The City And The World by Francis Clement Kelley

Story type: Literature

Father Denfili, old and blind, telling his beads in the corner of the cloister garden, sighed. Father Tomasso, who had brought him from his confessional in the great church to the bench where day after day he kept his sightless vigil over the pond of the goldfish, turned back at the sound, then, seeing the peace of Father Denfili’s face, thought he must have fancied the sigh. For sadness came alien to the little garden of the Community of San Ambrogio on Via Paoli, a lustrous gem of a little garden under its square of Roman sky. The dripping of the tiny fountain, tinkling like a bit of familiar music, and the swelling tones of the organ, drifting over the flowers that clustered beneath the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, so merged their murmurings into the peacefulness of San Ambrogio, that Father Tomasso, just from the novitiate, felt intensely that he knew he must have dreamed Father Denfili’s sigh. For what could trouble the old man here in San Ambrogio on this, the greatest day of the Community?

For to-day Father Ramoni had returned to Rome. Even as Father Tomasso passed the fountain a group of Fathers and novices were gathering around one of the younger priests, who still wore his fereoula and wide-brimmed hat, just as he had entered from Via Paoli. The newcomer’s eyes traveled joyously over his breathless audience, calling Father Tomasso to join in hearing his news.

“Yes, it is true,” he was saying. “I have just come from the audience. Father General and Father Ramoni stopped to call at the Secretariate of State, but I came straight home to tell you. His Holiness was most kind, and Father Ramoni was not a mite abashed, even in the presence of the Pope. When he knelt down the Holy Father raised him up and gave him a seat. ‘Tell me all about your wonderful people and your wonderful work,’ he said. And Father Ramoni told him of the thousands he had converted and how easy it was, with the blessing of God, to do so much. The Holy Father asked him every manner of question. He was full of enthusiasm for the great things our Father Ramoni has done. He is the greatest man in Rome to-day, is Ramoni. He will be honored by the Holy See. The Pope showed it plainly. This is a red-letter day for our Community.” The little priest paused for breath, then hastened on. “Rome knows that our Father Ramoni has come back,” he cried, “and Rome has not forgotten ten years ago.”

“Was it ten years that Father Ramoni passed in South America?” a tall novice asked Father Tomasso.

“Ten years,” said Father Tomasso. “He was the great preacher of Rome when the old General”–he nodded toward the cloister corner where Father Denfili prayed–“sent him away from Rome. No one knew why. His fame was at its height. Men and women of all the city crowded the church to listen to him, and he was but thirty-four years old. But Father Denfili sent him away to Marqua, commanding the Superior of our Order out there to send him to those far-off mountain people of whom the papers were telling at that time. I did not know Father Romani well. I was a novice at the time. But I knew that he did not want to go from Rome; though, being a good religious, he obeyed. Now, see what has happened. He has converted over one-third of that people, and the rest are only waiting for missionaries.”

“And the work is all Father Ramoni’s?” the novice asked.

“All.” Father Tomasso drew him a little farther from the group that still listened to the little priest who had come from the Vatican. “Father Ramoni found that the people had many Christian traditions and were almost white; but it was he who instilled the Faith in their hearts. There must be thirty of our Fathers in Marqua now,” he continued proudly, “and sooner or later, all novices will have to go out there. Father Ramoni has made a splendid Prefect-Apostolic. No wonder they have summoned him to Rome for consultation. I have heard”–he lowered his voice as he glanced over his shoulder to where Father Denfili sat on the bench by the pond–“that it is certain that Marqua is to be made a Province, with an archbishop and two bishops. There is a seminary in Marqua, even now, and they are training some of the natives to be catechists. I tell you, Brother Luigi, missionary history has never chronicled such wonders as our Father Ramoni has wrought.”

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From behind them came the rising voice of the little priest, bubbling into laughter. “And as I came through the Pincio all that I heard was his name. I had to wait for a duchessa’s carriage to pass. She was telling an American woman of the times when Father Ramoni had preached at San Carlo. ‘His words would convert a Hindu,’ she was saying. And the Marchesi di San Quevo leaned from his horse to tell me that he had heard that Father Ramoni will be one of the Cardinals of the next Consistory. Is it not wonderful?”

