Brunch became lunch, lunch turned into an overlong affair, and the hour was already edging close to sunset when the priests finally took their leave.
The day-long meeting had nothing to do with the priests themselves, even with the many selfies they took with Fr. Anthony, or the many photographs they had in the inner gardens of the Infirmary. It had nothing to do with the nearly unending parade of food that inevitably came at each hour, from tuna sandwiches to egg sandwiches to a full lunch of rice and chicken adobo to bowls of noodle soup to plates of Filipino desserts. And it had nothing to do with the victims still in the Infirmary pending their deliverance sessions (Alfonso was waiting for Fr. Anthony to allude to them, but there was no chance to do so after the rest of the priests started talking).
The over-extended conversation began as soon as the priests sat down for brunch. Alfonso helped herd them, as it were (and, with some luck, caught their names and introduced himself properly), out of the courtyards and into the meal room. There, a long table had been laid out, with sandwiches on individual plates and coffee cups filled, with all the windows open to let in the mild summer breeze, and with Fr. Anthony seated while hammering away at his phone.
“I messaged the residences,” he whispered, almost conspiratorial, as he waved Alfonso to the seat on his right, “I told them you and I were helping with a meeting of priests.”
Alfonso felt his neck grow cold. If any of the younger Jesuits knew that he had been with Fr. Anthony the whole day, then there was no telling how popular he would be at dinner that night.
“Don’t worry,” Fr. Anthony had apparently read him quite well, “I told only your SD, and he was very gracious. He said that you needed to leave your desk once in a while. I assumed that was a direct order that I should proceed as I please.”
Alfonso’s spiritual director – the SD – was one of his professors in theology, and had been his adviser since his early years as a novice. The good man was nearing his 80th birthday, but was both spry and sharp: he would sometimes knock on Alfonso’s door after dinner, ask what the young man would pray for that night, and then give the boy a tight embrace, along with the reminder to really, truly work for his prayers to earn their Amen.
The nightly visits had gotten rarer, as of late, as though his SD had sensed that his time for directing the young Jesuit would soon come to an end. The fatherly priest would still pat him on the head, however, when they passed each other during meals, and would still embrace him if they ever met randomly in the hallways. There was a sense of a goodbye that did not need to be said.
Alfonso could only smile as he took the chair Fr. Anthony offered to him.
“I’ll do my best to help in whatever way I can,” Alfonso began, as the priests took their seats, and as Fr. Anthony led the prayer.
There was some eating after, some sandwich unwrapping, and some parcels of conversation between bites and sips of coffee. Before long, however, those same conversations grew in volume, narrowed in scope, and set the stage for what would be a long day that juggled notes, exchanges, and Google searching (at least for Alfonso).
It all began when one priest asked about a case that he had referred to another priest at that same table.
“We’re still working on it,” the priest’s hands hovered over his half-eaten sandwich, “I have to go back this weekend. At least it’s just in Lipa.”
“Oh, that’s where I was last week,” one of the other priests put in, “I didn’t know you were there!”
“I have a case there, too,” a Franciscan added, “The bishop is quite busy now. Does anyone know if he has a team on site?”
“Only some Jesuits to sort out files, but they are quite young and slow with that part of the job – no offense,” a priest directed the last words to Alfonso, who had no time to react (what was the work, anyway?), “I heard they’re matching paper to audio, or audio to transcripts – I really am not sure what.”
“That is too much work, and I don’t know where it will all go, ” the old, deaf priest piped up, “I am sure it would go somewhere, but I think I would rot if I had to do it.”
“Well, the recordings won’t transcribe themselves,” one of the Dominicans mused, “I heard they have to go through files stretching back decades.”
Alfonso’s jaw must have dropped, because the Dominican almost immediately held up his half-finished cup of coffee in the young priest’s direction.
“It’s not unusual for such phenomena to happen in places of strong mystic activity,” the Dominican said, “Perhaps it is something for your team to explore.”
