an embrace, took him by one arm, and led him forward. It was both Fr. Anthony and not: there was warmth in the old priest’s approach, but his posture had all the strength of a leader who seemed to naturally draw all eyes in the room to him.
“I present my fellow brother Jesuit, Alfonso Sucat,” Fr. Anthony seemed to be introducing Alfonso to an empty hall, and the latter had to squint once, twice, thrice to get his bearings, “He has gladly agreed to observe our meeting, and I am glad to have someone to lower the average age of everyone in this room.”
Alfonso heard mild laughter, dry coughing, and low whispering among the now clearing outlines of heads and shoulders. Fr. Anthony had not been exaggerating: there were nine other priests seated at the semicircular table that enclosed what looked to be Fr. Anthony’s spot, and no one at the table seemed to have any hair left. The priests were in a variety of habits, ranging from the brown of the Franciscans, to the penguin black-and-whites of the Dominicans – but they were all much, much older…
…and burdened, but glowing. There was no other way to describe it; they were the only words that rose to Alfonso’s head. Burdened by memories, but glowing with hope. Even in the darkness of the room, even with the solitary light cast by the projector onto a wall, Alfonso could feel the brightness all around him.
“We were about to commence with the prayer, so do remain standing,” Fr. Anthony spoke, then promptly folded his hands and bowed his head. The rest of the room rose in but seconds, and chorused, almost in unison, the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
Alfonso prayed, but felt himself distracted by both sound and sight. He could hear Fr. Anthony’s clear American accent, wheels bumping against rough patches in the floor outside, doors opening and closing elsewhere in the infirmary. The prayer seemed to clear out both his thoughts and the present; and he, again, came to when the amens were said, and as Fr. Anthony took his hand and gave it a welcoming press.
He met the old priest’s bright blue eyes, and swore he saw both sadness and commiseration there.
Perhaps Fr. Anthony knew what shadows waited in the hallway outside.
Alfonso settled himself in a chair at the back of the room, away from the rest of the table, and thankfully so. On any other day, he would have willingly placed himself in the middle of the rest of the priests, asked them questions, conversed with them about what it was like to be on missions or to hold masses deep within the slums of the city.
Today, his trek through the Infirmary had drained him of any kind of social graces. He needed to breathe.
He recovered himself – with thanks to another prayer in his head – as he sank into the chair and saw what was projected on the wall.
It was a white slide, with black letters.
“The Exorcism Project.”
It was a title with nearly no imagination. Alfonso could imagine his friends snickering. Who would ever want to find out more about something named so plainly? Was this a project to improve exorcism, or to get it started? He had to fight not to laugh.
“I’m glad I finally have you all here this morning,” Fr. Anthony’s voice broke once again into Alfonso’s thoughts, and through the whispers of some of the priests, “Thanks to Aloysio and your Exorcism Office, I can now place email address to face. I was afraid that some of you would be busy, but I am glad that even we of the ministry have some kind of vacation.”
They were exorcists – all of them.
Alfonso tried to peer into the semidarkness, to see who these priests were. He felt only age, years spent in war; but there was no hatred, or anger, or resentment. There was neither relief to be away from the troubles of the world nor an itching to return to it. There was only peace, amongst bald heads and thinning hair, wrinkled skin and liver-spotted scalps. There was brightness, of course, but it was not the kind that shivered and trilled; it simply lay calm, and waited, and listened.
Alfonso was both awed and afraid. He felt rather foolish as well: it appeared that all the priests knew each other – and they, as a body, knew Fr. Anthony – long before Alfonso had been asked to join their gathering. He felt as though he had stumbled on a secret meeting, to which he had been invited, and yet to which he had never been properly introduced.
Alfonso resolved to learn the priests’ names as soon as he could.
“I will try my best to not take up too much of your time with this presentation,” Fr. Anthony went on, now standing next to what Alfonso saw was a rather oversized laptop, “I’ll talk about the project first, but I’ll keep this short because I want to hear from you. And if you must step out and leave, or if you would like to walk out, then you are free to do so. You will still be more polite than the unseen things we all have to contend with on a daily basis.”
