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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Introduction Kenneth Woodward
I met Morris West only once. It was in 1981, and on the occasion of his latest novel West’s American publisher invited a small group of us to dinner at the Century Club in New York City. The entire evening West held forth with wonderful stories about the Vatican and the foibles of its ecclesiastical bureaucrats. If he remembered me at all, it would have been as the poor fellow three seats down whose nose began to bleed uncontrollably just as dessert was being served. The two of us never did get a chance to compare notes.
Among the journalists who had covered Vatican Council II, the conventional wisdom was that until the council opened in October of 1962—until, that is, we journalists descended on Rome to tell our tales—the Vatican had been a secret place known only to those who worked and lived inside its walls. All the rest was educated gossip. But before the pack of us (about 3,000 reporters at the start) arrived on the scene, West had
lived in Italy and had been for a time the Vatican correspondent for the (London) Daily Mail. West made good imaginative use of what he learned. In all, West wrote five “Vatican” novels: The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963), The Clowns of God (1981), Lazarus (1990), and Eminence (1998). But the best of this series, to my mind, is his first, The Devil’s Advocate, published in 1959—six years before Vatican II and just a year into the pontificate of John XXIII.
The ecclesiastical context of The Devil’s Advocate is, therefore, the church of Pius XII—the end of an era, not the start of a new one. The investigation of candidates for sainthood is still a function of the Congregation of Rites, and the office of the promoter of the faith—popularly known as the devil’s advocate—is still in existence. (It would be abolished in 1983, as part of the revision of canon law inspired by Vatican II.) West’s central character is an English monsignor, Blaise Meredith, trained as a canon lawyer and in the service of the promoter of the faith. As we find him, Meredith has just learned that he has cancer of the stomach and not much time to live. Nor much to live for either, as it turns out. While his desk-bound body wastes away, his soul has already turned to sand. He fears death. “There is no passion in your life, my son,” his superior, Cardinal Marotta, tells him candidly. “You have never loved a woman, nor hated a man, nor pitied a child. You have withdrawn yourself too long and you are a stranger in the human family.” As much for his own good as for the sake of church business, Marotta sends Meredith on a journey to investigate claims of sainthood on behalf of Giacomo Nerone, a young man who was killed and buried in a rural area far south of Rome. This novel, then, is not about the Vatican at all, or really about the canonization process, though it is about ways of redemption and the forms that holiness can take.
The immediate biographical background to the novel is this: earlier in the 1950s, West had gone to Italy where he worked with an Italian priest whose mission was to help the street urchins of Sicily. Based on what he learned there, West produced a nonfiction book, Children of the Sun (1957), and it is his deep immersion in the culture of poverty, Italian-style, that conditions and informs The Devil’s Advocate. Meredith’s destination is a pair of hilltop villages in Calabria, where the burial place of the reputed saint has made one village prosperous as a mecca for pilgrims while the twin village, where Giacomo Nerone had actually lived, has sunk into poverty. Like Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, Nerone has already gained unofficial sainthood by popular acclamation of the locals: they regard him as a martyr. Meredith’s job is to train his legalistic and disciplined mind on the stories of ignorant and superstitious peasants and report back to Rome whether Nerone’s reputation for exceptional holiness is justified.
What he finds—or so it first appears—is a nest of vipers. There is the local parish priest, Father Anselmo, dirt poor, uncouth, ill-educated, and living openly with a woman. There is Nina, the reputed saint’s lover and fiercely proud mother of his bastard child, now dismissed by locals as “the whore” who “slept with a saint.” There is the saint’s confused child, Paolo, now a languid but ambitious adolescent whose body is prized by Nicholas Black, a gay British painter who hopes to take the boy to Rome as his own. Black in turn is dependent on the local contessa; love-starved, cunning, and narcissistic, she covets Paolo as the son she never had. And finally, there is Aldo Meyer, the makeshift village doctor—a boozer, a Jew, and an atheist. Meredith must come to understand all of these people, so unlike his ecclesiastical colleagues at the Vatican, if he is ever to get at the truth of the putative local saint, and the truth about himself as well. As for Nerone, he comes alive through a series of flashbacks that return Meredith and the reader to the early 1940s. Rome is in the hands of Germans but the Allied invasion of southern Italy has begun and the troops are pushing north out of Sicily. Retreating German soldiers are encroaching on the village and behind them bands of predatory Italian partisans—armed communist thugs, really—are lurking in the hills. But to say more would spoil the plot.
