Christmas Sale

Christmas Sale
Andrew J. Hogan

I

The old prelate pressed the blinking light on his phone. “Hello.”

“Excellency, it’s Matt Cassidy. The Nuncio’s plane just landed. The corporate jet I borrowed from Ingestca will pick you up at Clarkson Airport in 45 minutes.”

“I can’t thank you enough for what you are doing, Matt. God has clearly sent you as his knight protector to save us from ruin,” the old prelate said.

“I’m blessed by God with faith in his Son and with worldly arts in business. I could ask for no greater privilege than to use both to deliver his true Church from the clutches of cynical opportunists,” Cassidy said. Just then, the receptionist opened the door to Cassidy’s office to signal him that the Nuncio had arrived. “Excellency, he’s here. I will see you shortly after lunch.”

“God be with you, Matt. The Nuncio is a devout man, but a rigid one. We must persuade him of the need for the sale,” the old prelate said.

“I understand, Excellency. I hope to have him convinced by the time you get here,” Cassidy said.

#

A short, heavy-set man dressed in clerical garb entered the reception area through the main doors of glass etched with the sacred heart of Jesus. The receptionist, dressed in a long-sleeved black dress with a high neck and white collar, recognized him immediately. “Please have a seat, Nuncio. Mr. Cassidy is expecting you. He just got off the phone. I’ll buzz him to let him know you arrived.”

Immediately after the buzz, the phone rang; the receptionist turned away from the Nuncio and answered the call, “Sacred Heart Mutual Fund, let your faith guide your investments.” After a brief pause, “Please hold,” a click on the panel, “Mr. O’Hara, a call on three.” By this time, the Nuncio had moved in front of the large burnished bronze plaque with an engraving of Blessed Bernardino of Feltre, patron saint of bankers. “Can I get you anything, coffee, tea, water?” she asked the Nuncio.

“No, grazie,” he said. Below the head-and-shoulders engraving of Blessed Bernardino, the Nuncio read the inscription:

Italy in the fifteenth century was torn apart by rivalries, and the result was a widespread decay of morals and morale. The preaching of the Franciscan home missionaries attempted to restore some sense of moral responsibility; most notable was Blessed Bernardino of Feltre, a brilliant youth of noble background, who encountered the “dog-eat-dog” contemporary world when attending university. Disgusted with the vanity, ambition, and money grabbing, he decided in 1456 to enter the austere Observantine branch of the Franciscan friars. Bernardino devoted the rest of his life to preaching missions up and down the Italian peninsula. Bernardino saw that there could be no lasting reform so long as certain social abuses remained. Of all the reforms that became connected with his name, the “Monti di Pieta,” or “Pious Pawnshops,” were the most famous. At these banks run by a joint committee of clergy and laymen, those in need of cash could borrow at a very low rate of interest. Naturally, the professional usurers disliked the Friar’s foundations, and used every means to prevent them and to discredit their founder.

Mathew Cassidy walked quickly down the corridor to the reception area. “Nuncio, I apologize for keeping you waiting. I just got off the phone with His Excellency.” Pointing the way to the conference room, he said, “It was most thoughtful of his Eminence to ask you to represent the Prefecture in these discussions.”

“Your firm’s assistance getting me through customs was much effective. I am here very quickly.” The Nuncio smiled and looked back at the plaque.

“I see you are admiring my lastra. I commissioned its creation by Brother Paolo Baldini, a monk at the Santuario de Santi Vittore e Corona in Feltre. Perhaps you know it? It’s just north and west of the intersection of Via Beato Bernardino and Via Vignaven,” Cassidy said.

“No, I have never been to Feltre,” the Nuncio said.

“I stayed there for a semester during my junior-year study abroad at Notre Dame. It was Bernardino’s example of combining economics and religion that inspired me to go into finance and to start this mutual fund. At the time, I was planning on studying architecture,” Cassidy said.

“Yes, studying the lives of the saints can show a true path to one’s vocation. However,” the Nuncio said, “Bernardino cannot, technically, be a patron saint. He has not taken the final step in canonization.”

