Newspapers, books, and stories of misty-eyed grandparents all tell the tale of how the end truly did come for the president who had styled himself a dictator. There were many such blades that frayed the once unbreakable veneer that lent an illusion of success: There were the students who spoke out against the government, the lawyers who were imprisoned for their opposition, the senator who flew home and was shot dead on the tarmac. And then his widow became the new president, and a new chapter opened in the country’s history.
On that afternoon, however, Matteo did not see beyond his tears, could not see beyond his despair. He would later recall that he felt so weak, he did not even remember falling asleep until Fr. Genio shook him awake the next morning and bade him eat his breakfast.
Fr. Romy and Fr. Genio took turns visiting him, sitting with him in silence, asking him no questions. Fr. Jun sometimes came, but he looked drawn, seemingly centuries older, with skin that felt leathery and a voice that croaked rather than counseled. Matteo could not bear to ask the priest anything, and Fr. Jun understood. The man would simply take the boy’s hands, bow his head, and say a prayer.
It took a few more days for Matteo to regain the use of his legs, and when he had enough energy to leave his room, he went straight next door to Fr. Exo. The priest was recovering, and still weak; but when he saw Matteo, he burst into tears, pulled the boy by his sleeves, and drew him into an embrace so hard, Matteo had to plead to be let go because he could no longer breathe.
“I’m so happy to see you!” Fr. Exo wiped his tears away, “You little boy! How could you even think of trying to leave me?”
Matteo could say nothing, but he did return Fr. Exo’s embrace, push out a laugh, and try his best to smile when the priest loosened him. Fr. Exo then motioned to the other side of the bed, where there were two visitors looking on, but whom Matteo did not even notice when he had first entered. They were priests, and in long, flowing habits.
“These are my good friends,” Fr. Exo’s smile was so bright, it almost pushed out the despair from Matteo’s chest, “Come to tell me that they’re trying to get the Pope to come here. They come from another university.”
“The one you always disparage,” Fr. Genio groaned from the door, as he had been the one to bring Matteo to his brother Jesuit.
The visitors laughed immediately. “It’s an old joke!” one of them said, “We’re Dominicans, young man. God’s fighting dogs.”
“God’s penguins,” Fr. Exo retorted, pointing up and down at the black and white habit of the priests, which made the Dominicans holler even louder, “They’ll come and take you away if you don’t behave.”
“And we send the most immoral of our priests over here to you Jesuits, so it’s a good exchange,” the other Dominican said, so that Fr. Exo promptly bellowed out what sounded like a series of giggles.
The two priests were also exorcists that Fr. Exo had trained, and who had been his closest friends since he had arrived in the Philippines. Sitting in their meeting felt like being welcomed into a circle of co-conspirators who loved to regale their audience with their plans, and yet Matteo, despite the brightness all around him, could not find it within himself to even smile. Something weighed within his soul, with a chain that seemed to stretch from the base of his throat to an infinity away from his body, like a long tail of iron. That same something made him sit in silence, eat the hearty soup that Fr. Genio brought in for the group, force out a laugh when the conversation required, and then take his leave with the aid of Fr. Jun.
He did not depart, however, without yet another bone-crushing embrace from Fr. Exo, who laid a kiss on his head and promised that he would give him chocolates, “So please stay with us.”
Matteo did not even think of leaving of the House of the Jesuits, let alone the campus; but every time he looked at Fr. Romy, he could only see someone who had not trained him well enough to avoid giving in to his curiosity; every time he visited Fr. Exo, he could only see a priest who should have pulled some strings to keep his sister safe; every time Fr. Genio brought him food, he could only see a priest who had been a mere peacekeeper and cook, and had done nothing for his family; and every time Fr. Jun came in for prayers, he could see the counselor of his parents who had failed to keep his father from decisions that should not have been made in haste, so soon, at so dangerous a time.
