Mass with Aunt Francine
By the next morning, Fratelli signed his letter, anxious to read it aloud during Holy Mass. Wearing a miter, the bishop’s pointed hat, that glistened white in dawn-light, he paused before the altar, lifting a page high and read:
“Brothers and sisters in Christ, now is a time of untold grace. The newness and bounty of spring foretells one’s new life after repentance, after a long winter of sin and despair. Sin and despair however, have not the last word.
Scripture says: For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable. (1). God reveals his mercy to us in the warm of spring and the rebirth that comes to the earth. How much more should rebirth come into our souls?”
Fratelli stops. He eyed the congregation who mostly sat still, some children squirming near the back of the church. An old man coughed loudly, suddenly met gazes with him then looked away covering his mouth as if ashamed. In a moment, Fratelli’s fingers reached eager to toy with the ring on his other hand, out of nervous habit, but he stopped himself. Nervousness would not get the best of Fratelli and it waned while he continued boldly:
“It is obvious to the one who looks at the fields, trees and the little, chirping birds that God provides for us. Our world indeed reveals His face everywhere we turn. It is no small coincidence that the Church’s Great Season of Lent occurs during spring.
Therefore knowing God in His merciful time allows each year as He may, a renewal of repentance and life, shall we not heed His call? Shall we not be reborn as the grass which flourishes and the lilies that bloom white? Let us pray…”
Everyone rushed to stand up then they recited prayers. When Mass ended, it seemed all the talk of springtime, fields and flowers made them eager to leave. Seeing some stragglers mingling in the cathedral’s spacious vestibule, prattling about what to do with the rest of their days, Fratelli wondered if they got the message at all.
He didn’t speak but only stood there awkwardly holding his folded miter. It’s not that people ignored him, they all were exceptionally nice in parting and giving respectful farewell, it was just they really had better things on their minds.
“Oh Angelo, nice to see you!” cries a voice.
He turned meeting a shortish, auburn haired woman whose green eyes matched the emerald-colored dress she wore. Her coy smile faded into a scowl.
“All that wealth at your disposal and you can’t even get a hair- cut?” she says.
“Francine, please,” Fratelli says somewhat embarrassed batting her hand away from his hair, “There are more important matters to deal with at this time.”
“Oh, well, I thought you cared about how people think… a clergyman with messy hair seems….lazy... Next thing you know, they’ll be wondering if you have loose morals… I have three daughters and you are the only son in the family, the least you can do, if you’ll not be married, is look proper.”
He granted her a brief farewell and darted away. Francine watched him go and she turned to her equally fine-attired friend gesturing towards the large door.
Father Arnold noticed the cardinal was upset when he entered the office, attired in regular garb and huffing. Giving a hot look, he explained, “I saw my Aunt Francine today.”
Arnold’s dark brows furled.
~ ~ ~
Meanwhile, Francine gathered with several lady friends sitting around a wide table on her sun-soaked veranda. She lived near to the cathedral. Its tall spire could be seen from her residence, grey amidst clustered, distant buildings.
The youngest of them, clad in a white dress with blue ties holding back raven curls, poured wine. They sipped delicately as another woman to the right, moved back her brown tresses and began, “Francine, I didn’t know your nephew was the cardinal!”
“I’d rather have little nieces and nephews…” she replied.
“But surely, he buys you nice things?”
“Blanca, the last nice thing he bought me was that old, china vase… a year ago.”
Eyeing the jade-green and ivory patterned vase, sitting near them on an end-table, Blanca said, “That’s a fine Ming vase!”
“It’s old and I’m tired of looking at it.”
“Florenza likes it,” Blanca cut in, nudging the youngest girl who nodded.
There was momentary silence. She put a cracker in her mouth urging the rest to eat. Birds flew about, one settled on the window and another sang above.
“Surely,” Florenza declared, “He would take you in, should hard times befall you.”
Francine interrupted, “That should never happen to me! I deserve to be pampered after all I’ve gone through.”
“Poor Francine… It’s been so hard since her husband died…”
“Francine, have you ever considered re-marrying?”
