How many types of mystery in the world can there be? In the late 16th Century, the Roman Catholic Church decides: three. Joyful. Sorrowful. Glorious.
From late winter to mid-summer of 1858, Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes undergoes a series of visions that will change her life. What does she see? “A small young lady” that authorities decide must be The Virgin Mary.
On April 22, 2008, the sun is shining high and round as a yellow balloon over Chicago. I see it through the windows of the elevated train, above treetops and patios, people and streets. Reading the tabloid newspaper they hand out at the stations, I am struck by the splashy headline of a miniscule news item: Brazilian Priest Tied to Hundreds of Balloons Disappears into Sky.
I look up from the page. Do I know this guy?
Then I am looking at my fellow passengers, expecting—because I am puzzled—to see puzzlement on their faces, but of course I don’t. There’s little chance that anyone on this car, let alone this entire train, could answer.
Do I know this guy? This question will haunt me like a revenant all day.
Brazil is a huge country, I think as I push through the turnstile at my stop in the Loop. One of the five most populous in the world, I think as I walk through the tunnel toward my job at the federal building. Why, out of the 187 million or so people who live there, would this happen to involve one of the few dozen I’ve met?
Almost three years ago now, my younger sister Beth and I got married to our respective fiancés in Brazil, though not because our fiancés were Brazilian. Our wedding ceremony was performed by our great uncle Alfred—Dom Alfredo as he is known in the town of Paragangua, in the southern state of Parana—who has lived in South America for over half a century. Alfred is a Catholic bishop. Having him preside was the only way we could see our lapsed Catholic selves doing a traditional church wedding. It had been some time since either Beth or I felt comfortable with the Church as an institution, but ever since we were kids we had felt a strong connection with Alfred as an individual. He was a legend in our family.
We stayed with him in his rundown port city for a month prior to our nuptials, visiting the parishioners and places he’d dedicated decades to serving. It was impossible not to be moved by the good work that Alfred and his colleagues were doing in Paranagua, yet even in the midst of our visit, organized religion seemed wishful to me. It still does today—deliberately naïve in a way I can’t force myself to be, though I sometimes wish I could, like believing in a children’s story.
A favorite place of Alfred’s was the Catholic school Leão XIII, named after one of his heroes, the “Pope of the Working Man.” Upon its completion, Alfredo himself oversaw the bolting to the white brick wall of a burnished plaque bearing a Portuguese translation of a quotation from the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette.
“I saw that movie with your Granny when I was in—what? Sixth grade?” he told us after we’d stood looking at the plaque for a moment and he’d approved my halting effort to translate the quotation for Beth. “It might have been the first movie we ever saw in the theater.” He tightened his grip on my arm for support, and gestured with his free hand toward the raised metal letters. “I’ll never forget this quotation from the beginning: ‘For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.’”
As the standard eight-hour workday slips by, the headline hovers in my memory like a short story—unbelievable, fictional, magical-realist. The office is so busy, I have no time to waste mucking around on the internet to look into details, and by the time I make my way home on the Red Line, the item lingers like a dream, vivid in the morning, but blurred and faded in the erosion of the day.
As I sit down after dinner to read some celebrity news, my favorite guilty pleasure of any given weeknight, something is bugging me, though I can’t recall what. I pull up the URL for Perez Hilton—“Celebrity Juice, Not From Concentrate!”—and as I wait for the page to load, slowly, as it always does, the words popping up against a lurid hot-pink background before the large color photographs do, I see the news again, under Perez’s signature “Headline of the Week Weak:” Missing, the Brazilian Priest who Floated off under Hundreds of Helium Party Balloons.
It has been an unseasonably cold spring, and the windows in our apartment are flung wide to let in the cool air of the evening, but that’s not why I shiver. I feel certain now that I do know this guy, and in the seconds it takes the pictures to fill the screen, I am thinking over and over—like a prayer, though I don’t habitually do that sort of thing —please don’t let it be Adelir, please don’t let it be Adelir, please don’t let it be Adelir, and I don’t know exactly with whom I’m pleading; I guess it must be God or whoever would be in charge of not letting it be.
But it is Adelir. Below three successive images of a compact middle-aged priest in a red helmet and a bright white flight suit growing increasingly distant as he rises, weightless, into a pearl-gray sky are these words:
The Rev Adelir Antonio de Carli lifted off from the port city of Paranagua on
Sunday afternoon [...] The smiling 41-year-old priest was strapped to a seat attached to a huge column of green, red, white and yellow balloons, and soared into the air to the cheers of a crowd. He was reported missing about eight hours later after losing contact with port authority officials. The priest wanted to break a 19-hour record for the most hours flying with balloons to raise money for a spiritual rest-stop for truckers in Paranagua, Brazil’s second-largest port for agricultural products.
On reflex, on instinct, I pick up my cell phone and call my sister Beth, the only other human being in this country who might feel the same impact this news has on me.
The first time Beth and I saw Adelir, he was skydiving with his flimsy parachute from a mosquito-like prop plane. The subtropical climate was hot and dazzling and sometimes we’d lose Adelir, like a pop fly, in the glare of the sun.
