“An ignorant, self- mutilating psychopath!” Msgr. Carlo Maccari, upon examining Padre Pio’s wounds, 1960 Then Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” John 20:27
Part One: Palm Sunday
Cardinal Onesimo Valdivieso had given the order to Padre Emilio Arboleda one morning after the priest said the nine o’clock Mass. The priest had to immediately leave Lima and go to work as a parish priest in the remote Andean town of San Elias. Padre Emilio knew the reason for his sudden exile – too many people were visiting his church in Magdalena Nueva just to receive the Eucharist from his bandaged hands – and the priest understood the position of his Cardinal. Father Emilio knew Cardinal Onesimo felt that it was best for him to leave the capital, at least for a while, so all the rumors of his mysterious wounds would die down. After a flight from Lima to Cajamarca, Padre Emilio took a bus to Cajabamba and there got on a donkey for the rest of the journey to San Elias. A fourteen-year-old Andean boy was guiding him along. He had to travel on the foal of a donkey because it was impossible for cars to make the journey from Cajabamba to San Elias. The road was very narrow, hugging the mountains. Nobody had awaited him at Cajabamba, as he arrived shortly before dawn. But as he got closer to the town of San Elias, more and more people were waiting for him along the road.
Padre Antonio, the priest at San Elias, had announced at church the prior week that Padre Emilio would be arriving in town on Sunday. Padre Emilio’s reputation preceded him, so everyone in town – mostly indigenous peasants – were anxious for his arrival. As he arrived in San Elias, huge crowds were ready to greet him and cheer him on his way to the Church of La Señora del Rosario. The celebrating people laid down their red ponchos in front of him as well as leaves from the wax palms of the Andes. They chanted psalms to welcome him as they did on the processions in honor of saints. A woman ran to him and made an attempt to touch his bandaged hands. Another brought a sick child to him and sought his blessing, asking the priest to press the child close to his chest, since she had heard that the priest bled from his chest as well his hands and feet. Soon so many faithful were approaching Padre Emilio on his donkey that he could barely move forward.
Padre Antonio arrived at the scene and told the people to disperse.
“He’s not a saint,” he cried out so all could hear him. “He’s an ordinary man. Your veneration of a simple priest is ungodly. This is not Holy Week.”
But an adolescent named Francisco screamed back, “We know all about him. He has been especially blessed by God. Doesn’t everybody know he bears the five wounds of Christ? Doesn’t his forehead sometimes bleed at Mass as if bearing a crown of thorns?”
Padre Antonio responded in anger.
“Those are rumors which have been debunked. A doctor examined his wrists and feet and found no wounds.”
“He doesn’t bleed all the time,” the adolescent responded. “His stigmata only bleed at certain times. Everybody knows that.”
“Well, have you considered,” asked Padre Antonio, in a louder voice now, “that the wounds might be self-inflicted? Why do you think Cardinal Onesimo Valdivieso exiled him from Lima and sent him to San Elias? It wasn’t to reward him for his saintliness. Padre Emilio was developing an unhealthy cult around him, increased by his exhibitionism.”
“Many people have seen his wounds bleed at Mass spontaneously,” responded the adolescent. “It’s not a secret. The whole country has heard about him. His church in Lima has become a site of pilgrimage. Have you considered that when the doctor examined him, it was on one of the days when his stigmata were hidden? After all, no one has said that his wounds are bleeding all the time. I for one want his blessing. I’ve never been in the presence of a saint.”
“That’s the problem. The Church has never said he’s a saint. The Church does not recognize the authenticity of his alleged wounds, what you call his stigmata. I hope that as he says the Mass and delivers the Eucharist in San Elias, you will treat him as an ordinary priest. And in doing so, you’ll actually be helping Padre Emilio. All the veneration about him threatens to fill him with the sin of pride. I think it would be incredibly presumptuous for Padre Emilio to claim the stigmata. And to my knowledge, he’s never made such a claim in public. Very few people in history have been blessed by the wounds of Jesus and they all led exemplary lives.”
“Well,” responded the indigenous adolescent, “everyone knows of Father Emilio’s extreme piety and his devotion to the sick and the poor.”
