“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” — Alexander Pope

Syracuse, Sicily: 1980

Standing near the phone in his boarding school dormitory, Gregorio waited to hear the sweet voices of his parents. They always called at the same time: Saturday mornings at ten. But his eagerness was cut short when one of his teachers stepped into the room.

“Gregorio, the headmaster wants to see you,” he said. “Now!”

Gregorio’s stomach twisted at the urgency in his teachers’ voice. According to his classmates, only bad boys were called to the headmaster’s office. Gregorio had always strived to be first in his class, a model student. He wanted to succeed so he could follow in his father’s footsteps and become a banker. His father was a self-made man who had worked hard and built his wealth from the ground up to ensure his family stayed comfortable.

Gregorio’s heart pounded as he walked down the corridor towards the headmaster’s office. What could it be? Why is he calling me? What have I done wrong? Once the door to the office closed behind him, he felt enveloped by the thick air in the room.

The headmaster was pacing the length of his office and paused as soon as he saw Gregorio. “Please sit down, Gregorio. Have a glass of water.” A thin-lipped half-smile played across his pale face.

The 16-year-old gave his headmaster an awkward smile, then ensconced himself in the chair and took a sip from the glass on the table in front of him.

“You must be wondering why I called you.” The headmaster took a deep breath and gestured to the pile of trunks and bags in the corner. Gregorio had been too focused on the headmaster to notice them before. “I’ve asked your teacher to pack your belongings and accompany you to the railway station. From now on, you must be brave.”

Noticing Gregorio’s perplexed expression, the headmaster removed his glasses, folding them slowly, before placing them in his breast pocket.

“You need to go home to Salemi, son. Something terrible has happened.”

At the next words, Gregorio’s chest tightened, and he felt like he could not get enough air to his lungs. The walls were closing in on him.

He needed to get out.

A stream of unwelcome tears rolled down his cheeks. The world around him became blurry, the overwhelming darkness engulfed his consciousness before he could put a clear thought together.

The next thing Gregorio was able to register was his parish priest uttering the final prayers as his father, mother, and baby sister were laid to rest in the town cemetery. He was in a state of paralysis and inner darkness at the funeral. Fate had rendered him an orphan, with no one left to call family. Standing there near their graves, a lump started to build in his throat. He felt drained of all emotion, like a walking zombie who couldn’t think or feel.

His parish priest was gracious enough to take Gregorio into his care and enroll him at the Don Bosco Seminary. There, Gregorio studied theology. After several years of rigorous study and devout adherence, he was ordained a priest. Though he was taught to forgive and forget, bitterness festered like a gaping wound.

Turin, Piedmont: 1995

The church bell rang out at ten in the morning. Overlooking the Po River, the Church of Santa Maria al Monte dei Cappuccini was magnificent as ever. The tall spire that adorned this remarkable structure complemented its beauty. Amongst the smallest of the churches in the city, the late-Renaissance style building always had a way of capturing hearts. Above the entrance to the church was a gracefully curved balcony that could be reached by narrow winding staircases on each side. It was a cozy, intimate place filled with a sense of peace and serenity.

The aura of warmth beckoned Cesare. Stopping just short of the gate, he decided to savor the tranquility of the church. The multi-hued rays of sunshine shone through the stained-glass windows, illuminating the nave of the church in all its glory. He took a few steps into the magnificent building but was stopped in his tracks by a disturbing memory that had been haunting him for the past decade. A stream of thoughts swirled around and around in his volatile mind, weighing heavily on his conscience.

Making the sign of the cross, the priest turned from the altar and proceeded towards the rectory. He stopped upon seeing Cesare, a scrawny, forlorn man standing at the entrance in front of the sunlit aisle. With his unkempt grey hair, shabby beard, bedraggled clothes, and the worn-out bag he carried, Cesare looked out of place in the pristine church. The wrinkles on his tanned face had misery written all over them, while the dark circles under his eyes betrayed his distress. Presumably driven by sheer curiosity, the priest proceeded to engage him in small talk.