There was something both encouraging and grating about the way the Dominican had enunciated “your team”. Alfonso felt as though he were being roped in forcibly into the project; but he felt, as well, equal offense at the flippant reference to research.
“Well, the team has to be credited for working at all,” the priest seated next to Alfonso must have sensed the latter’s irritation, as his voice was both soothing and fatherly, “It is tiring to listen to past exorcisms, let alone sort papers and document everything. They were so patient when I had to ask them for files the other week.”
“Same thing happened to me,” another priest across the table added, “I got this case – and I don’t know how they did it, but they got the files together, explained the case on the phone, and it was so clear, and I just saw what I had to do.”
“They called me last year,” the deaf priest had seemingly been contaminated by the cordiality, “And I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they had this good young priest who drove over and talked to me. Such a devoted man! So few of them left! And it turns out he was an exorcist as well – and the oldest – and the boss! I should like to meet him again, if I remember his name! Maybe you know him, Fr. Anthony?”
Alfonso saw Fr. Anthony wince, and marked the brisk smile that hardly wrinkled the cheeks of the old exorcist.
“I believe you are talking about Fr. Matteo Castroverde,” he intoned; then, with a quick shake of his palms onto his plate to rid himself of crumbs, “I would not call him the boss, but Matteo is very helpful, even when he has so much work to do. He travels quite a good deal. His job when you met him was to head the Vatican investigation team for a new look into Lipa.”
The silence fell, like ice onto ice, metal onto metal, stone onto stone. Alfonso had to stop himself from asking if this Fr. Matteo was the priest who could see angels and demon, and whose reputation made the rounds of the Jesuit novices. He was sure that this was the great Matteo, for Fr. Anthony seemed proud and protective of the priest whom he had named his assistant in the project. The rest of the priests, on the other hand, had appeared to clamp their mouths shut, as though they felt they had spoken too brashly about a place in which they had placed a good deal of pride.
Alfonso felt his neck grow cold once again. Of course: the Marian apparition at Lipa, the pilgrimages and showers of rose petals that had made the local news for years, the case that had been in the public eye for decades but had remained unapproved by the Vatican.
He remembered that it was a controversial affair, and that its approval – long overdue, some people said – was a point of resentment. And there had apparently been a new investigation of which the priests were clearly unaware.
“You can be candid with me, and truthful, please,” Fr. Anthony’s voice sliced into the still heady quiet, “If you had a case in Lipa in the last month, or are scheduled for one, then please raise your hand.”
Nine hands went up.
Nine heads glanced quickly, fearfully at each other.
Fr. Anthony’s smile was almost imperceptible, but his warmth stretched through the table, and seemed to weaken what felt like a combination of tension and unease.
“I am not here to comment on Lipa, so you can trust me,” the exorcist sipped some water before continuing, “If I might hear about these cases? Perhaps Aloysio and I can help, if there is anything that you need help with, if you need our assistance – or even if you simply want to speak amongst your peers, to air your difficulties. I offer you this forum – one I wish I had when I was younger. Think of me as your colleague, someone who shares your concerns.”
The air – so heavy with the twittering of birds outside, so imbued with the brushing of branches against the windows of the dining hall – the air lingered over the priests, kept them silent despite the encouragement. The only sound left was the gentle laying of ceramic coffee cup upon ceramic plate by one priest; and even then, the sound seemed unwilling to break into what felt like noonday calm.
“Well,” was the low response of one Dominican, as he cleared his throat, “If I may begin…”
And so the conversation grew, built on itself, crawled and bloomed out of the first account. The silence left almost immediately.
“I was going to visit Sr. Teresita,” the Dominican began, “But there was this mother with her, and her little boy.”
Sr. Teresita – Alfonso recalled the name of the seer of Lipa. He noted how the rest of the priests were either looking down at their coffee cups, or glancing at Fr. Anthony, as though dreading the slightest change in his mien.