“With all due respect, it is well-known that Padre Emilio, before he became a priest, was a dissolute man. Why would God have given him such a blessing, to allow him to share in Christ’s Passion and be crucified with Him?”
“To give us all an example,” responded the adolescent. “To prove that the Christ is still among us. To remind us just how much Christ suffered for us on that Cross two-thousand years ago. Jesus’ crucifixion is now not just on a wooden cross or on a painted panel. It’s on the flesh of this man. And that’s a powerful reminder for all Peruvians that the Christ was willing to endure great torture for the sake of sinners.”
“Why choose Padre Emilio and not another?” Padre Antonio queried. “How is he superior to so many other priests? I don’t have the reputation of having been a womanizer and an alcoholic before I entered the priesthood, but Padre Emilio does.”
“Every saint has a past, you have taught us that in Mass yourself,” the adolescent responded. “But now Padre Emilio leads an impeccable life. Haven’t you read all the newspaper articles that sometimes arrive from Lima? They say that some of the people that have touched his wounds have received miraculous cures.”
“None of that is confirmed by the Catholic Church. Indeed, there is more than one prelate who has called the man a fraud. You must have also heard the rumors that he caused the wounds himself through the use of carbolic acid. I’m not saying that’s necessarily true. But you must treat him just like any other priest, not exalt him like another Christ.”
“Then tell him to preach at Mass tonight without covering up his hands with bandages. That way we’ll see for ourselves. And let him do so every Sunday. If he doesn’t bear the wounds of Christ, everyone will know it.”
“The Cardinal in Lima ordered him to cover his hands as he said the Mass,” responded Padre Antonio. “And Padre Emilio cannot breach that order.”
“Then how can we know for sure? It’s your word against the words of dozens of feligreses who have witnessed his wounds, who have seen them bleed.”
“Don’t pester the man for miracles. He’s in San Elias to flee everything that happened in Lima. Just let him live the life of an ordinary priest. If you wish to help him in his trials, that is the best way you can do so.”
“I won’t be satisfied until I touch the palms of his hands, until I see his naked feet, until I know for myself whether or not he has a wound at his side just like the Christ.”
The adolescent Francisco approached Padre Emilio and kissed his bandaged hands.
Padre Antonio helped Padre Emilio carry his luggage up a flight of rickety stairs to a small bedroom on the second floor of the rectory, empty but for a pallet made of straw and a wooden chair. The window overlooked the central plaza of San Elias.
“This is where you’ll be staying,” said Padre Antonio. “I hope it’s not too rustic for a man like you.”
“No, that’s fine,” said Padre Emilio. “My room in Lima wasn’t much better.”
“I just thought that a man with your – what’s the word? – I thought a man with your celebrity would expect more lavish quarters.”
“I don’t seek to benefit from my Cross. My wounds make me a victim for the Christ and nothing more, certainly not a saint. I heard what you said to the indigenous adolescent and realize you think I’m a charlatan and a poseur. But you couldn’t be more wrong. Strange things happen to me without any explanation. I’ve prayed to God that the wounds might never reappear, to leave me with the pain but not the marks, but it is a thorn in the flesh which the Good Lord has refused to withdraw. I think I’ve been given the stigmata to expiate for the sins of others. Don’t forget that aside from bleeding, I suffer excruciating pain. During my ecstasies, I experience the flogging, the crown of thorns, the metal nails. Believe me, I don’t welcome the wounds of Jesus.”
“You don’t have to get into all of this with me,” said Padre Antonio. “I choose to be an agnostic when it comes to your wounds. I neither believe nor disbelieve, but I would hope you would do everything possible to stop your veneration by the masses. It’s unnatural and wrong.”
“I do nothing to excite the veneration of the people, as you say. Indeed, it is something that mortifies me deeply. Ever since I was blessed with the wounds of Christ, I have made every effort to conceal them. I have repeatedly told those who attend my Masses that my bleeding doesn’t change the fact that I am an ordinary sinner just like them. And yet the more I think about it, the more I think that I have not been given Christ’s wounds for my benefit but for theirs, that to hide my stigmata is somehow against the purposes of God.”