There was another round of laughter, a little warmer than the first.
“So as you all already know from our emails, I am Fr. Anthony Lector, of the Society of Jesus,” the priest’s tone deepened, “I am also the chair of the Vatican’s Office of Exorcism Research. This position is not one to be taken lightly, but it is also one not to be spoken of aloud; that is, not at all. It is not a secret, but as you well know, the exorcist is also not one to announce his arrival with a marching band and blaring trumpets.”
Alfonso could see the nods in the shadows, even a smile further wrinkling the face of one old priest.
“I am not the chief exorcist,” Fr. Anthony continued, “But I work with exorcists from every continent. We might also have met in the hallways of the Vatican, if you ever attended the exorcism course. I am half of the pair that developed it.”
Alfonso felt his mouth fall open.
Everyone knew about the Vatican’s month-long exorcism training course: it had been running for years, and had been conceived as a response to the rising number of cases, and the rising numbers of priests who sallied forth into spiritual battle with far more valor than compassion.
“If you or your brothers ever attended our course, then I am glad, and I thank you,” Fr. Anthony went on, as some of the priests signified, with raised hands or a wave at the old exorcist, that they had indeed been at the Vatican and taken classes, “We are constantly updating and redeveloping the course, so if you want to attend it once again, then it will probably be a different version of anything you had before.”
Alfonso saw the Dominicans nod at each other, as though already planning their next trip.
“The process to update and redevelop the course is tedious,” Fr. Anthony walked closer to the semi-circular table, “We record and document exorcisms all over the world for the Vatican Archives. We examine existing transcripts. We monitor bishops who monitor former victims. We work closely with the head of your ministry offices, which is why I am quite sad that Aloysio could not join us today.”
“He had to visit his parents,” one of the Dominicans said, “I hope we’ll be good company.”
“Of course!” Fr. Anthony brushed off what Alfonso assumed was any notion that the meeting was poorly attended, “And family is important. I told Aloysio as much.”
Alfonso realized who this Aloysio was: the cardinal of Manila, and the de facto chair of the exorcism ministry office. So few people could even get the ear of the busy cardinal, and, as it appeared from the quick exchange between the Dominican and Fr. Anthony, the exorcist regularly corresponded with the cardinal as a friend.
There was a quick chat about who was in charge of what at the ministry office, before silence came down once again. The old priest paused, eyes to the ground, as though he were weighing how to return the gravitas to his presentation.
“The course you attended was first designed to properly help priests use tools that have always been in the arsenal of the church,” Fr. Anthony was both gentle and pointed, “And by ‘properly’, I need not remind you of the ways in which the Rite has been abused or wrongly used.
“But we also found new things when we first began teaching. Good priests such as yourselves knew how to discern when an exorcism was required, but the signs were not consistent. You all have experiences that would fill books, of that I have no doubt; but I am also sure that you feel that the course was incomplete.
“And that is why we continue to do research.”
The slide changed. This time, it was a map of the world, on which were placed seven bright yellow dots. Alfonso marked the places immediately: somewhere in the northern United States; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Rome, Italy; London, United Kingdom; somewhere in South Africa; somewhere in the southern tip of Australia; and the Philippines.
“These are the places in the world that have reported a steady rise in exorcism cases in the last three decades,” Fr. Anthony gestured toward the map, “The US is no surprise, and neither is Rome. Many worshippers, many holy places, many choices. The devil lives where he is in greatest danger of being cast out, after all.
“It might be worth mentioning that the US is highly individualistic, which can be disadvantageous at its most extreme. The loneliness any person can feel is alienating; it is a loneliness that feeds upon itself, invites despair – Satan’s favorite weapon, if I do say so myself.”
Fr. Anthony sighed, as though remembering something (as did Alfonso, although he did not know he had sighed until he felt the weight on his chest disappear). In but a moment, the old exorcist turned to the map again.
“London,” he pronounced, “Also perhaps not a surprise if we consider occultism, and the rise of some forms of paganism that are dangerous, even destructive.
