Bishop Manuel Aringarosa's body had endured many kinds of pain, and yet the searing heat of the bullet wound in his chest felt profoundly foreign to him. Deep and grave. Not a wound of the flesh... but closer to the soul.
He opened his eyes, trying to see, but the rain on his face blurred his vision. Where am I? He could feel powerful arms holding him, carrying his limp body like a rag doll, his black cassock flapping.
Lifting a weary arm, he mopped his eyes and saw the man holding him was Silas. The great albino was struggling down a misty sidewalk, shouting for a hospital, his voice a heartrending wail of agony. His red eyes were focused dead ahead, tears streaming down his pale, blood-spattered face. "My son," Aringarosa whispered," you're hurt." Silas glanced down, his visage contorted in anguish. "I am so very sorry, Father." He seemed almost too pained to speak.
"No, Silas," Aringarosa replied. "It is I who am sorry. This is my fault." The Teacher promised me there would be no killing, and I told you to obey him fully. "I was too eager. Too fearful. You and I were deceived." The Teacher was never going to deliver us the Holy Grail.
Cradled in the arms of the man he had taken in all those years ago, Bishop Aringarosa felt himself reel back in time. To Spain. To his modest beginnings, building a small Catholic church in Oviedo with Silas. And later, to New York City, where he had proclaimed the glory of God with the towering Opus Dei Center on Lexington Avenue.
Five months ago, Aringarosa had received devastating news. His life's work was in jeopardy. He recalled, with vivid detail, the meeting inside Castel Gandolfo that had changed his life... the news that had set this entire calamity into motion.
Aringarosa had entered Gandolfo's Astronomy Library with his head held high, fully expecting to be lauded by throngs of welcoming hands, all eager to pat him on the back for his superior work representing Catholicism in America.
But only three people were present. The Vatican secretariat. Obese. Dour. Two high-ranking Italian cardinals. Sanctimonious. Smug. "Secretariat?" Aringarosa said, puzzled. The rotund overseer of legal affairs shook Aringarosa's hand and motioned to the chair opposite him. "Please, make yourself comfortable."
Aringarosa sat, sensing something was wrong.
"I am not skilled in small talk, Bishop," the secretariat said," so let me be direct about the reason for your visit."
"Please. Speak openly." Aringarosa glanced at the two cardinals, who seemed to be measuring him with self-righteous anticipation.
"As you are well aware," the secretariat said," His Holiness and others in Rome have been concerned lately with the political fallout from Opus Dei's more controversial practices."
Aringarosa felt himself bristle instantly. He already had been through this on numerous occasions with the new pontiff, who, to Aringarosa's great dismay, had turned out to be a distressingly fervent voice for liberal change in the Church.
"I want to assure you," the secretariat added quickly," that His Holiness does not seek to change anything about the way you run your ministry."
I should hope not!" Then why am I here?"
The enormous man sighed. "Bishop, I am not sure how to say this delicately, so I will state it directly. Two days ago, the Secretariat Council voted unanimously to revoke the Vatican's sanction of Opus Dei."
Aringarosa was certain he had heard incorrectly. "I beg your pardon?"
"Plainly stated, six months from today, Opus Dei will no longer be considered a prelature of the Vatican. You will be a church unto yourself. The Holy See will be disassociating itself from you. His Holiness agrees and we are already drawing up the legal papers."
"But... that is impossible!"
"On the contrary, it is quite possible. And necessary. His Holiness has become uneasy with your aggressive recruiting policies and your practices of corporal mortification." He paused. "Also your policies regarding women. Quite frankly, Opus Dei has become a liability and an embarrassment."
Bishop Aringarosa was stupefied. "An embarrassment?"
"Certainly you cannot be surprised it has come to this."
"Opus Dei is the only Catholic organization whose numbers are growing! We now have over eleven hundred priests!"
"True. A troubling issue for us all."
Aringarosa shot to his feet. "Ask His Holiness if Opus Dei was an embarrassment in 1982 when we helped the Vatican Bank!"
"The Vatican will always be grateful for that," the secretariat said, his tone appeasing," and yet there are those who still believe your financial munificence in 1982 is the only reason you were granted prelature status in the first place."
"That is not true!" The insinuation offended Aringarosa deeply.
"Whatever the case, we plan to act in good faith. We are drawing up severance terms that will include a reimbursement of those monies. It will be paid in five installments."
"You are buying me off?" Aringarosa demanded. "Paying me to go quietly? When Opus Dei is the only remaining voice of reason!"
One of the cardinals glanced up. "I'm sorry, did you say reason?"
Aringarosa leaned across the table, sharpening his tone to a point. "Do you really wonder why Catholics are leaving the Church? Look around you, Cardinal. People have lost respect. The rigors of faith are gone. The doctrine has become a buffet line. Abstinence, confession, communion, baptism, mass - take your pick - choose whatever combination pleases you and ignore the rest. What kind of spiritual guidance is the Church offering?"
"Third-century laws," the second cardinal said," cannot be applied to the modern followers of Christ. The rules are not workable in today's society." "Well, they seem to be working for Opus Dei!" "Bishop Aringarosa," the secretariat said, his voice conclusive. "Out of respect for your organization's relationship with the previous Pope, His Holiness will be giving Opus Dei six months to voluntarily break away from the Vatican. I suggest you cite your differences of opinion with the Holy See and establish yourself as your own Christian organization."
"I refuse!" Aringarosa declared. "And I'll tell him that in person!" "I'm afraid His Holiness no longer cares to meet with you." Aringarosa stood up. "He would not dare abolish a personal prelature established by a previous Pope!" "I'm sorry." The secretariat's eyes did not flinch. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Aringarosa had staggered from that meeting in bewilderment and panic. Returning to New York, he stared out at the skyline in disillusionment for days, overwhelmed with sadness for the future of Christianity.
It was several weeks later that he received the phone call that changed all that. The caller sounded
French and identified himself as the Teacher - a title common in the prelature. He said he knew of the Vatican's plans to pull support from Opus Dei.
How could he know that? Aringarosa wondered. He had hoped only a handful of Vatican power brokers knew of Opus Dei's impending annulment. Apparently the word was out. When it came to containing gossip, no walls in the world were as porous as those surrounding Vatican City.
"I have ears everywhere, Bishop," the Teacher whispered," and with these ears I have gained certain knowledge. With your help, I can uncover the hiding place of a sacred relic that will bring you enormous power... enough power to make the Vatican bow before you. Enough power to save the Faith." He paused. "Not just for Opus Dei. But for all of us."
The Lord taketh away...and the Lord giveth.Aringarosa felt a glorious ray of hope. "Tell me your plan."
Bishop Aringarosa was unconscious when the doors of St. Mary's Hospital hissed open. Silas lurched into the entryway delirious with exhaustion. Dropping to his knees on the tile floor, he cried out for help. Everyone in the reception area gaped in wonderment at the half-naked albino offering forth a bleeding clergyman.
The doctor who helped Silas heave the delirious bishop onto a gurney looked gloomy as he felt Aringarosa's pulse. "He's lost a lot of blood. I am not hopeful." Aringarosa's eyes flickered, and he returned for a moment, his gaze locating Silas. "My child..." Silas's soul thundered with remorse and rage. "Father, if it takes my lifetime, I will find the one who deceived us, and I will kill him."
Aringarosa shook his head, looking sad as they prepared to wheel him away. "Silas... if you have learned nothing from me, please... learn this." He took Silas's hand and gave it a firm squeeze. "Forgiveness is God's greatest gift."
Aringarosa closed his eyes. "Silas, you must pray."