This true story, which has made a long-lasting impact on me, was told by the Vicar General of the time in a meeting I once attended. During Vatican Council 2, when he worked as aide to the Archbishop and said Mass at Sant’Andrea della Valle, his server, Marco* - a very distinguished- looking gentleman, told him his own story…
Marco had been a gerarca, one of the leaders of the fascist movement. This naturally resulted in his being direly hated by the anti-fascists. One of them continually threatened him, saying he would pay dearly for his affiliation.
One evening, his son did not return home. It had grown very late, and the father, to his great consternation, had to admit to himself he waited in vain. He was fully aware of how despicable he was to his political adversaries. Had he not been threatened again and again? He knew what had happened.
He also knew where he could find his arch-enemy: he and his comrades met somewhere near the river. Arming himself with a knife, seeing only red, with his heart and mind hell-bent on vengeance, he made his way.
Spotting his man, and approaching him stealthily, he clutched at him, and in a voice that was hoarse with rage, whispered:
“What have you done to my son? Tell me. I want to know. Have you killed him?”
The guilty man was terror-stricken. He sensed his end had come.
Finally, his almost inaudible answer came in short gasps: “Yes, . . . but, . . . please, . . . now, . . .forgive me.”
For answer, the gerarca took out his knife, and, in his mad anger and immense thirst for revenge, slashed his enemy’s head off, and threw it into the river.
It took him only a moment to come to his senses. . . .What had he done? How could he have done it? How could he now live with that on his conscience? He knew he could not: he would end his life.
Retracing his footsteps, he passed Sant’Andrea della Valle. He decided to enter. There was only the archpriest. (He was still the incumbent at the time the Vicar General was told the story.)
“Padre, the man mumbled, “I need to speak to you. Not here, somewhere secluded.”
It was crystal clear that the man was tormented by some hideous thought. The priest took him to his home, nearby.
“Would you like to speak to me in confession? Like that, you’re sure it will remain between us.”
The man heaved a sigh, and the priest made the sign of the cross.
In a quivering voice, the distraught man confessed:
“Padre, ho ucciso.” (I have killed.)
The man of God made no reaction. He remained quite still. Then, in the calmest of voices, he asked a two-word question, the very same usually put to penitents who confess to a grave sin:
“Quante volte?”(How many times?)
The Vicar General stopped at this point. Being asked that very simple question, the poor sinner, on the brink of suicide, must have felt he was in the presence of somebody who did not judge him to be the worst man that had ever cumbered the earth; who, in the name of God, could forgive him his abominable sin, though he would have to atone for it, to shoulder the responsibility for his grave crime. I have no idea how he managed it, but somehow he must have.
I felt filled with admiration for the person, who, in a most precarious moment, asked (what I deem) a spiritual question, which clearly led to a spiritual answer. The archpriest’s question from above, inspired by love, understanding, and mercy, had yielded a spiritual answer: it clearly led the repentant man to God, and to a spiritual life.
Henri Nouwen writes about questions from above, as opposed to questions from below. The former are spiritual questions. Jesus always turned questions from below into questions from above, “such as the question about which of a woman’s seven husbands she will be married to in the resurrection”. Nouwen maintains that: “We have to keep looking for the spiritual questions, if we want spiritual answers.”
Marco* is a ficticious name.
Published: July 2017