“A great injustice it is. An unfortunate byproduct of political correctness,” Cassidy said.

“What is this ‘political correctness’?” the Nuncio said.

“Here in America, we often avoid speaking bluntly, truthfully, simply to avoid injuring the feelings of those groups who have suffered historic wrongs,” Cassidy said.

“Ah, anti-Semitism,” the Nuncio said.

“Bernardino didn’t preach against the Jews, as some Judaica scholars claim; he preached against usury, and more generally against business practices not guided by religious morality. It just happened that Jews were the principal moneylenders of the time. Opposing an immoral practice strongly associated with a particular group doesn’t make one a bigot,” Cassidy said.

“This is true, my son, but His Holiness witnessed first hand how an ignorant populace can confuse immoral behavior with racial deficiency. Blessed Bernardino’s elevation to sainthood must wait for the healing of the wounds of the Holocaust,” the Nuncio said.

“Of course, Nuncio,” Cassidy said. “His Excellency will be here after lunch. I have scheduled a briefing for you with Professor Wilbur Blackburn from John Jay. He has already briefed his Excellency,” Cassidy said.

“John Jay?” asked the Nuncio.

“It is our foremost college of criminal justice,” Cassidy said. The Nuncio frowned. “I can assure you Professor Blackburn is a devout layman and a fourth degree knight. We have asked him to make some highly confidential analyses for us, and he is being very well paid for them,” Cassidy said.

“The Prefecture has made His Holiness aware of these discussions. His Holiness is gravely concerned about the plan, and, of course, the underlying state of affairs that makes these discussions necessary,” the Nuncio said.

“As are we all, Nuncio. I’m sorry to say that the extent of the problem is, perhaps, even more grave than the Prefecture may have been given to understand, and the magnitude of the threat to the welfare of the Laity may be difficult to comprehend,” Cassidy said. “Only under such extreme circumstances would a devout Christian, such as I, even contemplate the plan we have suggested. I pray I am correct that the Lord asks us to be brave and to trust in his power to make this plan work.”

“We should not test God to perform miracles to save us from the consequences of our sins,” the Nuncio said.

“No, of course not. But we must weigh the risks of an unsuccessful action against the certainties of the failure to act,” Cassidy said. “The American Church must act on behalf of the Laity; I see no other choice.”

The Nuncio sighed and said, “I as well see no other choice, but I pray that one will appear.”

“I pray too, but if the Lord asks us to solve this calamity through our own means, we must accept his will and do the best we know how,” Cassidy said.

#

Frederick sat on the bench outside of Superior Court 3B. The diocesan attorney met with him shortly after 9 am.

“Mr. Martinelli, we might need you to testify at the evidentiary hearing.”

“What about?”

“It’s about the letter that you sent Jason. We are arguing that it’s privileged. He was clearly seeking religious counseling. It happened before the alleged incident,” the attorney said.

“What do you want me to say?”

“If you’re asked, that nothing was going on between you and Jason at the time you wrote the letter. That’s what we understood from your deposition, which was the basis of your agreement with the diocese,” the attorney said. Frederick said nothing. The attorney continued, “Great, then I’ll let you know if you need to testify as soon as possible. Just wait here.”

Ninety-five minutes later the attorney came out of the courtroom and said, “You can go home. We’ll call you when we need your testimony during the trial.” Frederick took the bus back to the Pawn Shop just in time to relieve Gonzalo for lunch.

 

Cassidy guided the Nuncio into the conference room where Professor Blackburn was making the final adjustments to the projector. Introductions were made, and Blackburn kissed the Nuncio’s ring. “Nuncio, I apologize in advance for the bad tidings which I am about to present you.”

“Nonsense, my son. Part of repentance is to face our sins forthrightly,” the Nuncio said.