“If I may correct myself: I would not say ‘rise’, as there have been pagans in the British Isles for centuries. The pagans we speak of here are more severe, malicious, perhaps devious, hoping to maim, even kill.
“Latin America has always constantly reported high numbers, especially in Argentina, but there might be cultural factors in play – voodoo, ancient rituals from different tribes, different superstitions. Not much different from Rome.
“Johannesburg and Sydney are surprises, but these are also headquarter cities, so to speak. They take in reports from their continent, compile them, add the numbers, and then send a consolidated list to my team at the Vatican.”
The pause came, as Fr. Anthony walked closer to the map, as he gazed upon it a while, as he allowed the silence to grow weighty and oppressive. When he turned around, the dot that marked the Philippines was on his forehead, and the map seemed misshapen as the projector lights played on the wrinkles of his skin.
“I shall be honest, brutally so, and say that the Philippines is no surprise,” the old priest seemed to both muse and announce, “From your reaction, I can see that you agree.”
Alfonso marked how the priests exchanged glances with each other, faces somber even in the gray morning light. He could not understand why the sadness settled so quickly, so heavily, as though the priests were blaming themselves for the dubious honor of being a global exorcism hotspot.
“I would not despair so readily,” Fr. Anthony echoed Alfonso’s thoughts, “A strong Catholic faith is always an invitation for demons to tempt and attempt entry. A Spanish colonial past would likewise put you in the same league as Argentina, perhaps even with the same blend of folk superstition and religious fervor – it is a fervor sometimes quite remarkable, but it is also very dangerous.
“An American colonial past might point to some degree of individualistic behavior, especially in younger people who might perceive themselves alienated from the beliefs and cultures of older generations. Your cities are cosmopolitan, highly urbanized; your young seem open to many of the ideas of the West – paganism included.”
“Among many other causes, I’m sure,” one of the Dominicans put in.
“Among many other causes,” Fr. Anthony’s smile was mild, almost unfeeling, “Indeed.”
Alfonso heard the sadness in the old priest’s voice, and felt a trill of something running through him, and around the room. It was something between disappointment and shame: disappointment that a country that seemed so joyful was actually quite burdened by secret pains, and shame that a foreign priest had to lay it so plainly.
No one spoke as the slide changed. The map disappeared, replaced by a table that showed the names of cities on one column, and numbers in several others. Alfonso’s eyes traveled quickly to the top of the text.
Location. Ongoing Cases. Recovered Cases. Total. Monitored Cases.
There were several Philippine cities in what looked to be a list around twenty cities long. Yet another stab of shame came to his forehead, as though to drill the information there.
“Our office monitors all the cases that are brought to the bishops,” Fr. Anthony stepped away from the wall and back into the semi-darkness, “We take note of which cases are still in progress and which are already resolved, or have reported deliverance.
“There is, if you look closely, a column here that needs some filling up. Monitored cases.
“In a word: We want to monitor all cases closely. This need is quite clear if we speak of those who have recovered. I already mentioned this earlier when I talked about coordinating with bishops. We want to see how the formerly possessed are living, if they have changed their lives, partaken of the Sacraments, followed our instructions.”
One of the priests opened a notebook and began to write in it.
“What we – what my team and I are doing, and what we want to do on an even wider scale, is to update these numbers and truly see what these numbers represent beyond this table.
“We want to monitor the ongoing cases.”
Fr. Anthony was gentle, but his words seemed to cease any and all conversation. Even the note-taking priest looked up sharply from his work.
“This exorcism project is not simply meant to archive,” he continued, “It is a project to document ongoing cases, to record them, and to analyze them.”
Alfonso peered at the table. There were indeed thousands of ongoing cases, with the latest report marked as 2015, in a city in the US. The latest Philippine data was marked 2012; it was close to four years old.
The young priest felt a chill rattle the top of his spine. His friend, who had once been so happy to be in seminary, would one day be a mere number in a spreadsheet.
“We’ve had country teams in place these last few years,” Fr. Anthony spoke as he changed slides once again, this time showing another map of the world marked with white dots in five places, “We’re done transcribing exorcisms from Australia, South Africa, and Argentina. My old team is wrapping up work in the US as we speak.”