And he nursed the emotions, as he began to walk, and climb up and down stairs, and even watch the nightly news with the rest of the Jesuits as the countdown began to the Pope’s visit. He cradled the resentment, as he tried to read the newspaper with the careful eyes of his sister, tried to help Fr. Romy clean his room with his mother’s meticulousness, tried to arrange the books in the library with his father’s systematicity, tried to help Fr. Genio cook with the same quiet toil as Yaya did. He spent his days holding an inner world of rage melded with loneliness, from when he awakened to breakfast and exercises with Fr. Jun, to when he lay in bed at night and replayed the last time he had spoken to his family in his head.
For a week or so, he lived in the world of his memories. Every time he joined the Jesuits for prayers, he spoke the words as though he were reciting them from a book; and every time he made the Sign of the Cross, he did it slowly, touching body parts rather than symbols. Every time he ate a meal, he chewed with rhythm, counting out his miseries. Every time a priest sat with him, he listened to mere syllables that seemed to run around in the air, finding a place to settle, bouncing away from his ears.
He called upon his guardian angel once, but found that she was not listening. Or, to be more precise, she was there, but not talking. And he did use his gifts, to see if it still worked: he saw some angels, several minor demons running in the hallways and falling flat on their faces like wily (though rather ugly) children. So the gift worked, but he was a mere human being with no one who cared for him, and that was that.
Matteo felt the world ignore him; so, in rebellion (howsoever painful it was to carry out), he decided to ignore the world as well.
There was one time, however, when his little revolt lost its fire. It was on the second day of the Pope’s stay in the country. The priests had been increasingly excited in the days leading up to the visit: some of them planned to go to Manila to see him arrive in his car, to wave at him, and to ask for blessings. Matteo listened to the chattering, found himself shaking his head: how, in the storm of humanity, would any blessings be had or even successfully given? The pope was a mere man (oh how his heart jumped in anger at the thought!) and he was a mere vessel (oh how his spirit of rebellion shrank, for it did not feel true to his own soul!), and anyone who idolized him was close enough to worshipping him, which was anathema, which was blasphemous, which was therefore wrong.
Matteo lived in this little world of hesitant rebellion, tried to make himself immune to the happiness that blossomed all around him. On the night of the Pope’s second day, he stayed in his room, tried to read a book, and then took to staring out the window. He saw a parade of cars light up the road to the House of the Jesuits, heard giggling in the rooms, heard people run up and down stairs, even heard priests run across halls and shout for people to help.
There was probably someone in trouble and seeking asylum, the way his parents once did. Matteo did not feel like helping them.
By their fruits you shall know them, he once read; they were the words that Fr. Romy had once spoken, when Matteo asked if his gifts were truly gifts or curses. By their fruits you shall know them: If the gift helps you and brings others closer to God, then yes, it is indeed a gift; but if it tears people apart and brings discord, then we must find a way to help you, because it is being used as a conduit by the forces of evil.
And the fruits of Matteo’s gift? Misery, tears, a possessed father, a sister suddenly stripped of her career, a family torn apart. What else was the gift but –
A knock came to Matteo’s door. The boy did not realize how long he had been standing at the window. He found himself limping across the room, heart heavy, fingers stunned by the cold metal of the doorknob. When he opened the door, he nearly collapsed to the floor in what initially felt like shock, but what he later realized was a sweep of overwhelming love, an air of holiness that no human being had ever borne so effortlessly, a soul that seemed to shine forth from its mortal case.
“Good evening, Matteo,” Fr. Romy’s voice woke Matteo out of his daze, “Someone very special wanted to meet you. I hope you’ll let him come in.”
“Of course,” Matteo croaked, finding his body turning one way, to check if there were enough chairs; then turning another way, to check if he had tidied his room; then finally back to the door again, where two people waited by the threshold, “Good evening – sir – Father – Holy Father.”
