Guardians of the Sacred Chapter Ten

Antonio (Part Two)

Over the last thirty years, he had visibly transformed what would have been a simple portineria, or custodian’s room, into his home. He had built the kitchen, removed the old tiles, and replaced them with some large white bathroom tiles of which he was very proud. It was clear that he had installed himself in such a permanent manner that suggested he was sure he was not going to leave anytime during his lifetime. When they were young, his children had even attended a school run by the church in that same building.

“My children,” he said with pride, “were luckier than most children ever are because they were able to go to school every day without ever leaving the building. They went through all five years of their scuola materna (elementary school) without getting wet a single time. They were just the happiest of children. They got out of bed later than everyone else in their class. They walked upstairs to class, and then when school ended, they went directly to their room to play.”

While Neapolitans are conditioned to take the looming threat of the Vesuvius for granted and accept several earthquakes as an inevitable experience in life, they are terrified of rain. The buildings, like the people, can withstand both earthquakes and severe heat, but everything is paralyzed by rain. Despite the strong local distaste for downpours, I could not help but cringe a little in guilt thinking about how much more than skipping a day of rain it took the children I knew, or even the adults, to make them consider themselves to be the happiest people in the world.

“Now we don’t have the school in here anymore,” Antonio said, “but we still try to run many activities for the children of the neighborhood. Volunteers come here to run workshops on things like musicology, music therapy, and all sorts of things for the children. Children can attend all the courses they want absolutely for free. This is a good thing to keep them busy when they get out of school. You have to try to get them interested in something. Many people around here still cannot afford to pay for these things. We have a lot of problems around here and if the children are doing something they enjoy, they are at least learning and staying off the streets. We take care of everything; they don’t even have to pay for the elevator.”

I finally understood that in Antonio’s view, absorbing the cost of the elevator was more than a practical matter, it was a sign of the benevolence of the church. It meant people were really welcome to everything.

As to his own activities, Antonio was fairly convinced of the central role he played within the daily operations of the church. During the years the church was closed for renovation, countless individuals had appealed to him for exceptional permission to enter. For those who believed it a special privilege that would allow them to ask a particular grazia, or favor from a saint, it would not have been the same to go to another church. But Antonio had that inbred inflexibility to him that prevented him from breaking the rules of the church for which he worked. His oath was and had always been much more to the institution than to its congregation.

Each time, Antonio said firmly, he turned individuals away by telling them the truth, which was that the church was inaccessible. It was no easy task, but those were not his rules. During the decades of widespread immigration in the last century, immigrants had developed a popular custom of requesting a grazia before leaving Naples in search of fortune elsewhere. Some of those immigrants returned if their grazia had been awarded, or in other words if they were successful abroad, to thank the saint for their fortune. If they were unable to return to Naples themselves, they would send their relatives traveling to the city on their behalf to pay homage to this or that saint who had awarded their grazia. One can only imagine their disappointment once they returned to Naples, after decades spent in a faraway country and after a long voyage, only to find that the church was closed.

“A man from the neighborhood who had immigrated to Venezuela came back here about twenty years ago,” Antonio said, “and when he found the church closed, he could not believe it. He desperately wanted to go inside. He begged me many times to make an exception, but I insisted that I could not let him in. I didn’t know what to do for the man. I finally told him that the only possible option was to speak to the offices of the church above.

“You know,” he said as his face grew serious again, “it is not up to me to decide such matters. I only work here.

“They were willing to speak with him so the man went upstairs. A little while later I received a call from the segreteria (main offices). They asked me if I could show the man inside to let him pay homage to the saint. Of course I consented. These things are generally not arranged. But this was a special case. They never told me what it was.

“But in any case I felt it when I took the man downstairs. I could not leave him alone in the crypt, so I stood in a corner and let him do his thing. I could not help but watch him. The man started crying as soon I took him inside. There was so much emotion. Over the course of my thirty years in this place I have never seen anything else like it. I never knew what it was that exactly brought him here, but I was so moved by the experience that I started crying with him. Sometimes there are things you don’t have to know, you just get. It never happened to me before, and it has never happened to me again—and I’m in there every day.

“Before he left, the man thanked me profusely, but I told him that it was unnecessary to thank me. After all, I had helped him only by telling him that he could try to speak the segreteria. I was by no means the one who had given him the permission to go inside. The church had arranged that.”

A woman wandered through the entrance; she periodically peeked her head around as if she were searching for something or had not quite found the entrance to something. Antonio somehow knew that she must have been looking for the archives of the church, which were open to the public for free. “Go up to the fourth floor,” he finally said. The woman was already several meters away when Antonio opened the door. He raised his voice and yelled after her, “I’m sorry I should have told you earlier that the elevator is free.”

Antonio took advantage of the fact that he was already standing to prepare himself a second coffee. I nodded when he asked me if I would like some more.

“When the man left,” Antonio said returning to his story, “he tried to discretely hand me several thousand lire to thank me for my trouble, but I told him it was alright; I could not accept anything. It was unnecessary. I had not done him the favor of letting him in. All I did was follow the main office’s orders.

