By Adrian David
A priest wrestles between vengeance and forgiveness upon hearing a murderer's tragic confession.
Turin, Italy – 1995
The church bell rang out as the morning sun arched over the horizon. Standing at the side of the gate, Cesare stubbed out his cigarette and peered up at the tall, white spire adorning the church. He took a deep, pained breath and entered the house of worship. He yearned for the calm within its walls, his tortured soul aching for comfort.
The church was empty except for the lone figure of a priest kneeling before the altar. Sunlight penetrated the blues, reds, greens, and yellows of the stained-glass windows, forming the shape of a large dove upon the floor of the nave. Clouds of smoke wafted from candles throughout the sacred space.
Cesare dragged his feet up the aisle, passing the polished wooden pews. His chest tightened; his steps faltered. Painful memories flooded in despite his efforts to suppress them. He froze in his tracks, crippled by his swirling thoughts and tortured conscience. He clutched his chest and collapsed into the nearest pew.
* * *
Giovanni made the sign of the cross and stood. Adjusting his cassock, he turned from the altar and headed to the rectory. He slowed his pace upon seeing a scrawny, forlorn man. The stranger looked out of place in the pristine church. His receding grey hairline, shabby beard, unkempt clothes, and worn-out bag told a story of strife. The wrinkles on his tanned face exuded misery, and the dark circles under his eyes betrayed his distress.
Driven by curiosity and his vocation to help, Giovanni approached the lost soul. “Buongiorno. Is everything alright?”
The stranger remained frozen, seemingly unaware of what was happening around him. Giovanni leaned against the pew and cleared his throat, drawing the man’s bloodshot eyes to his face.
* * *
Cesare scanned the bespectacled priest from head to toe. Dressed in an immaculate white cassock, the thirty-something priest had a pleasant, clean-shaven face that radiated calm.
“Did you say something, Padre?” Cesare croaked, licking his dry, cracked lips.
“I was just checking if you were alright.” The priest smiled. “Have I seen you here before?”
“This is my first visit to your church, Padre.”
“That’s good to know. It’s only been a couple of months since my ordination and assignment here. Welcome.” The priest extended his hand. “I’m Giovanni.”
“Cesare.” He clasped Giovanni’s hand in his own, offering a feeble handshake.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Giovanni continued. “Your accent… You’re from Sicily, right?”
“Si, I… er… just finished my prison sentence.” Cesare bit his lower lip, trying to cloak his guilt. “I came to Turin to meet my cellmate’s family and give them some money. I thought of spending some time in this church before leaving.”
With a disarming smile, Giovanni flung his arm around Cesare’s shoulder. “Come, let me show you around.”
Incredulous, Cesare stared at the priest, whose friendliness and courtesy didn’t fade even after hearing about his circumstances. “No, Padre.” He shook his head. “I can’t stay here any longer. A sinner like me doesn’t deserve to be here.”
“There are no saints or sinners here.” Giovanni’s eyes sparkled. “We are all children of God.”
“But…” Cesare raised his palms to his face. “I have done terrible things.”
“Would you like to make a confession and clear your mind?” Giovanni adjusted his round glasses.
“I am not ready.” Cesare slumped his shoulders and hung his head in shame.
“Remember,” the priest said, holding Cesare’s arm. “Whatever you confide in me is between you and God alone.”
“I am sorry.” Cesare got to his feet. “I can’t. I have to leave.”
Giovanni stood, towering above Cesare. “My seal of confession prohibits me from uttering a word to anyone.” He looked right into his eyes. “Whatever your sins are, I will take them to my grave. A burden shared is a burden halved. Pour out your heart to the Lord, and he will give you rest.”
Cesare’s reluctance subsided. The time was ripe to get the burden off his chest. A chance at redemption was knocking at his door, and only a fool would refuse it.
He gave a slight nod. “Fine, Padre.”
As Giovanni led him to the confessional chamber, Cesare prepared to spill the emotions he had repressed for many years.
* * *
A grille separated the two halves of the wooden confessional. Lamplight filtered through the grille, scattering bright dots across the walls and illuminating the small metallic crucifix. Giovanni perched on his seat on one side and straightened the purple stole around his neck. He heard Cesare kneel on the other side of the confessional, knees pressing on the cushion.
Giovanni turned the pages of his gilded Bible to the third chapter of Colossians. With a gentle voice, he put his finger to the page and tracked as he read the passage: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
He brought his ear closer to the grille, ready to listen to Cesare’s sins.
Cesare said faintly, “Bless me, Padre, for I have sinned.”
“How long has it been since your last confession?”