Whatever math Alfonso was still thinking about disappeared. Fr. Anthony had been part of an actual team, had worked on actual cases for the project? It seemed outlandish to even imagine the old priest going beyond his loud guffaws and jokes about poor taste in movies. It seemed unlike the scholarly Jesuit to be an active participant in exorcisms, traveling from state to state, even transcribing goings on.
Or, to be more precise (Alfonso realized this much later), it seemed unlike any of the Jesuits to be… this.
This… deep in – darkness.
“We want, in short, to do research here,” Fr. Anthony said, his plain sentences taking away the sparkle from his eyes, “We have always wanted to do research in the Philippines, and it is only now that we have the chance, and the time, and the funding.
“We want to do as we did in the US, but we want to succeed where we once failed. We want to assemble a team of priests, researchers, and documentors to monitor ongoing and verified cases, to examine them in detail, to look for new trends, to discover things hitherto unknown, to -”
A voice suddenly cut into the narrative – into the solemnity of the room, more precisely. There was nowhere to go but forward for whoever had dared do it.
It was only when all heads in the room turned to Alfonso that he realized that it was he who had spoken.
He felt his throat run dry at the sight. Ten old men, ten priests who had seen demons and devils, had battled the forces of Hell, had seen evil incarnate – were waiting for him to finish his sentence.
“But,” Alfonso tried to push down his unease, and tried to undo the bottleneck created by all his thoughts, all his questions, all his misgivings, “But – why?”
He waited for a scolding of some sort, whether it was the Dominican brand of discipline by virtue of age equated with wisdom, or the Franciscan kind of tongue lashing through any kind of enforced humility, or the Jesuit admonition of actual articulation instead of empty questioning.
Instead, he received a warm, welcoming smile from Fr. Anthony – as though the older priest had expected no less from the younger.
“Indeed, why?” Fr. Anthony shifted to the next slide, where he had three bullet points already up, posted, and written so precisely, Alfonso could well have been his co-host, “Why would we need such a project? Allow me to read directly from this slide, as written by Jorge, my co-founder, who very kindly allowed me to use his very words – or translated roughly from his native Spanish, at least.”
Alfonso felt his body regain its warmth, as the audience turned its collective heads and restored its attention in Fr. Anthony.
“We need this project because we have new cases for which we have no explanation,” the old priest intoned nearly every syllable, as though attempting to rid the room of any coming contradictions, “Therefore, we need to examine new ways through which Satan can enter this world.”
Alfonso felt his hair stand on end. He could hear the baying dogs in the jungles beyond his Jesuit home, could sense the thrum of groans and growls his friend made, could feel the pull of anger and despair and sheer, centuries-sharpened hatred chewing his gut with blunt fangs.
“We need this project,” Fr. Anthony’s voice was almost childlike, “because once we find these new ways through which Satan can enter this world, then we can also find ways to counsel victims, caution the faithful, and train priests for the exorcism ministry.”
The whispering began, first among the Dominicans, then the Franciscans, before the breath-rich words tiptoed through the rest of the room.
“We need this project because our world is changing,” the old exorcist spoke above the pockets of sound, “Changing worlds can mean changing gateways for the Evil One to enter – and changing ways through which obsession, oppression, and possession can manifest.”
The once calm whispers turned into louder mumbling, with words growing more and more distinct by the minute. Alfonso could hear mere disjointed words of the remarks; but as the seconds passed, he could already make out which priest was saying what.
“Why the Philippines?” A Dominican raised his hand and asked the question at the same time.
Fr. Anthony’s smile was charitable in its mildness, “In terms of logistics, the Philippines is an ideal place for this kind of research. We can travel to different cases without driving for hours, as we did in the US. We have more priests and exorcists here, at a much higher density per thousand people, and we can call backup if needs be.”
“Fr. Lector,” the other Dominican raised his hand as well, with a far less scandalized tone than his companion’s, at least as far as Alfonso could discern it, “You said you want to succeed here where you have failed. But what did you want to succeed at?”