“Teresita is really quite sick,” the Dominican continued; then, in sentences that seemed a bit more rapid than usual, “She has always been a kind soul, a gentle woman, and she would never, ever lie. That is why people go to her for prayers now.”
Eight balding heads bobbed their approval around the table.
“There are rumors that she can heal people,” the other Dominican put in, so that the nodding became all the more enthusiastic, “In pain, she has become ever more close to Heaven.”
Fr. Anthony began typing, almost furiously, on his mobile phone.
“In any case, I visited her one day,” the first Dominican went on, tone still threatening to speed up, “But the boy and his mother – they were there, in her room, for a long time. So I waited – I waited for hours. When they came out, the mother was just drained, white, so – pale and tired. And her son did not look – human.”
The nodding had long stopped, and Alfonso marked the audible swallowing, as though the table were fearful of how extreme the ending of this story would be.
“I was afraid at first,” the priest continued, “He was – what? Eight? Nine? But…He stared at me. It was like looking at a snake, but a snake that was thinking of how to trap me, because it hated me and wanted me to suffer.”
Alfonso swallowed what felt like a suddenly dry piece of toast.
“I thought it was just my imagination,” the Dominican laughed lightly, “I didn’t want to assume anything. I could have been tired from all the waiting, or maybe the little boy was tired because he just wanted to be outside, playing with his friends.”
“None of us would dare to judge,” one of the other priests sipped his coffee, voice calmer than the Dominican’s, “Always the last to confirm.”
“Always the first to doubt,” the second Dominican rejoined.
“True – but he started speaking to me,” the first Dominican went on, eyes to his plate, so that Alfonso could clearly see his thin strands of gray hair, “He said he was happy I waited a long time because I would be too tired by then to drive him out.”
“Well – wasn’t that a bold little demon?” Fr. Anthony remarked. There was a single beat (of surprise), followed by a chorus of laughter (which sounded more like relief).
Alfonso had to join them, not so much because the comment was amusing, but because the whole idea of exorcists having their own brand of humor was so outlandish, so foreign, he didn’t know what else he could have done.
“A bold one – and a clingy one,” the Dominican shook his head, “I prayed, Father, at that very moment. I thought I had misheard him – some little boys can joke, you see, and I can be rather deaf – so I prayed. I prayed in my head in Latin.
“That little boy just looked at me. And he – grinned. He looked like an old man. An old, angry, hateful man. I felt like I was hearing a confession from a grandfather for the first time in his sinful life.
“It turns out that his mother was also trying to get Sr. Teresita to check on him, but the demon was – I am not sure if I should say this – but the demon was not showing himself, like he was afraid of her, like he knew Teresita was being protected.”
Fr. Anthony did not say anything, and merely nodded, with next to no emotion.
“He truly seemed to avoid Sr. Teresita,” the other priest sounded as though he were trying to drill a point in place, “Of course I cannot be so sure, but maybe there was something keeping him away.”
“I do sense something protecting her all the time,” another priest added, “You must believe us, Father.”
Alfonso had been so busy reading the old priest’s face (and deciphering the man’s insistence), that he nearly jumped out of his seat as the doors behind him opened. It was the cafeteria staff, bearing trays of egg sandwiches and bottled water.
Alfonso realized why, and who, Fr. Anthony had been texting.
The Dominican spoke only after the last of the empty tuna sandwich plates had been taken out.
“As I was saying – the little boy,” he drank water before going on, “The mother asked for my help, and there was the little boy again. He was a real little boy, and he was looking at me and wondering who I was. I could tell. He did not know me or remember me.
“But we know these demons. They can hide. And they are vain. This one came back out when I asked a doctor to look at the little boy. The boy nearly ripped the doctor’s lips off. His nails were suddenly long, and sharp, and black, like claws.”
Alfonso nearly swallowed his egg sandwich whole.