Rereading The Devil’s Advocate, I noticed how cinematic the novel is. The reader can readily identify scenes that would easily translate into dramatic and character-revealing set pieces, as well as the panoramic camera sweeps that would allow the landscape itself to become an active and evocative element in the story—as West intended. In fact, The Devil’s Advocate was one of two novels West wrote that were turned into films (The Shoes of the Fisherman, starring Anthony Quinn, was the other). I wish I knew how West felt about these Hollywood translations of his work. In any case, revenue from the films was one reason why West was able to do what few novelists today can: support a family as a full-time writer.
Inevitably, The Devil’s Advocate invites comparison with The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene’s own novel about a priest who finds redemption among the down-and-out in the hinterlands of revolutionary Mexico. One interesting difference is this: Where Greene sees his whiskey priest as ontologically different from other men because of his ordination and the powers that go with it, West’s dying Meredith comes to feel that “I must understand that a priest is just a man with sacramental faculties.” Greene, to be sure, was by far the more polished and more subtle writer. But the two books share a similar fascination with the power of love and the mystery of divine grace—not to mention the many sides of sin. Of the books in this series, the spiritual atmosphere of The Devil’s Advocate is kin to what we find in François Mauriac’s Vipers’ Tangle. Each has a specific gravity that is possible only in a world where sin and salvation are considered real and where the line between them is recognized as wafer thin. That’s what makes them Catholic—not the presence of priests as characters, or of the church institutional as setting. Contemporary Catholic novelists can no longer presume their readers understand the spiritual struggles that give these novels life, and so must proceed by irony or indirection into those realms of the soul that their predecessors could assume their readers recognized and understood. Are those realms still intelligible to the reader of today? Read on and decide for yourself.
Kenneth Woodward is the author of three books, including Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why, and was for thirty-eight years religion editor of Newsweek.
The Devil’s Advocate
“I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.”
It was his profession to prepare other men for death; it shocked him to be so unready for his own.
He was a reasonable man and reason told him that a man’s death sentence is written on his palm the day he is born; he was a cold man, little troubled by passion, irked not at all by discipline, yet his first impulse had been a wild clinging to the illusion of immortality.
It was part of the decency of Death that he should come unheralded with face covered and hands concealed, at the hour when he was least expected. He should come slowly, softly, like his brother Sleep—or swiftly and violently like the consummation of the act of love, so that the moment of surrender would be a stillness and a satiety instead of a wrenching separation of spirit and flesh.
The decency of Death. It was the thing men hoped for vaguely, prayed for if they were disposed to pray, regretted bitterly when they knew it would be denied to them. Blaise Meredith was regretting it now, as he sat in the thin spring sunshine, watching the slow, processional swans on the Serpentine, the courting couples on the grass, the leashed poodles trotting fastidiously along the paths at the flirting skirts of their owners.
In the midst of all this life—the thrusting grass, the trees bursting with new sap, the nodding of crocus and daffodil, the languid love play of youth, the vigor of the elderly strollers—he alone, it seemed, had been marked to die. There was no mistaking the urgency or the finality of the mandate. It was written, for all to read, not in the lines of his palm, but in the square sheet of photographic negative where a small gray blur spelled out his sentence.
“Carcinoma!” The blunt finger of the surgeon had lingered a moment on the center of the gray blur, then moved outward, tracing the diffusion of the tumor. “Slow-growing but well established. I’ve seen too many to be mistaken in this one.”
As he watched the small translucent screen, and the spatulate finger moving across it, Blaise Meredith had been struck by the irony of the situation. All his life had been spent confronting others with the truth about themselves, the guilts that harried them, the lusts that debased them, the follies that diminished them. Now he was looking into his own guts where a small malignancy was growing like a mandrake root toward the day when it would destroy him.
He asked calmly enough:
“Is it operable?”
The surgeon switched off the light behind the viewing screen so that the small gray death faded into opacity; then he sat down, adjusting the desk lamp so that his own face was in shadow and that of his patient was lit like a marble head in a museum.
Blaise Meredith noted the small contrivance and understood it. They were both professionals. Each in his own calling dealt with human animals. Each must preserve a clinical detachment, lest he spend too much of himself and be left as weak and fearful as his patients.
The surgeon leaned back in his chair, picked up a paper knife, and held it poised as delicately as a scalpel. He waited a moment, gathering the words, choosing this one, discarding that, then laying them down in a pattern of meticulous accuracy.
“I can operate, yes. If I do, you’ll be dead in three months.”
“If you don’t?”
“You’ll live a little longer and die a little more painfully.”
“How much longer?”
“Six months. Twelve at the outside.”
“It’s a grim choice.”
“You must make it for yourself.”
“I understand that.”
The surgeon relaxed in his chair. The worst was over now. He had not been mistaken in his man. He was intelligent, ascetic, self-contained. He would survive the shock and accommodate himself to the inevitable. When the agony began he would wear it with a certain dignity. His church would guarantee him against want and bury him with honor when he died; and, if there were none to mourn him, this too might be counted the final reward for celibacy, to slip out of life without regret for its pleasures or fear of its unfulfilled obligations.