Any kind of etiquette that Matteo thought he had learned was gone, in that wash of love, that aura of goodness, that soul that looked back at him with the gentlest of smiles. He felt both flustered and calm, exhausted and energized, full of happiness yet lacking in words. He knew that somehow, he had kissed the Pope’s ring, had nearly fallen to one knee because he thought he had to salute the man, had laughed with Fr. Romy when the Pope – in near perfect English – said something about not being a statue on an altar, had finally found himself seated on one side of his bed while the man once called Karol Wojtyla sat in front of him, on the only other chair in the room. Fr. Romy had left and closed the door.
Not once did Matteo feel that he should look hard for the Pope’s guardian angel. Simply being in the man’s presence was enough for him to sense the embrace of fiery angelic wings, to know that his own guardian angel was bowing to beings higher in the hierarchy than she, to mark the heat of angelic blades and radiance of angelic shields. The Pope felt both earthly in his air, and celestial in his words, as though he were truly living in two universes at once.
“Good evening, young man,” he spoke, in English accented, as though he were a watchful grandfather sitting in a rocking chair and observing his ward, “Your priests spoke so highly of you, and I wanted to meet you. I know your story, and I met your family. Everything is very sad, but I want to also bring you some kind of hope, because you are a remarkable and gifted young man. There is much ahead of you, I know. Let us pray together first.”
Matteo realized, only then, that he had never met his grandfathers. He would not know, then, how a grandfather should be, only that the man should be as caring as a Fr. Genio working happily in the kitchen, as scholarly as a Fr. Exo giving lectures with multiple dashes of humor, as loving as a Fr. Levi who ministered to children, as gentle as a Fr. Jun who counseled his parents, and as perceptive as a Fr. Romy who knew exactly what to say by simply looking at the boy. And he felt that all these grandfathers had been placed in one man, and that one man was guarded by three seraphs, and that man was sitting before him and placing both his hands on his head.
Matteo had already burst into tears so many times ever since he had found out about what had truly occurred in his weeklong sleep. But when the Pope’s hands rested on his curls, he suddenly heard the whispers of the three seraphs as they knelt and praised God, and he saw the dreams of his guardian angel as the images passed through his heart. He saw her weeping and waiting for him in a garden overgrown by vines and illuminated gray by a sparkling sun.
And he wept.
Not the bitter tears of loneliness, or the salty tears of rage, but the tasteless tears of someone touched at the very core of his spirit. He heard the words clearly, felt the prayer that the Pope pronounced over him, sensed the warm rush of faith that cloaked him like liquid sunlight. The prayer was so simple, and yet its profundity surpassed his memory, so that all that Matteo would remember was that he was once again placed in his garden, next to his guardian angel, who simply sat and waited for him to send her messages again.
When the prayer was done, Matteo looked at his companion, and found the glow undiminished. It was as though the man was illuminated by something within, or something all around him that overstepped the bounds of human perception.
“Please do not cry,” the Pope kept both his hands on Matteo’s head, allowing the boy to look him in the eye, “Your family is alive and safe, and they shall go to Italy with me. We shall find a way for you to see them again.”
Matteo could only nod. He knew that he had sputtered out something, yet words were mere beggars in the face of a man who seemed to be fluent in the language of the angels.
“I do not have a lot of time,” the Pope went on, still looking Matteo in the eyes, “So I wished to ask you a few questions, if that is all right?”
How could Matteo have refused such a gentle inquiry? Again, the boy nodded, and hoped that he said something that sounded like, “Yes,” for he felt as though all he wanted to do was embrace the Pope and ask the man to topple the dictatorship, return his family, and change the world (for indeed, he felt as though this man could bring empires to ruin by simply speaking a word).
“Your case will one day be brought to the Vatican,” the Pope seemed sad, as though he were talking about some bureaucratic steps that removed the heart from any enterprise, “And there shall be documentation to be done, so that we know that your gift is used for good, not for evil. But I can sense that it is a good gift, and you are a good young man who has been given such a difficult life. How are you now?”
