Interview of Randy Engel by Marielena Stuart
The life of Christ was filled with extraordinary drama and moments of supernatural ecstasy. Every word, every thought, every action He took was surrounded by controversy--- because the essence of his message was pure love. Pure love confounds, and cannot be understood except by those who strive to remain in the grace of God.
This drama, this supernatural ecstasy, this love has always been part of Roman Catholicism. It signifies the Cross. It encompasses the drama of our lives leading to the moment when we begin our eternal journey. This is Catholicism-- and Catholicism is not for the faint-hearted.
With this dramatic reality in mind, it is no surprise that the renowned Catholic investigative journalist, Randy Engel, has written her first novel and titled it Marrano. The title could be considered audacious by those who adhere to political correctness and want to rewrite history. Unfortunately, political correctness has become a malady which now affects even some of the best intentioned seekers of truth in our society. Therefore, for the benefit of my readers, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, allow me to provide an introduction to my interview of Randy Engel, in order to set the stage, if you will, for a look into her fascinating book, Marrano.
SETTING THE STAGE...
I have shared with my readers my life and survival under Fidel Castro’s brutal Communist regime. I have also shared that my Catholicism was forged under fire. Under Communist fire, that is-- since as Roman Catholics my family and I were under constant threat by Communist authorities who persecuted us for opposing their materialistic atheist dictatorship.
This is why I often say that I did not have Catholicism poured into my brain on a cruise ship lecture in the Caribbean, between canapés and glasses of beer.
The roots of my Catholicism are in Spain, where Spaniards have learned to openly defend their faith for hundreds of years. As such, I am very influenced by Spanish Catholic mystics, such as Teresa of Ávila, whose life and works I deeply admire. She was canonized in 1622 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970.
Saint Teresa of Ávila was born Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada. Her father’s family was from Toledo. Her grandfather, Juan Sánchez, was a rich wool and silk merchant of a conversa family-- meaning that they converted from Judaism to Catholicism. Juan Sánchez moved from Toledo to Ávila at the beginning of the 16th century, where Teresa was born, in 1515.
In 1485 Juan Sánchez had been tried by the ecclesiastical tribunal of the Inquisitor in Toledo for relapsing into his former Jewish faith. Conversos who practiced Judaism in a clandestine manner were called “Marranos” (swine) and were condemned to wear the sambenito penitential garment, under order of the Inquisitor.
Although many descendants of Marranos continue to use this original Spanish term in order to preserve their history, modern historians now refer to them as Crypto-Jews. Teresa’s grandfather, in order to spare his family the bitter memory of his punishment, purchased a certificate of limpieza de sangre (cleansed blood) and moved to Ávila, so as to distance himself from this event in his life.
In spite of her conversa family background, and her grandfather’s sentence as a “Marrano”-- Teresa received a strong Catholic formation and became a nun at a young age. Her piety grew more and more as her prayer life deepened. This led to intense mystical experiences within the walls of her Carmelite convent. Teresa of Ávila’s passionate dedication to Catholicism was evident through her writings and her extraordinary work to rid her religious order of corruption, by reestablishing it as the contemplative order of Discalced Carmelites.
Teresa of Ávila played a powerful role in the mystical renewal of Spanish Catholicism-- and the development of the theology of the Counter Reformation in Spain, which effectively blocked the influence of Protestantism in the Iberian Peninsula. This makes Spanish Roman Catholicism quite different from the rest of Catholic Europe, which has been deeply affected through hundreds of years of incursions of Protestantism into Catholic rituals.
To this day, thanks to the sacrifice and legacy of saintly people like Teresa of Ávila, and in spite of the onslaught of socialism that has afflicted Spanish society, Spain remains a nation with a fervent Catholic core, unafraid to express its faith through legendary public processions, based on the monarchical nature of Roman Catholicism.
I consider myself privileged to have been born into this courageous Spanish Catholic culture, in spite of the errors, trials and tribulations, on the part of the accusers and the accused. Under God’s infinite and mysterious wisdom, each and every one involved in the drama of Spanish Catholicism has contributed to Christendom-- in spite of the limitations of their humanity. Very simply put, Spanish Catholicism contains all the dramatic elements and chaos that surrounded the life of Christ.
