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
“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
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.
Excerpted from "The Messiah Matrix [Kindle Edition]" by Kenneth John Atchity. Copyright © 2012 by Kenneth John Atchity. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.