“Please make sure you don’t start bleeding in the middle of a Mass as you have in Lima. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that, contrary to what many believe, your wounds bleed spontaneously and they are not a fraud. Well, then, wear gloves, for the love of God, when you are in the presence of the people. Try to wear a hat whenever you can, so the folks won’t believe you have been wounded by a crown of thorns. I don’t want San Elias to be the next pilgrimage site for your deluded followers.”
“They’re not deluded. The Christ appeared to me before I received His wounds. I have racked my brain trying to figure out why I have been singled out for such a purpose. And my only conclusion is that I have been given the wounds of Jesus to jolt every doubting Thomas back into believing in the reality of the Passion. Perhaps it is a mistake to hide the marks, but it is an order from the Cardinal.”
“You can say whatever you want, but I don’t buy it. I heard the coffers of your church in Lima were full, as so many pilgrims sought you out. Please forgive me if I’m a little skeptical. At all events, you don’t have to convince me. It’s the peasants of San Elias that you should persuade not to venerate you like a saint.”
“Do you want me to tell you how it happened?” asked Father Emilio. “The time I saw the Christ for the first time?”
“Even if you were to show me your alleged wounds, I would still not believe, Emilio. It is not the wounds I doubt but their provenance. You could simply stab your hands with a kitchen knife and nobody would know the difference.”
Father Emilio continued with his explanation, disregarding his fellow priest’s accusation.
“At first I thought it was an angel appearing before me in the church as I was kneeling in front of a crucifix. His arms were outstretched like those of the Christ. Then I saw something which shook me to the core. The image which I initially thought belonged to an angel was actually the crucified Christ. I saw His hands and feet, pierced with nails, bleeding profusely, as was his forehead. At his side, he bore the gash from Longinus’s spear. As soon as the apparition ended, my palms and feet were bleeding, just like my side and my forehead. Initially I was terrified, the pain was unbearable, but then I remembered Saint Francis and Saint Emma Galgani, how they had both received the stigmata. And then I heard a voice – to this day I believe it was that of Jesus. The voice told me, “Do not be afraid. I have chosen you as my own. From now on, you shall be a witness to my suffering for the sins of men. My message shall be inscribed on your flesh itself.”
“No need to tell me what I’ve heard before,” said Padre Antonio dismissively. “Don’t you think it’s an excess of pride to compare yourself to Saint Francis of Assisi?”
“Call it what you will. I am merely reporting what happened to me, so that you may have faith. You are a priest, supposedly a man of God, and yet unlike the peasants, you do not believe in miracles.”
“I’ve followed your case for the last few months. Your myth has grown out of all proportion. They are selling images of you in the Plaza de Armas, as if you were Saint Martin de Porres or El Señor De Los Milagros. Even as ecclesiastical authorities have warned the people not to trust in miracles that have not been confirmed by the Church, still the fantasy has spread. Even in a remote Andean hamlet such as San Elias, everybody knows about you.”
“Why do you find it so hard to believe?”
“I’ve led an impeccable life, never given in to lust or pride, and the Lord has not chosen me for such a marvel. And you, known to have two bastard sons and a long history of public drunkenness, are now prayed to like a saint. Why would God grant you such extraordinary graces? Forgive me, my friend, but I do not believe in you or in your outlandish miracles.”
“You’re forgetting that I have long since confessed all my sins – they are gone like yesterday’s rain – and before I bore the marks of Christ, the Lord had already given me a great bounty. Although I did nothing to deserve it, I was able to enter an intimate relationship with Christ, to actually perceive Him. Do you understand? And soon enough I was to witness apparitions of Mary, the angels and the saints.”
“So now you’re claiming to be a mystic?”