Blaise Meredith’s calm, dry voice cut across his thought:
“I’ll think about what you’ve told me. In case I should decide not to have an operation—go back to my work—would you be good enough to write me a report to my local doctor? A full prognosis, a prescription, perhaps?”
“With pleasure, Monsignor Meredith. You work in Rome, I believe? Unfortunately I don’t write Italian.”
Blaise Meredith permitted himself a small wintry smile.
“I’ll translate it myself. It should make an interesting exercise.”
“I admire your courage, Monsignor. I don’t subscribe to the Roman faith, or to any faith for that matter, but I imagine you find it a great consolation at a time like this.”
“I hope I may, Doctor,” said Blaise Meredith simply, “but I’ve been a priest too long to expect it.”
Now he was sitting on a park bench in the sun, with the air full of spring and the future a brief, empty prospect spilling over into eternity. Once, in his student days, he had heard an old missioner preach on the raising of Lazarus from the dead: how Christ had stood before the sealed vault and ordered it opened, so that the smell of corruption issued on the still, dry air of summer; how Lazarus at the summons had come out, stumbling in the cerecloths, to stand blinking in the sun. What had he felt at that moment? the old man asked. What price had he paid for this return to the world of the living? Did he go maimed ever afterward, so that every rose smelled of decay and every golden girl was a shambling skeleton? Or did he walk in a dazzle of wonder at the newness of things, his heart tender with pity and love for the human family?
The speculation had interested Meredith for years. Once he had toyed with the idea of writing a novel about it. Now, at last, he had the answer. Nothing was so sweet to man as life; nothing was more precious than time; nothing more reassuring than the touch of earth and grass, the whisper of moving air, the smell of new blossoms, the sound of voices and traffic and high birdsongs.
This was the thing that troubled him. He had been twenty years a priest, vowed to the affirmation that life was a transient imperfection, the earth a pale symbol of its maker, the soul an immortal in mortal clay beating itself weary for release into the ambient arms of the Almighty. Now that his own release was promised, the date of deliverance set, why could he not accept it—if not with joy, at least with confidence?
What did he cling to that he had not long since rejected? A woman? A child? A family? There was no one living who belonged to him. Possessions? They were few enough—a small apartment near the Porta Angelica, a few ornaments, a roomful of books, a modest stipend from the Congregation of Rites, an annuity left to him by his mother. Nothing there to tempt a man back from the threshold of the great revelation. Career? Something in that maybe—auditor to the Sacred Congregation of Rites, personal assistant to the prefect himself, Eugenio Cardinal Marotta. It was a position of influence, of flattering confidence. One sat in the shadow of the pontiff. One watched the intricate subtle workings of a great theocracy. One lived in simple comfort. One had time to study, liberty to act freely within the limits of policy and discretion. Something in that . . . but not enough—not half enough for a man who hungered for the Perfect Union that he preached.
Perhaps that was the core of it. He had never been hungry for anything. He had always had everything he wanted, and he had never wanted more than was available to him. He had accepted the discipline of the church and the church had given him security, comfort, and scope for his talents. More than most men he had achieved contentment—and if he had never asked for happiness it was because he had never been unhappy. Until now . . . until this bleak moment in the sun, the first of spring, the last spring ever for Blaise Meredith.
The last spring, the last summer. The butt end of life chewed and sucked dry like a sugar stick, then tossed onto the trash heap. There was the bitterness, the sour taste of failure and disillusion. What of merit could he tally and take with him to the judgment? What would he leave behind, for which men would want to remember him?
He had never fathered a child nor planted a tree, nor set one stone on another for house or monument. He had spent no anger, dispensed no charity. His work would molder anonymously in the archives of the Vatican. Whatever virtue had flowered out of his ministry was sacramental and not personal. No poor would bless him for their bread, no sick for their courage, no sinners for their salvation. He had done everything that was demanded of him, yet he would die empty and within a month his name would be a blown dust on the desert of the centuries.
Suddenly he was terrified. A cold sweat broke out on his body. His hands began to tremble and a group of children bouncing a ball near the bench edged away from the gaunt, gray-faced cleric who sat staring with blind eyes across the shimmering water of the pond.
The rigors passed slowly. The terror abated and he was calm again. Reason took hold of him and he began to think how he should order his life for the time left to him.
When he had become ill in Rome, when the Italian physicians had made their first, tentative diagnosis, his instinctive decision had been to return to London. If he must be condemned, he preferred to have the sentence read in his own tongue. If his time must be shortened, then he wanted to spend the last of it in the soft air of England, to walk the downs and the beechwoods and hear the elegiac song of the nightingales in the shadow of old churches, where Death was more familiar and more friendly because the English had spent centuries teaching him politeness.