Matteo thought that he would be asked to describe his gift, or to talk about what he dreaded about the investigation (the endless questioning by scholars was what terrified him, for he felt as though the extremely intelligent priests would feel ever-so-impatient at his slowness). The exorcists had already asked the same of him, and he had passed priests in the halls of the House of the Jesuits who looked at him with the same question in their eyes. And yet he had never felt compelled to answer it until that very moment, when the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church sat before him, spoke the words out, and waited for his reply.
“I am so sad, Holy Father,” Matteo felt the response escape him, no longer gurgling with tears, but clear in their intonation, “And I am so scared for my family.”
The Pope let his head go, folded his hands, and smiled the smile of someone wiser in the ways of the world, and yet no less compassionate.
“Your family will be safe – I shall make sure of it,” his accent was lilting, singing, as though the Pope were overflowing with joy even when his eyes seemed to swim in sorrow, “But young man, why are you sad?”
Oh, that was a difficult question! The length of the answer alone would keep the Pope in the House of the Jesuits for days on end! Matteo could not help looking at the man – there was nowhere for his eyes to go besides, for the white robes and the glowing Seraphs together seemed to take up the boy’s entire vision. He hoped Fr. Romy had warned the Pope of Matteo’s long minutes of discernment, for he was not sure, indeed, where to even begin enumerating what made him sad.
And yet out the answer came, surprising even Matteo. “I am sad because I feel alone, Holy Father,” he sniffed some air in, feeling a slight cold bite his nostrils, “My family left me, and I feel that it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have been so curious about angels and demons. I could have helped my sister. And I should be going with them.”
The Pope simply nodded, slowly, as though urging the boy to both go on and to think deeply of what he was saying.
“And I’m sad because I don’t know what will happen to me,” Matteo continued, swallowing his tears down, wondering why his throat seemed frostbitten and dry, “I want to see my family, and I want to be with them, but nobody will let me even be near them because it’s not safe. And I don’t know when it will ever be safe, because this country is so scary. People are killed, or they go missing; and the president and his men have so much power. I’m sad because I don’t think it will ever end.”
Matteo felt his thoughts go slack, his tears dry out. He hardly ever spoke in long sentences, and he often felt tired when called to do so; but now, he felt drained, as though something had drawn out all his blood and fervor, had inflated his anger, had made his veins run with ice. He wondered if the Holy Father truly understood him, or was simply listening and cooking up a homily.
And then he realized that the Seraphs were moving rapidly, like bolts of fire and flame, flitting and flickering around the room. Their swords were out, tearing through the air – and there were shadows, fleeing, seemingly cackling and growling, stalking the floor and yet screeching in fright when they chanced to even approach the newcomer seated on the chair.
Matteo felt his heart stop for a moment, as he finally realized where the cold was coming from.
He had not seen demons in what felt like ages; he had not even thought to look at his guardian angel, or to see the angelic realm, in what felt like centuries. Now, he simply saw the vision, and yet it neither frightened nor drew him. It simply looked like a layer of reality, fainter than the objects in the room, fading in and out as though there were invisible exits and entrances in the wind, alternating gold and black as though the angels were wrestling for dominion.
“Young man,” the Pope’s whisper was low, but every word stabbed at Matteo’s heart, “Why did you not ever ask me how your family is?”
Matteo was not sure whether he was embarrassed or ashamed. The question was simple, and yet it was difficult to answer, as most simple questions are. The boy tried to play back what he had said, but as he did so, he also played back the entire week: his helplessness, his despair, his tears, his meals alone, his uneasy paths through the halls of the House of the Jesuits, his nights in bed spent rebelling in a war against an enemy he had not even defined, let alone acknowledged.
“I know that you are afraid of being alone,” the Pope continued, this time firmer, a grandfather on the verge of scolding his grandchild, “And I know that it is difficult to be torn from your family. It will truly break your heart and your soul to see your family torn apart. You know that I have spoken with them, and that they are under my care, and that they will travel with me to Italy – but why have you never asked about them?”