“Buongiorno! Nice day isn’t it?” He smiled.

Cesare remained frozen, staring at the altar with bloodshot eyes, unaware of what was happening around him. The priest had to clear his throat to draw his attention.

Cesare scanned the young priest, the perfect antithesis to himself. Dressed in an immaculate white cassock, his pleasant, clean-shaven face radiated an aura of calm.

“Did you say something, Padre?” Cesare croaked in a thick Sicilian accent.

“I was just remarking on what a nice day it is. I have not seen you around here before.”

Si, Padre, this is the first time I have come to your church.”

“Oh! It’s only been a couple of months since I was ordained and put in charge here.” The priest beamed and extended his hand. “I’m Gregorio.”

Cesare clasped it in his own, offering a feeble handshake.

“And don’t mind me asking this,” Gregorio continued. “You’re from Sicily, right?”

Si, I…err…just finished serving my sentence at Pagliarelli.” He tried to cloak his guilt. “I came to Turin to meet my cellmate’s family. I thought of spending some time in this church before leaving.”

With a disarming smile, Gregorio put his hand around Cesare’s shoulder. “Come, let me show you around.”

Cesare felt surprised that Gregorio’s tone did not change despite having revealed his identity as an ex-convict.

“No, Padre. I can’t come any further. A sinner like me doesn’t deserve to.”

“Here, there are no saints or sinners. All are children of God.”

“But my hands!” Cesare raised his palms and looked at them. “My hands have done terrible things.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Scusi, I have to leave.”

“Would you like to make a confession and free your mind?” Gregorio asked.

“No, I’m not ready.”

“Remember, whatever you confide in me is between you and God.” He held Cesare’s hand with an assuring grip.

Mi dispiace.” Cesare tried to escape Gregorio’s grip. “I can’t! I have to go.”

“My seal of confession prohibits me to utter a word to anyone.” Gregorio refused to let go of him. “No matter what your sins are, I will take them to my grave.”

The moment he said this, the bitterness began to subside on Cesare’s face. The time was ripe to get the burden off his chest. A chance at redemption was knocking at his door and he thought only a fool would not accept it. “Bene, Padre. I’ll do it.” He gave a slight nod.

As Gregorio led him to the confessional chamber, Cesare prepared to spill out the emotions he had been repressing all these years.

The wooden confessional had two sides, one for the penitents to position themselves on a kneeler and the other where the priest listened. A grille separated the priest and the penitent and obscured their views, such that one could hardly see the other’s face. The dim light from a yellow lamp in the chamber scattered across the holes of the grille, making the penitent’s area glow.

After placing the purple stole around his neck, Gregorio slid open the little window and took his seat, bringing his ear closer. Turning the pages of his gold-edged Bible to the third chapter of Colossians, he read in a gentle voice, “Even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye.

Kneeling in front of the grille, Cesare made a feeble Sign of the Cross and muttered, “Bless me, Padre, for I have sinned.”

“How long has it been since your last confession?”

“Years, maybe even decades. I don’t know. The last time I remember confessing was when I was young.”

“Why? What happened after that?”

“Fate, Padre. I blame my damn fate! I was the eldest of five kids. Babbo was an alcoholic and Mamma, an invalid. I served at the local cathedral as an altar boy. Do you believe it? This same face.” He circled his face with his finger. “Life began to get rough after Babbo died.”

His face twisted with sadness as he continued. “I did all sorts of odd jobs to make ends meet. Selling drugs, counterfeiting lira notes, pimping out whores, I indulged in all kinds of evils. And finally, I started targeting rich families and robbing their mansions while they were away.”

“That was when…” he paused and groaned, “…that terrible thing happened, that one night that has been haunting me for the past 15 years. It’s a memory I can’t let go of.” He broke down at once, his eyes welling up.

“It’s okay. No matter your sin, God is there to forgive.” Gregorio tried comforting him.

Hanging his head in bitter shame, Cesare spilled his guts.

