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The Priest

A story from Venice, Italy, based on true events and real people.

Monsignor Giuseppe paced slowly back and forth across Campo San Geremia; not the busy part of the campo with the constant flow of people through it, but the part behind the benches and the vendors’ stalls, the quiet part in front of the church, his church.

He walked with his hands clasped behind his back, and his head was bowed, as if he was studying the ancient paving stones at his feet.  It was the first week in November, yet his head was bare and he was without his overcoat.  He didn’t feel cold, though.  He had stepped outside for only a moment or two, to take some air before the evening mass.  Soon, the bells of the campanile high above him would announce throughout Cannaregio that it was six o’clock, and he would return to the church.  Not that it wasn’t cold inside, of course; like all the churches in Venice, their foundations resting on the waters of the lagoon, it was impossible to keep that cavernous interior warm during winter.

He reached the edge of the campo, coming face to face with the baroque façade of Palazzo Labia.  He wheeled round and continued to pace, this time with his back to the palazzo.  He looked up to the west, where the sun was setting, a giant crimson orb disappearing all too quickly behind the rooftops, leaving behind a sky that was deep pink for miles around.  He wondered how many beautiful sunsets he had witnessed from this spot since coming to the Church of San Geremia and Santa Lucia as its parish priest more than a quarter of a century ago.

Too many to count, he sighed.  He was nearly forty then – not so fresh-faced, but still young – newly arrived from the tranquillity of Sant’Erasmo across the lagoon to take up residence in this wondrous place in this strange, wonderful city teeming with humanity.  He was well into his sixties now, thinner, with a lot less hair, stooped a little, an old man.  Every year the Cardinal said to him, ‘Giuseppe, it’s time to retire.  Time to rest.’  And every year he replied to the Cardinal, ‘Not yet, caro amico.  Perhaps next year.  Or the year after that.’  How could he retire?  Had he not made a promise to Santa Lucia?  A solemn vow to that sacred Virgin and Martyr?  A vow that he could never break?  Anyway, the Cardinal was one to talk; he was sixty-five if he was a day!

He stopped for a moment, looking down from the sunset to watch the crowds of people passing through the campo.  Most of them were turisti, on their way to the Rialto and San Marco, strolling, fascinated by the buildings around them, some pausing to browse at the stalls, others to take pictures of the palazzo and the church, a few to study the menu boards outside of the pizzerie on the other side of the campo.  ‘Visitors,’ he sighed to himself.  There were so many of them nowadays, many more than when he first came here, a relentless stream of them from morning to night.  Sometimes he felt that the whole island would sink under the weight of them.

And there were the others, of course, mostly young, going in the opposite direction.  Unlike the turisti, they walked quickly and purposefully, off to the Ferrovia or to Piazzale Roma, there to catch their trains or buses back to the mainland.  That was another thing that had occurred since he came here: the nightly exodus of the young people.  Soon it would be only the old people who lived on the island, old people like the handful of his parishioners who would come to mass this evening, old people like himself.  He sighed again.

He bowed his head and resumed pacing, but the sea of faces he had just observed lingered in his mind.  Sometimes he envied those people.  They were lucky.  How many of them had ever experienced evil?  Pure evil?  How many of them had ever stared into the eyes of the devil?  Satan himself?  Perhaps some of the old Jews in the Ghetto across the canale, those who had survived the camps, those who came back.  Surely they had met the devil, as he had done twenty-six years ago to this night.  He stopped again, looked up at the last traces of the dying, bleeding sun and shuddered at the memory of the awful moment when the devil and his henchman came to call.

‘Yes, dear Lord,’ he whispered, as if he were addressing heaven, ‘tonight is another anniversary of that terrible time.’  He was always anxious – afraid, was more truthful – on anniversaries.  So afraid that the devil might come again and …  His thoughts were cut short by the bells of the campanile, which boomed into life suddenly, their noise echoing across the campo.  He began to climb wearily back up the steps of the church.  He would pray at mass for the night to pass quickly – and without event.

Buona sera,’ he said as he passed a hunched, old woman, who was wrapped up in a black shawl.  She was holding on to a railing with one hand and using a walking stick with the other to help her get up the steps.

Buona sera, Padre,’ murmured the old woman from beneath the shawl.

With the light outside fading fast, it was now even gloomier inside the church.  The dimness was relieved here and there by the dull yellow glow of the electric lamps that burned above the main altar facing him and the smaller altars to his left and right.  There were also splashes of gold from the clusters of candles of devotion that flickered in front of the altars.  As usual, by far the largest number of candles had been lit in the Chapel of Santa Lucia on his left, where the body of that venerated Saint is sealed in a glass-fronted casket made of amber marble.