“Thank you, Nuncio. Let me begin with a broad summary of the number and type of misconduct cases that have been quantified to date and then our estimate of the as yet unreported tail that is likely to become a liability,” Blackburn said. “From our public report you know that in the last 40 years roughly 5,000 American church clerics have been respondents to reports of misconduct involving a minor filed by approximately 11,000 complainants. Nearly three-quarters of these cases occurred during the first twenty years of that period. Our projection is that in the next decade the total number of cases will increase by about 15%.”

“I am surprised by the number of new cases,” the Nuncio said. “I thought that the American church was taking steps to prevent them.”

“Only 5% are new cases. The remaining 10% are due to existing cases as yet unreported,” Blackburn said. “Current church expenditures related to the 11,000 existing complaints total slightly more than half a billion dollars, of which 38% of the cost is covered by insurance. However, this total does not include several high profile pending settlements that when finalized will likely add another $150 million. On the other hand, several dioceses are contemplating bankruptcy, which could serve to limit some future liability.”

“Are the measures undertaken by the American church reducing the costs of new cases?” asked the Nuncio.

“Actually, we project that more recent cases will be more costly, mostly because the misconduct is more recent and the victims younger and because liability insurance is becoming virtually unobtainable for most dioceses,” Blackburn said. “Thus, our estimate is that the unprocessed tail of the misconduct cases will increase total liability by a quarter to a third, with the total liability reaching close to one billion dollars by the end of the decade. This figure includes victim compensation and treatment costs, clerical treatment costs and legal expenses not covered by insurance.”

“How many dioceses are included in your estimates?” the Nuncio said.

“Three hundred, but it is important to note that these liabilities are not spread uniformly across dioceses,” Blackburn responded. “Over one-fifth of the dioceses operating in the US will pay no compensation costs. However, among those dioceses paying compensation, about one-third are candidates for bankruptcy. Unfortunately, the dioceses most at risk of bankruptcy are larger than average size; in fact 63% of the 50 largest dioceses are good candidates for bankruptcy, and most of the remaining non-bankrupt large dioceses will be financially crippled except for the most basic services.”

Blackburn paused to see if the Nuncio had any additional questions. For the next hour, Blackburn presented the detailed tables and charts showing the incidence of misconduct cases by diocese, along with probability tables of the likelihood that a misconduct report would convert into a compensable case. Time trends showed the number of cases declining with each successive cohort of ordained clerics, but this was offset somewhat by an increase in the size of the judgments and subsequent settlements, possibly reflecting the public’s impatience with the church’s handling of these cases more than the severity of the misconduct itself.

Professor Blackburn concluded, “As regards the prevalence of the misconduct, the worst is over, but the liabilities that remain are not at all trivial in magnitude, especially because the dioceses have already been so weakened financially. It is much like a man diagnosed with an early and highly treatable prostate tumor after just having suffered a major stroke; the stroke may make the man too fragile to tolerate the cancer treatment.”

“Thank you, Professor Blackburn,” the Nuncio said.

Cassidy stood to shake Blackburn’s hand. “I have assured the Nuncio of your loyalty to the church and your devotion to discretion regarding this analysis.”

“Of course,” Blackburn said, kissing the Nuncio’s ring, as the Nuncio blessed him with the other hand.

As soon as Professor Blackburn left, Cassidy said, “Nuncio, I have arranged to have your lunch catered here by our finest Italian restaurant. They will be very discreet about your presence in our city. Would you like a moment to be by yourself?”

The Nuncio nodded. After Cassidy left, he sighed and then opened up his book of prayer while he waited for lunch to be delivered.

#

Cassidy and the Nuncio dined alone in the conference room. Mostly Cassidy spoke of his time in Italy, first as an exchange student and later his many religious trips, his audiences with His Holiness, actually two His Holinesses, one five years ago and another with His predecessor when Cassidy was a young man. The Nuncio was responsive but took no initiative during the conversation. A little before 1pm the receptionist peeked in to inform Cassidy that the private jet sent to collect His Excellency had landed and that he would be arriving at the office in about ten minutes.

