A Cloudless Day in Rome
by Kay Stevens
It was a hot, cloudless day in Rome as Giovanni Bellini, a reporter, walked towards the piazza where the old, austere Vatican buildings stood. He steadily made his way through small crowds of tourists taking pictures and marveling at the architecture. To the far left of the piazza was a sizeable group of protestors holding up signs about the Orlandi girl who had been missing for over a decade, a kidnapping in which the Vatican had been implicated. The protest mildly caught his interest. Giovanni was the technology reporter for Nuestra Notizie, a small local newspaper. On occasion, he would have to meet his interviewee after walking through environmental or pro-union demonstrations. And sometimes he would see protestors while covering a story for another reporter, as was the case now. The religion reporter, Niccolo, had suddenly taken ill. But since Niccolo’s interviewee worked near Giovanni’s next appointment, Giovanni decided to do the interview. The questions had already been prepared. All Giovanni had to do was show up, read them, and record the answers.
As he walked closer to his destination, it suddenly occurred to the reporter how unseasonably warm it was. He was Roman by birth and upbringing, but even to him, the weather was very hot. Usually, hot weather without a cloud in the sky-as it was that day-was a good thing. It meant no rain, no bad weather for a bit. But that did not seem to be the case now. Giovanni considered what Angelo, the environmental reporter, had mentioned yesterday. Climate change was not just about the obvious. Not only would Venice continue to slowly drown as the sea level started to rise, or the Arctic and Alpine glaciers continue melting, some areas were getting warmer, while others were getting colder. Slowly, and surely, mankind was reaping its tragic reward for past and present carelessness. Giovanni’s thoughts turned to the small garden that his girlfriend, Alicia, kept on her apartment balcony. She carefully tended each flower, herb and vegetable as if they were her children.They must be wilted away by now, he thought. He continued to consider that poor little garden of stressed young vegetation, when he finally arrived at the doorstep of the man he was coming to see, Monsignor Rudolfo Rinaldi.
Many, both in Italy and around the world, would have done anything to get such an interview. To talk to Monsignor Rinaldi, the man who was a close advisor to the Pope, was like talking to the Pope himself, to God himself even. But Giovanni didn’t think much of it. Due to the importance of the Monsignor’s position, he would give him deference. But he would have done the same for a CEO or a high government official. In every sense, Giovanni was a stranger to the church-in fact, to religion itself.His father was atheist and his mother agnostic. They taught him good values-without religion. Contrary to what many thought, they felt that religion was not a cure for the world’s ills; it was at the heart of the world’s ills. Religion placed an unnatural burden on people. It made them do crazy things. Working hard, being a good person-these were the ways to a happy life. Then when you die, you just die-end of story. The legacy you leave on earth is what is important. There was no white light at the end of the tunnel. Just the end of the journey. So, understandably as an adult, Giovanni was not religious. If asked, he probably would have called himself agnostic. Perhaps there was a God, but God sounded just a little too good to be true. He'd like to think that there might be something else higher than himself at work in the world, doing good things where people’s powers were limited, but he couldn’t be too sure. He had never seen God before.
Giovanni was glad to have finally gotten some shade when he arrived at the covered doorway leading to the representative’s office. His short, dark brown hair had started to stick to his face and he quickly wiped his forehead with his armbefore raising his hand to knock on the door.
Yet even before his hand touched the dark, heavy, wooden door, it suddenly opened.Monsignor Rinaldi stood on the other side, giving the same surprised look that Giovanni gave him, but the Monsignor’s gaze was a little more unsettling. Compared to Giovanni’s average height and medium build and casual clothing,Mon. Rinaldiwas a tall, heavy-set man in a formal-looking long black robe and clerical collar. His one distinct feature was his thick bushy eyebrows that hovered over intense eyes of an indistinct color. He strangely seemed to be looking at you and through you at the same time. "You’re early. I was about to run an errand," he said sounding a little surprised.