“We’ve been working on his exorcism for close to a year now,” the Dominican sipped his coffee, and then took a bite from his egg sandwich, “That is why I had to refer the little girl’s case to you.”
The last sentence was directed to the Franciscan across the table, who had been drinking a glass of powdered orange juice down, as though he were drowning himself in sugar.
“That girl! Yes – another strange one,” the priest had the medal of St. Benedict sown onto his shirt, “I saw her in my room last night.”
All the priests stopped chewing their food.
The last speaker shrugged, with half a chuckle, as though he had indeed expected the reaction.
“She just appeared and disappeared, like she always does,” and, with a sigh, “I used to think it was taunting. I believe it’s a reminder that her soul has its own power. It is only trapped somewhere. That is why I have to go to Lipa this weekend.”
“I did not realize she had that kind of demon,” the Dominican who had passed on the case said, “Better be careful. You’re not young anymore.”
“And I still like my sweets because life is too short to drink water,” the other retorted, with what sounded like a giggle, as he reached for the pitcher of powdered orange juice and poured himself another glass. The Dominican could only shake his head and brush the other’s carelessness away.
“I knew she was possessed even on the phone,” the Franciscan raised the glass of brightly colored juice, just as the rest of the priests began to protest, “Yes, yes, I know – last to judge, first to doubt. But…listen.
“I called her mother, just to start scheduling counseling. And the girl picked up the phone, with no hello or good morning at all. She just said, ‘So you’re the priest they passed the case to!'”
Alfonso wondered if the rest of the table felt the cold wind on their napes, or the biting ice that seemed to raise one’s hackles. The priest, so jolly (and round), had been telling the story so casually, that the contrast was so much greater when his voice dropped to a deep, shaking bass that made the eardrums tingle, that crept across skin like slow, muddy worms.
“I did not say anything,” the Franciscan greeted the silence with a sip of orange juice, “I prayed, and asked the Virgin Mary for guidance. In one moment, one half a second, the girl said, ‘Don’t bring the bitch into this, you coward. Fight me like a man!'”
Several priests shook their heads in a near chorus of what Alfonso assumed was a mixture of disbelief and fear (or astonishment, as the last speaker had so casually said “bitch”, and with hardly a wince to show for it). The fear, however, was perhaps not so much the presence of evil, but the thought that a Marian apparition site would suffer yet another blow of Vatican disapproval, and all because of what appeared to be a swarm of demonic possession.
“But I never stopped praying!” The Franciscan sounded happy, as though he had surprised his friends with a crate of wine. His levity stood in stark contrast to the Dominican, who had seemingly been on a mission to tell Fr. Anthony that anyone who dared speak against the integrity of Lipa was wrong.
“And you did right by the young lady,” Fr. Anthony’s voice walked into the conversation, “Please, go on, Father.”
The Franciscan smiled, drank another dose of orange juice, and spoke as though he had to clear out the weight on his chest. The man had his own way of capturing the crowd: the priests finished their sandwiches and turned their attention almost exclusively to him, giving Fr. Anthony the chance to type furiously into his phone once again.
Alfonso half listened to the account, and, ever so carefully, slipped his own phone out of his pocket, kept it under the table with one hand, and began his own furious fever of Google searches and multiple browser tabs.
Lipa Marian Apparition.
He wanted to both celebrate and groan. There were thousands of results, and he had not even messaged his friends at the Jesuit archives yet. If a Jesuit was helping with investigations, then surely there would be case files in the library, or at least a scholarly brother chatty enough on a sleepy summer afternoon.
“This girl would not give her mother the phone,” the Franciscan continued, to a chorus of held breaths and empty snack plates, “She kept on cursing and laughing, and then she was crying, and then she was giggling – everything happened in less than one minute. It was very, very strange. I was watching the clock, and I was counting the seconds, because you know, after you get cursed in ten different languages for more than a few moments, things can get very boring.”
The rest of the priests laughed, including the very old, very deaf one. Alfonso swore he heard the man snort out an expletive.