“I am sure that I am stating the obvious about the implications of the report that we heard this morning,” Cassidy said. “Were the dioceses ministering to more than half of the American Laity to go into receivership, the financial tsunami would engulf not just the local parishes but the entire church. The missions, the relief services, the dispensaries and schools of millions of faithful across the globe would be crippled.” After a short pause he added, “The resources available to His Holiness would be severely curtailed.”

“You speak truthfully, my son. We have come to rely very much on the generosity of the American faithful. Many church functions will need to be reduced, and not temporarily, but for years to come,” the Nuncio said.

“I hope you understand that it is only because of the magnitude of the crisis that we are proposing the sale of Christmas,” Cassidy said.

“One cannot sell a sacred event, Mr. Cassidy,” the Nuncio said.

“Of course not. I didn’t mean to imply they would own Christmas, only that it would be held as security, a pawn, for them to use, while the church rebuilds its financial foundations, continues its good works, ministers to the faithful,” Cassidy said.

“I understand the workings of the Monti di Pieta, Mr. Cassidy, but I have never heard of allowing the despositorii to use the object pawned during the term of the loan,” the Nuncio said.

“Saint Bernardino always insisted that the borrower pay interest to maintain the Monti di Pieta for future needy. Allowing the lenders to use the pawn during the term of the loan is just another form of interest payment,” Cassidy said. “As long as the pawn is not degraded or damaged, this is consistent with established church practice.”

“Bernardino is not a saint, and I am uncertain if the operation of church associated pawn brokerages establishes church practice,” the Nuncio said.

“Sorry,” Cassidy said. “Blessed Bernardino is recognized as a spiritual patron for those engaged in financial transactions, and I believe we can rely on his example to guide us through these troubled times.”

Before the Nuncio could respond, the leading prelate of the American church entered the conference room.

“Your Excellency, how nice to see you again,” the Nuncio said, as he kissed his ring.

“Come stai, amico mio?” the old prelate said.

“Sto molto bene, grazie, Sua Eccellencia,” the Nuncio said.

“Please be seated,” Cassidy said, as he offered the old prelate the large chair at the head of the table. “Can I offer you anything to eat or drink, Excellency?”

“Only water, Matt. My doctor won’t let me eat anything with salt or fat. The beginnings of congestive heart failure, I’m afraid, from all the stress of these last few years.” Turning to the Nuncio, the old prelate said, “I cannot tell you how sick at heart I am, Tommaso, as are all of my colleagues across the country, about the ruin that we have caused to descend upon our beloved Church. Never could we have imagined how our short-sighted mistakes to maintain the good name of the Church would some day lead us into the very lair of the devil.” Tears welled up in his eyes. “We never saw the trap he laid for us. Each time one of our clerics strayed, we tried to protect the Church and the Laity from the skepticism and mistrust this sinful behavior might beget. Foolish we were to follow the counsel of our lawyers. Each innocent attempt to control the shame only drove another nail into the casket we were unwittingly fabricating for our beloved Church.”

Cassidy put his arm around the distraught cleric and led him to his seat where he filled a crystal glass from a silver pitcher of ice water. “Please, Excellency. Sit down. We have a plan that, God willing, may save the Church from the ruin you fear.”

“Thank you, Matt,” the old prelate said, as he grasped Cassidy’s hand and lowered himself into the large chair. The Nuncio sat on his right hand side. Cassidy turned on the projector showing a list of names.

“This is a list of twenty-seven Fortune 1,000 companies, all managed by devout laymen and laywomen with whom I have had private conversations regarding the plan to sell, sorry, pawn Christmas,” Cassidy said. “Along each row after each company name, is the quantity that the company is willing to pay for the right to air television advertisements for the 54 days leading up to Christmas over each of the next ten years. Each spot would carry a written and verbal endorsement of the diocese in which the advertisement is aired.”

“What kind of endorsement?” the Nuncio said.

“Something quite simple, ‘endorsed by the diocese of X’, no more,” Cassidy said.

“And would the advertisements be screened before showing?” the Nuncio said.