Matteo’s heart sank. He had no words – and it was not because he was slow, or discerning, or thinking through the situation. He simply did not know what to say. And like other teenage boys, he attempted to justify himself by opening his mouth, drawing breath, and then hesitating as he realized that there was no rational argument to be made; and then repeating the cycle, unmindful of the stature of his companion, wanting only to argue for the sake of saving his own skin.
The Pope – compassionate in his mien, simply sighed, then took the boy’s hands in his.
“When we are given a trial, we are also given a choice,” his grasp was warm, and it made Matteo’s once icy blood run smoother, “We can choose to sit down and despair, to look inward and to be angry, to hold on to that anger and feed it and turn it into hatred. Or, we can look to the heavens, and we can ask God what he is using us for.”
Matteo was about to contend that he was not hateful, that he was simply a loving son so worried for his family, but the mere thought of even making the argument felt like a lie. He swore he saw his guardian angel fight a demon across the room, so that it screeched its rage and escaped through a wall.
“Most people will say that they are just human, and they should be given a chance to grieve,” the Pope went on, lips pursed into a smile that made his cheeks round and rosy, “But grief should not be a flood to wash away our love. It must be the river that cleans us, that takes away our fears, that reminds us that when we are alone, then we must push ourselves ever closer to God.”
Matteo could only nod, as the words sounded soft in the hollow of the room, as the air around him warmed, and as his eyes both glistened with tears and felt golden in the veil of his guardian angel. He had not sensed her in that week of cloistering within himself; in the moment that he saw her, he was a child once again, afraid, lost, lonely.
“You are a human so wonderfully made, and you will work God’s purposes and plans one day,” the sentence sounded like a reminder, an echo of his childhood when he sat on his mother’s lap and faced five exorcists who promised to protect him, “But you, too, must take that first step to becoming a good person – someone that will indeed make his parents proud.”
Had he been mere weeks younger, Matteo would have wept once again. Now, the words felt like hammer to molten steel: they were accented, with the slightest hint of anger, but they strengthened him, opened his imagination, made him see the garden for what it now was, and for what it truly meant. He sensed his guardian angel, timeless in her presence, sitting in the shade of trees but flying through the many dimensions of time to run down the armies of the damned.
“Holy Father,” Matteo began, “I am so sorry.”
“Do not say that to me,” the man had a light laugh, and it felt like a brush of warm air, a rush of gold in the room, “Perhaps you can say that to God tonight, when you talk to him. You have time to grieve now, but you also have time to grow. Not every trial is a death sentence. You are not defined by these trials, but by how you respond to them.”
There had been no smile on Matteo’s face in the entire week that had passed since he had awakened, or at least no true smile that truly warmed his heart. There was a smile now, and he felt his soul sing, heard it beg for forgiveness in a prayer made of images, sensed that it whispered to his guardian angel that there was a garden to be cleaned out and rebuilt.
“I hope I am not too late to ask,” Matteo tried not to stumble over his words, for even the Pope’s smile seemed to run on the lightest legs across the room, taking with it sunshine and gladness, “But how is my family?”
The Pope bowed his head briefly, as though signaling his audience that he was about to tell a story. Matteo remembered that the man had once been a theater actor in Poland, during the time that the Nazis invaded, at a moment in history where people’s lives seemed to be running toward shared tragedy. And he had lost both his parents, and a brother, and friends and family, in a war that felt as meaningless as it was far removed from the spiral of darkness in which Matteo’s country seemed to be descending. How could such a man still be so open with his soul, when there was so much pain in the world?
“Your parents miss you and they want to write to you, but I cannot carry anything from them, and it is not safe for you to send anything, too,” there was a moment of sadness in the Pope’s voice, as though he were remembering his own family, “Your mother is so very strong. Maybe she is even stronger than your father.”