“How do you know they were curses?” A priest challenged, “Unless you know all ten languages?”
“Not the whole language, only the curses,” the Franciscan retorted, “I find that very useful in our line of work.”
Alfonso joined them – vaguely aware of what was being laughed at – as he shuttled off a chat message to his friends at the archives.
“I would not stop praying,” the Franciscan bowed his head in Fr. Anthony’s general direction, “So finally, finally the mother had the phone. I don’t know how it happened, but she said her daughter just gave it to her, and then the child sat down and fell asleep.”
The response from the archives came in just as the priests fell silent.
Hey Alfonso! Sure! What do you want to know? Accounts of apparition, eyewitness testimonies, theology, prayers, history of the apparition, history of the church, back story?
Alfonso could hear his friend’s voice in his head, as though he were being led through a personalized tour of the archives by an older brother showing off the library’s collections. He could not help smiling at the thought of the Jesuits being so helpful, almost to the point that they would drop everything if only to answer a question. He sent off the request as the priests shook their collective heads and began to sip on fresh cups of coffee.
“So her mother told me everything,” the Franciscan was saying, with yet another bow to Fr. Anthony, “I took down notes, wrote everything for the documentation – all due diligence. Writing everything down is an old habit. I can do it sleeping, half asleep, even in the middle of a session. Now, I can also do it while suspended in the air and held upside down.”
The silence swooped onto the table once more, just as a new message blinked Alfonso’s phone to life.
Wow, you’re in luck! We just digitized all the hard copies last week! On orders from high up, so it was a NIGHTMARE!
On any other day, Alfonso would have gladly chatted with his friend about having to meet demands on command, of how some of the older Jesuits had no idea how difficult it was to transfer decades-old documents to an easy-to-access library, of how technology gave them all a headache whenever it involved anyone who thought they knew about technology but didn’t. Alfonso loved his archive friends, but he did not envy them their tasks, especially now that there seemed to be a case for (or against) Lipa that the brothers in the archives didn’t seem to know anything about either.
He was ready to ask another question, but the once thick silence of the table broke once more under the Franciscan’s story.
“The next thing I knew, I was looking down at my desk from the ceiling,” the man’s eyes took on a glassy, almost watery sheen, “And there was this girl, young, teenager – she was looking up at me, and she was staring.
“I knew it was the girl, the mother’s daughter – but I could not understand why she would be there. Then I blinked, and she was gone, and I was in my chair again.
“And – I don’t understand what this means, to this day. But – I saw the girl, but when it was over, I couldn’t remember what she looked like.”
The words sounded like ice creeping through tarry seawater. Alfonso could imagine what any girl would look like, if he were suspended in the air in the middle of note taking. Was the demon playing tricks? Was the little girl’s soul wandering and watching as the demon inside her joked and made merry of the old exorcist?
His phone showed a new message.
Are you working on something? What’s this for? Not that I won’t give it to you. It’s just that – if you know what’s up and why we had to stay up til dawn last week to rush everything, maybe give me a clue?
The smiley emojis at the end were a series of blushing cheeks, a frustrated smile, and a bawling baby. How could Alfonso explain his presence at the exorcists’ meeting without suddenly becoming the center of conversation (and gossip) at dinner?
“I did ask for Aloysio’s permission immediately,” again, the Franciscan acknowledged Fr. Anthony, this time with a raise of a full glass of orange juice, “And I drove to Lipa with my seminarians as soon as I got it. Thank God the demon did not turn my car upside down on the way there!”
Again, the priests laughed; and again, Alfonso could not help joining them. Where else could he find such a rich sense of humor, but in a group of men who had the strength to still see humanity, still love humanity, even when they were met with resistance, and abuse, and evil?
He typed a message out. He knew he had come across Marian apparitions in his readings, and of course, why not the modern and very recent Lipa as a way to enrich his understanding of the theology of Mary?