“Yes, we would work through a single advertising agency, Donnelly, McCormack, and Santiago; they would staff a panel of knowledgeable laymen and clergy who would review each spot before airing,” Cassidy said. “Donnelly agreed to assemble and staff this panel gratis, as their contribution to the American Church.” The Nuncio raised no objection, so Cassidy continued.

“In my preliminary negotiations, it proved impractical to base payment on the number of advertising spots to be aired. Instead we have come up with an exposure formula, similar to the way a cable TV company charges for access to a certain number of its stations for a period of time. Each company would pay so much on a per-person/per-day basis. Just to give you the likely bottom line, were all dioceses to participate…”

“Oh, how can they refuse, Matt, given the dire straits in which we find ourselves?” the old prelate said.

“Yes, Your Excellency, full participation is quite likely. As I was saying, the bottom line, there are 280 million people in the US….

“You are not just counting church members?” the Nuncio said.

“No, I convinced the companies that the endorsements would be commercially effective with members of all faiths. So the exposure figures are based on the entire population in each diocese….”

“Oh, Matt, I am going to make you a saint myself,” the old prelate said.

“So, 280 million people, at one cent per day. Now I should say that the one-cent is the aggregate for all twenty-seven firms. Not every firm wants to advertise in every market. Thus the aggregate Christmas royalty payment for the American church’s endorsement of the television commercials is 280 million people at one cent per day for 54 days per year for ten years, or approximately $1.5 billion,” Cassidy said. “Paid in advance upon the signing of the contract.”

“How soon could that payment be available, Matt?” the old prelate said.

“Well, assuming His Holiness’ expeditious approval,” Cassidy said, turning toward the Nuncio, “we could possibly have the sale finalized by this October.”

“Tommaso, this would be a miracle,” the old prelate said.

“I know how earnestly you wish to resolve the financial difficulties of the American Church, Excellency, but…”

“Difficulties! Tommaso, I am going to have to close half of my schools by next year if some kind of financial assistance is not forthcoming,” the old prelate said. “The Vietnamese mission will have to be disbanded and the vicar returned home. I can’t pay for the health insurance of my retired clergy. If we go into bankruptcy, the diocese will most likely have to close a third of the parishes. This is driving me to despair. And mine is only one of a dozen large dioceses facing the same fate. His Holiness cannot expect us to witness such a devastation of our beloved Church.”

“Great sins sometimes bring forth great suffering,” the Nuncio said.

“Please, Nuncio,” Cassidy said, “this financial crisis is not the result of sins, at least not among the majority of the church leaders, like His Excellency. This crisis is the result of a management failure, in particular, personnel management. The American church recruited novitiates and selected them for ordination poorly, allowing a subculture to develop that fostered misconduct,” Cassidy said. “True, church leaders misperceived these individual cases as isolated incidents, to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Only in the late 1980s was the overall pattern evident, but by then it was too late. The sharks in the American legal system had already detected blood in the water, and they poured enormous resources into uncovering and exaggerating every case for the maximum financial gain.”

“Matt is too generous, Tommaso. We were fools to trust our lawyers to solve our problems,” the old prelate said. “We did not correct the mistakes of our misguided clergy as Jesus corrected errors committed by the apostles. We tried to protect the Church by keeping the misconduct quiet, but in doing so we have not cared properly for the Laity who were injured.”

“But is it not Christ’s way that you now confess your sins to those whom you have injured and atone for those sins, making whatever reparations you can?” the Nuncio said.

“I would gladly confess to all the sins committed by those under my authority and give away everything I have to make reparation for the harm caused,” the old prelate said.

“But this would only make matters worse,” Cassidy said. “The reparations that will be made are not those His Excellency can offer in his most generous moment; the reparations will be exacted by the insatiable appetite of the American legal system. Like vultures on a carcass, nothing will be left behind that cannot be protected. To act like Jesus at this moment, is to invite the complete financial desolation of the American church. It pains me to admit, but, in this matter, your countryman may be the better guide:

And here it is to be noted that hatred is incurred as well on account of good actions as of bad; for which reason, as I have already said, a Prince who would maintain his authority is often compelled to be other than good. For when the class, be it the people, the soldiers, or the nobles, on whom you judge it necessary to rely for your support, is corrupt, you must needs adapt yourself to its humours, and satisfy these, in which case virtuous conduct will only prejudice you.”