In Italy, death was harsh, dramatic—a grand opera exit, with wailing chorus and tossing plumes and black baroque hearses trundling past stucco palaces to the marble vaults of the Campo Santo. Here in England it had a gentler aspect—the obits murmured discreetly in a Norman nave, the grave opened in mown grass among weathered headstones, the libations poured in the oak-beamed pub that stood opposite the lych-gate.
Now this, too, was proved an illusion, a pathetic fallacy, no armor at all against the gray insidious enemy entrenched in his own belly. He could not escape it, any more than he could flee the conviction of his own failure as a priest and as a man.
What then? Submit to the knife? Cut short the agony, truncate the fear and the loneliness to a manageable limit? Would not this be a new failure, a kind of suicide that the moralists might justify, but conscience could never quite condone? He had enough debts already to bring to the reckoning; this last might make him altogether bankrupt.
Go back to work? Sit at the old desk under the coffered ceiling in the Palace of Congregations in Rome. Open up the vast folios where the lives and works and writings of long-dead candidates for canonization were recorded in the script of a thousand clerks. Examine them, dissect them, analyze and notate. Call their virtues in question and cast new doubts on the wonders attributed to them. Make new notes in a new script. To what end? That one more candidate for canonical honors might be rejected because he had been less than heroic, or less than wise in his virtues. Or that half a century hence, two centuries maybe, a new pope might proclaim in St. Peter’s that a new saint had been added to the calendar.
Did they care, these dead ones, what he wrote of them? Did they care whether a new statue were permitted to wear an aureole, or whether the printers circulated a million little cards with their faces on the front and their virtues listed on the back? Did they smile on their bland biographers or frown on their official detractors? They had died and been judged long since, as he must die and soon be judged. The rest was all addendum, postscript and dispensable. A new cultus, a new pilgrimage, a new Mass in the liturgy would touch them not at all. Blaise Meredith, priest, philosopher, canonist, might work twelve months or twelve years on their records without adding a jot to their felicity, or a single pain to their damnation.
Yet this was his work and he must do it, because it lay ready to his hand—and because he was too tired and too ill to begin any other. He would say Mass each day, work out his daily stint at the Palace of Congregations, preach occasionally in the English Church, hear confessions for a colleague on vacation, go back each night to his small apartment at the Porta Angelica, read a little, say his office, then struggle through the restless nights to the sour morning. For twelve months. Then he would be dead. For a week they would name him in the masses . . . “our brother Blaise Meredith”; then he would join the anonymous and the forgotten in the general remembrance . . . “all the faithful departed.”
It was cold in the park now. The lovers were brushing the grass off their coats and the girls were smoothing down their skirts. The children were dragging listlessly down the paths in the wake of scolding parents. The swans were ruffling back to the shelter of the islets, to the drone of peak-hour traffic.
Time to go. Time for Monsignor Blaise Meredith to pack his troubled thoughts and compose his thin features into a courteous smile for the administrator’s tea at Westminster. The English were a civil and tolerant people. They expected a man to work out his salvation soberly or damn himself with discretion, to hold his liquor like a gentleman and keep his troubles to himself. They were suspicious of saints and chary of mystics, and they more than half-believed that God Almighty felt the same way. Even in the hour of his private Gethsemane, Meredith was glad of the convention that would force him to forget himself and attend to the chatter of his colleagues.
He got up stiffly from the bench, stood a long moment as if unsure of his own tenancy in the body, then walked steadily down toward Brompton Road.
Doctor Aldo Meyer had his own preoccupations this mild Mediterranean evening. He was trying to get drunk—as quickly and painlessly as possible.
All the odds were against him. The place where he drank was a low stone room with an earthen floor that stank of stale wine. His company was a brutish peasant proprietor and a stocky mountain girl with the neck and buttocks of an ox and melon breasts straining out of a greasy black dress. The drink was a fiery grappa, guaranteed to drown the stubbornest sorrow—but Aldo Meyer was too temperate and too intelligent to enjoy it.
He sat hunched forward over the rough bench, with a guttering candle beside him, staring into his cup and tracing monotonous patterns in the spilt liquor that flowed sluggishly in the wake of his finger. The padrone leaned on the bar, picking his teeth with a twig and sucking the remnants of his supper noisily through the gaps. The girl sat in the shadows waiting to fill the cup as soon as the doctor had emptied it. He had drunk swiftly at first, gagging on each mouthful, then more slowly as the raw spirit took hold of him. For the last ten minutes he had not drunk at all. It was as if he were waiting for something to happen before making the final surrender to forgetfulness.