“15 years ago, I was on a burglarizing spree in Sicily. After ransacking many homes, I reached the small town of Salemi and targeted a locked mansion. The word on the street was that the wealthy owner had set out on a pilgrimage to the Vatican along with his family. I broke into the house at midnight and started hunting for valuables. Only after a while, it dawned on me that I had entered the neighboring mansion instead. I mixed up the house numbers since it was pitch dark.”

Gregorio leaned forward and listened intently; this was not the first crime to be confessed to him. He had been taught to not be affected by the confessions of his congregation and to not react it if it did affect him as it was not his place to judge.

“The owner caught me red-handed as I was breaking open the safe. He wrestled with me with all his might, but I took the knife from my pocket and tried scaring him. In the heat of the moment, I stabbed and killed him. His wife must have heard us. She came running from down the hall, carrying a baby in her arms. She saw her husband lying in a pool of blood, she…I’ll never forget the look on her face. Her eyes got big and her lips contorted. Trying to muffle her screams, I put my hands around her throat, squeezing it until she went still. It was too late when I realized I had accidentally suffocated her to death. The baby fell to the floor from her arms and started wailing. I was scared that it might alert the neighbors, so I took a cushion and…”

Cesare buried his face in his palms, overcome by guilt. “I smothered the baby to death. Struggling to breathe, it died right there, in my hands. I keep hearing that sound of the child gasping for air, bouncing around in my head, even now. It haunts me through my nightmares. I had committed a mortal sin so vile that I believed Satan had possessed me.”

Gregorio’s face had gone cold. He swallowed and struggled to keep his breath even. He was gripping his fists so tightly in his lap that his knuckles were white. It was high time for his inner wrath to be rekindled, yet he sat there in silence.

“I picked up whatever valuables I could lay my hands on, cleaned up the crime scene, and got the hell out of there. I vowed to never show my face near that area again. From the dailies, I came to know that it remained an unresolved case.” A teardrop ran down Cesare’s cheek. “After that, I started ‘painting houses’ for a mob boss. Within months, I was arrested for an armed burglary attempt and sent to Pagliarelli. I’ve regretted my monstrous act for years. The other crimes I committed were like passing clouds, but the one in Salemi is a lasting scar. I just can’t get it out of my head!”

The tragic episodes from his childhood flashed right in front of Gregorio’s eyes. The man he had abhorred all these years was seeking absolution for killing his own family. Oh, the divine irony!

With his head down, Cesare cried, “I want redemption, Padre. Please ask God to forgive me for all my sins.”

The voices inside Gregorio’s head were challenging his sanity.

Kill him!

Kill that wretched bastard!

He had wiped out your entire family without a speck of compassion.

Monsters like him do not deserve a place on earth.

Kill him!

At the same time, yet another voice inside his head countered his bloodlust.

For God’s sake, no!

If you decide to do so, what is the difference between you and him?

You do not belong to his ilk; you have a greater calling in life.

Remember, those who live by the sword perish by the sword.

You are a manifestation of God on earth.

Spare his soul!

Heaven and hell twisted together in a storm and tore his mind apart. The contradicting voices grew louder and louder.

To kill or not to kill?

To forgive or not to forgive?

To kill? To forgive?

To forgive? To kill?


Regaining his senses, Gregorio took quick, short breaths. He bit his fist hard, trying to muffle the agony he wanted to scream out. His moral compass wavered. There was a war going on inside his head. He was struggling to keep his demons under control. But even in the darkest of times, there exists a ray of hope. The hope that love transcends all. Gregorio realized that forgiveness was the biggest punishment he could give someone who had wounded him. Taking revenge and hurting Cesare would never make a difference. Thinking no further, he decided to let it go. At last, mercy had trumped vengeance.

“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself and,” Gregorio stuttered, gulping down his sobs and brushing his tears, “sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

As Cesare looked up to face him, Gregorio said, “Go in peace!”

After all these years, the caged bird was set free from its misery. Thanking Gregorio, Cesare stood up and left. Retracing his steps towards the gate of the church, he heaved a sigh of relief and glanced at his reflection in a nearby puddle of water. He saw a new man, a man who was redeemed from sin. A man who smiled for the first time after many years.