A tiny sparkle came to the old man’s blue eyes, as they crossed the light of the projector, “In the long term, we want to rid humanity of the demonic plague,” he paused, as one corner of the room shook its collective head, in a nod to the impossibility of the dream, “Barring that, we want to document cases and find patterns in speech, in how our victims talk; in their behavior, maybe in their upbringing, maybe in their culture. We might find patterns in behavior that are actually avenues for oppression and obsession, that might eventually lead to possession.”
“But we already know all these,” a booming, gravelly voice came from one side. Alfonso guessed that it was a very old – and very deaf – priest.
“We know some, but not all,” if Fr. Anthony was irritated, he did not show it, “There are laws in the Catechism that are timeless; but cultures and behaviors, most especially technology, are not. We keep up with the times by knowing the times in which we live.”
“This social media thing,” one of the Franciscans piped up, both in a snort and a scoff, “All these children on Facebook!”
The priest next to him said something in Tagalog, which Alfonso knew was the usual admonition given to Internet-addicted people: when I was a kid, I played hide-and-seek in the streets, or I read books, or I talked to my parents about how we hid from the Japanese in World War II.
“Did you find that out, Fr. Lector?” One of the Dominican priests spoke again, with half a chuckle, “Was social media a big factor in possession?”
Alfonso wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh at the priest or throw up his hands in exasperation. He also wasn’t sure why the question irked him.
Again, Fr. Anthony showed little to no reaction, save warmth. “We found no patterns,” his sigh was faint, however, and oh-so-very slightly suppressed beneath a calm brow, “Facebook and no Facebook, social media and no social media, TV and no TV, independently living or living with parents, male or female, young or old, there were no patterns, let alone factors to set victims apart.”
Alfonso appreciated the distinction that the old priest made between patterns and factors (and the unwavering gentleness that flowed from a sentence that seemed to run into forever). He could not help wondering, nonetheless, whether the rest of the priests were locked into the assumption that mere demographics were enough to characterize victims of possession; it was also unlike a Jesuit priest to rely on simple, standard statistical measures. There was a next slide, he hoped, that would talk about what exorcism research looked like.
“Maybe there are no patterns,” another priest mused, “Satan is the Father of Lies.”
“He is the Father of Lies working within God’s greater plan,” Fr. Anthony’s voice felt slightly pointed, and for once, Alfonso could hear the old man’s annoyance push through, “Our God might be the God of surprises, but he has a plan, and plans have patterns. If we can discover the patterns, perhaps we can understand our victims better, and help them better, and train future priests better.”
“I agree, social media was not a big thing,” the very-old-and-very-deaf priest spoke, also now very late to the social media discussion, “But they were all just very – mad – and – just very angry.”
“Do you mean the victims or the demons, father?” Another priest asked from across the room, then repeated the question another time (and louder) when the other responded with a “Ha?”
Alfonso no longer paid attention to the reply, let alone the contributions from the rest of the priests. He knew that there was talk about how the victims simply mocked the exorcist and the whole process of exorcism, and God, and the angels. What was louder and of greater importance, at that point, was the onslaught of ideas in Alfonso’s head.
What if there truly was a pattern in what the victims said? In the actual words that they used to describe themselves, their lives, their ordeals? Something to characterize a victim, to create a fingerprint that would identify them, set them apart from a demon that was trying to take on their identity?
“I always hear that!” A priest exclaimed, above the train of logic that ran through Alfonso’s imagination, “They’re together, in a relationship, like a romantic relationship.”
Fr. Anthony nodded in the man’s direction, with an air of what felt like patience merged with cringing.
“They say, ‘Kami na‘?” Another priest was almost scoffing, “I’ve never heard that.”
Kami na. It was a common Tagalog phrase that couples used to talk about the culmination of a courtship, the beginning of a new stage in togetherness that could end in marriage. Alfonso had used it once upon a time, when he thought that he was meant to be a husband and father; an afternoon with his best friend from college had turned the phrase around, thrown it out, replaced it with a God that said that He was in charge.