He was a year short of fifty, but he looked like an old man. His hair was white, the skin of his fine Jewish face was drawn tight and spare over the bones. His hands were long and supple, but horned like a laborer’s. He wore a townsman’s suit of unfashionable cut, with frayed cuffs and shiny lapels, but his shoes were polished and his linen clean, save for the fresh stains where the grappa had splashed. There was an air of faded distinction about him, which matched oddly with the crudeness of his surroundings and the coarse vitality of the girl and the padrone.
Gemello Minore was a long way from Rome, longer still from London. The dingy wineshop bore no resemblance at all to the Palace of Congregations. Yet Doctor Aldo Meyer was concerned with death like Blaise Meredith, and, skeptic though he was, he too found himself embroiled with beatitude.
Late in the afternoon he had been called to the house of Pietro Rossi, whose wife had been in labor for ten hours. The midwife was in despair and the room was full of women chattering like hens, while Maria Rossi groaned and writhed in the spasms, then relapsed into weak moaning when they left her. Outside the hovel the men were grouped, talking in low voices and passing a wine bottle from hand to hand.
When he came they fell silent, watching him with oblique speculative eyes, while Pietro Rossi led him inside. He had lived among them for twenty years, yet he was still a foreigner; in these moments of their tribal life he might be necessary to them, but he was never welcome.
In the room with the women, it was the same story: silence, suspicion, hostility. When he bent over the great brass bed, palpating and probing the swollen body, the midwife and the girl’s mother stood close beside him, and when a new spasm came, there was a shocked murmur, as if he were the cause of it.
Within three minutes he knew there was no hope of normal birth. He would have to do a Caesarean. He was not unduly perturbed at the prospect. He had done them before, by candlelight and lamplight, on kitchen tables and plank benches. Given boiling water and anesthetic and the tough bodies of the mountain women, the odds were loaded in the patient’s favor.
He expected protests. These people were thickheaded as mules and twice as panicky—but he was unprepared for an outburst. It was the girl’s mother who began it—a stout muscular shrew, with lank hair and gapped teeth and black snake eyes. She rounded on him, yelling in thick dialect:
“I’ll have no knives in my girl’s belly. I want live grandchildren, not dead ones! You doctors are all the same. If you can’t cure people you cut ’em up and bury ’em. Not my daughter! Give her time and she’ll pop this one out like a pea. I’ve had twelve of ’em. I ought to know. Not all of ’em were easy, but I had ’em—and I didn’t need a horse butcher to gouge ’em out either!”
A burst of shrill laughter drowned the groaning of the girl. Aldo Meyer stood watching her, ignoring the women. He said simply:
“If I don’t operate, she’ll be dead by midnight.”
It had worked before—the bald professional pronouncement, the contempt for their ignorance—but this time it failed utterly. The woman laughed in his face.
“Not this time, Jew-man! Do you know why?” She plunged her hand inside her dress and brought up a small object wrapped in faded red silk. Her fingers closed over it and she thrust it under his nose. “You know what that is? You wouldn’t, of course—you being an infidel and Christ killer. We’ve got a saint of our own now. A real one! They’re fixing to have him canonized in Rome any minute. That’s a piece of his shirt. A real live relic, stained with his blood. He’s worked miracles too. Real ones. They’re all written down. They’ve been sent on to the pope. Do you think you can do more than he can? Do you? Which do we choose, folks? Our own St. Giacomo Nerone—or this fellow!”
The girl on the bed screamed in sudden agony and the women fell silent, while the mother bent over the bed, making little soothing noises and rubbing the dingy relic round and round on the swollen belly under the coverlets. Aldo Meyer waited a moment, searching for the right words. Then, when the girl was quiet again he told them, soberly:
“Even an infidel knows that to expect miracles without trying to help ourselves is a sin. You can’t throw away medicines and expect the saints to cure you. Besides, this Giacomo Nerone isn’t a saint yet. It will be a long time before they even start to discuss his case in Rome. Pray to him if you want, but ask him to give me a steady hand, and the girl a strong heart. Now stop being silly and get me boiling water and clean linen. I haven’t much time.”
No one moved. The mother barred his way to the bed. The women stood ranged in a tight semicircle, shepherding him in the direction of the door, where Pietro Rossi stood, blank-faced, watching the drama. Meyer swung round to challenge him.
“You, Pietro! Do you want a child? Do you want your wife? Then for God’s sake listen to me. Unless I operate quickly, she will die and the child will die with her. You know what I can do—there are twenty people in the village to tell you. But you don’t know what this Giacomo Nerone can do—even if he is a saint . . . which I very much doubt.”
Pietro Rossi shook his head stubbornly.