"Forgive me, Monsignor. I can come back a little later if you’d like," Giovanni replied non-chalantly, masking his sudden uneasiness.
"No, no. This is as good a time as any."Rinaldi stepped back from the threshold and gestured for Giovanni to enter. Giovanni followed the Monsignor as he turned around and walked to a large dark cherry wood table sitting in the middle of the room.
After sitting down Giovanni noticed the décor. A few comfortable-looking overstuffed leather chairs sat along the wall near a large window a few feet from the door. Deep-brown wainscoting lined the walls. The faint smell of incense filled the room. Beautiful large, glass windows, some depicting saintly figures and others without pictures, lined a far wall and let in a flood of light. Noticing the details, Giovanni was reminded of something his mother used to say. "Money, money, money. They’re always asking for your money. The church is always about abouttake, take, take. Show me a giving church and maybe I’ll believe what they say."
The Monsignor sat down across fromthe reporter. As Giovanni took out his notebook andtape recorder, he becamesuddenly aware of howunyieldingly hard the chair was. Perhaps this is how pews felt, he thought.
"Thank you for taking the time to speak with me," Giovannibegan. "I hope that you don't mind being tape recorded."
"That’s perfectly fine. You areprobablyreporter number 30, I’vespoken with over the, past year actually.I know the routine." The man spoke amiably enough but Giovanni shifted in his chair some. He just could not get comfortable for some reason.
"My first question is how does the church feel about the sex abuse accusations by former students of its schools here in Italy and in Europe? Does the church believe them?"
Rinaldi pausedand looked thoughtful enough. He must have been asked the same question over a hundred times by now, Giovanni thought. A canned answer followed.
"The church," Rinaldi began, "takes these accusations very seriously. Of course, we don't like hearing about them. Nochurchlikes to be told about the wrongdoing of some of its members, but we are also interested in our public image, the image we have throughout the world. We must deal with this issue so the parishioners, including the victims, can have faith in the church again. This is our prayer."
Giovanni spoke the next question in a rather flat voice, intentionally. Forcing himself not to rush, he was warring against the desire to not be late for his next appointment as well as the strange uneasiness he felt in the Monsignor’s presence. "What do you think about the way the media is handling this sex scandal? Do you think that they are providing too much coverage?"
"Like I said, no one likes to be cast in a negative light. But I think the media would be greatly amiss if it did not discuss the allegations frankly. It’s your job to report the news and this certainly is news. Whatever is being said about the church should be out in the open. We obviously need to address problems better than we have done in the past."
"Do you think that the church has done enough to address the issue or, as critics have said, has the church only given lip service to changing? The pope has only taken a few resignations, but has yet to fire anyone. What do you think about this?”
"Listen, I really get tired of people acting as if the church is not doing anything. We are changing!" Rinaldi insisted, looking irritated. "There have been many resignations. In the media they make it sound as if it is only a few. But clergy with long-standing, distinguishedcareers in the church, havestepped down. As far as otherchanges, wehave increased our standards for accepting priests. We do more thorough background checks. There are many other things we are changing, that I am not at liberty to discuss right now."
"Are these higher standards for acceptancealso used forwomen trying to becomenuns?"
"Those are in the works.”
"Do you personally think that the church is doing enough to deal with the issue?" Giovanni asked.
"What else can we do? We’re co-operating with authorities. We’ve been paying outmillions of dollarsevery year since the law suits started. We’ve been maligned in the media and have gotten many terrible e-mails. There have even been death threats against some clergy. A few have actually been killed." Rinaldi looked down momentarily, as if a little exasperated. "But thechurch is long-suffering. We’ve had troubles before, but we’ll come out of this trial better than we were before."
Giovanni paused. Rinaldi twittled his thumbs as he stared hard at the reporter, unwittingly. He seemed to be upset.