“It’s almost impossible to describe in words. A saint once said that a mystic experience is God ‘ineffably perceived.’ I can speak of raptures, I can speak of ecstasies, but that would inadequately describe the mystic experience. It’s like when you receive the Eucharist, but with a greater immediacy and intensity. I could say it’s a conversation with God or Mary His mother, but again the words are insufficient. More than anything it’s a sharing in the suffering of His Passion. It’s drowning in a sea of love. It’s inebriation. I can’t explain it intellectually because the knowledge does not come through my mind but through my spirit. Like Saint Teresa of Avila said, I was allowed to understand my own misery, but also the grandeur of God.”
“I don’t know,” replied Padre Antonio. “Perhaps you’re engaging in self-deception. Given what I know of your past, the womanizing and the drinking, I don’t understand why God would choose you as His prophet.”
“Do you mean why He would choose me as His victim?”
“I cannot comprehend why He would use you instead of another.”
“Beware of spiritual envy, Antonio. As Saint John of the Cross warns us, it is wrong to feel grief in noting that your neighbor is ahead of you on the road to perfection. Each must follow a different path.”
“Don’t I detect a note of pride in what you’re saying?” asked Father Antonio. “Do you think you’re on the road to perfection? Are you now comparing yourself not only to Saint Francis of Assisi but also to Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila?”
“All I’m saying is you should not worry about where others are on the mystical ladder. God knows I’m far from perfect. I practice penance and self-mortification daily.”
In the afternoon, the Church of La Señora del Rosario was so full of people that everyone had to stand and there was still not enough room for all the feligreses. People had come not only from San Elias but from all the neighboring hamlets, eager to hear the first Mass celebrated by the famous Padre Emilio. During the Eucharist, everybody kissed his bandaged hands and hoped that a drop of blood – a little drop of blood! – might fall on them as they approached the priest. Many had come with disabled sons and daughters, crippled husbands, blind mothers, all hoping for a miracle. And he blessed them all, telling them that God would either heal them on earth or when they shared eternity with Him in Heaven.
“I’m not a saint,” he repeated. “Just an instrument of the holy Lord. May the God of Mercy and Love be with you always, yes, to the end of the age.”
But despite his cautionary words, there was not a scarcity of persons who reportedly received miracles after attending his Masses. And it was said in Lima that many had been healed after the image of Padre Emilio was placed against their forehead, that a dead infant had been brought back to life after a picture of the priest had been placed beneath his pillow.
Part Two: Good Friday
As Padre Antonio had expected, the town of San Elias quickly became a pilgrimage site for Catholics from all over Peru and even from beyond. Once a group of students from Germany arrived, another time six seminarians from the United States. A muleteer from Cajabamba started a thriving business, transporting pilgrims on his mules through the craggy roads that led to San Elias so they could attend Padre Emilio’s Sunday Mass. He began with about ten mules, but with the passage of time he needed more and more mules as the number of pilgrims increased. Soon he decided to start bringing pilgrims every day of the week to listen to Padre Emilio as he celebrated the morning Mass, except on Fridays when for some unknown reason Padre Emilio always locked himself up in his room and neither ate nor drank water. He refused to accept any visitors or even hear Confessions. It was well-known that on Fridays, Padre Emilio’s only nourishment was the Eucharist. The rumor spread that he received Communion miraculously, directly from the hands of Christ.
The cult of Padre Emilio exasperated Padre Antonio, who became increasingly concerned that Padre Emilio was a sanctimonious fraud. He didn’t like the fact that the town of San Elias had become first and foremost a place of adulation for the celebrated stigmatist. He thought it was an act of pride for Padre Emilio to allow himself to appear in photographs with all the tourists who arrived in town for the sole purpose of seeing him. He questioned why Padre Emilio conducted Confessions of men and women in his own room at the rectory instead of a confessional at church. And he was livid that Padre Emilio’s Masses often lasted four hours as the priest would seem to be in ecstasy at various times during the services and acted as though nobody could rouse him from such a state. It was all an act, thought Padre Antonio, an effort on Padre Emilio’s part to make manifest that he had somehow been blessed by God and should be the object of adoration among the masses. Simply stated, it was a manifestation of the sin of pride.
