Graham Greene’s short story, “Special Duties,” tells of a corporate man, William Ferraro, who approached the salvation of his soul in a business-like manner, being one who left nothing to chance and constantly checked on his subordinates to make sure no loose ends were left untied.
After going over his schedule for the day with Hopkinson, his confidential secretary, he asked the latter to call Miss Saunders in, at the same time drawing out a confidential file, which not even Hopkinson was to see.
Graham Greene’s Catholicism particularly manifests itself in this work, which involves indulgences. The Catholic Church teaches that one’s turning away from God or sin signifies at the same time an unhealthy attachment to created things. After forgiveness, one needs to be purified from this attachment in this life or after death, in a state called purgatory. This purification is called “temporal punishment,” as distinguished from “eternal punishment” – the loss of eternal life with God that arises from grave sin.
One satisfies temporal punishment through the patient acceptance of suffering and trials, as well as works of mercy and charity, prayer and penance.
The Church, through its power of binding and loosing given by Christ, can draw, from the infinite merits of Christ himself and his Mystical Body, reliefs or indulgences for a partial or complete removal of temporal punishment. To gain an indulgence, a person must renounce all attachment to sin and perform the work or say the prayer prescribed.
Ferraro assigned the “special” task of gaining indulgences for his benefit to Miss Saunders, his assistant confidential secretary. Every morning, he would grill Miss Saunders about her report regarding the indulgences she had so far gained for Ferraro. Already the folder showed a total of 36,892 days. Before they separated, he asked her what her schedule for the day was and learned that she would be going to a church called St. Praxted in Canon Wood to pray the Rosary.
After his usual activities for the day, Ferraro thought of going to St. Praxted to see how Miss Saunders was doing. In Canon Wood, he made inquiries about a Catholic church, but a policeman told him there were only Anglican and no Catholic churches there, much less one with the name St. Praxted.
Feeling betrayed, Ferraro looked for Miss Saunder’s residence. While he was still in his car, he was shocked to see Miss Saunders appear at the window of her house scantily dressed, a man’s arm around her.
Back in his house, Ferraro felt old and mortal as he reflected on his life. But in the end, Greene writes, he carried on as if nothing had changed. “After a long while Mr. Ferraro knotted his fingers together in the shape some people use for prayer. With Mr. Ferraro it was an indication of decision. The worst was over: time lengthened again ahead of him. He thought: ‘Tomorrow I will set about getting a really reliable secretary.’”
It seemed that Ferraro took to heart what Jesus said in the Gospel of Mark – “Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come.” But he misunderstood what Jesus said next: “It is like a man travelling abroad: he has gone from home, and left his servants in charge, each with his own task; and he has told the doorkeeper to stay awake.” Ferraro forgot that he, and not Miss Saunders, was the servant, and that the duty of staying awake directly fell on him.
Somehow Greene’s story reminds me of a security guard of the mining company where I once worked. Like Ferraro, his boss did not leave anything to chance, and kept making the rounds to check on his men. One night, while on duty, the guard yielded to drowsiness. With the butt of his rifle on the ground and holding on to the barrel, he went to sleep sitting. A man’s presence awakened him. When he opened his eyes, he saw the boots of his boss. He did not panic, he just kept his head down. Knowing the man to be deeply religious, the guard slowly made the sign of the cross, as though he had just finished praying.