“’Tisn’t natural to rip out a child like a sheep’s gut. Besides, this isn’t an ordinary saint. He’s ours. He belongs to us. He’ll look after us. You’d better go, Doctor.”
“If I do, your wife won’t see out the night.”
The matte peasant face was blank as a wall. Meyer looked round at them, the dark secret people of the South, and thought despairingly how little he knew of them, how little power he had over them. He made a shrugging gesture of resignation, picked up his bag and walked toward the door. At the threshold he stopped and turned to face them.
“You’d better call Father Anselmo. She hasn’t much time.”
The mother spat contemptuously on the floor, then bent down again to rub the little silk bundle on the twitching belly of the girl, mumbling prayers in dialect. The other women watched him, stony-faced and silent. When he walked out and down the cobbled road, he felt the eyes of the men like knives at his back. It was then that he decided to get drunk.
For Aldo Meyer, the old liberal, the man who believed in man, it was the final gesture of defeat. There was no hope for these people. They were rapacious as hawks. They would eat your heart out and let you rot in a ditch. He had suffered for them, fought for them, lived with them, and tried to educate them, but they took everything and learned nothing. They made a mockery of the most elementary knowledge, yet lapped up legends and superstitions as greedily as children.
Only the church could control them, though it could not better them. It plagued them with demons, obsessed them with saints, cajoled them with weeping madonnas and fat-bottomed bambini. It could bleed them white for a new candelabrum, but it could not—or would not—bring them to a clinic for typhoid injections. Their mothers wasted away with TB and their bambini had swollen spleens from recurrent malaria. Yet they would as soon put a devil in their mouths as an atabrine tablet—even though the doctor paid for it himself.
They lived in hovels where a good farmer would not house his cattle. They ate olives and pasta and bread dipped in oil, and goat meat on feast days, if they could get it. Their hills were bare of trees and their terraces held a niggardly soil, from which the nourishment leached out with the first rains and was lost on the stony slopes. Their wine was thin and their corn was meager and they moved with the sluggish gait of folk who eat too little and work too hard.
Their landlords exploited them, yet they clung to their coattails like children. Their priests lapsed often into liquor and concubinage, yet they fed them out of their poverty and treated them with tolerant contempt. If the summer was late or the winter was harsh, the frost burned the olives and there was hunger in the hills. They had no schools for their children, and what the state would not supply they would not make for themselves. They would not sacrifice their idle hours to build a schoolhouse. They could not pay a teacher, yet they would dig into their tiny hoards of lire to finance the canonization of a new saint for a calendar that was already overloaded with them.
Aldo Meyer stared into the dark lees of his grappa to read futility, disillusion, and despair. He lifted the cup and tossed off the dregs at a gulp. They were bitter as wormwood and there was no warmth in them at all.
He had come here first as an exile, when the Fascisti had rounded up the Semites and the left-wing intellectuals and the too-vocal liberals and presented them the curt alternative of rustication in Calabria or hard labor on Lipari. They had given him the ironic title of medical officer, but no salary, no drugs, and no anesthetics. He had arrived with the clothes he stood up in, a bag of instruments, a bottle of aspirin tablets, and a medical compendium. For six years he battled and intrigued, cajoled and blackmailed to build up a sketchy medical service in an area of constant malnutrition, endemic malaria, and epidemic typhoid.
He lived in a crumbling farmhouse, which he restored with his own hands. He farmed a stony two acres, with the help of a cretinous laborer. His hospital was one room in his house. His theater was his kitchen. The peasants paid him in kind, when they paid at all, and he exacted from the local officials a tribute in drugs and surgical instruments and protection from a hostile government. It had been a bitter servitude, but there had been moments of triumph, days when he seemed at last to be entering into the closed circle of the primitive mountain life.
When the Allies straddled the straits of Messina and began their slow, bloody progress up the peninsula, he had fled and joined the partisans, and after the armistice he had spent a brief while in Rome. But he had been away too long. Old friends were dead. New ones were hard to make, and the small triumphs of the locust years challenged him to greater ones. With freedom and money, and the impetus to reform, a man of good will might work miracles in the South.
So, he had come back—to the old house, in the old town, with a new dream and a sense of renewed youth in himself. He would become a teacher as well as a doctor. He would lay down a prototype organization for cooperative effort, an organization that would attract development money from Rome and aid money from overseas foundations. He would teach them hygiene and the conservation of soil and water. He would train young men who would carry his message to outlying districts. He would be a missioner of progress in a land where progress had stopped three centuries before.
It had been a fine, fresh dream twelve years ago. He knew it now for a bleak illusion. He had fallen into the error of all liberals: the belief that men are prepared to reform themselves, that good will attracts good will, that truth has a leavening virtue of its own. His plans had made shipwreck on the venality of officials, the conservatism of a feudal church, the rapacity and mistrust of a primitive, ignorant people.