Padre Emilio spent most of his day in prayer, fasted often and often engaged in self-flagellation, but Padre Antonio believed the only purpose for such acts was to show everyone that he was a saint. At one point, Padre Antonio entered Padre Emilio’s bedroom and smelled a strong smell of perfume, which he suspected was the scent of a woman. Padre Antonio had heard the sound of people entering the supposed stigmatist’s bedroom at night, heard their steps on the rickety wooden stairs, and he was sure that more than once he had heard a female voice. So when he detected the aroma of roses in the priest’s bedroom one Saturday morning in September, Padre Antonio decided to confront the popular stigmatist directly. After all, it was well-known that before becoming a priest Father Emilio had led a life of unbridled lust. If Padre Emilio was sleeping with women in his room at the rectory in San Elias, returning to his old habits, it would be a good opportunity to oust him from the town and allow everything to return to normal.
“Listen,” Padre Antonio said, “there is a very important matter which I need to discuss with you.”
“Yes, what is it?” asked Padre Emilio.
“This morning when I entered your bedroom seeking to find a key to the dining room, I recognized the scent of a woman. It was a strong, powerful fragrance which saturated the entire room. And I can swear that at various times I’ve heard women’s voices on the stairs leading to your bedroom at night. As you know, some are scandalized by the fact you conduct Confessions of women in the privacy of your bedroom instead of at church as I always do. Tell me, Emilio, have you been consorting with women in the rectory?”
“Decidedly not,” Padre Emilio said in anger. “I am offended that you would even harbor such a suspicion. As you must know by now, I’ve been blessed by the stigmata of Jesus. And I bleed every Friday night, into the morning. Haven’t you noticed that I always lock myself in my room on Fridays? When my hands bleed, sometimes the odor of roses emanates from my wounds. It is one of the miracles I experience often, softening the pain from my marks. As to the women you’ve heard, they are homeless beggars I sometimes find on the street and allow to sleep on my bed as I rest on the floor or sit on my chair praying at night. I give you my word that I have never given myself to the temptations of the flesh in my bedroom at the rectory. That would be the gravest of sins, to take advantage of my cassock to lure women into acts of lust.”
“So you’re telling me your wounds smell like flowers? I find that hard to believe. Wounds usually fester and leave foul odors instead of fragrance. It’s a brilliant excuse, Emilio, but frankly I think it’s overly clever. You wouldn’t be the first person who claimed mystical experiences for fame and profit. Nor the first priest to succumb to concupiscence. I’ve researched the issue since I first heard about you. Sister Magdalena of the Cross famously confessed on her deathbed that her stigmata were not God-given, but that she had made a pact with the enemy. Maria de la Visitacion, known as the ‘holy nun of Lisbon,’ was caught painting fake wounds on her hands. Gigliola Ebe Giorgini, another supposed stigmatist and mystic, now sits in prison, found guilty of swindling hundreds of thousands of dollars from those who believed her outlandish claims.”
“Come visit me next Friday and I’ll let you see and smell my marks. My stigmata are localized in the very spots where the five wounds were received by Christ. I receive them every Friday. The pain is most acute at three o’clock in the afternoon, the hour of His death. In the past, while I was in Lima, sometimes I started bleeding during the Sunday Mass. That hasn’t happened since I arrived at San Elias.”
“That would prove nothing. How difficult would it be for you to puncture your palms until they bleed and then pour women’s perfume all over your room? And it would do nothing to alleviate my concerns about the women’s voices I’ve heard coming into your living quarters.”
“Many saints,” responded Padre Emilio, “have allowed beggars and the diseased to sleep in their rooms. You only have to think of our own Peruvian saints, Saint Martin de Porres and Saint Rose of Lima. Saint Francis took to nursing lepers.”
“Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall,” Padre Antonio replied. “You are likening yourself to famous saints in order to ward off accusations of sins of the flesh. To put yourself in the company of such saints is surely a sinful vanity, especially when used to deny that you are beholden to the slavery of lust.”
When the thirteen-year-old Salome Garcia came forward to accuse the supposed stigmatist of rape, Padre Antonio felt all his suspicions had been confirmed.
As soon as he received the two sworn affidavits, the priest knocked on the door of Padre Emilio’s bedroom.
