The news which the little boy uttered sent a cold shiver of fear through me. Although the holy Father may speak of peace and love, he seems to surround himself with people who would kill you before you could tell him what your problem was. And why would he have such a dangerous interest in a smithy and his little family? I faced a real dilemma: I couldn’t walk into the Vatican and ask to see the Pope and then demand that he tell me what he’d done with my friends, and knowing some of the superiors of the religious orders around this blessed city, I was certain that asking them for information would be met with a silence more deafening than the grave itself! The mere thought of coming between a Reverend Mother and her Holy Father, sent an uncontrollable shudder through me.
I looked at the three dirty faces who had finished their eating and who were looking back at me with smiles on their faces.
“Got a problem Pietro” asked the Bishop.
“I’m afraid this is a little out of my league” I answered honestly. “I don’t have the resources to spy on the Pope and his reverend mother up at Monte Sacro” I said taking my beads out of my pocket and running them through my fingers like the old Arab had taught me. It had it’s usual calming influence and allowed my face to relax into a smile to match their own.
“I dunno Pietro” said the Bishop running his fingers through his manic hairstyle “I fink you’re losing your grip. Now if you ’ad the smarts like the free of us” and here he put his arms over the shoulders of his two mighty companions “you’d know that ’idden behind us is ’undreds of uvvers like us. Not even the ’oly Farver or ’is most reverend muvver ever stops to fink about we little scavengers wot lives in rubbish ’eaps or in cold doorways on a winters night. Now it’s my belief Pietro”, by now the Bishop had stood up, and grasping his tattered jacket by its soiled lapels, had begun to walk around the small room in a most professorial sort of way, “that if you was to send us free out to talk to certain members of our invisible family then I fink that we’d find ‘em fairly willin’ an’ more than able to watch wot these people is doing and where they is all a goin’ to. You’d be amazed at ’ow many of us little ’uns does this every day of their little lives. Just give ’em a chance Pietro and they’ll see fings you’d never notice and get the information youse wants as soon as it ’appens.” Then looking at me archly he added “ and most of ’em owes me anyway”. And planting his feet wide apart he puffed out his small chest and dared me to deny him.
Although my face ached with a smile at his simple conviction and un-plumbed courage, what he was suggesting was to pit street urchin brains and brawn against some of the most cunning and often vicious adults in the whole of Italy.
“Do you have any idea of what you’re asking me to let you do Bishop? Are you sure you want to place Lola and Coppino in a situation that could be seriously dangerous?” I pleaded with him. A sadness descended on his face and he seemed to shrink just a tiny fraction.
“’ave you any idea of wot it’s like to live like we does Pietro? Every bleeding day we face a beating or a baiting. ’nd little Lola ’ere ’as to deal wiv stuff that’d make you tear yer ’air out wiv rage. It ain’t a bowl of roses out there you know. You is one of the few what acherly stops to see us and it’s ’cos you’ve been so good to us urchins that we want to ‘elp you” and he looked at his little friends who both nodded their heads in agreement. “We ain’t putting ourselves inta danger, we is just puttin’ ourselves inta a different danger. We aint’ stupid, we don’t want to get hurt of killed, but if we can ’elp someun as who’s ’elped us, then we is up for it, aint we?” And again he looked at his two tiny champions and they nodded their wise heads once more.
I had tears in my eyes as I walked around the small table to give them each a big embrace. “I don’t think I’ve ever met greater hearts in all the adults I’ve ever met” I told them. “OK. Do what you think is best Bishop. I’ll wait here to hear back from you. Just be more careful than usual, you’re not just dealing with villains and thugs now, it seems to me that there’s something very dark going on here. So please, be very careful”.
“You’re talkin’ to a pro ’ere Pietro. Me an mi crew is up for it. Leave it to the Bishop and ‘is little flock an’ we’ll shine our light into sum dark places eh?” and he grinned from ear to ear at his biblical parable.
I didn’t hear anything for several days. But even I was beginning to get agitated and anxious when I hadn’t heard from the Bishop for some weeks. During that time I become acutely aware of how many little children seemed to be roaming the streets either on their own or in small groups. Some of them begged on corners, some sat in doorways simply staring at all the passers-by and some bore the marks of a recent beating. Whilst the awful few lay in disused spots, curled into little balls with vacant expressions on their faces. No one approached these littered lost. They were too far gone and would soon find rest and comfort in a paupers grave. It broke my heart to have had my eyes opened to such terrible neglect and yet see silken robed, civilised people drive past in their scented seclusion.
When I met up with Brother Julian one day he observed the extra agony that was plainly written on my face. “Having a bad day with your pains Pietro” he asked.
“Salve Julian. No. Its not that. Its them, over there” I replied and pointed to a groups of bedraggled, half starved children who were playing knuckle bones in the dirty street. A frown clouded his face too.
“Ah, the terrible mystery of suffering” he said and his round face softened into a troubled smile. “It’s funny you know Pietro, how we put up with our own pains, but when we see the truly innocent suffer for no reason at all …” and his voice trailed off into silence. But then he brightened and putting his arm around my shoulder added “But it’s a challenge that we’ve got to face, which means that we’ve got to do our best without losing faith. It’s my experience that we often feel pretty powerless in the face of so many who suffer so much. But if we look at it from another perspective, if we few who have become, how shall I say … enlightened: if we few affect a few others for the better, then I believe that they’ll go on to affect others within their reach, and that little snowflake of hope will turn into an avalanche of love. So don’t worry my friend, there are always going to be people of good faith, just like you, people who are a force for good. These people really want to make a difference too whatever anyone else might think about them”. And finishing off with an animated Hallelujah and a small jig of joy, we both stood and watched the unfolding scene in front of us.
“You’ve heard about Marco and his family” I said.
“Yes” he replied. “Strange business that”.
I hadn’t seen Julian or his brother for some time and wondered whether I should tell them of my conspiracy.
“Are you off to your brothers place” I asked my hummingly happy friend.
“As a matter of fact I am. My niece is due to show me the fruits of her musical practice” he said with glowing pride. And then added a quiet aside “Although I suspect that she’s far more interested in what I have in my pocket” and with that he patted a small bulge in the pocket of his soutane. “It’s nothing really” he added with a broad smirk on his face, “just something to help tie back her hair.”
“Would you mind if I came along with you Julian? There’s something I’d like to discuss with you all”.
“That sounds mysterious” he said, “and there’s nothing that we monks like more than a really deep mystery. It comes with the job description” and burst out into a wonderful Gloria in Excelsis.