by Roger Weston
Padre Diego Portichuelo de Rivadeneira stood fast against the pounding wind. He clung to the rail as the Nuestra Senora de las Maravillas rose on the sea’s liquid hills and sunk into her deepening valleys. He struggled to stand against the wind, and so he leaned into it. He leaned forward over the rail as gusts pounded him and thrashed the ship. He had survived a shipwreck just last year, yet fear touched him as he beheld the sinking low clouds, which were thick and unleashing torrents of driving rain.
Big sheets of water were torn off the surface of the waves and dispersed as spray. White streaks and foam patches covered the surface of raging, uncaring and unrelenting sea. The power of the advancing sea was a frightening spectacle to behold. Padre Diego could not help but feel just how insignificant he was in the universe. He sensed the vulnerability of the ship beneath his feet that was being tossed around like a mere cork. He knew to his bones that one rogue wave could doom the Maravillas and her mortal crew. His knees shook. Guilt and shame clung to him. As the storm raged, he felt no less fear than the apostles had on the Sea of Galilee before Jesus stilled the storm and rebuked them for their lack of faith. Oh, he was ashamed, indeed.
In the distance he saw other ships of the fleet tempting fate thanks to the staggering boldness and courage of their crews and captains, men who lived every day as if it was the only day they would ever have. They lived boldly and gloriously, in contempt of fear, choosing even death as preferable to a life of defeat and cowardice. Better than anyone, Padre Diego knew they were deeply flawed, but they were pushed and pulled by the conflicting currents and riptides of the cross-seas of life. Now their ships were facing the same liquid insanity. They rose on the rough, confused seas that had replaced the long, deep swells of earlier. They followed perilous courses through the black of night, long streaks of glittering green phosphoresce trailing in their wakes.
A voice from the crow’s nest cut through the thick, electric air. The voice dropped down from high overhead, announcing the coast of Florida off the port beam and touching off the emotions of Padre Diego. Land was always a comforting sight for those in troubled waters; it could also be a frightening sight for sailors who understand the dangers of shallow waters. Padre Diego had been around long enough to understand this.
As if responding to his fears, a stiff wind rose up and the temperature sank by ten degrees. High overhead, the sails flapped and luffed. Sailors sprang into action. They climbed ladders with as much confidence and skill as geckos that cling to walls. They furled and trimmed the sails. Down on deck, sailors secured all loose gear and battened down hatches.
Padre Diego went below and tried to sleep, but it was impossible due to the rough, awkward seas. Even in his bed he was jarred and shaken. He could not only hear the strains on the timbers, he could almost feel them. He felt something ominous that darkened his spirit and drove him to recite scripture to fortify his courage and give comfort and reassurance to his spirit.
Hours ticked by as the Holy Scriptures passed through his lips. Then he found himself back out on deck in the midst of pure chaos by night. The Bahamas Channel struck him as an evil, malevolent place. Showered with ocean spray, Padre Diego clung to the rail and watched the rising and falling of the lights of other ships in the fleet. He watched legions of whitecaps. He noticed how low the heavily-laden treasure galleon was riding in the water. He felt a pang of fear. The ocean was a furious beast, and Padre Diego knew how fragile and tiny the life of a man truly was. All around him sailors worked feverishly as if their lives depended upon their performance, yet they were tiny little souls, toiling in the midst of massive powers. In the blink of an eye, their little lights could be extinguished on any given day, but especially on a day like this.
His deepest fears blackened his heart when the ship was jarred. A huge wave rose up and pounded her like a fist in the face. Foamy whitewater spilled over her decks. The boatswain’s shouts spoke of shallow depths, and Padre Diego heard the gasps of sailors. A warning cannon was fired to alert the other ships of mortal danger.
Padre Diego watched in horror as the galleon of Juan de Hoyos, another ship in the fleet, hurtled into a rock. The rudder was snapped off like the breaking of a matchstick. Minutes passed like the slowness of torture and oppression. Reality was so real, yet also unreal. It seemed unbelievable when Padre Diego watched the Capitana out of control, heading straight for Padre Diego’s ship, the Maravillas.
Men screamed like doomed souls and ran for the opposite rail. What happened next confounded Padre Diego. The Maravillas attempted a desperate turn, but hit bottom. The Capitana, carried by the might of the sea, plowed into the Maravillas. Padre Diego felt the ship buck. He was thrown and rolled on the deck. He felt the ship tilt and tremble as she was broken in half. Then he saw the other half being torn away by the waves.