“I hope you’re happy now,” said Father Antonio in a tone which was almost mirthful. “Now there is incontrovertible proof of your ugly deeds.”
“What are you talking about? What ugly deeds?”
“Do you want me to read the two affidavits?”
“I, Salome Garcia, do solemnly attest that while I was in Padre Emilio’s room for the purpose of having my Confession heard, Padre Emilio forcefully assaulted me and took away my virtue. Unless the Archbishop of Cajamarca compensates me for this loss, I shall present charges against the priest for aggravated rape. And then there’s one from the examining physician too. I, Doctor Efrain Alcantara, do solemnly attest that I examined the minor Salome Garcia and found conclusive evidence that she had been raped during the day prior to my examination.”
“That’s a manifest lie,” responded Father Emilio. “It’s the most vile of calumnies.”
“She’s a minor. Why would she lie? It’s going to cost the Church some money to save you from prison.”
“It probably has something to do with her mother Isabel. During Confession, she made sexual advances toward me and I resisted forcefully.”
“It’s not the mother that’s accusing you of rape. It’s the girl. And the doctor supports her claims. I have to tell you, Emilio, that if I’m ever questioned on this point, I’ll have to report the various instances when I have suspected you had women in your room for illicit purposes. And just in case you’re wondering, they’ve already submitted their affidavits to the Archbishop of Cajamarca.”
“To the Archbishop?”
“Yes, here’s a letter from the archbishopric. ‘In light of the gravity of the offenses charged against you, you are summoned to appear before Archbishop Agustin Saldivar next Thursday at nine o’clock in the morning.’ I don’t need to read the rest of the letter to you. It just repeats the accusations made by the girl you raped.”
“I raped no one.”
“Then how do you explain the accusation?”
“Maybe the Lord isn’t satisfied with purging my soul with physical wounds. Maybe He wants me to experience the scorn with which He was treated before His crucifixion. After all, the Christ was unjustly accused as well.”
“So now you’re comparing yourself to Jesus? Is there no limit to your pride, Emilio?”
“Soon all the peasants of San Elias will disown me. Soon all those who followed me in Lima will think of me as a fraud and a wretch. After all, how can I defend myself? What proof can I provide that I don’t know that girl in a carnal sense?”
“That is a problem between you and God,” affirmed Padre Antonio. “I see no reason to disbelieve the claims made against you.”
“I’ve been chosen as a victim of God’s love, so I should expect every possible trial, even the tarnishing of my name. I should accept even imprisonment without complaint. Perhaps as you’ve suggested, I derived a certain vanity from my wounds. Perhaps the Good Lord has decided to correct that. But I shall not rebuke Him for this test. Didn’t Job suffer every torment without ceasing to exalt our God? ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb,’ he said, ‘and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’”
The next morning, Padre Emilio entered the church to officiate the first morning Mass. He found it almost empty, except for the presence of a young man in the front pew in front of the crucifix. Apparently all the townspeople of San Elias had already heard about the alleged rape of the teenager Salome. As Padre Emilio approached the person sitting before the crucifix, Padre Emilio noticed that it was the adolescent Francisco. He walked toward him and spoke to him in a gentle voice.
“I suppose I shall say the Mass just for your benefit.”
“You animal!” responded the adolescent. “How can you even step in a church? I believed in you, thought you represented everything noble, beautiful and good. And now I realize everything was false. You do not bear the five wounds of Christ. You are worse than the public sinners, for you clothed your sins in hypocrisy and piety.”
“What you’ve heard isn’t true. I never so much as touched that girl.”
“I don’t expect you to admit the truth. How could you? You pretended to be a saint. Maybe even God does not exist.”
“You can disbelieve me,” affirmed Padre Emilio. “I am a simple sinner after all. But there is no reason for you to doubt the munificence of God. Your faith in God must be unshakeable.”
“How could you? How could you?” The boy began to sob uncontrollably. “Even when Padre Antonio doubted you, I still believed.”