Spaniards are a mosaic of people and cultures who found a home and left an imprint on the Iberian peninsula throughout the ages, including Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthagenians, Muslims and Jews. The Jewish population, at the time of Teresa of Ávila, was the largest in Europe. It is for this reason that many descendants of Spaniards and Portuguese, will find conversos and Marranos in their family’s lineage.
Some conversos, as well as their descendants, married into nobility and felt at home in Spain as New Christians. Others, like Teresa of Ávila, entered the Church and became nuns, monks and prelates. Conversos and their descendants also poured into the New World with their New Christian identity and-- in spite of continued Inquisitor investigations and trials, eventually became successful in business, the arts, politics-- and even contributed to the spread of Christianity, as they joined the forces of Christian Conquistadores and missionaries. Teresa of Ávila’s brothers came to the New World in support of the Roman Catholic Crown of Spain-- and at least one of them provided Teresa with the finances needed to establish her Discalced Carmelite convents in Spain.
The fruits of these efforts have not always been abandoned, as some may believe. This was evident to me, as I witnessed the strict Catholic devotion of descendants of conversos who were my neighbors, and who kept practicing their Catholic faith in spite of Communist persecution. As a Roman Catholic who lived under constant Communist oppression, I learned to be very observant of what constitutes true faith.
Many historians have tried to dissect the life of Teresa of Ávila, this incredible child of a conversa family, marked by the past of her “Marrano” lineage. But Teresa of Avila does not need historians to speak for her. Her faith, character and thought was carefully deposited on the pages of her timeless written works-- which I encourage all to read-- and through the legacy expressed in the charism of her religious order.
Alas, not all descendants of conversos followed Christianity as their guiding light. Some, like Fidel Castro, followed a very dark path. I believe this is the path that leads to Randy Engel’s intriguing first novel, Marrano—and the Secret Order of the Sambenito, at the heart of it all.
MMdeS: This novel, as you explain in the subtitle, is about faith, mystery, murder and mayhem at the Vatican. Was there a specific event that inspired you to write this book?
The seeds for Marrano were planted in my mind many years ago – twenty or thirty years perhaps – when I first came upon the word and looked up its meaning. I immediately started a file titled MARRANO which was soon filled with notes and copies of pages of books I obtained through the local lending library system. I read everything from Marrano history to Marrano cookbooks to diaries of modern day Marrano Catholic priests.
Over the years, I began writing the novel in my mind, a mystery based on a Marrano theme, and I started to create a plot and host of characters.
By the time I actually wrote the book in mid-2014, I had already lived with the characters for a long time and knew them all intimately. That’s why when I decided to put pen to paper it took me less than two weeks to write the first draft. Of course, it took another year to add all the details and refine the text and to make the final decision on how the book would end.
MMdeS: The secret society which you feature in the book, called the Order of the Sambenito, is headed by the sinister character named Victor Da Costa. Given the deplorable state of the Church’s modernist hierarchy since Vatican II-- did something or someone specifically spark the creation of this character? My readers would be fascinated by this.
Getting inside the head off an archvillain like Da Costa, the Inquisitor General of the Order, was not as difficult as I had imagined. I’ve lived long enough to have known people who are driven by hate, especially hate for the Roman Catholic Church. In this case, Da Costa’s ancestors, unrepentant Marranos, had been convicted by the Spanish Inquisition and sent to the stake for heresy. So for him, hatred for the Church was a generational legacy and his thirst for revenge a very real thing.