“So the man left, only that a little while later he returned to that same door where you came in through holding two large tins of coffee and three boxes of sugar in his arms. And well, you can never refuse coffee and sugar,” he said with a large grin. Apparently in Naples when one has to oneself without appearing to buy favors, one offers packages of coffee and sugar. And in a culture where one rewards saints, it is only natural that one would wish to reward the human who gave you access to that saint.

“And coffee and sugar are always needed around here,” he hinted. “Coffee runs out pretty quickly in this place. With all the people coming and going through here, who knows how many more coffees I will have to make just from now until the end of the day,” he said with pride.

“But what I told you about, those were different times,” he said, trying to prevent me from being disillusioned in case I did not witness that kind of passion from my brief moments inside the church. “The church was a different place back then. I remember the days we opened, there was so much demand that we would have to put ropes outside to keep order among the thousands of worshippers. That was back when I looked after this whole place alone. I knew the church and everyone who came in here. Now we have official custodians, volunteers, and people from the city museums in here. So I am not in the church any longer. Instead, I now work in the back. But I am still the responsabile, the head manager.

“But,” he quickly added, “I made it quite clear to them that they are responsible if a painting or an altar disappears from there. For over twenty-five years, I vigilantly looked after those things. Now that I am back here, I cannot know what goes on in there.”

Given the size of everything I saw in that church, I judged the event of someone physically walking out with anything to be quite unlikely; nonetheless, I understood it to be an expression of his frustration with the arrangement.

In the meantime, the mailman had arrived. He knocked on the glass window and displayed an envelope to indicate that the letter required a signature. Antonio had to interrupt our conversation to take care of his duty. The mailman complained that he could not understand why the letter was addressed to a school if it had the physical address of the church. Antonio showed me the large brochure with the address of the school. “You see this,” he said, “the school was here at one point, but it has been closed at least for the last fifteen years.”

After we had been talking for several hours, I built up the courage to ask him a final question. I wanted to know if, for him, being a custodian was purely a means to earn a living or if he did this because he truly believed. I asked Antonio whether, after thirty years in that place, he had developed any kind of attachment to the saints or any particular aspect of the church.

“Aha! That’s the million euro question,” he answered with a very big grin that remained on his face throughout the rest of the conversation.

I long wondered what Antonio had meant by that—the million euro question. I did not want to betray the fact that I did not understand why he thought his knowledge was worth such a price. It could have filled the church up to its ceilings in coffee and sugar many times. It only occurred to me much later that Antonio had responded in such a way because of how he had interpreted my question. I realized he thought I was asking if there was a particular place within the church where I could most efficiently direct my own grazia. Given that over the last three decades he had witnessed firsthand countless people pray and had seen those who came back to offer their thanks, he believed that I was asking whether he could tip me as to where I was more likely to get my prayers answered. And I suppose that had I wanted, I could have even asked for a million euros. More precisely, I could have asked for the numbers to play at the lotto, a ticket for which I could have purchased from the tabaccaio that occupies the old bookstore where Vico spent the nights of his youth reading.

“But the real answer is no,” he said. “I’ve been here too long and have seen too many things in my lifetime. And I’ve seen too many people come through here. They all seem to have their own beliefs. They all have their own rituals they think will bring them things. I look after everything. I just make one general prayer to Jesus and his mother, Mary, in which I ask that they protect all of them, the people below; those who come to the church—the living, us,” he said finally.

“But are you ever afraid, when you are down there alone in the crypt?” I asked him.

“You know when I first started working here I kept hearing these sounds when I would go down there. It has happened over the many years I have spent here that I’ve had to be in there at night. On those occasions I would finish cleaning in the first hours of the morning. The noises sounded like very thick whispers and loud gushes of wind, like what you hear during a storm. In addition to the strange sounds, these thick stone walls and high ceilings repeated their echoes. I kept asking myself where they could be coming from.

“One night I went outside and realized that those noises came from the elderly people who had a habit of praying in the side alleys when the church was closed. They put their candles next to the windows and said their prayers next to the iron grates of the church. The voices I heard came from the living, not from the dead. Trust me; after almost thirty years spent in here, if I can assure you of something, it’s that the dead don’t speak.

“Remember that once they are dead, humans cannot do you any harm,” he assured me with confidence. “I’m telling you, it’s the people who can still speak, it’s the people who are walking out there,” he said pointing to the windows, “not those buried in here, whom you have always to be wary of; the living.”

Before I left, Antonio told me that if I needed anything, I could always look for him in the portineria, or custodian’s room. I could always ring the bell, and should I not find him, he would surely be in the front of the church (unless he was out in the neighborhood with his wife occasionally shopping for groceries).

I glanced at the clock. In the isolation of that little room, I had failed to realize that we had been there for over four hours. At the very least, I thought, I should be the one thanking him.

Then he shook my hand. “Thank you again for writing,” he said. “We need this.”

I asked him what he meant.

“For giving a voice to the good,” he replied.