“Years. Decades. I don’t know. The last time I made a confession was when I was young.”
“What happened after that?”
“Life turned miserable. My babbo left our family for another woman. This broke my mamma’s heart, and she became ill.” Cesare choked, his voice breaking. “Everything changed after she died. I ran away from my home and started doing all kinds of dirty jobs to survive — selling drugs, counterfeiting banknotes, pimping out whores. Out of desperation, I indulged in all kinds of evils. Before long, I targeted rich families and robbed their houses while they were away.
“That was when…” He paused and groaned. “I did a terrible thing. It has haunted me for the past fifteen years. A memory I can’t escape.”
Giovanni leaned forward, listening intently. This wasn’t the first crime to be confessed to him. He had been taught not to be affected by the confessions of his congregation, ensuring he didn’t react to even the worst of transgressions. It was not his place to judge; only God had the right to do that.
Giovanni said in a soothing tone, “Do not fear. No matter how great your sin is, God is always here to forgive.”
Troubled words spilled from Cesare’s mouth. “Fifteen years ago, I was robbing houses in Sicily. I reached the town of Salemi and targeted a vacant mansion. After hearing that the owner was away on vacation, I broke into the house at midnight and hunted for valuables. I didn’t realize my mistake until it was too late. I was in the wrong house... and I wasn’t alone.”
Pulse racing, Giovanni furrowed his eyebrows.
“As I was breaking the safe open, a man caught me red-handed. I pulled out my knife, only to intimidate him.” Cesare cleared his throat. “He kept fighting me, and the next thing I knew, there was blood everywhere. I stabbed him in the heat of the moment. I swear I didn’t mean to do that. His wife came running up the stairs, carrying a baby. Her eyes bulged when she saw her husband lying dead. I’ll never forget the look on her face. I tried to muffle her screams with my hands, but she bit me. In a fit of rage, I grabbed her throat and strangled her. The baby fell from her arms to the floor. The cries grew louder, and I was afraid of waking the neighbours. I took a pillow from the bed and…”
He hit his head against the grille. His voice trembled. “I smothered the baby to death. Even now, I can hear the child crying. It torments me in my nightmares.”
Giovanni swallowed, struggling to keep his breath even. A sudden coldness hit him at the core.
“I picked up whatever valuables I could lay my hands on and fled the town. I later learned that the murder remained unsolved.” Cesare coughed. “Three years later, I started working for a mob boss, and soon I was arrested for smuggling drugs and imprisoned. Throughout my days in prison, I never stopped regretting my crime in Salemi. I couldn’t sleep at night; I couldn’t eat. Whenever I heard a baby crying, I covered my ears. Whenever I looked into the mirror, I saw a monster.”
Giovanni gritted his teeth. Icy tendrils robbed him of action, freezing him in place. He could do nothing but listen, paralyzed with shock. His focus on the confession wavered. A tidal wave of tragic memories washed over him.
Fifteen Years Earlier
Standing near the phone in his boarding school dormitory, Giovanni excitedly waited to hear the sweet voices of his parents. They called Saturday mornings at ten without fail. They had called him the previous week for his fifteenth birthday.
His eagerness was cut short when one of his teachers stepped into the room and beckoned him to follow. “Gio, the headmaster wants to see you.”
Giovanni’s stomach twisted at the urgency in his teacher’s voice. According to his classmates, the headmaster only summoned bad students to his office. Giovanni strived to be first in his class, a model student. He aspired to follow in the footsteps of his father — a self-made businessman who worked hard and built his wealth from the ground up to ensure his family’s well-being.
Giovanni trailed behind his teacher. What could it be? Why is he calling me? What have I done wrong? On entering the headmaster’s office, a sense of dread enveloped Giovanni.
The headmaster paced the length of his office, pausing as soon as he saw him. “Please sit down, Gio. Have some water.” He motioned to the chair and handed him a glass.
Giovanni gave him a nervous smile.
“You must be wondering why I called you.” The headmaster gestured to the trunks and bags in the corner. “Your teacher packed your belongings. He will accompany you home. From now on, you must be brave. Braver than you think you can be.”
Giovanni straightened his round glasses and blinked like a confused owl.
The headmaster tapped his shoulder and let out a deep sigh. “You need to go home to Salemi, son. Something terrible has happened.”
The glass of water fell to the floor and shattered. Giovanni’s head spun as the headmaster told him of his family’s fates. The walls closed in on him, and he struggled to breathe. A stream of hot tears rolled down his cheeks, blurring the world around him. He collapsed on the floor and fainted.