Padre Emilio arrived at the palace of Archbishop Agustin Saldivar of Cajamarca at nine o’clock in the morning on Thursday as ordered by the archbishop. He was a rotund man with a bald head and white sideburns. When Padre Emilio entered his office, there was an expression of undisguised disgust on the prelate’s face.
“As you know,” said the archbishop, “the most serious accusations have been leveled against you. I don’t know that there is much to discuss. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“The accusations are absolutely false,” responded Padre Emilio. “There is nothing I can do to disprove it. But surely you know that many priests have been the subject of untrue allegations in the past.”
“You’re the celebrated stigmatist, aren’t you? You’re the one who claims to bear the five wounds of Christ, right?”
“And so it is,” responded Padre Emilio.
“I see your bandaged hands. Unwrap them. I want to see for myself.”
The priest removed his bandages. There were scars on each of his hands, as if a nail had pierced them.
“I see,” said the prelate. “But of course the scars prove nothing. They could be self-inflicted. Do they ever bleed?”
“Every Friday without exception. But the open wounds disappear on Saturday morning.”
“Well, we’ll perform a test. A little test of your truthfulness. Today is Thursday. I want you to stay in the room across the hall. Two priests shall accompany you at all times. You will not be allowed to leave the room for any reason. We’ll put a latrine in the room. Then we’ll know if your scars really bleed.”
“I neither eat nor defecate on Fridays. But I hope you’ll allow me to receive the Holy Eucharist.”
“So much the better. As far as Communion, you’ll be allowed to partake tomorrow. But I should warn you. If I conclude you raped the girl in the Confessional, you won’t only be defrocked. You’ll be excommunicated as well.”
“I swear to you I didn’t do it. How can I prove it to you?”
“If your scars bleed, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and deduce you’re a victim soul such that the rape allegation is probably part of your suffering, a way for you to share in the scorn suffered by the Lord before His crucifixion. But if they don’t bleed, I’ll conclude you’re a liar.”
“You’ll see. They bleed every Friday.”
“Is there anything you would like to read? I don’t expect the priests assigned to watch you will engage you in conversation.”
“Perhaps the Bible. And maybe The Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross. I feel as if I’m entering a dark night myself.”
“They’re both available in my library. I’ll ask the priests to take the books to you. Anything else?”
“Not at this time, Archbishop.”
Two priests soon appeared, both wearing black cassocks that reached to their ankles. One of them was in his twenties, blonde and ruddy. The other had the unmistakable features of the Amerindian.
The small room was sparsely furnished, with a bed and three wooden chairs. Above the bed, there was a crucifix. The two priests sat on their chairs all day and into the night, barely moving. Padre Emilio tried to read the volume by Saint John of the Cross, but it was useless. He was simply too worried. He tried to speak to one of the priests, but the priest simply uttered a monosyllabic response and closed his eyes, pretending to sleep.
The next day, nothing happened. Father Emilio told them to wait till three p.m., the hour of Christ’s expiration when his wounds bled most profusely. But the third hour came and went and the five wounds didn’t bleed. The two priests stayed in the room until seven and then concluded no blood would come from the supposed stigmata. They said very little to the priest, only advised him that they would report what had happened – what had not happened – to the Archbishop. The very next day, early in the morning, Archbishop Saldivar arrived in Padre Emilio’s chambers.
“Since your scars didn’t bleed, I am convinced that everything has been a lie. I have heard that a woman found carbolic acid in your room at the rectory at the church of Magdalena Nueva in Lima. So I am forced to conclude that you inflicted your own wounds and then kept them open through the use of acid. This also leads me to disbelieve your defense vis-à-vis the accusations of rape leveled against you by the young girl in San Elias. From now on, you are officially defrocked. You will no longer be able to say the Mass or deliver the Eucharist. Nor will you be allowed to receive Communion either. I suggest that you say in this room for the next couple of months while I decide whether to settle the claim against you or allow you to be prosecuted. Surely you are the shame of all the Church.”
Part Three: Easter Sunday
Padre Emilio spent his days in prayer and seclusion. He prayed to God for acceptance of his fate. “Not my will be be done but thine,” he said repeatedly, knowing the Good Lord must have a purpose for his suffering. And the only thing he could conclude was that God wanted him to participate in his Cross to an even greater degree, not just by the receipt of the stigmata. Perhaps he would be consigned to prison for twenty years, forever to be the subject of public opprobrium.