"Our research indicates that this has been a very expensive scandal. There are many schools in America that have closed. Some diocesehave gone bankrupt because of the scandal, according to some news reports. Ireland, a traditionally, very devout Catholic country is only ordaining two priests this year, in the whole country. Church attendance has dropped astronomically. Do you really think that the church will emerge unscathed from this scandal to continue on better then before , as you say?" Giovanni’s voice betrayed doubt.
Avery solid expression came to Rinaldi's face, as if that question were completely out of place.
"The holy Roman Catholic Church has been around for 2,000 years. There are catacombs beneaththis citythat depict pictures of our saints from as far back as the 4th century. St. Peter, one of Christ's own apostles, was the first Catholic Pope. We have weathered foreign invasions, dictators, divisions within our own church, a rouge German monk name Luther, the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches and much more. Even some of these Protestants should be thanking us for their religion. The sacraments, the ceremony performed in every church in the world all came from us. They were first practiced in the Catholic Church. We started everything!"
Rinaldi's resolute defense of the church caught Giovanni off guard. The Monsignor seemed to be trying to convince not only Giovanni of something, but also himself. Another of his mother’s comments came to mind. “When you ask the religious a simple question about their faith or their church, they get defensive, like you just insulted them. I never understood that. A question is not an insult. It’s just a question.”
Giovanni tried to get a more direct answer, “So your response is yes, the church will emerge unscathed?”
"Yes, it will. Although it has been expensive and will continue to be very expensive, and has tarnished our reputation, we'll be fine. The schools that have closed will one day re-open. The bankrupt archdioceses will regain their financial footing. Ten years from now people will not even remember this."
Giovanni looked curious. He eyes left the prepared questions in his hands. "How do you know this? It’s not as if a few priests were caught stealing money from the collection plate. This is severe child abuse that has gone on for decades.” It was not his own experiences, but those of his girlfriend at the hands of a priest that prompted the question. She had since left the church.
"When I talk to the parishioners, they still want to attend church. They still call themselves Catholics. They want us to deal with this issue, but let’s face it. We’re part of the fabric of Italy, or Europe itself. The Irish may be leaving for now, but after this trial is over, they’ll come back. In spite of everything we still have so many dedicated Catholics in France, Austria, Poland. My goodness, Catholicism is in their DNA, especially in places like Poland. It’s helped them weather invasions, difficult times in their nation’s history. This is not to mention people in Africa, in Asia, and the Americas, who are all dedicated Catholics. It is our parishioners that allow us to do what we do and we will continue to be here."
Giovanni looked back down at the notes and did not see anymore questions. Yet the interview somehow seemed incomplete. Just thenaknock came at the door.
A servant, a graying middle-aged man, suddenly appeared from the hallway adjacent the room and opened the front door. “More?” he asked exasperatedly to the delivery man who stood before him. “Monsignor, Rinaldi, I need your help. There are four more boxes here.”
"Pardon me," Rinaldi said as he got up,his tall,top-heavy figure movingquickly towards the door. Giovanni was about to turn off the tape recorder but had forgotten to when the interruption came. Rinaldi took two boxes. The servant took two more from the delivery man. They set them on a nearby table. The servant then suddenly disappeared in the hallway once more.
Rinaldi looked a little upset. "Is this interview over?"
“What are the boxes for?” Giovanni asked.
“They are,” Rinaldi read the return address to be certain, “from a law firm representing some people claiming they’ve been abused. Is the interview over?”
"You know, you never answered my first question. Do you believe the allegations?"