MMdeS: During the Vatican II Council sessions, there were high ranking Russian Orthodox prelates who were invited by the pope as “observers” to the Council sessions through an accord with the Orthodox Church. The patriarchate of Moscow accepted the papal invitation-- and secured the guarantee that the council would refrain from condemning Communism. The negotiations of this accord took place in the town of Metz, France in 1962. The presence of these Russian Orthodox prelates who were invited as observers is depicted in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome-- on the door of Good and Evil. Also, it is well known that the Russian Orthodox Church was involved with the KGB, and to this day, continues to be involved with Communist regimes, as in China and Cuba. Can you please elaborate on Dr. Boris Konstantinov's role in the context of Marrano and the secret society-- the Order of Sambenito)? Is it too farfetched to assume that there are Marranos who joined the Russian Orthodox Church?
The role of Dr. Boris Konstantinov, internationally known as “the Poisoner,” in the plot to put a Marrano on the Chair of Peter, is a very limited one, but it is of the greatest importance. The former KGB scientist is hired by the Order to develop a line of poisons suitable for secret assassinations because they are easy to administer, are quick acting and effective, and most importantly, they leave no trace in the body of the victim.
I understand, that as early as 1969, such poisons had already been developed in the Soviet Union. I first learned about these deadly weapons in the mid-1980s when I became acquainted with a speech on the so-called New World System (Order) given by a former Rockefeller protégé by the name of Dr. Richard Day. He talked about newly-developed poisons which would mimic a heart attack, but be almost impossible to trace in the human body. I drew upon that knowledge when I wrote Marrano.
As for the second part of your question, because of the burning hatred for the Christianity in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, I have no doubt that Stalin and his Communist successors would have included Marranos in their spy cadres and used them to infiltrate both the Russian Orthodox Church as well as the Catholic Church.
In Marrano, which takes place in the not too distant future, there are already at least a half-dozen secret Marrano infiltrators who have risen to the rank of cardinal and are therefore eligible to be elected pope.
MMdeS: Is there a connection in the plot of Marrano with the Communism that has infiltrated the Vatican?
No, not directly.
MMdeS: Monsignor Antony Morello, the good guy, is practically the James Bond of this novel-- minus the carnal sins. Your detailed description of Morello’s surroundings and the magnificence of Rome and the Vatican are an exciting feature in your book. The reader will immediately feel an affinity for Monsignor Morello-- almost as a friend. I feel an affinity to him because he’s a polyglot, likes opera and can tell sublime art from junk. And on top of it all he can really kick you know what.
I have loved the late vocation, middle-aged priest from the moment I conceived him in my mind because he is a composite of every wonderful, faithful Catholic priest I have ever known in my long lifetime.
Monsignor Morello is an ex-Marine and a traditionalist priest. He’s no pansy. He is handsome, manly, brave, has a great sense of humor, and plenty of smarts – both street smarts and academic smarts. The former, his street smarts, puts him in good standing when he has to deal with both the Sicilian Mafia and the Jewish Mossad. Most importantly, he has a deep thirst for the salvation of souls and a deep love for Holy Mother Church.
MMdeS: Monsignor Morello’s character is at times reminiscent of a Crusader. Masculine, strong, a former combat soldier in Afghanistan, who is still unafraid to carry a stiletto and a gun. Is this a message about the kind of priests that the Catholic Church is in desperate need of during these very dark times? I hope so!
Yes. You are quite correct. There is an exciting scene in Marrano in which the good Monsignor is asked to enter the fray to defend the Church and the papacy. He understands that his life is at stake as he moves deeper into his mission. He meditates on the question for a short time, then turns and says, “I am at God’s service and yours. Tell me what you want me to do.” That’s the kind of man and priest he is.
MMdeS: Which side of Monsignor Morello’s personality do you like the most?
You asked me which side of his personality I liked the most. You may be surprised by my answer, which is – his unreserved and seemingly natural chaste behavior born of his supernatural love for Christ.
There are a number of very lovely, feminine, and strong female characters in Marrano, any one of which, in another lifetime, Tony might have fallen in love with, married and raised a family with. But this does not happen in my novel. The women in Marrano, from the oldest to the youngest, have an implicit, instinctive trust and respect for the priest which comes in part from his own love and respect for them.