But one morning Archbishop Agustin Saldivar knocked at the door of the room where Padre Emilio had been staying.
“Yes?” asked the priest. “Have you decided whether to settle the claim against the Church or send me to prison?”
“Father Emilio, that is not the reason I have come at all. I sincerely apologize for everything I have put you through. You’ll be allowed to say the Mass again and take the Eucharist. I now see that it was Christ’s Cross that you were carrying. That you were the object of scorn just like Jesus was. Like the Christ, you have been accused for no good reason.”
“What do you mean?” asked Padre Emilio. “Why this sudden about-face? I thought you were convinced I was a rapist and a fraud.”
“You know an adolescent named Francisco, don’t you? He was practically in tears when he came to visit me. Said he was regretful to the core because he had even doubted you. He brought the girl with him, Salome.”
“I know Francisco well. He was crestfallen when he heard the girl’s accusation, said it had almost made him lose his faith in God.”
“Well, apparently he had a long talk with Salome. She’s such a young girl. I can’t believe her mother did what she did to her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Apparently the girl’s mother pressured her to have sexual relations with a local man, all so that she could accuse you of rape. As far as I could understand the girl – she was sobbing throughout – her mother despised you because you had rejected her advances and thought she could make some money by charging you with the rape of the young ñusta. After Salome spoke with Francisco, she felt she could not continue with the lie. She left San Elias without her mother’s knowledge, for she knew she would be furious.”
“I can’t imagine such deception,” said the priest. “But I suppose I had to go through all of this so I would not fall into the sin of pride. It is very hard, Archbishop Saldivar, not to get a little puffed up when everyone venerates you like a saint.”
“Well, I declare you righteous, forgiven. You will no longer be defrocked. You can say the Mass whenever you want. And I no longer require to you bandage your hands. If Christ has given you the stigmata, it is not for your own benefit but for that of the people.”
At that moment, Padre Emilio felt a warm liquid on his hands and feet and at his side. Apparently he was bleeding from his wounds, though he felt no pain. The sweet fragrance of flowers emanated from his marks. Archbishop Saldivar made a sign of the Cross and said, “Surely you are a victim soul. I apologize from the bottom of my heart for not having believed you. The Lord has given you a great gift that must be shared with all the faithful.”
Padre Emilio got on his knees.
“Thank you, Lord,” he said. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I could accept public scorn and even prison, but not the punishment of being denied the Eucharist.”
The following week, he said the Mass at the Cathedral of Cajamarca. By then, it was public knowledge that Salome’s accusation had been a fraud. The Cathedral was full of faithful men and women, many of them peasants who had made the journey all the way from San Elias to witness Father Emilio’s first Mass after he was defrocked. And it was Easter Sunday, the day when the Christ had resurrected. In his sermon, Padre Emilio spoke about the false accusations against him, but announced he had forgiven both Salome and her mother, in keeping with Christ’s directive to forgive.
“Don’t treat Salome and her mother with derision or hatred. Remember the Lord’s injunction to forgive. ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’ I’m sure the two women will have time to plenty of time repent of their great sin. For it is a sin to bear false witness against your neighbor.”
At the moment when he raised the holy Host in remembrance of the Lord’s Passion, Father Emilio’s hands began to bleed. The priest’s outer robe became seeped in crimson. And on his forehead, there were small bleeding punctures such as those that would be caused by a crown of thorns. The faithful approached the altar in awe, anxious to receive the Eucharist from Padre Emilio’s bloodied hands.
Among the throng, Padre Emilio saw Francisco beaming a radiant smile. As he stood in front of Padre Emilio, he told the priest, “I love you, Father.”
The priest responded, “I love you, son.”
Then Padre Emilio gave Francisco the chalice of wine and the bread. The adolescent thought to himself “verily I have received the body and blood of Jesus” as he walked back to his seat with the bloodied host still in his mouth.