The priest on the other side of the screen waited. Finally, he prompted the penitent to continue. “How long has it been since your last confession?”
The silence on the penitent's side of the confessional continued several moments longer.
“I'm thinking, Father.”
“How long has it been? Weeks? Months? Years?”
Another pause. “Um, decades...”
“Yes, Father. Decades.”
The priest stroked his chin, deep in thought. “You have much to confess.”
“Do you remember the proper form? The significance of confession.”
“Of course,” the penitent responded without pause this time. “I was well taught by the Jesuits.”
“So well taught that you have stayed away for decades?”
Another pause. “I've been busy, Father.”
“Um no, Father, but very important matters have kept me away.”
The priest began rocking in his seat. Slowly. Back and forth. Thinking. “Well, my son,” he said. “You may begin.”
There was a snap and a smell of flint on steel. A sucking sound followed by a deep exhalation reached the priest's ears. A puff of blue smoke containing the strong smell of tobacco seeped through the screen separating penitent and confessor.
“Are you smoking my son?” the priest asked, his voice rising in disbelief. “In the confessional?”
Silence permeated the confessional on both sides as the priest reacted to this astonishing news. “The Jesuits taught you that smoking in the confessional was permissible?”
“No,” the penitent allowed. “However, we are going to be awhile. I thought we might at least be... comfortable.”
“You have many sins to confess?”
“It's been decades, Father.”
“Well, yes, but smoking is not permitted.”
“I never heard that before.”
The priest stopped rocking. “Well, you're hearing it now!” he replied with more force than he felt comfortable applying. He had schooled himself to avoid reacting to what he heard in the confessional. However, he had never encountered smoking. “Very well, begin,” he said at last. Surely smoking in the confessional was merely a venial sin, and they were supposed to deal with the mortal ones first.
"There have been women," the penitent began.
"There has been death."
"Must I begin there?"
The penitent waited, but did not receive a response. “Yes, Father, I have killed men.”
Another pause. “Killed.”
“Killing with cause, in self defense or to defend another is not a sin, my son,” the priest explained. “Were you acting in self defense.”
“I was defending Cuba, Father.”
“The Americans, their damned CIA...”
“No cursing in the confessional!”
The priest decided that he should bring a pencil and paper to confession in the future. There would be many venial sins to deal with later with this penitent.
“So, you killed agents of the CIA?”
Another pause. “In a manner of speaking.”
“What manner is that?”
“They weren't American agents. They were Cubans recruited by the CIA.”
“How many, my son?”
Another pause. “Maybe...” Another pause. “Four...”
“Four or five thousand.”
The priest began looking around his side of the confessional. This must be some sort of test, he thought to himself.
“Yes, I'm certain,” the penitent continued without further prompting. “Four or five thousand.”
“You killed them all?”
“No,” the penitent responded chuckling. “Not even Ernesto could kill that many with his own hands.”
“Yes, Father. I put him in charge of the secret police. They killed most of them. But they were my responsibility.”
“I see,” the priest responded. He didn't. "Che has already answered for his own sins."
"Yes. I saw to that."
"You murdered Che?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"What manner is that?"
"Well, I didn't pull the trigger myself. I..."
"...I served him up to the American CIA."
"When the revolution ended, we need politicians, not men..."
"...not men like Che."
"What kind of men?"
"We needed martyrs. Che is an excellent martyr. We needed politicians and politics is the art of compromise, right?"
"There was no compromise in Che."
Another long pause passed between confessor and penitent as did another cloud of cigar smoke.
Uncomfortable with the confession, the priest tried to end it quickly. He recited his standard lesson for people who had committed mortal sins and prompted the penitent to begin his Act of Contrition.
“I'm not done, Father.”
Another pause. “You're not... done?”
“There were other killings?”
Another pause. “How many?”
“Twenty? That hardly seems significant in light of the three or four thousand.”
“Twenty or thirty thousand, Father.”
The priest began to sweat. He ran his finger around his collar. It was strangling him. Even his stole weighed against the back of his neck.