The Nuncio remained silent. Then he rose and said, “I will present your plan to the Prefecture, Mr. Cassidy. His Eminence will then discuss it with His Holiness. I am sure His Excellency will be invited to attend,” he said, nodding toward the old prelate. “Thank you for your efforts, Mr. Cassidy.”

The Nuncio prepared to leave. The old prelate kissed his ring. “Please, Tommaso, you must help us.”

II

The Cathedral of St. Augustine lay across from the southwest corner of Washington Park in Bridgeport. Since Christmas, activity around the cathedral had increased. New cohorts of Vietnamnese clergy in their tropical white robes floated back and forth between the cathedral and the dormitories on Noble Street. Maintenance workers were repairing some of the cathedral’s crumbling statuary. Spring flowers were planted in front of the cathedral for the first time in several years.

The weather was unseasonably sunny and warm for a late March day, and at quarter to two the old prelate walked from the diocesan residence toward the cathedral’s side entrance where the confessionals were located. The old prelate, who retired late last year shortly before Christmas, still lived in the diocesan residence, although no longer in the main chambers. He ministered to the nuns in the adjacent convent and filled in for the regular clergy during vacations, illnesses or other emergencies.

The old prelate was in the confessional, waiting for the first penitent.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been three years, five months and twelve days since my last confession,” Frederick said.

“Why so long, my son?” the old prelate said.

“I was too ashamed to enter the cathedral again. I did not think any of the clergy here would be able to forgive me for the shame I brought on them,” Frederick said.

There is a pause. “Freddy, is that you?” the old prelate said.

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“None of that, I am a lowly cleric now, the same as you were when you were laicized, Freddy.”

“Yes, Father,” Frederick said. “I would like to be forgiven for the harm I have done to the church.”

“I forgive you, Freddy, and I hope you forgive me,” the old prelate said.

“Forgive you for what?”

“I was the one who led you into sin. But worse, I should have taught you how to recognize a special friend who has a true vocation. Only love between special friends who share a true vocation works to the benefit of the church,” the old prelate said.

Frederick lowered his head. “I knew Jason was wrong for me; he was too unstable and spiritually frail. But I was weak. I shouldn’t have used him to satisfy my own needs. I should have waited for the right person, as you did, Father.”

“Jason was unable to reciprocate your special friendship. But I understand. It is a lonely life in a small parish by yourself. You fell victim to the treachery of the Devil. I absolve you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” the old prelate said. “For your penance, say ten Our Fathers, and please keep me in your prayers.”

“I will. Thank you, Father.”

Frederick crossed himself and prepared to leave when the old prelate said, “I want to involve you in church activities again, Freddy.”

“I don’t think the diocese will let me participate in religious services or Sunday school, not based on the terms of the lawsuit settlement,” Frederick said.

“No, but you were always a good manager. I could talk to the Diocesan Bursar about your helping with, say, collections, or somewhere else you could put your administrative skills to work,” the old prelate said.

Frederick hesitated a moment. “You know, we have a lot of unredeemed religious jewelry and artifacts at the Pawn Shop. It’s hard to move with our clientele. I wonder if the cathedral’s gift shoppe might take our merchandise on consignment. With our low prices and the cathedral’s foot traffic, both parties might benefit.”

“Very interesting,” the old prelate said. “I’ll talk with the Bursar on Monday. If this were to be successful, it is just the kind of idea that could persuade the Most Reverend to bring you back into the church.”

“I don’t understand. I haven’t been excommunicated,” Frederick said.

“Oh, no, I don’t mean that. I mean get you back into the church organization in some formal way. This could be your salvation.” The old prelate smiled at Frederick through the confessional screen that prevented him from reaching out to touch his cheek.

Frederick smiled back. “Thank you, Your Excellency.”

Comments are closed