Matteo found himself smiling, laughing even, through a thin veil of tears. He could remember his mother arguing calmly with his father on anything that the man insisted on, often to no rational end. She had aged, but there was something in the fine lines of her face that turned her plainness into a motherly sort of warmth, something in the light brown of her skin that made her look like a woman who had spent her entire life by the sea and had worked in the sunshine, and who knew hardship but had never grown hardened.
“Now your father, he is quite strong, but he is a soft man inside,” the Pope continued, smile both gleeful and mischievous, “He reminds me of many fathers, who watch things, who observe; they are very quiet, and sometimes they also want to have their way because they are the fathers, the head of the family, the ones who think they should be obeyed. But he is also a good man, and he is so sorry. He tells your sister all the time that he is so sorry.”
Matteo felt his heart break. He had never thought to blame his father for what had happened. The man would never have surrendered his children to the ill-intentioned, would never have willingly sacrificed them, would rather that they be close and protected than free and roaming the world. He hoped that his father was not so lost, for he often thought that the man seemed so dependent on his mother for strength, and even on Fr. Jun for guidance. Who knew how (and to where) he would retreat in a foreign country?
“Your sister is probably the strongest of all – and I think she is the most worried about you, but she will not admit it,” the Pope’s tone was playful, as though he had been contaminated by the young Johanna, who was still alive and as precocious in Matteo’s memories, “She is a gifted writer, the priests say. They say she keeps on discussing theological matters with them, that it is like talking to a woman Jesuit!”
The laugh that left Matteo was stronger, almost irreverent, as it burst through his smile and stopped his tears.
“We already have a job for her,” the Pope raised one finger, as though both asking Matteo to calm down, and reminding the boy that his sister was safe despite her ability to talk circles around priests, “I believe she will write for L’Osservatore Romano. She already has a pen name: Ignacia Xaviera.”
Matteo smiled, felt another laugh escape him, felt a tear slide down one cheek. It was truly like his sister to adopt the names of two Jesuit saints; and it was truly like Johanna to find her away around words, to charm with innocence and fire.
“Oh, and I forgot! Your nanny cooks so well,” the Pope went on, patting his stomach, “She learned how to cook from one of the priests here, so I expect that by midnight, when I go downstairs to meet the Jesuits, I shall again have something to eat.”
Again, another laugh, this time from a Matteo whose tears flowed, but whose smile was bright, whose breath felt warm, whose eyes were no longer clouded with grief but cleared with joy. He saw the Pope as a fog of white light earlier; now, the man appeared unblemished, as though the purest soul had come to the fore, to show Matteo that there was goodness in the world, that there was hope, that no one suffered for reasons unknown or irrational.
“The most important thing is that they are all safe, and will continue to be,” the Pope laid his right hand on Matteo’s head, and, with his thumb, traced a cross on the boy’s brow, “And you, too, are safe here, because your gifts are to be envied by those who do not have the hearts of goodness, and can be misused by those who do not have hearts at all.”
Matteo could give no words of assent, and yet could not articulate the peace he felt in his chest. It was as though the Pope had entered his garden, spoken to his guardian angel, given instructions that no angel could well have missed despite all their duties in protection and warfare, and then left the garden far more neat and complete than before. Before any other person, Matteo would have rebelled, would have echoed his anger at being imprisoned while his family fled the country without him. In that moment, something in Matteo awakened.
Years later, when someone asked when he knew he should become a priest, Matteo would reference the episode in the kitchen of the House of the Jesuits: he had sensed how he could give hope through his gift, how he could calm someone who was often so fiery and volatile, how he could help the forces of good. And then, he would talk about his meeting with the Pope in his room, when his soul was bereft of hope, when his heart had felt like an empty chamber in his chest; it was the moment that he felt himself awash with both goodness and love, and the moment he knew he would become a priest.
“Please give them my love,” he finally spoke, from behind tears, from beneath dark curls of hair, from a Matteo who never broke his gaze with the Pope, “Please tell them I love them.”