The murmur of their responses went across the garden to old Father Denfili. Father Tomasso, crossing the path with the novice, suddenly saw a strange look of pain on the old priest’s face, and started toward him just as the gate to the cloister garden swung back, revealing a picture that held him waiting. Four men–a great Roman prelate, the General of San Ambrogio, Father Ramoni and Father Pietro, Ramoni’s secretary–were coming into the garden. Of the four Father Ramoni stood out in the center of the group as vividly as if a searchlight were playing on his magnificent bigness. His deep black eyes, set in a face whose strength had been emphasized by its exposure to sun and wind, gleamed joyous with his mood. His mouth, large, expressive, the plastic mouth of the orator, was curving into a smile as he gave heed to the speech of the prelate beside him. Once he shook his head as the great man, oblivious of their coming before a crowd of intent watchers, continued the words he had been saying on Via Paoli.

“And the Holy See is about to make your Marqua into a Province. Is it not wonderful, Father Ramoni, that you will go back with that gift to the people you converted? And yet to me it is more wonderful that you wish to go back. Why do you not stay here? You, a Roman, would advance.”

“Not now, Monsignore,” the missionary answered quickly. They were passing the group near the fountain, going toward the bench where Father Denfili sat. Ramoni’s secretary, a thin, serious-visaged priest of about the same age as his Superior, with bald head and timid, shrinking eyes, took with the greatest deference the cloak and hat Father Ramoni handed to him. Then he fell back of the old General. The prelate answered Ramoni. “But you are right, of course,” he admitted. “It is best that you return. The Church needs you there now. But later on–chi lo sa? You are to preach Sunday afternoon at San Carlo? I shall be there to hear you. So will all Rome, I suppose. Ah, you do well here! ‘Filius urbis et orbis–son of the city and the world.’ It’s a great title, Ramoni!”

They had come in front of the bench where Father Denfili told his beads. The prelate turned to the old General of San Ambrogio with deference. “Is it not so, Father?” he asked. But Father Denfili raised his sightless eyes as if he sought to focus them upon the group before him. Father Ramoni, laughingly dissenting, suddenly felt his joy congealing into a cold fear that bound his heart. He turned away angrily, then recovered himself in time. Father Denfili was no longer on the bench beside the pond. He was groping his way back to the chapel.

It was a month before the Consistory met to nominate the new hierarchy for Marqua. It had been expected that the first meeting would end in decisive action and that, immediately afterward, the great missionary of the Community of San Ambrogio would return with increased authority and dignity to his charge. But something–one of those mysterious “somethings” peculiar to Rome–had happened, and the nominations were postponed.

In the month that Father Ramoni remained in Rome he had tasted the fruits of his old popular success. On his first Sunday at home he preached in San Carlo as well as ever–better than ever. And the awed crowd he looked down on at the end of his sermon took away from the church the tidings of his greater power. From that time nearly every moment was taken by the demands of people of position and authority, who wished to make the most of him before he went back to Marqua. He scarcely saw his brethren at all, except after his Mass, when he went to the refectory for his morning coffee. He had no time to loiter in the garden, and the story of the conversion of the people of Marqua was left to the quiet Fr. Pietro, who told the splendid tales of his Superior’s great work, till Father Tomasso and Brother Luigi prayed to be given the opportunity to be Ramoni’s servants in the far-away land of the western world. But, if Ramoni was but seldom in the cloister, he did not avoid Father Denfili. The old blind priest seemed to meet him everywhere, in the afternoons on the Pincio, in the churches where he preached, in the subdued crowds at ecclesiastical assemblies. Once Ramoni caught a glimpse of his face lifted toward him during a conference; and a remembrance of that old look in the cloister garden gave him the sensation of belief that the old General could see, even though Ramoni himself, was the only one whom he saw.