“Padre Adelir,” Alfredo said, as Beth and I stood with him on the pockmarked tarmac of the abandoned Paranagua airport, “has always been something of a—what do you call it?” He searched for the word in English. “A daredevil. Kathy, a daredevil—is that right?”
The airport had been shut down years before due to lack of security on the ground. Little kids, having nothing better to do, would take to the fields and throw rocks at planes, until eventually the nation’s airlines refused to land there. City officials eventually reincarnated the airport as an Aeroparque, catering to hobbyists and pleasure-flyers.
And now, each time Adelir glided, dangling like an elegant pendulum from his arcing parachute above the dusty ground, everyone—sullen teenage couples, families with tiny kids, cotton-candy vendors and ice cream men—cheered loudly as he touched down. He’d always alight on the grass, sprightly and upright.
I had to agree with Alfredo. “A daredevil,” I replied above the buzz of small engines. “Definitely.”
Beth and I would learn that Adelir was a daredevil in his spiritual life as well as his recreational one. Younger and fitter than many of the clergy, he had started the truckstop church of São Cristóvão and the accompanying Pastoral Rodoviaria in the decaying suburb Jardim Iguacu almost completely of his own rebellious accord. He drove his white Volkswagen, covered with slogans and decals like edgy tattoos, out to weigh stations and roadside stands, evangelizing truckers on their own terms and on their own turf. He rode his motorcycle at top speed down the cobblestone hairpins of the Graciosa Trail alone, at night, sometimes in the rain, to tend to the needs of his flock. And in return, these people loved him.
I loved him too, during our brief acquaintance. His evident death-drive combined with a tremendous thirst for life—in a church that is relentlessly death-obsessed yet simultaneously life-affirming—was refreshing. While the self-proclaimed infallible Church seemed cold, immoveable, and out-of-touch, Adelir’s willingness to test the limits of his life while reaching out to expand the limits of the lives of others reminded me of my own humanity with its attendant frailty and fallibility.
According to the news reports Beth and I are reading together online, the faithful of Paranagua are reluctant to admit that Padre Adelir might be lost and gone forever.
“We are absolutely confident he will be found alive and well, floating somewhere in the ocean,” said the treasurer of his São Cristóvão parish. “He knew what he was doing and was fully prepared for any kind of mishap.”
We investigate further. True, he had taken courses in jungle survival and mountain climbing. And back in January, he made a test run with several hundred balloons that took him approximately 17,000 feet in the air, from the town of Ampere to neighboring Argentina. But fully prepared? We decide that that depends on how one considers his having water and cereal bars to last only five days, and apparently not knowing how to operate his GPS.
Was any explanation possible? Was any necessary?
Searching further, we find picture after picture of Adelir smiling and waving as he drifted aloft, eerily similar to the ones Beth, a photographer, took that day back at the Aeroparque. And on the Internet comment boards, we find that people seem to be taking his disappearance in one of two ways: either what he did was the stupidest thing ever, and he got—eaten by sharks? marooned on some island?—what he deserved, or what he did was almost some kind of miracle—the period of hope and sorrow and expectant uncertainty—with evident parallels to the death of Christ, only (so far) without the coming back part.
Sources exhausted, Beth and I hang up our phones.
Our parents made Beth and I and our younger sister Megan attend dozens of years of Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes, the official name of the Catholic version of what amounted to Sunday School. In CCD we learned that in the Bible, in the Gospel of St. John especially, miracles seem meant to be understood specifically as signs: God illustrating his typically subtle behavior by conspicuous means. But what, I want to know, does Adelir’s balloon stunt signify? Of what, if anything, is his disappearance a sign?
In Catholic tradition, a pause for a confession: My reaction is not exactly identical to Beth’s. She is sad. So am I. She is indignant at the cruel jokes at Adelir’s expense, the dismissals of his life, his service, his charity, the mockery of crass morning DJs, and the multiple Darwin Award nominations. So am I. She is horrified, in the ensuing weeks, as his chances of ever being found alive dwindle to a small point before vanishing entirely.
But I am thrilled in a way that she is not. I feel a twinge of something that might be delight. See, I am a collector of mysterious disappearances: Bas Jan Ader, Ambrose Bierce, DB Cooper, Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, Weldon Kees, Rob Stoner, and on and on and etc., etc. Maybe because someday I’d like to be one myself? It seems so intriguing yet difficult to achieve—how to evaporate without leaving any trace? How to die without leaving an immediately visible and incontrovertible body behind? Fascinated as I am by mysterious disappearees, I never thought I’d actually know one.
As I keep up my news vigil for word of Adelir, he remains absent, but poles appear, two transparencies that overlap, representing two differing perspectives of the world. You line them up and get a different view depending on where you are looking from.
If you are not a person of faith—if you are one for whom no explanation is possible—then you look at what Adelir did and say that his loss means no more than that the herd has been thinned—not that he, as a celibate priest, was really going to add much to the herd anyway. To the people on the train reading the wacky news item, to the people in their cars with the AM talkshows, no explanation is required except that he was an idiot.