Even through the thick fumes of the liquor he saw all, too clearly. They had beaten him. He had beaten himself. And now it was too late to mend.
From the dusk outside came a long, wailing cry of women’s voices. The girl and the padrone looked at each other and crossed themselves. The doctor stood up and walked unsteadily to the door to stand looking out into the cool spring twilight.
“She’s dead,” said the padrone in his thick, husky voice.
“Tell the saint about it,” said Aldo Meyer. “I’m going to bed.”
As he lurched out into the roadway the girl put out her tongue at him and made the sign against the evil eye.
The dirge-cry rose and fell, whining like a wind over the sleeping mountain. It followed him down the cobbled street and into his house. It battered on his door and searched at his shutters and haunted him through the night of restless, muttering sleep.
In the fall of the same spring dusk, Eugenio Cardinal Marotta walked in the garden of his villa in Parioli. Far below him the city was wakening from the torpor of afternoon and settling back to business with screaming horns and clattering motor scooters and chaffering shopkeepers. The tourists were trudging remorsefully back from St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran and the Colosseum. The flower sellers were spraying their blooms for the last assault on the lovers of the Spanish Steps. The sunset spilled over the hills and down onto the rooftops, but down in the alleys, the dust-haze hung thickly, and the walls of the buildings were gray and tired.
Up on Parioli, however, the air was clear and the avenues were quiet and His Eminence walked under drooping palms to the scent of jasmine flowers. There were high walls about him and grilled gates to keep him private, and armorial bronzes on the lintels to remind the visitor of the rank and titles of Eugenio Cardinal Marotta, archbishop of Acropolis, titular of St. Clement, prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, proprefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature, commissioner for the Interpretation of Canon Law, protector of the Sons of St. Joseph and the Daughters of Mary Immaculate and twenty other religious bodies great and large in the Holy Roman Church.
The titles were ample, the power that lay behind them was ample too; but His Eminence wore it with a bland good humor that masked a subtle intelligence and a dominating will.
He was a short, round man, with small hands and feet and a dewlapped face, and a high domed head bald as an egg under the scarlet skullcap. His gray eyes twinkled with benevolence and his mouth was small and scarlet as a woman’s against the matte olive of his complexion. He was sixty-three years of age, which is young for a man to reach the red hat. He worked hard, though without apparent effort, and still had energy left for the devious diplomacies and manipulations of power inside the closed City of the Vatican.
There were those who favored him for election to the papacy itself, but there were others, more numerous, who held that the next pontiff should be a more saintly man, less concerned with diplomacy than with the reform of morals among clergy and laity alike. Eugenio Marotta was content to wait on the outcome, knowing that he who goes into the conclave a pope is likely to leave it a cardinal. Besides, the pontiff might be old, but he was still a long way from dead, and he looked with small favor on those who coveted his shoes.
So His Eminence walked in his villa garden on Parioli, watching the sun decline over the Alban hills and pondering the day’s questions in the relaxed attitude of a man who knew he would answer them all in the end.
He could afford to relax. He had come by steady progression to the high plateau of preferment from which neither malice nor disfavor could unseat him. He would remain a cardinal till the day he died, a prince by protocol, a bishop by irrevocable consecration, citizen of the smallest and least vulnerable state in the world. It was much for a man in his vigorous sixties. It was much more, because he was untrammeled by a wife, unplagued by sons and daughters, set far beyond the pricks of passion. He had come as far as talent and ambition could drive him.
The next step was the Chair of Peter; but this was a high leap, halfway out of the world and into a vestibule of divinity. The man who wore the Fisherman’s ring and the triple tiara carried also the sins of the world like a leaden cope on his shoulders. He stood on a windy pinnacle, alone, with the spread carpet of the nations below him, and above, the naked face of the Almighty. Only a fool would envy him the power and the glory and the terror of such a principality. And Eugenio Cardinal Marotta was very far from being a fool.
In this hour of dusk and jasmine he had problems enough of his own.
Two days before, a letter had been laid on his desk from the bishop of Valenta, a small diocese in a rundown area of Calabria. The bishop was known to him vaguely as a rigid reformer with a taste for politics. He had caused a stir two years previously by unfrocking a couple of country curates for concubinage and pensioning off some of his elderly pastors on the grounds of incompetence. The election figures from his diocese had shown a marked swing toward the Christian Democrats, and this had earned him a pontifical letter of commendation. It was only the more subtle observers like Marotta who had noted that the increase had come from the Monarchist Party and not from the Communists, who had also registered a slight gain. The bishop’s letter was simple and explicit—too simple to be guileless and too explicit not to rouse suspicion in a seasoned campaigner like Eugenio Cardinal Marotta.
