The Messiah Matrix
Anyone passing Ryan McKeown, S.J., on his morning walk down Rome’s Janiculum, would have witnessed a worried-looking young man with dark shadows under his eyes. His usual composed countenance had disappeared and his furrowed brow revealed the burden he now bore. Images of the penitent’s death plagued him, more so because of the man’s extraordinary confession and enigmatic last words, “Find Father Ryan…memory in ashes of Jasius…in the Gesù.” Why did this mysterious monsignor use his last breath to deliver this strange message to his killer? What was he trying to tell me?
It was appalling even to entertain the thought that Holy Mother Church might have ordered the killing of a monsignor. It was just too horrible to contemplate. Surely the Albanian was mistaken?
Not only was he wrestling with the shock of dual murders but Ryan’s doubts about his faith now consumed his every waking moment and haunted his nights. It was mind versus spirit, and the mind threatened to destroy every feeling his spirit flourished on. Ryan’s mind was filled with a jumble of questions in a jumble of languages—English, commendably fluent Italian, and an ancient dialect insiders would readily identify as the vulgar Latin spoken almost exclusively at the highest ecclesiastical levels in Vatican City.
The names flashing through his brain—Eusebius, Philo Judaeus, Lactantius, Origen, Tertullian—were an esoteric litany of historians, poets, biblical scholars, and philosophers—all from the infancy of Christianity. Ryan’s obsession with tracking down the origins of the Catholic faith permeated his consciousness.
The area spanned by Via Garibaldi was a living postcard of tiled roofs, bell towers, cupolas and gardens set off in breathtaking contrast against the cloudless turquoise sky. But this morning the young American priest, lost in ruminations about the fateful confession and his biblical doubts, had been oblivious to the spectacular view--and to the breeze ruffling his curly brown hair to more than usual disarray. It would be difficult to recognize Ryan as a recently ordained priest in his casual street clothes and comfortable black Reeboks, much less one enrolled in the pontifically authorized Society of Jesus, known to the world as “Jesuits.”
Ryan’s questions about troubling inconsistencies in traditional Catholic doctrine had only grown more confusing as he’d turned from his graduate studies of the Latin epic poet Virgil to a temporary stint teaching a course on early Christian theology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. At that time he was a Jesuit scholastic, getting in-the-classroom experience, and testing the demands of his calling. Now that his priesthood had been consecrated through the sacrament of Holy Orders and he had been dispatched to the Eternal City to study the New Testament and its commentaries, Father McKeown’s personal doubts and scholarly perplexities were, he feared, all too close to becoming a neurotic disorder.
“How can I accept ordination with all this uncertainty?” he’d once asked his confessor, a functional octogenarian alcoholic, one of the cadre of emeriti that staffed the Woodstock seminary.
“How do you feel about your faith?” the old man asked.
“I feel wonderful,” Ryan admitted. “When I smell the incense in the presence of the Holy Sacrament, I feel…holy…I feel right.”
“Then act as if you were certain,” the old priest had advised. “It is a corollary of Pascal’s wager. There’s no such thing in this world as absolute certainty. So accept that and go forward acting toward the best outcome no matter what.”
As the days before his ordination became cluttered with crucial commitments and endless ceremonies, Ryan found he had no more time to entertain his uncertainties. The trouble with me, he ruminated, is that I’ve always had too little time—for everything. Things just keep happening before I’ve got them figured out. He’d always wished there could be an off-calendar eighth day of the week to do nothing but consolidate what you actually think, hopefully believe, and truly feel.
It was all, to Ryan, a bit overwhelming—especially for a young man who was still intent on figuring out, one piece at a time, the immense puzzle that was the Roman Catholic Church, the religion into which he had been involuntarily baptized as an infant, willy-nilly confirmed as an adolescent, and hesitantly ordained as a priest of its most militant order.
Now it was too late, as far as the priesthood was concerned. He had been confirmed in that direction and, following his old confessor’s advice, determined to make the best of it. To his grateful surprise, even after his ordination his immediate superiors not only encouraged him to continue following his scholarly nose investigating the origins of the Church, but had also mysteriously arranged the residency in Rome.
Whenever his scholarly path seemed to disappear before his eyes, he returned to the simple basic questions that had inspired this quest: How could it be that Theophilus, one of the earliest Christian apologists, wrote nearly 30,000 words about Christianity without once mentioning Jesus Christ? How come the name “Jesus Christ,” in fact, doesn’t appear in any Greek or Latin author until after the Council of Nicaea? Why was it that the only near-contemporary account that mentioned Christ, a suspiciously precise paragraph known as the Testimonium Flavianum, in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, had been proved to be a patent insertion into that historical narrative? How could Jesus have been born in 1 A.D. when the Gospels say he was born before Herod the Great died—and King Herod’s death could be pinpointed to 4 B.C.? Even Philip Cardinal Vasta, now known to the world as Pope Pius XIII, had lamented that the greatest obstacle for spreading the Catholic faith today was that the historical existence of Jesus could no longer be made credible. If Ryan could somehow find a way to stamp a measure of documented authenticity on the career of the Church’s founder, he would be serving the Holy Father as well as his own wavering vocation. If he could make that tangible contribution to the church, he might justify his own doubt-ridden existence and give himself a break.
If he could find evidence to prove objectively that Jesus really existed as a human being, he’d be able to reconcile all the contradictions. Without that proof certain—that had eluded scholars for some two thousand years—every thread of the tapestry of biblical scholarship became just another loose end and his profession based on an allegory at best, at worst, a phantom.