An excerpt from “Holy Predator” by Deborah Stevens
Luciano Bonelli, superior general of the Jesuits, couldn’t put his finger on the exact moment he traded in his soul. He’d run away from the life of wealth and privilege he’d been brought up in and the accompanying greed that came along with it. Oddly enough, the same two entitlements came with the office he now held as superior general of the Jesuits. However, unprepared for the relentless assault by the devil, he had succumbed to temptation, returning to the life he had grown to despise, but he had learned that money wasn’t the root of all evil—it was the love of money and the power that came with it.
The Jesuits were never Sicily’s most important monastic order. That honor went to the Benedictines and Dominicans, but they left behind a distinctive legacy in the Church of Casa Professa, designed by the Jesuit architect Giovanni Tristano, considered to be one of the most remarkable examples of baroque architecture of its kind south of Rome.
Luciano arrived in Palermo around two o’clock. He’d been asked to officiate over a special Mass to bless the recently installed, commissioned stained glass window. The church had been nearly reduced to rubble during the Allied bombing of 1943, and after decades of restoration it reopened in 2009. The Black Pope, a nickname given to the head of the Jesuits but never spoken in front of him, was using the visit as a cover to meet with Michael Gagini Zenetti who was essential to carrying out his plan.
Looking nothing like his father, Luciano was slim, about six feet, with a receding hairline and a nose a little too large for his face. He’d inherited his grandfather’s pointy chin and had grown a mustache and beard to cover up what he considered a weakness for someone of his importance.
Even though he was nothing to look at, everyone who met him was captivated, and he used that to his advantage. Being articulate and charismatic, he’d gotten used to the power that came along with his position. In fact, as a young boy, he had observed the same qualities in his father and had hated the way he used them to control and manipulate the people around him.
The Mass for the newly commissioned window was an elaborate ruse, the real purpose being to set up a meeting with the man who had just left. As the head of the Sicilian Mafia, Michael Zenetti could have easily been mistaken for any out of work male in Palermo, in need of a shave and dressed in worn and wrinkled old clothes. No one would have ever suspected the Capo di tutti Capri of the Cosa Nostra to be the person beneath the disguise. Luciano was familiar with hearing Italians say Sicilians were waiting for a political “messiah” who would bring money and jobs. With unemployment at 14 percent, it wouldn’t be odd to see one of them passing time inside a church looking for spiritual consolation.
Anyone walking into Casa Professa and seeing the man sitting alone, wearing the Y-Cross white, silk damask, collared chasuble with the embroidered gold IHS design, would immediately assume he was someone of importance.
The cardinal was going over his conversation with Zenetti while his admonitor, equivalent to a consigliere in the Mafia, and two assistants stood at the back of the church. Luciano wondered why the window had been commissioned. The colored glass would hardly be a distraction from the ornate ornamentation of the church’s interior. The baroque style was linked to a movement within the Catholic Church, its architecture and embellishments a visible statement of the wealth and power the church possessed. Even the picture frames were ostentatious, commanding as much attention as the paintings in the church. With three naves and ten chapels, the head of the Jesuits had never seen so many cherubs in one place. Everywhere you looked there were hundreds of them… on the ceiling, on the walls, hanging from frames, some praying and some carrying pitchforks.
It was hard to grapple with the reasoning behind a collection basket being passed around at every Mass asking people attending to please give generously to the church when surrounded by statues, carvings and gold everywhere they looked.
Aware that the plane was waiting to take him back to Rome, Luciano knew the three men were probably wondering why he was still sitting there, but he wanted to bask in the opulence for a while longer. Glancing at the faces of the thousands of cherubs, one in particular caught his attention, reminding him of a child he had once known. Memories came flooding back; he was a young boy peering out the window from the west wing of his family’s estate, looking on in wonder at the festivities of one of the many lavish parties his parents were known for throwing. As he got older, he had grown tired of the parties. Finally, the day came… college and his escape from the world he had come to loathe. Wanting to put as much distance as possible between him and his family, he applied to Georgetown University in Washington DC, the oldest Jesuit and Catholic university in the United States. Upon learning he was accepted, he informed his parents that’s where he wanted to go. It was one of the best decisions he’d ever made. His father was against it, but his mother supported him in his decision.
Even though he had grown up Catholic, he knew very little about the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits. During his four years there, he had grown to appreciate the teachings of the religious order, opening up a completely new world to him. In his senior year, he made the decision to become a novice and took his first vows as a Jesuit. Many years later, he was superior general.
“Excuse me, Superior,” whispered one of the assistants. “The plane is waiting, and the pilot will have to file a new flight plan if we do not leave soon.”
“Yes, thank you for reminding me,” said Luciano.
Glancing up at the altar one last time, he was aware his secrets were not hidden from all eyes.
Upon exiting Cass Professa, the stench from the garbage piled up along the street was a stark contrast to the world of money and power that he lived in. He knew there was little that wasn’t corrupt in Sicily, with public money from the European Union squandered by overpaid bureaucrats and others in the back pocket of the Mafia. One flagrant example of the corruption was the unrelenting piles of trash that lined the streets of Palermo.
As Luciano descended the steps in front of the church and walked through the black iron gate that safeguarded it, he couldn’t help wonder what his brother would think of the life he had chosen as he slid into the plush, leather back seat of the limo.
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