Back in the chamber, Gregorio slammed his fists into his temples and wailed. But deep down, he felt that his parents must be proud of him from above. Kneeling in front of the crucifix, he joined his hands to pray. As the afternoon sun cast its light, he saw himself in the face of Christ.

Hollywood Hills, California: Present Day

“Bravo, bravo, bravo!” Travis clapped his hands, puffing plumes of smoke from his pipe. Dressed in an elegant navy-blue suit, his salt-and-pepper hair tied into a ponytail at his nape, he looked like a typical Hollywood producer. The walls of his office were adorned with giant black-and-white portraits of the likes of Scorsese, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Fellini, and Spielberg. “This is among the best short film screenplays I’ve read in recent times, Angelo. But I still think it needs a lot of fine-tuning. We can work with a script doctor for that.”

Angelo, who was sitting opposite him, grinned in delight. A thirty-something journalist-turned-screenwriter, he had unsuccessfully tried pitching his latest script to a few production houses and now, it looked like his dream would soon see the light of day.

“Does that mean…” Angelo stroked his stubble, anticipating a positive response.

“Hell, yeah! I’m producing this. There are no two ways about it.” Travis nodded. “I’m sure my partners would concur once they read the script. As soon as the final cut is out, we can take it to Cannes, Venice, Toronto, and Berlin.”

“Thank you. It’s an absolute honor, sir.” Angelo’s face lit up.

“Come on, you don’t have to thank me. I loved the realism in your story. What inspired you to write this?”

“It’s based on a true story from my hometown in Italy. I heard about the priest from a friend and had a chance to meet the man himself. His real name is Vittorio.”

“That’s great! I’d love to talk to him someday. Maybe you could arrange a video call.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Angelo said with a glint in his eye.

“And why is that?”

“Well, the priest is in prison.”

“What?!” Travis dropped his pipe in disbelief.

“I’m afraid my script isn’t the entire truth.”

“Go on, I’m listening.” Travis leaned forward in curiosity.

“As a creator, I wanted to stay true to the actual story.” Angelo asserted. “But for the sake of the audience, I had to lie. There are only two things in this world: those you can hear and those you cannot. The people watching the film must take something back home. Something positive worth clinging on to. Even if it’s a false symbol of hope that makes them believe that the world still has some good in it. They are waiting for their much-needed catharsis.”

With a perplexed look on his face, Travis gulped the glass of water in front of him. Wiping his lips, he said, “Why are you being so cryptic? Just cut to the chase.”

“I’ll tell you how it truly ended, and let you decide which ending you prefer.” Angelo smiled.

Turin, Piedmont: 1995

Vittorio’s eyes went wide; sweat poured from his forehead. The horrible monster was right in front of him. Pain rippled through his chest. Tears blurred his sight. The voices inside his head grew louder.

To kill or not to kill?

To forgive or not to forgive?

To kill? To forgive?

To forgive? To kill?


Fury boiled to the surface of his heated body. His eyes shot up to the crucifix. He ripped it from the wall and stabbed it through the grille, knocking it down. The clang vibrated through the confessional box and reverberated through the church. Cesare’s head flopped backward. Not dead; unconscious.

Rage seethed from Vittorio. He slammed the crucifix down on Cesare’s skull. It came down again and again and again. Blood on the walls, copper scent in the air, iron on his lips.

“Die, bastardo!” he cried as he pulled his arm back to drive the final blow. The crucifix embedded in Cesare’s eyeball, the life force leaving him.

Breathing hard, heart racing, sweat pouring down his face, Vittorio closed his eyes and yelled, “Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord.

To err is human, but to forgive is divine. After all, Vittorio was a human, not a manifestation of God on Earth. There existed a heart flowing with streams of red inside his white cassock. A heart that could feel pain, grief, and the desire to exact sweet revenge. God may forgive even the worst of sinners. But man will not. Man has to live with his wrath, which can tear him apart and make him miserable ‘til his last breath. Because at the end of the day, the wrath of man is greater than the wrath of God.