Even then, ‘kami na‘ made sense. When used in courtship, it was “us already.” When used at work, it meant, “leave it to us.” When used in a competition, it meant “it’s our turn.” When taken literally, it could even mean “it is a we and no longer an I.”
In Alfonso’s journey, kami na encompassed Alfonso and God, not Alfonso and his best-laid plans.
The young priest wasn’t sure why he was suddenly dissecting the words; they were two simple words, three syllables, but the meanings –
“Even if we do find patterns,” one of the Dominicans seemed to be both resigned and skeptical, “We might simply be seeing a demon at work.”
“Which could still be valuable,” Fr. Anthony put in, smile never disappearing.
“But what happens when the patterns keep changing?”
“Then we keep on doing research. Research never ends, so perhaps this project can be a template for future work.”
“So – more research?”
“Why – of course.”
Alfonso felt his insides twist, even as he had ideas about patterns and words running through his head. He could not imagine why anyone would want to analyze possession, let alone study it in the long term. No one touched the topic in his theology classes, no one talked about Cardinal Aloysio and the Exorcism Ministry Office, no one talked about the devil or demons or the idea of a real, physical, fire-and-brimstone Hell.
But if there were patterns to be discovered, and if those patterns were indeed forever changing as humanity and cultures and habits and psychology changed – then indeed, research would go on forever.
Alfonso wondered why some of the priests seemed disappointed, if not wary of the idea of research. Even the priest who had been so happy to take down notes had stowed away his notebook and simply folded his hands on the desk before him.
Perhaps Fr. Anthony sensed the hesitation and unease, as he changed the slide and seemed to forcibly brighten his smile, “I know that this project appears to be so much work, and perhaps for so little reward,” he stepped into the light, but almost too abruptly, as though he were trying to hide from the shadows, “What you see here is a grocery list, if you will, of people who would be on this team and allow this research to move forward.”
The slide was titled “Team for Fieldwork”, and Alfonso read through it despite his brain still in questioning mode. His eyes quickly traveled to the bottom, however, where there were actual names written to designate the people assigned to a specific task.
The names Landon Sheffield and Bradley Sheffield were written next to the label Documentors and Archivists. The Assistant Exorcist post had been given to Matteo Castroverde, SJ (Alfonso wondered if this was the Matteo that was so secretly legendary amongst the older Jesuits, but he did not have time or space to ask questions, so he kept on reading).There were blank spaces for more priests, and a line strangely labeled with “Seers and Sensitives”. The Chief Exorcist position was pre-assigned to Anthony Lector, SJ.
The name of the Vatican Coordinator and Chair, however, was nearly invisible in the play of letters and light that streaked across the old exorcist’s face. Had the man not jumped in earlier, the name would have been visible for everyone in the room to see; only Alfonso had the patience to read, look, and in a second, feel his jaw drop once again as the identity of the oft-mentioned Jorge finally emerged.
And from across the wizened and white collection of heads, Fr. Anthony gave the young priest a quick glare, as though to warn him not to make a sound.
He then proceeded to read through the list, but with the glare still lingering.
“I call this a dream team because it is partly constituted, and needs only a few more spots to be filled before it becomes a reality.
“We would need an analyst to head the team, a psychiatrist to give us the go-signal if an exorcism should be carried out, a doctor to monitor the patient during the exorcism, and individuals with special charisms to sense where there are spirits that congregate, or bring trouble to a place.”
The slide quickly changed, and Fr. Anthony stepped away once again into the darkness. There were no actual names to give identities away; there was only a list of tasks that detailed how the research would proceed.
“This is what our dream team will do,” he went on, as he read through each item with stronger intonation on each syllable, as though daring any of the priests to interrupt him.
Alfonso read the list himself.