“These, too, were CIA?”
“No, Father. They were criminals.”
“What was their crime?”
“They were counter-revolutionaries.”
“They took up arms against the government?”
“No, but they spoke out against it. Some conspired.”
“How did you know this?”
“We tortured them.”
Another pause. A long one.
“How?” the priest asked. Softly, as though afraid to hear the answer.
“Electric shock, mostly,” the penitent responded matter-of-factly.
The priest began to slump in his chair. His breathing was shallow. His complexion had turned sallow. “I need a break,” he whimpered.
The priest began to lean closer to the screen separating him from the penitent then recoiled. “I'm sorry,” he said more loudly. “I need to... to go to the bathroom.”
“Good,” the penitent said. “Me, too.”
“No,” the priest responded in horror. “No. What I mean is that we should not see each other. Give me a moment and then go to the public restroom. I'll use mine in the office.”
“Of course, Father,” the penitent agreed.
The priest made his way from pew to pew to the back of the sanctuary and disappeared into his office with a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure that the penitent hadn't seen him.
The Pope waited there. “Well, my son, how is it going?”
“Please, Holy Father,” the priest pleaded after falling to his knees and kissing the prelate's ring of office. “Please release me from this duty.”
“No, my son,” the Pontiff replied softly. “You must shield me from this man's sins.”
“But, Holy Father,” the priest continued to plead. “How can you absolve this man. His sins are vile. He is vile!”
The prelate smiled down at the priest and stroked his hair. “Be at peace, my son,” he crooned softly. “When Castro is absolved, the Cubans will return to the Mother Church in droves.”
Turning away, the Pontiff raised his eyes to a window where the sun was streaming in. His smile broadened and his face seemed to light up. “Think of it,” he whispered almost to himself. “Think of all the souls we'll save this day.”
A knock at the door interrupted them. A man dressed in a finely tailored suit and expensive loafers let himself in. He smiled at the two churchmen as a shark might before ripping a chunk of dinner from a whale's carcass.
“Good day, your Holiness,” he greeted the Pontiff. “I'm sorry to disturb your meeting.”
The Pontiff returned a suspicious smile and began to extend his hand in a reflexive way, then smoothly withdrew it as his conscious mind prevailed. This man would never submit himself by stooping to kiss the Holy ring of his office.
The man drew closer. “I'm...” he began.
The Pontiff waved dismissively. “No need,” he interrupted. “I know who you are.”
The man arched his eyebrows and made a moue.
The Pontiff continued smiling. “You're from the Seguridad de Estado,” he explained.
The Pontiff's response failed to wipe the question from the man's face.
“Secret Policemen are all alike in every country,” the Pontiff added.
The secret policeman slowly nodded with respect. The old man is sharp, he admitted to himself. “We prefer Seguridad de Estado,” he said.
“I'm sure you do,” the Pontiff said, then asked, “what can we do for you?”
“I'm sorry to inform you that you will not be able to meet with his excellency, the president, as planned.”
“I regret to inform you that he died last night.”
“That's impossible!” the priest blurted. “I was just taking his confession.”
The secret policeman's smile never faltered as he responded evenly, “I'm sorry, but that is not possible. As I said, he died last night.”
The priest turned to the pope who remained stoic in the face of the secret policeman's assertion. “He's in the bathroom, your Holiness,” he stammered.
The secret policeman tossed a newspaper he had been carrying onto the priest's desk. The headline clearly proclaimed Castro's death. It was dated the preceding day, before the Pontiff's arrival in Havana.
Both the secret policeman and the Pontiff regarded the priest with patience written all over their faces.
An awkward silence ensued until the secret policeman excused himself.
“We had feared this might happen,” the Pontiff explained as the priest sat on the floor in utter confusion.
“You expected it?”
“Well, we had hoped...” the Pontiff began and hesitated. “We expected that the government would attempt to interfere. However, once Castro arrived to begin the process of absolution, well...”
The Pontiff shook his head sadly and found a seat across the room.
“All those souls,” he muttered. “All those poor lost souls...”