It took about a second for Matteo to realize what the Pope was making him say, “Tell them that I will see them soon, because this will all end.”
The Pope smiled, with the bright peacefulness that would always mark his countenance, that would always distinguish him even decades later, when his body crumbled beneath its humanity and bent beneath its weakness. Matteo always remembered that smile, for it seemed as though the Pope could truly see into the future, could glimpse it the way the angels could, could revel in the hope that was to come.
“Your country is so full of suffering, young man,” the Pope mused, eyes locked with Matteo’s, but gaze elsewhere, “I have heard all the reports of the torture, of the abductions, of the people who defend these as ways of keeping people safe. It is not a safe nation that must kill a few to protect the many. I am not surprised at the many exorcism cases that the Jesuits have sent to me, but it saddens me all the same because I know that evil takes root where good fears to fight, and there are so many good people who are so afraid now. I can only pray for them.”
What, indeed, could any Pope have done? Matteo heard the trembling undertone in the Holy Father’s voice, as it reverberated like thrums on tiny drums, as it seemed to herald the coming of the good who would find themselves both strengthened and freed. If the man had been afraid of being slain for speaking out against the Philippine president – and he would speak out almost recklessly, in the next few days, and repeatedly at that – then he did not show it. The fear simply tiptoed through his syllables, sat at the corners of his eyes, lived in the little hints of coldness in his palms whenever he blessed Matteo. But he sounded strong, defiant, the way that rebels would when threatened by temporal, temporary powers that are unaware of their mortality.
“I am thankful to the Jesuits, because they have documented their cases so well,” the Pope seemed to forcibly take on an academic tone, as though trying to see the situation as a scholar rather than a shepherd, “I shall take some of their files to Rome with me, you see, for I have some priests who have proposed an exorcism course. The priests need research from your archives, so I shall be their humble and happy messenger, just like the angels.”
Matteo sensed that the seraphs had smiled at the words. Where could one find a Pope so willing to help even the humblest of priests – and for an exorcism course? The thought was both frightening and intriguing to Matteo, who rather dreaded classes, recitation, and anything that required him to think on his toes. An exorcism course seemed so contradictory to the long-term nature of the fight, that compressing it into a classroom made the idea both outlandish and inspired. Indeed, what was the class going to be like? Would there be videos? Would the priests bring in a possessed person and demonstrate exorcism? Why wasn’t the red book enough?
“I shall go soon, for there is much planning to be done for this country,” the Pope interrupted the stream of Matteo’s thoughts, “Bless your Cardinal indeed for his planning gifts, and for his loud voice! Ah, he keeps speaking out, and I am so thankful that he has not quieted himself – but at such great risk to his life!”
Matteo took a moment to be distracted, and to laugh at his own memories. The Cardinal of Manila, indeed, spoke up against the regime, and was increasingly rising against the tide of those who denied that any wrongdoing was in progress (and those who believed that any wrongdoing was justified). Johanna had met the man several times when he visited the House of the Jesuits, and they had once engaged in quite the conversation on the evils of Martial Law and the need for immediate change. It was a conversation that Johanna could recount only to Matteo (and therefore keep secret from their parents).
“Now, I truly must run along,” the Pope resumed, “But promise me one thing: That you will use your gift for good, and that even if you are afraid to use your gift, you will try.”
Matteo had been so immersed in his memories, that he was not quite sure what the Holy Father was asking. His face felt tight; he realized that his brow was furrowed and wrinkled deep.
“When you go out there,” the Pope continued, “You will meet men who want to hurt those who do not believe in their cause. You will meet men who do not listen, who simply talk and talk and talk, who do not take any sides but speak so happily with the most flowery words. You will meet men who use their words for evil, who are articulate and intelligent, who inspire people to what they think is righteousness – but their inspiration is simply evil in the most cunning, the most beautiful of disguises.
“They will speak in words to make people believe that they are on the side of good, and all because people are made to feel special – they are made to feel that they are the superiors in a world divided.
