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
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
“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
“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.
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