1. Identify ongoing cases, c/o bishop
2. Team will travel to case area
3. Vatican coordinator monitors work from VC
4. Family interviews c/o psychiatrist and priests
5. Monitoring, possible exorcism
6. Recording and sending of archival footage and audio c/o documentors
7. Transcription c/o documentors
8. Analysis c/o lead analyst
10. Long term: Modify exorcism course, c/o Chief Exorcist and Vatican coordinator
It sounded simple when Fr. Anthony read it out; but in his head, Alfonso could see at least eight people packed into a van, traveling the country, coordinating schedules for both talking to victims and observing exorcism (minus the Vatican coordinator, but really, it would have been great to have the Pope – OH GOD THE ACTUAL POPE – with the team), documenting, archiving –
“This brings my presentation to a close,” Fr. Anthony said, shifting back to the slide that contained the dream team list, “We already have candidates for some of the positions, including the sensitives, so we do need researchers and psychologists. If there is anyone whom you know would be interested, or if you could provide us with leads – whether a case, or a priest who can do this research – then my team and I would be very grateful. ”
The pause that came next felt deliberate, measured; Alfonso watched the priest slowly make for the projector, but not touch it, leaving the designations and blank spaces up – recklessly showing off the name of the Vatican coordinator.
But no one was looking at the slides. No one protested, or asked for a moment to examine the list, or even confirmed if, indeed, that Jorge was THE Jorge.
The priests were conferring with each other, or looking down at their hands.
It was only then that Fr. Anthony switched the projector off.
Alfonso took the sudden darkness as his cue to spring out of his chair and toward the nearest window. He opened the blinds, allowing the morning sunlight to stream into the room, across the floor, over the heads with thinning hair and near-bare scalps, over pairs of discussants and bowed countenances and priests who seemed to be deep in both thought and memories.
“We appreciate the work that you do, Fr. Anthony,” one of the Dominicans began, raising his hand once again as he spoke, “I learned a lot from the exorcism course, and I understand that it will change with every new 21st century priest.”
Fr. Anthony smiled, quiet, eyes clear but not sparkling.
“We can talk to the bishop and ask if we can refer some cases,” the Dominican continued, “But I’m not sure we can spare priests to help with analysis.”
“Maybe we can ask,” his companion offered hurriedly, “We might find priests in the provinces who want to do research. But we don’t have doctors, and no psychiatrists.”
“We can also ask our brothers,” another priest, in a plain black shirt, spoke up, “Your course helped me, father, so I’ll do my best.”
“Thank you – you are very gracious,” Fr. Anthony smiled, the merest twinkle lighting up his eyes.
“Will Cardinal Aloysio join you?” One of the Dominicans inquired.
“He offered to coordinate with local dioceses, and he did tell me that if any of you had contacts, then he could talk to the contacts himself,” Fr. Anthony sounded more like a proud mentor than a friend to the cardinal, “His office works with some doctors and psychiatrists, but they are so few, and I imagine no one can be spared when research begins.”
“If you ask me,” the deaf priest chimed in, “Maybe you don’t need a psychiatrist. In all my years, in all my experience, I always saw things before the psychiatrist did. Get more priests!”
Alfonso wanted to speak up, to contradict the old man, but no one else seemed ready or willing to. He guessed that the priests knew each other well enough, knew when to show their disagreement and when to simply share uneasy looks while allowing one of their number to say what he willed. The young Jesuit was not quite sure, however, whether the rest of the exorcists did not wish to rattle their mostly likely eldest member, or if they truly agreed with the deaf priest and were too embarrassed to admit it in front of the very man who had created the exorcism course that advocated a union between church and science.
Fr. Anthony simply turned his attention to the room in general, and no priest in particular.
“Thank you very much, then, everyone,” his voice was firm, his smile gentle, “I look forward to hearing from you. Shall we have some brunch in the next room?”
If the nine guests had ever been infirm, they showed no such weakness now. The promise of food had made the old men leap to their feet, turn to each other in excitement, talk as though they had never been unenthusiastic but minutes before, even regain their hearing, in the case of one of the priests. They all surrounded Fr. Anthony – one even pulled out a cell phone and asked for a selfie, to which the old priest obliged.
Alfonso was ready to laugh, and to make his way out as furtively as possible, until Fr. Anthony raised one hand at him from across the room.
“My young Jesuit brother shall join us for brunch!” Was the exclamation, full of both warmth and invitation, “You aren’t allowing the average age to go up to a hundred again, are you?”