“I know how to recognize such men. I have watched my own country destroyed by one such man. And there are so many like him today.”
Matteo could see the glow of the Seraphs behind the Pope, as though they were unfolding their wings of fire and shielding him from a wintry world of rage cloaked in the raiment of calm. The boy remembered the biography of this Pope; it had aired repeatedly, in varying permutations, on all the channels on TV. Nearly all schools had even made it part of their classes, in time for the man’s visit. The references to Nazi Germany felt mainly like mere sentences in a textbook. To hear them spoken aloud, before him, in a room cloudy with the rush of angels and glowing with the fire of seraphs – to hear them was to hear fear in its truest form, the kind of fear that begged for a shield from heaven.
“Not all that sounds good to the ear is good for the heart,” the Pope said, one hand first to his brow, then to his chest, “And you are going to meet a world where people will try to deceive you using human tools – but you also have supernatural gifts to keep you safe. They might not always work the way you wish or expect, for such is God’s will. But you must make yourself strong, young man, because one day you shall have to use these gifts, and you must use them for the greater good.”
The words did not make sense at that moment, in the room, in the light of Seraphic wings and in thin air that shimmered with the vision of a garden overgrown by vines. But as Matteo grew older, as he understood his position, as he found his vocation and worked at it, he realized that he had been gifted with discernment so that he could take all the words that others had given him and keep them as gifts. He would store these memories in his heart, return to them the way he would revisit books that had once felt like mere academic obligations; and then he would gain new insights, find new paths of logic, hear his brain weave the reasoning that he had kept for so long.
He did not quite remember how the Pope took his leave, only that Matteo felt alive once again, like the hollow in his chest had been cleaned out so that he could receive a heart that was stronger than the one he once had. And when it beat, he felt himself breathe, heard his thoughts walk their way through his head instead of storming his soul with anger and rage. He spent the next few days in a sober kind of peace: he sat with the seminarians at meals, visited Fr. Exo and listened to the man’s stories of New York, washed plates while Fr. Genio spoke recipes aloud in the kitchen, sat in prayer with Fr. Jun, sat in silence with Fr. Romy.
School would resume soon, after the fever that was the Pope’s visit, and the courage it brought. The man had been true to his word: he spoke against the regime in his speeches, refused any shows of luxury offered by the oversolicitous and annoyingly cloying First Lady, visited with the poor in the slums of the cities and dying corners of the provinces. His departure had not changed the wrath of those who suffered; if anything, the void he had left behind made the silence of the good even louder.
And in that silence, the whispers began to be heard, and those who had hitherto slept were slowly awakened.
In that time, between the Pope’s leave-taking and the resumption of school, Matteo visited the garden that he shared with his guardian angel. He visited every day, sometimes walking by the side of Jesus, sometimes going on his own – and yet always, always uncovering the garden beneath the bedraggled vines and crumpled branches. He tore the weeds out, felt his guardian angel mend his wounds; pulled the strings of stray stems and leaves from the trees, felt his guardian angel soothe his scratches; begged for the grass to grow and the flowers to rise and the trees to form their bowers once again, felt his guardian angel smile.
He finally sat with her, one evening, and sent an image of his family. And, nearly immediately, he sent an image of the Pope. The thought had occurred to him, only then, that with the good man’s departure, Matteo, too, had lost his parents, sister, and nanny.
And yet he felt no tears welling in his chest, could not hear his will break, could only sense that his angel was next to him, listening to his woes, providing her own wisdom. In seconds, she had sent back an image: his family, the Pope, and him, all in the same picture.
The boy did not know if it was a foretelling or encouragement. One could never tell with the angels, he knew, for their language was that of a past and future intermixed, of ages gone fitting into the puzzle of eras to be, of dreams and wishes and realities and truths. All he could do was revel in the picture, revel in the peace of his newly built garden, listen as his heart beat with hope.
That night, he slept soundly, with no more tears.