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On the day the letter from the Vatican came, Father Ramoni, detained in the cloister by the expected visit of a prelate who had expressed his desire to meet the missionary of Marqua, passed Father Denfili on his way to the reception-room. While Father Ramoni, summoning his secretary to bring some photographs for better explanation of the South American missions, went on his way, the blind man groped along the wall till he reached the General’s office. He had come to the door when he felt that undercurrent of anxiety which showed itself on the white faces of the General and his assistant, who stood gazing mutely at the letter the former held. He heard the General call Father Tomasso. “Take this to Father Pietro, my son,” he said. Then he listened to the younger priest’s retreating footsteps.

Father Tomasso, frightened by the unwonted strangeness of the General’s tone, carried the atmosphere of tense and troubled excitement with him when he entered the room the prelate was just leaving. Father Pietro glanced up at him from the table where he was returning to their case the photographs of Marqua. Tomasso laid the letter before him and left the room just as Father Ramoni, bidding his visitor a gay good-bye, turned back.

Father Pietro was taking the letter from its large square envelope. He read it with puzzled wonder rising to his eyes. Before he came to its end he was on his feet.

“No! No!” he cried. “It is impossible. It is a mistake.”

Father Ramoni turned quickly. The man who had been his faithful servant for ten years in Marqua was very dear to him. “What is a mistake, Pietro?” he asked, coming to the table.

“The Consistory,” Father Pietro stammered, “the Consistory has made a mistake. They have done an impossible thing. They have mixed our names. This letter to the General–this letter–” he pointed to the document on the table “–says that I have been made Archbishop of Marqua.”

Ramoni took the letter. As he read it he knew what Pietro had not known. The news was genuine. The name signed at the letter’s end guaranteed that. Ramoni caught the edge of the table. The pain of the blow gripped him relentlessly and he knew that it was a pain that would stay. He had been passed over, ignored, set down for Pietro, who sat weeping beside the table, his head buried in his hands.

“I can’t take it,” he was sobbing; “I am not able. It’s a mistake, a terrible mistake.”

Ramoni put his hand on the other man’s head. “It is true, Pietro,” he said. “You are Archbishop of Marqua. May God bless you!”

But he could say no more. Pietro was still weeping when Ramoni went away, crossing the cloister on his way to his cell, where, with the door closed behind him, he fought the battle of his soul.


In the beginning Ramoni could not think. He sat looking dully at the softened tones of the wall, trying to evolve some order of thought from the chaos into which the shock of his disappointment had plunged his mind. It was late in the night before the situation began to outline itself dimly.

His first thought was, curiously enough, not of himself directly, but of the people out in Marqua who were anxiously looking for his return as their leader, confident of his appointment to the new Archbishopric. He could not face them as the servant of another man. From the crowd afar his thoughts traveled back to the crowd on the Pincio–the crowd that welcomed him as the great missionary. He would go no more to the Pincio, for now they would point him out with that cynical amusement of the Romans as the man who had been shelved for his servant. He resented the fate that had uprooted him from Rome ten years before, sending him to Marqua. He resented the people he had converted, Pietro, the Consistory–everything. For that black and bitter night the Church, which he had loved and reverenced, looked to him like the root of all injustice. The more he thought of the slight that had been put upon him, the worse it became, till the thought arose in him that he would leave the Community, leave Rome, leave it all. After long hours, anger had full sway in the heart of Father Ramoni.

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At midnight he heard the striking of the city’s clocks through the windows, the lattices of which he had forgotten to close. The sound of the city brought back to him the words of the great prelate who had returned with him to San Ambrogio from his first audience with the Holy Father–“Filius urbis et orbis.” How bitterly the city had treated him!

A knock sounded at his door. He walked to it and flung it open. His anger had come to the overflowing of speech. At first he saw only a hand at the door-casing, groping with a blind man’s uncertainty. Then he saw the old General.

In the soul of Ramoni rose an awful revulsion against the old man. Instantly, with a memory of that first day in the cloister garden, of those following days that gave him the unexpected, uncanny glimpses of the priest, he centered all his bitterness upon Denfili. So fearful was his anger as he held it back with the rein of years of self-control, that he wondered to see Father Denfili smiling.

“May I enter, my son?” he asked.

“You may enter.”

The old man groped his way to a chair. Ramoni watched him with glowering rage. When Father Denfili turned his sightless eyes upon him he did not flinch.