The remaining half of the Maravillas was helpless before the insane currents. She was carried right into the shoals where whitewater churned in the rocky teeth. Timbers snapped and razor-sharp rocks stove gouges in her hull. Water poured in through the damaged timbers.
Realizing now that their lives truly hung in the balance, sailors formed lines and bailed, but Padre Diego, who was also passing buckets, could see that their task was doomed to failure.
He fought his way through the chaos on deck, only to come face to face with Admiral Don Matias de Orellana, who told him, “The ship will be lost. Please, Father, confess all those who want to be absolved.”
The Father nodded and knew that he must do this. All around him, the cries of hopeless and distressed sailors filled the air. The spirit of Death was in the air. Padre Diego could feel her presence. And Doom rode on her back.
Padre Diego climbed to the highest deck and faced the terrified crowd below. He could see the terror and regret in the eyes of hundreds of souls who now realized that their final hour had arrived, and they had not lived as they should have. Desperation clung to their faces. Men who had cared nothing for God yesterday were now begging for his mercy. Everyone was begging for his mercy—sinners and saints alike. Men of status and countless honors realized suddenly that their titles counted for nothing. They knew instinctively that what mattered was how they had treated God and man, and this devastated them to the bones.
Padre Diego shouted above the storm. Words spilled off his tongue and down over the wailing crowd of distressed souls. “Calm yourselves,” he said. “There is nothing to fear.”
The sailors did not calm down. Padre Diego opened his Bible and read Holy Scriptures to so many men who listened and cried in despair. Padre Diego then began to hear confessions, but time was short and those who needed confession were many. He resorted to bestowing a general absolution upon the crowd.
Even as this was going on, the boat was breaking up under their feet. Men leapt into the water and swam for any scraps of wreckage that they could hold on to. Padre Diego dared not leap into the raging ocean, for he could not swim. The cold fingers of dread were choking his faith.
Admiral Orellana emerged out of the chaos of the grim night and put his hand on the Father’s shoulder. “Do not fear Death, Father. I am not afraid. Death will find us sooner or later.”
It was just what Padre Diego needed to hear. He watched in admiration as Admiral Orellana turned to help other sailors in their efforts to launch a boat.
“Come with us, Father.”
“No, I will stay here. Let another man take my place in the boat.”
This was done, but the same boat was promptly smashed to kindling as a wave flung it against the side of the galleon. All hands were lost.
Padre Diego whispered a silent prayer even as he heard the ship’s timbers bend and break. All around, men wailed in despair.
Even though he could not swim, Padre Diego acted on his faith. He leapt into the water, hoping to reach some wreckage. The cold gave him a shock, but he stayed above water long enough to grab hold of a floating hatch. He dragged himself aboard his makeshift raft. At that same moment, he saw the ship roll. The stern castle crashed into the water, dumping sailors into the sea.
A man swam out of the darkness and climbed onto Padre Diego’s hatch-cover raft. Realizing that he was in the presence of Padre Diego, the man began confessing his sins.
This man was Don Domingo de Vega, a knight of the Order of Christ. Water poured off the fantastic blue-and-golden Cross of Malta, which he wore around his neck.
After giving his confession, Don Domingo said, “Hang on to the raft, Father. Whatever you do, hang on. We will survive if we endure.”
Another swimmer reached a floating boom close by and wrapped an arm around it, yet his eyes showed he was resigned to death. With all the strength he could muster, he heaved a package to Padre Diego. “Take it, Father. I’m giving it up—and my sins with it.”
“What is it?”
“An artifact. A lead book with a written confession.”
“I will tell you father, but I must also confess. Please hear my confession, Father, for I am the greatest sinner in the world. I will tell you everything.”
“I will hear it.” Padre Diego shoved the bundle into his pocket.
Padre Diego had heard thousands of confessions during his career, but never had a confession shocked him and frightened him more than this one. From the darkest bowels of his soul, the man told a harrowing and astounding tale of evil.
For such terrible sins as he’d scarcely dared imagine, Padre Diego gave forgiveness. The sinner’s eyes were burdened with utter devastation and torment, yet once his sins were confessed, crushing weight seemed to lift from him. Relief glinted in his eyes for just a moment before he sank beneath the waves.
Padre Diego and Don Domingo held on through the night. In the morning, Padre Diego spotted a boat. Gaspar de los Reyes was in command. His oarsmen heaved on their sticks. They rescued several survivors from the sunken Maravillas. Then they dragged Don Domingo de Vega and Padre Diego to safety.
Thankfulness filled Padre Diego’s heart and soul, but words, the confession of the world’s greatest sinner, filled his mind. He knew that he would never see the world in the same way.