Call Me Catholic!
God is present under the tree
by Michael McGirr
You can't call yourself a Catholic until you've been saddened by the sight of an old man pulling stuff out of rubbish bins in the street. For the last weeks, this is what my neighbour, Cardinal Shallots, has been doing. Everyone in Inner Springs knows that the good cardinal has been doing it tough since he was retrenched from the Vatican post office, allegedly for putting an image of Mother Teresa on a lower denomination stamp than David Beckham. Shallots thought that, with her commitment to the poor, Mother Teresa would have been happy. The new pontiff, Pope Nike, did not see it that way.
Pope Nike wanted to bring a new level of physical fitness to the Vatican and Shallots had been putting on a bit of a tummy of late. He did not fit the new corporate plan, one in which Pope Nike dreamed of the Vatican hosting the summer Olympics. Pope Nike came to power saying that it was time to clean out the air conditioning ducts. He made holy water available in sports bottles. He attached weights to all chalices. He wanted to see the cardinals in singlets and runners. Pope Nike loved the smell of sweat and had incense developed so St Peter's could smell a bit more like a gym.
Shallots put Beckham on a stamp, as well as Ian Thorpe, to try and appease the new administration but he knew his days were numbered. Pope Nike had been Cardinal Budweiser until he had a conversion experience, facilitated by a lucrative deal with a major sports supplier. In those days, a newly elected Pope would be led ceremoniously from the Sistine Chapel into the offices of the Vatican lawyers where a number of possible contracts would be awaiting his perusal. Observers were surprised when Budweiser, a drinking mate of Pope Pepsi Max, chose such a striking new direction. He vowed to reduce the number of empty bottles outside the papal apartments each morning. Pope Nike saw Shallots' famous theology of the missing sock as pandering to those who could only limp along in life. It comforted those who had trouble walking, let alone running.
Most of us in Inner Springs knew the history. Even the non Catholics among us felt it was a bit rough that his eminence had been reduced to hunting in bins. There were plenty of offers of help but his eminence politely declined. After a while, we began to wonder if perhaps the cardinal was doing more than look for food. He approached each bin with great reverence, kneeling on the footpath before he peered into each one. He sifted the rubbish with care, as tough he was handling delicate china.
Then one day, as I was coming home from an exhausting round of Christmas shopping and was unloading all the parcels which I use every year to pay off some of the guilt that has accrued in my account with the human family, I noticed that Cardinal Shallots had hung an old disposable nappy from the stately eucalypt of the Nicholii variety which overhangs his camp on the block next to mine. Later, I noticed that he had hung an old beer can from another branch. Then, from another, there was an empty cigarette packet.
Cardinal Shallots explained that Christmas was always a pretty grim occasion in the Vatican. There, as elsewhere, it was the worst time of the year for suicide, family tension and workplace arguments. The atmosphere was made worse because Pope Pepsi Max resented the fact that he had to work on Christmas Day when all the atheist heads of state got the day off to drink and smoke cigars.
Shallots said that the Pope did try to cheer things up by instituting a cris cringle among the cardinals. He called a special conclave in the first week of December every year at which each cardinal had to pull an envelope out of a mitre. When they got home, they had to open the envelope and buy a gift for the person whose name was inside. It was all top secret. The pope imposed the same seal on discussing the cris cringle as applied to the sacrament of confession in the days before the Vatican caught the reality TV bug. Nevertheless, there were leakages, even from the conclave. It turns out that every cardinal got an envelope with the same name inside it, the name being that of Pope Pepsi Max. They all knew what to do. They all got him a bottle of bourbon and stayed clear for a few days.
Pope Pepsi Max was widely admired for the dignity with which he carried his hangovers. He was said to be suffering for the whole church. Convents of devout nuns used to drink heavily to join him in his sacrifice. In spite of this, Cardinal Shallots admitted that boxing day often saw the release of some unusual papal pronoucements, such as Adeste Infideles, Pope Pepsi Max's carol for the Islamic world. He would write these pronoucements on the back of the pew sheet from St Peter's, roll them up and put them in the neck of one of the empties which went out in the morning. The devout were then required to accept them as the word of God. No bells were rung in the Vatican on Boxing Day. Pope Nike eventually replaced the bells with recorded motivational messages.
Little by little, next door, Cardinal Shallots continued work on his Christmas tree. Never had such a range of decorations been tied with tinsel to a tree. Fish and chip wrapping. Milk cartons. Advertising brochures. Tins which jangled in the breeze. A hub cap. Broken pegs. A torn plastic laundry basket. The citizens of Inner Springs came to admire and to gossip. Some of the items were a bit heavy and blew down in the wind.
'Don't worry about that,' said Shallots. 'Anything that is beautiful is also fragile.' Work continued. Cereal packets appeared. Bits of chipped crockery. Rusty buckets. Chocolate wrappers. Soft drink bottles.
Before long, people were bringing rubbish of their own. It started with household rubbish. Bits of soap. Plastic bags. Dog eared toothbrushes. Underwear which had been denied a decent retirement and had been forced to work in the domestic cleaning industry. That kind of thing.
But over time, something mysterious happened. Rubbish of a more significant nature appeared as well. Photos of old lovers who had hurt us. Postcards from children who'd only found time to write four lines after they'd been overseas for months. Credit card bills we could not afford to pay. Letters of demand from the bank. Scans from the doctor which showed the shadows on our lungs, the hardness of our arteries. The pyjamas our partners had worn to hospital. Dream catchers which had never worked. Jumpers, full of moth holes, which we had knitted for babies who now have babies of their own. The dentures of our dead parents. Leaves from trees which we loved but which had died in the drought. Pages from books which we had read over and over again until they lost their covers. Cassettes, now warped by the sun, which we had listened to and sung along with when we had driven to the coast for our honeymoons. The sheets between which we had committed acts of infidelity. The pillow slips on which we had cried when there was no one else in the bed. In an ecumenical gesture, Tuesday Mundi, senior bible mechanic at the Big Bible Barn, brought the wedding dress which she had saved and saved to buy for her first marriage. She also brought her very first set of car seat covers, now threadbare, the ones which had the name of Jesus where you rest your head.
There were queues. Cardinal Shallots accepted each piece of rubbish and heard its story. Then, with gentle reverence, he found a place for it on his tree. He waited until the owner was happy with the placement. It was a big tree. It needed to be. Inner Springs is a small place but it has a lot of rubbish.
By Christmas Eve, the job was finished. We stood back. It did look beautiful. For a long time, nobody said anything.
'This is Christmas,' said the cardinal. 'It takes all our rubbish and makes it beautiful.'
By nightfall, people began to peel away from the edge of the group and go home, a lightness in their step. There were fewer arguments over the Christmas table that year in our town than ever before. And fewer bottles to go out the next day.
At midnight, I couldn't sleep. I went into the yard and looked over the fence. Cardinal Shallots, curled up like a baby, was asleep beneath the Nicholii, the one present under the tree.