The casket, the yellow-flecked red marble altar on which the casket rests and the gilded bronze ornamentation surrounding the altar all seemed to glisten in the candlelight.  His parishioners – there were eight of them tonight – were seated with their backs to him along the first two rows of the pews before the main altar.  He walked past them and into the Chapel of Santa Lucia.  Quickly genuflecting and blessing himself, he crossed over to the right-hand side of the altar and peeked through the open door of the small room that serves as a museum.  Old Aldo was standing in his usual spot behind the glass counter, the little painting of ‘The Holy Family’ by Tintoretto on the wall beside him.  Two visitors – an older couple, Americans perhaps or English – were listening intently to him.

‘And this one is by the famous Tintoretto,’ he was saying softly.  ‘You have heard of Tintoretto, ?’

It was usually at this point, the end of Aldo’s talk, that visitors felt compelled to deposit some money in the donation box on top of the counter.  Sometimes they felt compelled to hand the money – a note, usually – direct to Aldo.  And sometimes Aldo felt compelled to slide the note into his own pocket, rather than into the donation box.  Monsignor Giuseppe smiled.  Old Aldo could be forgiven for the occasional lapse of honesty.  He spent many hours tending to the museum, but he was paid only a pittance by the Church.  And he was Venetian, after all; wasn’t la disonestà in their blood?  He smiled again.  Aldo was called ‘old’ even back then when he first came here as parish priest; the Lord knows how old he is now!  He had a lot of time for Aldo, a lot to thank him for.

Aldo was there that night when the devil intruded.  It was he who had raised the alarm.  If it had not been for Aldo, the ordeal might have been much worse …  For the second time that evening, he shuddered at the memory, but he recovered quickly, catching Aldo’s eye, nodding to him to remind him that mass would commence immediately and that it was time to close the museum.

He stood at the open door just inside the church, waving to the last of his parishioners as they made their way down the steps into the campo.  He was trying desperately to keep smiling, to hide the dread that he felt.  He could see that it was dark outside now and that there were as many, if not more, people around, going in both directions, their unceasing babble seeming even louder than before.  It was colder, too, but despite the cold his forehead was damp with perspiration.  His hand trembled as he waved.  How he longed to close the door finally, to retreat back into the security of the church, knowing that the anniversary was over.

He had been calm up until a few moments ago, having felt safe all the way through mass.  Once Aldo had seen the two visitors to the door and had bolted it after them, and had then taken up his place on the little seat by the side of the door, where he could still be seen from the main altar, he had been confident that the service couldn’t be interrupted, that no-one could intrude.  But now was the danger time.  Aldo was finishing off elsewhere in the church, extinguishing the candles, switching off the lamps above the altars, switching on the night lights, which would glow red and cast giant shadows across the pillars and walls and floor.  It was almost exactly the same that night, the night of November 7th, 1981 …

The mass had been celebrated.  The congregation had just left.  The night lights were on.  Only he and Aldo and a young, married couple from Sicily, who were on a pilgrimage to the resting place of Santa Lucia, remained in the church.  He was standing on the same spot as now when the two men rushed in.  Both wore dark anoraks with the hoods up and dark scarves which covered their noses and mouths.  One of them was brandishing a gun.  The one with the gun pointed it at him and pushed him further into the church, where he and the Sicilian couple were forced to lie on the floor.  Meanwhile, the other intruder had sprinted up to the altar of Santa Lucia.

From where he lay on the freezing, pockmarked marble floor, he had a clear view of the man’s frantic efforts to break the glass of the Saint’s casket, using first the palms of his hands and then his fists and finally his elbows.  The sound of each blow was deafening.  Except for the whimpering of the Sicilian woman as she clung to her husband, not a word had been uttered by anyone up to that point.  But suddenly the glass shattered, the woman screamed and he cried out, ‘Sweet Jesus save us!’

Basta!’ shouted the man with the gun.

That was when he looked into the gunman’s eyes, when he saw those black pools of evil, when he knew that it was Satan who had come to carry out the sacrilege.  And it was when he, too, began to whimper in fear.

‘Sweet Jesus save us!’ he cried out again when he saw the man at the altar pulling at the body of Santa Lucia, lifting it out of the casket by the feet and slipping it into a canvas sack.  And he stifled a scream when he realised that the body had been pulled apart, the head of the Saint, together with the silver mask that covered the head, having been left in the casket.  The man at the altar also realised this, but his attempt to retrieve the head was cut short when he heard the first of the sirens.  The noise came from the other side of the wall behind the altar.  It grew louder and was joined by another siren and then another and then another.