You will not find our hero whinnying about his vow of celibacy. He came into the priesthood with his eyes wide open and he is content to live a chaste life. He has no regrets on this point. But this does not mean he is struggle-free with regard to his priesthood. How his life is changed around on a singular chance meeting at the Church of Sant’Anna dei Palafreniere, I will leave the reader to discover for himself.
MMdeS: Without giving away the entire plot-- please tell me, what does the Order of the Sambenito really stand to gain from their conspiracy? After all, Holy Mother Church is eternal. Why should we be worried?
In my novel, the Order of the Sambenito has been resurrected and reorganized from its early 17th century model whose primary function was the rescue of Marranos from the Inquisition and assistance in relocating Marrano families in Protestant lands. The modern version of the Order has a different task – the placement of a Marrano on the Chair of Peter and the humiliation and destruction of the Roman Catholic Church from within. As a Catholic, I know that Holy Mother Church will exist until the end of time, but I don’t believe that when the Church is attacked from both within and without, that we are relieved from our moral obligation to do battle against Her enemies, and free from fighting to defend Her in every possible way according to our vocation in life.
MMdeS: The introduction of Monsignor Lazarus Perez is very interesting, since he is described as a Jewish convert. His affinity for the Tridentine Mass (the Latin Mass) is quite interesting. I have found that some descendants of conversos who kept their Ladino language skills, have always preferred the Latin Mass--- in fact they have been long-time supporters of this liturgical treasure. Do you think you will keep this linguistic element in the evolution of Monsignor Perez-- by way of a sequel?
I have no doubt that the reader will come to admire and love Monsignor Perez, known to his friends as Yasha, even though we have him with us for only the early part of the book.
I have had the privilege of knowing many fine Jewish converts to the Catholic faith. Yasha represents the best character traits of all these men.
Early in my novel, talking of his conversion, the elderly Marrano priest tells Tony that there are many different paths that lead to Christ. He speaks of his conversion with great tenderness and thankfulness. I thought of this when I saw that the current occupant of the Chair of Peter has said that there is no need to convert the Jews to Christianity.
I thought of Yasha before his conversion, and all those Jews who will never know the love of Christ because the Church has failed to preach the Gospel to them, and I cried.
MMdeS: In your novel, Monsignor Perez, lays down his life for the Catholic faith and for the papacy. He’s a hero in your story. Did anyone specifically inspire you in the creation of his character?
Yes. The Jewish convert who most deeply influenced me, especially in my fifty years of prolife work was the late Dr. Herbert Ratner of Oak Park, Illinois - an extraordinary Catholic physician, husband, and father and a dear friend and mentor of mine for many years.
MMdeS: As a Spanish Catholic, I find Father O’Malley’s character very interesting-- if anything because Irish Catholicism has its unique expression, based on cultural and geographical roots away from the European continent. In your plot, O’Malley and Morello are good friends. Did you base the friendship of O’Malley and Morello on the Catholic cultural diversity that was part of your upbringing in New York City? Did you grow up around priests like them?
I grew up in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. on the outskirts of New York City, not too far from the Bronx, where much of Marrano takes place. My father was Italian and my mother Portuguese. We lived only a stone’s throw from Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Franciscan parish. My neighborhood was multi-cultural, but alas, I did not meet a true Irish priest until I was married and left home. The character of Father Charlie O’Malley is actually based on three memorable Irish priests I met after I moved to the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They are the great Dominican preacher, Father John F. O’Connor; the wonderful servant of Our Lady of Fatima, Monsignor Charles T. Moss; and my dear friend and singer of Irish songs, Rev. Eugene J. Dougherty.
MMdeS: I don’t want to give away the details-- but the end of your novel is quite momentous-- with Monsignor Morello donning a bullet-proof vest and night goggles! Quite an incredible ending… and on a positive note!
Thank you. You know that Marrano was written not only as a good mystery, but it has also a deeper meaning. The Epilogue is written to give Catholics new hope. Christ is always with us so we are never really alone in this world.
MMdeS: Thank you, Randy, for the opportunity to do this interview.
Thank you Marielena for this delightful opportunity to discuss my new book. I am in your debt.