After he recovered consciousness, Giovanni moved as if through a dream. It was a traumatic memory, one that would follow him throughout his lifetime — the parish priest uttering the final prayers as his father, mother, and baby sister were laid to rest in the town cemetery. His sanity was buried alongside them. The darkness of no one left to call family, of being rendered an orphan, engulfed Giovanni. A walking corpse, he was as dead inside as his family was in the ground.
The parish priest took Giovanni under his wing and enrolled him in the Don Bosco Seminary. After several years of rigorous study and devout adherence, Giovanni found his calling. Soon, he was ordained a priest. Despite learning to forgive and forget, bitterness still festered within him like a gaping wound.
* * *
The terrible truth was too much for Giovanni’s soul to bear. The man he long abhorred was seeking absolution. From him. For the merciless killing of his family.
The reminder of his family’s death tore at his insides. So many things ran through his mind. If only Cesare hadn’t broken into his house that uneventful day. If only he hadn’t killed his parents. If only his baby sister had survived.
His heart hammered in his chest; his knuckles knotted. As a man of God, Giovanni knew what was demanded of him, but his vision was streaked with red. All the pain he’d locked away had culminated into a ticking bomb, waiting to explode.
Cesare cried out in anguish. “I want redemption, Padre. Will God have mercy on a wretched sinner like me?”
Hate was an ugly thing, and on a priest, doubly so. Fists clenched in fury, Giovanni levelled his gaze on the sharp edge of the metallic crucifix in front of him. He imagined ramming it right into Cesare’s throat, just as the deranged animal had killed his father.
The jaws of hate gnawed on Giovanni’s last nerve. The road of retribution led him to the slopes of madness. Revenge was the only thing the raw wound of his heart demanded. He yearned to kill Cesare. To make him suffer a torturous death would be the sweetest wine.
Voices inside Giovanni’s head challenged his sanity. His tormented brain screamed with shrill cries.
Kill that bastard! Make him pay!
No, forgive him. If you kill him, you’d be no different from him.
Listen to me! I said, kill him. Do it for your father, your mother, your baby sister.
What will that make you? No better than him. You are God’s servant on earth.
Forgiveness is for the weak. Monsters like him don’t deserve to live.
Spare his soul! Remember, those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.
Heaven and hell twisted together in his mind like a storm. The contradicting voices grew louder.
Regaining his senses, Giovanni took quick, short breaths. He bit his fist, trying to muffle his inner agony.
Help me, Lord.
He squeezed his eyes shut. His moral compass wavered; the demons pounding in his mind raged. Yet, in all the darkness, Giovanni saw a ray of hope at the end of the tunnel. The hope that love could transcend all. The forgiveness that Christ offered to the world. The grace that redeemed even the worst of sinners, the redeeming grace.
It dawned on Giovanni that salvation was not a reward for the righteous; it was a gift for the guilty. Killing Cesare would not bring back his family. His parents would never wish for him to perpetuate the cycle of violence. Retribution would not ultimately bring him peace.
Forgiveness was the most fitting thing he could offer to someone who had wounded him. Giovanni took a deep breath and decided to follow his conscience.
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself and” — Giovanni gulped down his sobs and brushed his tears — “sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Cesare rested his head against the grille and feebly muttered, “Amen.”
Giovanni bit his lower lip. “The Lord has heard your confession today. For your penance, you must vow to commit your life to one of goodwill and charity. I have forgiven… er…” he stuttered. “God has forgiven your sins. Go forth and spread the mercy He has granted you. Go in peace.”
* * *
After all these years, the caged bird was set free. At long last.
Rising from the kneeler, Cesare crossed himself and left without saying another word.
He retraced his steps toward the gate. He heaved a sigh of relief and glanced at his reflection in a nearby puddle. A new man stared back at him. One redeemed from the unforgiving clutches of sin. A man smiling for the first time in decades. A man who was born again.
* * *
Back in the chamber, Giovanni slammed his fists into his temples. Misery broke through his fragile control. His throat closed in grief. Waves of despair washed over him, drowning him in the dark days of his family’s demise.
Deep down, he was sure his parents would be proud of him from above. No matter how much his soul screamed in anguish, he had done the right thing — the difficult thing.
Giovanni struggled to his feet and dragged his weary self out of the chamber. He fell to his knees in front of the altar. The candles cast a flickering red glow upon him. With tears in his eyes, Giovanni lifted his gaze toward Christ on His cross. Mercy had triumphed over vengeance; love had overcome hate.
Adrian David writes advertisements by day and short fiction by night. His stories explore themes like faith, love, hope and everything in between, from the mundane to the sublime.