But this seems an impoverished way to look at the world, and it’s hard to wish everybody would see it this way.
Yet if you are a person of faith, then Adelir is a man of the cloth with every reason to have thought that God would protect him, and if he is lost forever, well then that’s God’s will. These are the people to whom this is much more than a goofy news item; to members of his community, his daffy act was imminently intelligible. It’s not like there was a little child running through the village calling suddenly, “Padre Adelir has floated away!”—they knew it was happening. They turned out by the hundreds to cheer him on. To the people of the Church, no explanation is necessary except that this is the way it was Meant to Be.
The word mystery comes most recently from Middle English and Latin, but if you go all the way back to the Greek, you find the root mūein—to close the eyes. And to say that Adelir’s disappearance is to be taken in only one inarguable way seems shut-eyed—seems to require a willful closing, an artificial ignorance.
When Bernadette of Lourdes experienced her eighteen visions in the cave of Massabielle, her fellow villagers wondered: Might the apparition be an evil spirit after all? But the figure had bare feet—beautiful human ones, pure and delicate—and everyone knew that demons had cloven hooves like Satan himself, or animal paws at the very least.
How do I know what is the meaning of what I see? Beautiful toes or cloven hooves—what kind of feet do I put on Adelir’s act?
In 2002, Pope John Paul II added a new set of mysteries to the Roman Catholic Church’s previously codified three: the luminous mysteries, or the mysteries of light. If you are confused or have a poor memory but still hope to keep these mysteries straight as you pray the rosary, it can help to create a handy chart. For example:
|Day of Recitation
||With the Luminous Mysteries
||Without the Luminous Mysteries
||The Glorious Mysteries:
Fruit of the Mystery: Faith
Fruit of the Mystery: Hope and desire for Heaven
The Descent of the Holy Spirit.
Fruit of the Mystery: Holy Wisdom to know the truth and share with everyone
The Assumption of Mary.
Fruit of the Mystery: Grace of a Happy Death and True Devotion towards Mary
The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Fruit of the Mystery: Perseverance and Crown of Glory
|Advent to Sunday before Septuagesima:
The Joyful Mysteries
Septuagesima to Palm Sunday:
The Sorrowful Mysteries
Easter to Sunday before Advent:
The Glorious Mysteries
And so on.
It will tell you the order in which they are to be meditated upon and what you are supposed to be reminded of as you do this meditation: the minute and memorizable systematization of something that seems boundless and wholly ungovernable. It would seem that it should not be possible to take the mystery of faith and have it quantified, inventoried, tabled, or bullet-pointed. Yet curiously—and not uncomfortingly—the Church seems to specialize in the enumeration of mystery.
Of the 7,000 miracles said to have taken place at the holy site discovered by Saint Bernadette at Lourdes, just 68 have been confirmed as genuine by both the Lourdes Medical Bureau and the Catholic Church. Count them up. Enumerate.
So is Adelir’s mystery joyful, sorrowful, or glorious? It’s sad, therefore sorrowful might seem to be the obvious answer, but the chart with the mysteries doesn’t work that way. It would seem to represent detachment from the things of the world, contempt of riches and love of the poor. So maybe it’s joyful? But his helium trick was a kind of Ascension, which of course represents hope and a desire for heaven, which would make it glorious, as would the seeming assumption of his body into heaven, representing the grace of a happy death. Or maybe it’s luminous?
Maybe this is what the mystery of Adelir “means:” in the absence of certainty about the world and its workings, you have to be awesome. And that in itself is the ability to behave in a way that might be miraculous, or at least that allows for the possibility of such things.
My obsessive watch for news of Adelir ends months later in mid-July, almost exactly three years after I met him. I check Wikipedia, expecting not to find anything I haven’t already read, and find instead the update that he has been found, or rather his body has, one hundred miles off the coast of the state of Rio de Janeiro by the crew of an offshore oilrig.
So that’s it, then. And one could say that the mystery ends there, that it’s not a mystery anymore now that we can mark with an X the spot where the body got found.
I read it like an X, as in XOXO at the end of a letter, the closing to a message I received but never fully understood, and will re-read and re-read and get no closer to comprehending. I still can’t imagine what he must have been thinking. Did he lose his faith as it happened, or did the ordeal make it stronger? Did he struggle against his fate or did he accept it with grace? What had his faith been like in the first place?
Adelir was attempting something enumerable. If you set out to break a record, especially as a fundraiser, then obviously what you do must be calculated, must be quantifiable, just as the money you earn for it must be. At the same time, what he was doing seems impossible to articulate.
But I’ll try: There is something awesome about a priest just floating away. You can laugh all you want, or if you choose, you can cry. Either way, this guy was cool. He was cool in a way the Church is not usually cool: a little bit Jackass, a little bit Cool Hand Luke, a little bit Christ. And a little bit ridiculous—Adelir in his airsuit, Adelir in his helmet—and everyone, the downtrodden truckers, the sullen teens and horny couples, the disabled elderly and the enormous families, all looking up and feeling such love for him and his fatal combination of reckless enthusiasm and cool detachment, the way he kicked clear and free, for a minute, of everything.