As the church's conservatrice d'affaires, Sister Sandrine was responsible for overseeing all nonreligious aspects of church operations—general maintenance, hiring support staff and guides, securing the building after hours, and ordering supplies like communion wine and wafers.
Tonight, asleep in her small bed, she awoke to the shrill of her telephone. Tiredly, she lifted the receiver.
"Soeur Sandrine. Eglise Saint-Sulpice."
"Hello, Sister," the man said in French.
Sister Sandrine sat up. What time is it? Although she recognized her boss's voice, in fifteen years she had never been awoken by him. The abbé was a deeply pious man who went home to bed immediately after mass.
"I apologize if I have awoken you, Sister," the abbé said, his own voice sounding groggy and on edge. "I have a favor to ask of you. I just received a call from an influential American bishop. Perhaps you know him? Manuel Aringarosa?"
"The head of Opus Dei?" Of course I know of him. Who in the Church doesn't? Aringarosa's conservative prelature had grown powerful in recent years. Their ascension to grace was jump-started in 1982 when Pope John Paul II unexpectedly elevated them to a "personal prelature of the Pope," officially sanctioning all of their practices. Suspiciously, Opus Dei's elevation occurred the same year the wealthy sect allegedly had transferred almost one billion dollars into the Vatican's Institute for Religious Works—commonly known as the Vatican Bank—bailing it out of an embarrassing bankruptcy. In a second maneuver that raised eyebrows, the Pope placed the founder of Opus Dei on the "fast track" for sainthood, accelerating an often century-long waiting period for canonization to a mere twenty years. Sister Sandrine could not help but feel that Opus Dei's good standing in Rome was suspect, but one did not argue with the Holy See.
"Bishop Aringarosa called to ask me a favor," the abbé told her, his voice nervous. "One of his numeraries is in Paris tonight...."
As Sister Sandrine listened to the odd request, she felt a deepening confusion. "I'm sorry, you say this visiting Opus Dei numerary cannot wait until morning?"
"I'm afraid not. His plane leaves very early. He has always dreamed of seeing Saint-Sulpice."
"But the church is far more interesting by day. The sun's rays through the oculus, the graduated shadows on the gnomon, this is what makes Saint-Sulpice unique."
"Sister, I agree, and yet I would consider it a personal favor if you could let him in tonight. He can be there at... say one o'clock? That's in twenty minutes."
Sister Sandrine frowned. "Of course. It would be my pleasure."
The abbé thanked her and hung up.
Puzzled, Sister Sandrine remained a moment in the warmth of her bed, trying to shake off the cobwebs of sleep. Her sixty-year-old body did not awake as fast as it used to, although tonight's phone call had certainly roused her senses. Opus Dei had always made her uneasy. Beyond the prelature's adherence to the arcane ritual of corporal mortification, their views on women were medieval at best. She had been shocked to learn that female numeraries were forced to clean the men's residence halls for no pay while the men were at mass; women slept on hardwood floors, while the men had straw mats; and women were forced to endure additional requirements of corporal mortification... all as added penance for original sin. It seemed Eve's bite from the apple of knowledge was a debt women were doomed to pay for eternity. Sadly, while most of the Catholic Church was gradually moving in the right direction with respect to women's rights, Opus Dei threatened to reverse the progress. Even so, Sister Sandrine had her orders.
Swinging her legs off the bed, she stood slowly, chilled by the cold stone on the soles of her bare feet. As the chill rose through her flesh, she felt an unexpected apprehension.
A follower of God, Sister Sandrine had learned to find peace in the calming voices of her own soul. Tonight, however, those voices were as silent as the empty church around her.