Rinaldi paused, looking thoughtfully at his hands for a moment. For the first time during the interview, he appeared very serious, his voice almost plaintive. "One of the accused priests here in Italy confessed to me several days before it was in the papers that he had abused some of the children at the school where he once taught.I was shocked. I had known this man for years and had no idea that hewascapable ofsuch a thing. So, I guess the answer is yes. To a certain degree I believe these allegations. But it was a long time ago." Rinaldi started to sound rather agitated again. "It was a terrible thing, but it’s not as if those priests murdered those children. It’s time for the victims to move on. And for the church to move on, too. In actuality, I am sick to death of hearing about it and defending it, and talking to people like you about it. It’s my job to do these things, but still it gets very tiresome, very fast. You know, in spite of everything, we still get respect and do you know why? This is God's church. No matter what, we’ll always have the loyalty of our parishioners and do you know why? Because they know from where their salvation comes!" As he made his last point, he emphatically tapped his thick forefinger on the table top.
Giovannisat visibly unmoved by the statements, but inside he was more than a little shaken. Just then he turned to look at his recorder that was still playing. "I think those are all my questions."
"You’re Catholic, right?"
"No. Actually, I'm not."
"You should talk with Father Lorenzo. I can set up an appointment with him if you'd like. He has the most amazing effect on people to get them to join the church."
"I have to say no. Thank you for your time, Monsignor Rinaldi." Giovanni turned off the recorder and got up from the table. He shook hands with the clergyman and started to leave.
Rinaldi opened the door and followed Giovanni out, going on his busy way.
"Leave religion alone,"his mother used to say. "If God was so good, why did he leave his precious earth in such a shambles? And these so-called Christians . . . People say, I follow the Lord, and then do shameful things." Giovanni loved both his parents and cherished his mother's advice. They were good people, peaceful non-believers. Not the violent, disturbed people the devout could sometimes be.
As Giovanni continued to walk through that hot piazza, he thought long and hard about the interview and how troubling it was. The Monsignor reminded him of a man he saw during an incident he experienced with his father. Giovanni was about eleven. His father had taken him to buy some new shoes for school. On the way out of the store, a young man accidently ran into them nearly knocking them over. He apologized quickly and continued to run away. He seemed to be carrying a wallet and a purse and was running as fast as he could away from a police officer who was trying to catch him. After their quick literal run-in with the thief, Giovanni’s father asked if he was alright. Giovanni said yes. His father then checked to make certain his own wallet was safe before they headed for home again. But, as brief a moment it was, Giovanni could still remember the look on the thief’s face, a sort of arrogant, ecstatic glee. He was getting away with someone else’s money. And since it was the height of tourist season and very crowded, chances were the police would never catch him. Giovanni never knew if the thief was ever caught. But Giovanni never forgot the brief glimpse he got of the mugger while he looked back at the police. A look that said, “They’ll never catch me.”
Monsignor Rinaldi’s arrogant glee was of course more subtle, but no less present. It was in his tone, in his mannerisms. Giovanni remembered how the Monsignor put the boxes down on the table, not like they were a burden, but rather an inconvenience. A small trouble, dimming- but certainly not darkening-his day.
Giovanni pensively walked to his next appointment. He had interviewed enough CEO’s and brilliant thinkers to recognize arrogance when he saw it. But there was something else behind the Monsignor’s demeanor that simply was not right, that caused Giovanni’s discomfort. He couldn’t place it. He didn’t think that the Monsignor was an abuser. Rinaldi seemed genuinely dismayed by such behavior, but still there was something sinister he sensed the moment he walked into the room. There was no other way to describe it. Giovanni did not believe in God, but it seemed that at least his opposite could be real. Only that could explain so much, including how a seemingly moral clergyman could consider child abuse allegations as merely an inconvenience, and the victims, an annoyance. And if the devil were real, maybe, just maybe, his opposite-God-could be real too.
Giovanni took the tape recorder from his pocket and looked at it. He thought about erasing the Monsignor’s last statements, spoken after Giovanni forgot about turning off the recorder. They would shock the devout Niccolo. Hearing the Monsignor’s callousness about the legal papers would trouble him, Giovanni knew. But erasing the comments would not be right either. It would be deception. Giovanni placed the recorder back into his pocket and went on to his next appointment. He started to feel sorry for Niccolo.