“You are disappointed, my son?” the old man asked with a gentleness that Ramoni could not apprehend, “and you can not sleep?”

Ramoni’s anger swept the question aside. “Have you come here, Father Denfili,” he cried, “to find out how well you have finished the persecution you began ten years ago? If you have, you may be quite consoled. It is finished to-night.” His anger, rushing over the gates, beat down upon the old man, who sat wordless before its flood. It was a passionate story Ramoni told, a story of years in the novitiate when the old man had ever repressed him, a story of checks that had been put upon him as a preacher, of his banishment from Rome, and now of this crowning humiliation. Furiously Ramoni told of them all while the old man sat, letting the torrent wear itself out on the rocks of patience. Then, after Ramoni had been silent long moments, he spoke.

“You did not pray, my son?”

“Pray?” Ramoni’s laughter rasped. “How can I pray? My life is ruined. I am ashamed even to meet my brethren in the chapel.”

“And yet, it is God one meets in the chapel,” the old man said. “God, and God alone; even if there be a thousand present.”

“God?” flung back the missionary. “What has He done to me? Do you think I can thank Him for this? Yet I am a fool to ask you, for it was not God who did it–it was you! You interfered with His work. I know it.”

“I hope, my son, that it was God who did it. If He did, then it is right for you. As for me, perhaps I am somewhat responsible. I was consulted, and I advised Pietro.”

“Don’t call me ‘my son,’” cried the other.

“Is it as bad as that with you?” There was only compassion in the old voice. “Yet must I say it–my son. With even more reason than ever before I must say it to you to-night.”

The old man’s thin hands were groping about his girdle to find the beads that hung down from it. He pulled them up to him and laid the string across his knees; but the crucifix that he could not see he kept tightly clasped in his hand. His poor, dull, pathetic eyes were turned to Ramoni who felt again that strange impression that he could see, as they fixed on his face and stared straight at him without a movement of their lashes. And Ramoni knew how it was that a man may be given a finer vision than that of earth, for Father Denfili was looking where only a saint could look, deep down into the soul of another.

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“Son of the city and the world,” he said. “I heard Monsignore call you that, and he was right. A son of the city and of the world you are; but alas! less of the city than you know, and more of the world than you have realized. My son, I am a very old man. Perhaps I have not long to live; and so it is that I may tell you why I have come to you to-night.” Ramoni started to speak, but the other put out his hand. “I received you, a little boy, into this Community. No one knows you better than I do. I saw in you before any one else the gifts that God had given you for some great purpose. I saw them budding. I knew before any one else knew that some day you would do a great thing, though I did not know what it was that you would do. I was a man with little, but I could admire the man who had much. I had no gifts to lay before Him, yet I, too, wanted to do a great work. I wanted to make you my great work. That was my hope. You are the Apostle of Marqua. I am the Apostle of Ramoni. For that I have lived, always in the fear that I would be cheated of my reward.”

Ramoni turned to him. “Your reward? I do not understand.”

“My reward,” the old man repeated. “I watched over you, I instructed you, I prayed for you, I loved you. I tried to teach you by checking you, the way to govern yourself. I tried to make a channel in your soul that your great genius might not burst its bonds. I knew that there was conflict ever within you between your duty to God and what the world had to offer you–the old, old conflict between the city and the world. I always feared it. All unknown to you I watched the fight, and I saw that the world was winning. Then, my son, I sent you to Marqua.”

The old man paused, and his trembling hand wiped away the tears that streamed down his face. Ramoni did not move. “I am afraid, my son,” the voice came again, “that you never knew the city–well called the Eternal–where with all the evil the world has put within its walls the good still shines always. This, my son, is the city of the soul, and you were born in it. It lives only for souls. It has no other right to existence at all. There is only one royalty that may live in Rome. We, who are of the true city, know that.

“And you, too, might have been of the city. The power of saving thousands was given to you. I prayed only for the power of saving one. I had to send you away, for you were not a Philip Neri. Only a saint may live to be praised and save himself–in Rome.

“When you went away, my son, you went away with a sacrifice as your merit, your salvation. Of that sacrifice the Church in Marqua was born. It will grow on another sacrifice. Ask your heart if you could make it? Alas, you can not! Then it will have to grow on Pietro’s pain.