It began with salutations, florid and deferential, from a humble bishop to a princely one. It went on to say that a petition had been received from the parish priest and the faithful of the villages of Gemelli dei Monti for the introduction of the cause for beatification of the servant of God, Giacomo Nerone.
This Giacomo Nerone had been murdered by Communist partisans in circumstances that might well be called martyrdom. Since his death, spontaneous veneration had been paid to him in the villages and the surrounding countryside, and several cures of a miraculous nature were attributed to his influence. Preliminary investigations had confirmed the reputation for sanctity and the apparently miraculous nature of the cures, and the bishop was disposed to grant the petition and admit the case to juridical investigation. Before doing so, however, he sought counsel of His Eminence, as prefect of the Congregation of Rites, and his assistance in appointing, from Rome itself, two wise and godly men—one as the Postulator of the Cause, to organize the investigation and carry it forward, the other as the promoter of the faith, or devil’s advocate, to submit the evidence and the witnesses to the severest scrutiny in accordance with the appropriate provisions of canon law.
There was more, much more, but this was the core of the apple. The bishop might have a saint in his territory—a convenient saint, too, martyred by the Communists. The only way he could prove the sanctity was by a judicial investigation, first in his own diocese and then in Rome, under the authority of the Congregation of Rites. But the first investigation would be made in his own See and under his own authority, with officials appointed by himself. Local bishops were normally jealous of their autonomy. Why then this deferential appeal to Rome?
Eugenio Cardinal Marotta walked the trim lawns of his villa garden and pondered the proposition.
Gemelli dei Monti lay deep in Midday Italy, where cults proliferate and die as quickly, where the Faith is overlaid with a thick patina of superstition, where the peasants make with the same hand the sign of the cross and the sign against the evil eye, where the picture of the Bambino is hung over the bed and the pagan horns are nailed over the barn door. The bishop was a canny man who wanted a saint for the good of his diocese, but declined to put his own reputation on trial with that of the servant of God.
If the investigation went well, he would have, not only a beato, but a rod to beat the Communists. If it went ill, the wise and godly men from Rome could bear some of the blame. His Eminence chuckled at the subtlety of it. Scratch a Southerner and you found a fox, who smelled out traps a mile away and trotted around them to the chicken run.
But there was more at stake than the reputation of a provincial bishop. There was politics involved, and Italian elections were only twelve months away. Public opinion was sensitive to the influence of the Vatican in civil affairs. The anticlericals would welcome a chance to discredit the church, and they had enough weapons without putting another into their hands.
There were deeper issues yet, matters less relevant to time than to eternity. To name a man blessed was to declare him a heroic servant of God, to hold him up as an exemplar and an intercessor for the faithful. To accept his miracles was to admit beyond all doubt the divine power working through him to suspend or cancel the laws of nature. Error in such a matter was unthinkable. The whole massive machinery of the Congregation of Rites was designed to prevent it. But premature action, a botched investigation, could cause grave scandal and weaken the faith of millions in an infallible church that claimed the direct guidance of the Holy Ghost.
His Eminence shivered as the first chill darkness came down on Parioli. He was a man hardened by power and skeptical of devotion, but he too carried on his shoulders the burden of belief and in his heart the fear of the noonday devil.
He could afford less than others the luxury of error. Much more depended on him. The penalty for failure would be so much more rigorous. In spite of the pomp of his title and the secular dignity that attended it, his prime mission was spiritual. It related to souls—their salvation and damnation. The curse of the millstones could fall equally upon an erring cardinal and a faithless curate. So he walked and pondered soberly while the faint harmony of bells drifted up from the city and the crickets in the garden began their shrill chorus.
He would grant the bishop of Valenta his small triumph. He would find the men for him—a postulator to build the case and present it, a devil’s advocate to destroy it if he could. Of the two, the devil’s advocate was the more important. His official title described him accurately: promoter of the faith. The man who kept the faith pure at any cost of broken lives and broken hearts. He must be learned, meticulous, passionless. He must be cold in judgment, ruthless in condemnation. He might lack charity or piety, but he could not lack precision. Such men were rare, and those at his disposal were already occupied on other causes.
Then he remembered Blaise Meredith, the spare sober man with the grayness of death on him. He had the qualities. He was English, which would remove the taint of political involvement. But whether he had the will or the time left to him was another matter. If the medical verdict were unfavorable he might not feel disposed to accept so heavy an assignment.
Still, it was the beginning of an answer. His Eminence was not unsatisfied. He made one more leisurely circuit of the darkened garden, then walked back to the villa to say vespers with his household.