The woman sat strait, her auburn hair ablaze in afternoon sun and cried, “I shouldn’t have to remarry- my nephew’s a cardinal!!”
With that, no one else spoke. They ate and drank lightly then hurried off each to their own affairs.
A Stroll Gone awry.
To clear his head and forget about his aunt Francine’s awful remarks, Cardinal Fratelli decided to go for a walk. The sun was very bright at this hour, so he took his parasol made of white and red cloth with gold thread, given as a gift, along. Today, he decided to stroll far, beyond the city gates.
Beneath shady trees, smelling the sweet odor of lemon blossoms, he smiled. Anxiety melted away. What did Francine’s scornfulness matter? At least, everyone else admired him. What more should he want than to be here, healthful and full of life?
Stopping at the main road, he met an old couple who were also strolling there. Their conversation was pleasant but after a while, Fratelli wanted to be left alone and quickened his pace. Eventually, they did say farewell and depart down another roadway while he traveled straight out of town towards farmland. He trod merrily passing rows of vineyards. Verdant hills rolled like the waves of a vast, green sea.
Sun blazed overhead and though provided shade from the parasol, he wished he had something to drink. His mouth grew horribly dry. Wincing, tasting dust, Fratelli approached a fenced pasture where cattle grazed. Ruddy hides glimmered with sweat as they drank from a long trough but alas, he had nothing to quench his own thirst.
Leaning on the fence, Fratelli watched the cattle lumber slowly. One, a spotted heifer, peered up at him, black eyes shining. Amused, the cardinal began twirling the parasol saying, “Hello beauty… How are you this afternoon? Lovely I suppose?”
He laughed and kept talking, unmindful of the bull that looked over the herd and snorted, coming closer. The bull walked through a nearby fence door that had been left open, snorted again and charged. Fratelli finally saw, leapt up and began running away. Naturally, the beast chased churning dirt below its hooves. Franticly, Fratelli threw his parasol aside. The bull ran over it however, enticed by such brightly-colored cloth, turned back and trampled the thing again. There was just enough time for the terrified cardinal to escape unscathed.
Panting and gasping, Fratelli fell down beside a stone well just inside the city where some children played. One, little girl drew him a cup of water saying, “Signor, you look thirsty.”
“Oh, blessed are you!” Fratelli exclaimed and drank deeply.
Others gathered around seeming entertained by this man in dusty, red robes looking tired and afraid. He must have been a sight to behold. When he stood up, a boy asked him to play. Fratelli declined then seeing his sad, big, brown eyes, took the ball from his hands and tossed once. Laughing, the boy caught it.
The cardinal groaned…
It was evening when Fratelli returned home. Sunlight sank behind hills casting pinkish hues in the sky. Answering the light, terra-cotta roofs gleamed faint red. Coming through the door, brushing residual dirt off his robes, he met Father Arnold who asked, “Do your afternoon strolls usually take this long?”
“No,” Fratelli answered snidely. He felt too embarrassed to tell Arnold what occurred on the farm road. Wordlessly, regaining his sense of dignity, he began walking upstairs. Arnold called him back and said there was something in the kitchen for him. On the long, central table next to a cold turkey-leg garnished with tepid potatoes was a glass vase full of beautiful, fragrant lilies. Nest to the vase sat a folded card. Lightly taking it, Fratelli read:
To ~ The Most-Reverend Angelo Fratelli
~ From Michele.
He suddenly remembered an old friend by that name, a pretty, brown-haired girl who lived next door to him and played with him every day.
“This is so thoughtful…” Fratelli sighed, “She still remembers me…”
Smiling fondly, he sniffed the flowers recollecting childhood memories when everything seemed bright and innocent. He broke from musing then moved them into the hallway where their lingering scent could welcome all who passed by. It was a pleasant ending to an otherwise horrible day.
He solemnly recited vespers, alone since the hour was late and asked oncemore for God’s guidance and protection. Before retiring upstairs, Fratelli suppressed a yawn then whispered, “St. Joseph pray for me, I need it.”