“I have not seen you, for I am blind, but I have heard you. You want to go back an Archbishop to finish what you say is ‘your work.’ You think that your people are waiting. You want to bring the splendor of the city to the world. My son, the work is not yours. The people are not yours. The city, the true city, does not know you, for you have forgotten the spirit of sacrifice. You went out to the world an apostle, and you came back to the city a conqueror, but no longer an apostle. Can’t you see that God does not need conquerors?”

The old priest pressed the crucifix tightly against his breast. “What would you take back to Marqua?” he demanded. “Nothing but your purple and your eloquence. How could you, who have forgotten to pray in the midst of affliction, teach your people how to pray in the midst of their sorrows? Marqua does not need you, for Marqua needs the man you might have been, but which you are not. The city does not need you, for the city needs no man; but it is you who need the city, that you may learn again the lesson that once made you the missionary of a people.”

Faintly, through the silence that fell the deeper as the old man’s words died away, there came the sound of footsteps pacing in another room. Once more the old man took up his speech.

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“They are Pietro’s steps,” he said. “All night long I have heard you both. He has been sobbing under the burden he believes he is unworthy to bear, while you have been raging that you were not permitted to bear it. Pietro was only your servant. He would be your servant again if he could. He loves you. I, too, love you. Perhaps I was selfish in loving you, but I wanted for God your soul and the souls you were leading to Him.”

The old man arose. He put out his hand to grope his way back to the door. It touched Ramoni, sitting rigid. He did not stir. The hand reached over him, caught the lintel of the door and guided the blind man to the hall. Then Ramoni stood up. Without a word he followed the other. When he had overtaken him he laid his hand gently on the blind man’s arm and led him back to his cell.

When he came back the door of the chapel was open. Ramoni, going within, found Pietro there, prostrate at the foot of the altar. Ramoni knelt at the door, his eyes brimming with tears. He did not pray. He only gazed upon the far-off tabernacle. And while he knelt the Great Plan unfolded itself to him. He looked back on Marqua as a man who has traveled up the hills looks down on the valleys. And, looking back, he could see that Pietro’s had been the labor that had won Marqua. There came back to him all the memories of his servant’s love of souls, his ceaseless teaching, his long journeys to distant villages, his zeal, his solicitude to save his superior for the more serious work of preaching. Pietro had been jealous of the slightest infringement on his right to suffer. Pietro had been the apostle. Before God the conquest of Marqua had been Pietro’s first, since he it was who had toiled and claimed no reward.

A great peace suddenly mantled the troubled soul of Father Ramoni, and with it a great love for the old General whose hand had struck him. He thought of the painting hanging near where he knelt–“Moses Striking the Rock.” The features of Father Denfili merged into the features of the Law Giver, and Father Ramoni knew himself for the rock, barren and unprofitable. He fell on his face, and then his prayer came:

“Christ, humble and meek, soften me, and if there be aught of living water within, let me give one drop for thirsty souls yet ere I am called.”

He could utter no other prayer.

Morning found both master and servant, now servant and master, before the altar where both were servants.


It was fifteen years later when the brethren of the little Community of San Ambrogio gathered in their chapel to sing the requiem over their founder and first General, Father Denfili, who died, old and blind, after twenty years of retirement into obscurity. But there were more than his brethren there. For all those years he had occupied, day after day, the solitude of a little confessional in the chapel. He had had his penitents there, and, in a general way, the brethren of San Ambrogio knew that there were among them many distinguished ones; but they were not prepared for the revelation that his obsequies gave them. Cardinals, Roman nobles, soldiers, prelates, priests and citizens crowded into the little chapel. They were those who had knelt week after week at the feet of the saint.

But there was one penitent, greater than them all in dignity and sanctity, who could not come. The tears blinded him that morning when he said Mass in his own chapel at the Vatican for the soul of Father Denfili. At the hour of the requiem he looked longingly toward Via Paoli, where his old spiritual father was lying dead before the altar of the cloister chapel; and the tears came again into eyes that needed all their vision to gaze far out, from his watch-tower, on the City and the World.

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