He did add, however, how he sympathized with all the sleepless nights, the documentation, the indexing, the notetaking, and the translation that the brothers at the archive had to endure.
“We got to her house with no delay,” the Franciscan continued, setting the still full glass of orange juice down, “There was no traffic at all, which was very strange for a Saturday morning. The boys and I were very hopeful. We thought, ‘Ah, this is where the defeat begins! With joy!'”
The rest of the exorcists shook their collective heads. Alfonso had learned to read it as the signal that the poor Franciscan, for all his brightness, had been sorely mistaken once again.
“So of course we were wrong!” The priest simply smiled, as though he were telling his friends about a weekend hike through mountain passes full of surprises and blind curves, “The demon did not show itself, not when we prayed over her, not when we started the rite, not when we came to the litany. We spoke to the girl, we heard her confession, we listened to her stories about her nightmares. And yet – nothing.”
“I’m glad you had the patience for the case,” the Dominican spoke up, “I would not have waited.”
“Oh – I didn’t have to!” Was the Franciscan’s almost jubilant retort, “I decided to pray the way I did when I first talked to her: in my head. I let the seminarians do the talking and I did the praying.”
Alfonso’s phone lit up.
Nerd! But we love you just the same. Magic of copy-paste coming right up!
The chat window scrolled almost madly, faster than Alfonso could blink; it kept on scrolling as Alfonso thanked his friend, and as the Franciscan went on with his story.
“So the seminarians were praying – and then suddenly, the girl smiled. She already did before, but this time, it was different. Scary. Wild. She looked big, bigger than a human, and like her face was full of teeth.
“But her voice. That’s when I knew. It was like listening to a classroom of children all screaming and crying. She looked straight at me and said, ‘Is this what you wanted me to do?'”
Alfonso felt his blood chill, as the Franciscan imitated the girl’s voice. It was not so much the sudden change in the man’s tone, as it was the jolt to his memories, as the scene on the balcony returned in its fullest, clearest force. His friend had turned into a mere shell, and had spoken with voices that both bawled and bayed. There was the poor young man, once so hopeful for his first vows; and now, there was this poor young girl, who sounded as though she were trapped somewhere, elsewhere, while a demon made sport of her body.
Something came to his memories as well. Something from his theology readings – or was it biology? – about how the human body was so intricate, so coordinated in its workings, that it was truly a temple. Yet it was not a temple insofar as it had to be cared for, or that it was sacred, or that it was of the Holy Ghost. There was far more to the temple than was seen from the outside. Within, all the members of a temple worked toward a common good, with no knowledge of themselves and yet complete devotion to their owner.
What happened when a rat would come to the temple? It would perhaps be driven out, if the owner of the temple knew how to do so. But sometimes, some owners would allow a rat to enter, because there was no harm in just one, and it would be caught one day anyway. There were far more pressing tasks in the temple, so one rat was nothing.
Until the rat would gnaw holes large enough in the walls, and then more rats would come in, and gnaw more holes – but because the owner had learned to live with rats, then the owner would sit back and let the rats be. Or, if the infestation were alarming, then the owner would drive the rats out – but, in haste, forget to fortify the temple, because there were other priorities that required more attention than a few rat holes.
And then the rats would return, fiercer than ever, because they knew where the owner was weak, and they knew how to work around those weaknesses.
Oh, they were smart, those rats.
Or – they were smart, but only because they could see vulnerability, and exploit them. They could not create. They could only destroy.
And the temple… that poor temple with its delicate machinery and its thousands of moving parts made so wonderfully… that poor temple –
Alfonso nearly jumped as a hand clapped on his shoulder and snapped him out of his remembrance of his readings.
“Emergency,” Fr. Anthony leaned down and whispered in his ear, fully awakening Alfonso to the fact that the Franciscan was still talking about his exorcism of the young girl, and the whole table was still fully immersed in his accounts, “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Entertain them!”