A whole fleet of launches was speeding along the Grand Canal, closing in on the massive front façade of the church.  Soon the place would be surrounded by Carabinieri.  Someone – Aldo, surely – had managed to call for help.  The intruder with the body in the sack leapt down the steps of the altar and began to run towards the door.  The gunman took one last look at the figures cowering on the floor, calmly put his hand, still holding the gun, in his anorak pocket and followed his accomplice out of the church.  By the time the Carabinieri stormed in, the intruders had gone, melted into the crowd.

The days immediately following the theft were days of anguish and despair for Monsignor Giuseppe, the worst days of his life.  He had come to beautiful Venezia as a stranger.  He had been put in charge of the body of the Virgin and Martyr of Syracuse, the same body that had been brought from Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade nearly eight hundred years before, the same body that had been carried triumphantly into Venice by the bold Doge Enrico Dandolo, the same body that had lain undisturbed for more than a century in its new chapel in the Church of San Geremia.

He had been the parish priest, the custodian of those sacred remains, for only twenty-six days – less than a month, dear Lord – when the body not only was stolen, but also was desecrated in the process.  He felt that he must have been a Jonah for these things to have happened.  But it was worse than that, much worse.  A major hunt had gotten underway for the body and its thieves.  There was worldwide interest – frenzy, even – in the hunt.  He remembered television cameras, reporters, a thousand questions.  The biggest question on everyone’s lips was ‘Why?’  What had the perpetrators hoped to gain from the theft?  What had been their motive?

There had been many theories, of course: some said that it was a straightforward case of kidnapping and that there would be a telephone call soon from the thieves to demand the ransom money; others blamed the Sicilians, who had always insisted that the remains of the Virgin should be returned to her home in Syracuse; a few even claimed that the Sicilian Mafia had been commissioned to carry out the crime. But he had known that these theories were wrong.  He had known the truth.  He had wanted to shout it out to the world, but he couldn’t tell anyone, not his fellow priests, not even the Cardinal.

It had been the work of the devil.  He was certain of it.  Satan had come to test him; to test his strength, his resolve, his faith.  And he had failed utterly and so miserably.  Instead of confronting the devil, instead of fighting to protect Santa Lucia, he had shown fear and whimpered like a dog.  He believed that he no longer deserved to be there as parish priest, that he no longer should be welcome in Venice, that perhaps he no longer should be a part of the Holy Church itself.

It was then, when he had been in the depths of despair, that he had done the only thing he could do, the only thing that was left to him: he had prayed.  Day and night, hardly sleeping, hardly eating, hardly able to bring himself to speak to other mortals, he had prayed to Jesus, to the Holy Mother, to all of the Saints, but especially to Santa Lucia.  He had begged her for her forgiveness.  He had vowed to her that if her body was recovered he would spend the rest of his days protecting her remains, ensuring that such a sacrilege could never take place again.  ‘The rest of my days,’ he had kept repeating, ‘until I die.’  His days and nights of praying stretched into weeks, the weeks into a month, while the church grew colder and his hope fainter.

And then pure joy!  A miracle!  On the night of December 13th, the eve of Santa Lucia’s Day, his prayers were answered: the announcement came through that the body had been found by the Squadra Mobile after an anonymous tip-off.  The perpetrators remained at large, though; their identities and their motive would never be known.  There followed celebrations and many tears.  It was a truly wonderful time!  Shortly after, the body was reconstituted and re-consecrated and placed in a new casket.  It was still there now, twenty-six years later.  And he was still there, protecting it, honouring his vow …

The sound of footsteps behind him made him jolt.  But it was all right; it was only old Aldo, his dear friend and saviour, ready to leave.

Buona notte, Padre,’ Aldo said softly as he went out of the door.

Buona notte, Aldo,’ he replied.

Halfway down the steps, Aldo stopped and turned.  ‘Another year, eh?’ he asked, shrugging and raising his eyes to heaven.

Monsignor Giuseppe smiled.  ‘Sì, caro amico,’ he said.  Then he closed the door, locked it and drew the bolts at the top and bottom.  There were beads of sweat along his forehead.  With a sigh, he walked over to the Chapel of Santa Lucia, knelt down on the altar steps and crossed himself.  The casket and the tiny body in it glowed crimson from the reflection of the night light.

‘Another year,’ he murmured, repeating Aldo’s words.

He was tired, very tired.  Perhaps it had been long enough.  Perhaps, just as the Cardinal had said, it was time to rest, time to retire.  He could go back to the peace of Sant’Erasmo, away from this eternally restless city, with its turisti and its gondoliers and its vaporetti and its vendors and its dirt and its noise …  As if on cue, the bells of the campanile outside began to strike eight o’clock.

‘Perhaps next year,’ he whispered to Santa Lucia.  ‘Or the year after that.’

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