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The day that young Santiago committed an act so heinous that the God I served was bound by canon to condemn the child to an eternity in Hell--that was the day my faith ended.

He was a beautiful boy. Amber eyes set in a sweet, brown face. A fine aquiline nose and limbs lean and strong from lots of soccer and baseball. Athletic as well as bright. You liked him just to look at him, which made what happened feel all the more tragic.

Regarding my loss of faith: admittedly, the seed of Santiago's action and all that it represented must have fallen on "good ground," as the Gospel says. I already had my doubts. Though I had for many years been doing whatever was possible in order to keep them hidden. Even from myself. Perhaps the entire history of my own nearly fanatical level of belief down through the years is contained within that last idea. Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt.

In my case I tried to bury that doubt in deeds.

"Your charity work is admirable, Father Rodriguez," the Archbishop had said to me during his most recent visit. "But you exhaust yourself to the detriment of your overall service to the community. You need to pause on occasion. There is a time for rest and especially for reflection."

The Archbishop never passed over our modest little church, with its peeling whitewashed exterior and uneven floors, on his way to some grand cathedral. He always stopped in and treated us with great respect. I thought him a good man, and I thought he was correct in what he’d said to me. But reflection was exactly what I didn't want. The reason why is quite simple. I have never been, in my own eyes, a good man.

One more way that life in the Church suited me very well was that I had been taught there that I couldn't be a good man. This relieved me of much of that awful burden. But I could, I was told, still do good works, and live in faith and hope. Most importantly I could be forgiven by a God who knew my sinful nature and who loved me anyway. And that was enough to save me from the Lake of Fire. For a time at least.

It was my own deficiency of character, I now believe, that made little Santiago so terribly important to me. Of faith, hope and charity he too had ample supplies. But there was something more than that in him. Something wonderfully special. He was good. The boy was simply and innately good. It rose up from the wellspring of his young soul like cool, fresh water. All his actions seemed rooted in that and nothing more. It made all who met him feel drawn in too.

I saw this phenomenon myself on many occasions, strangers pulled into the orbit of this tiny being by his invisible moral gravity. Perhaps we all thirst for goodness for the same reasons we thirst for water when dehydrated. An almost physical need that emerges naturally from our own lack.

He was only eight years old back then, but the folk of our village took solace in his loving presence. He was aware of this, I later learned. And that central aspect of his nature played the principle part in what eventually came to pass. I'm quite sure of that. Quite sure, despite the Archbishop's and others' feeble attempts to write it all off as a spectacular stunt, born of a need for attention. As nothing more than vanity (a sin with which they themselves were no doubt familiar and quick to project onto another).

That Santiago was destined to become a priest was a fact never in question, as plain as that he had two arms and two legs. He informed me of this ambition himself many times. I encouraged it too. Of course I did. Nothing could have been more natural for him. All of this made his actions that fateful Sunday morning all the more painful and at first completely inexplicable.

And so we come to the terrible day itself. If there is a time most holy during the Mass, it is the moment when the Priest consecrates the Host. For those of the faithful with a more intellectual bent, like myself, this is a beautiful metaphor. For others it is literally a miracle. The body and blood of Christ made manifest. The Lamb of God’s sacrifice offered up anew to nourish the soul in our present time of need.

For at least two reasons, I now see, this was the correct moment for Santiago to take the shocking action that he did. He was, after all, making his own personal sacrifice. A sacrifice to equal—no, Heaven forgive me, but to surpass—that of Christ Himself. And the holiness of the moment made his action the most vile it could possibly be. That too must have been part of his plan. For he was a bright boy and so it was surely no accident that he thrust the dark blade as deeply into his own soul as it would go.

If I noticed him moving away from the altar, I don't remember it. When I turned at the sound of his unholy words I saw only his back. I'm grateful for that now. I don't think I could have borne to see his face when he spoke.

"God damn the Holy Spirit," he said.

Five words that changed my life and my faith forever. And his life, but not his faith. Ha! You see? In my selfishness, I am still thinking of myself first. That was and is the primary difference between him and me and I am afraid it will always be so. I do not have his generosity of spirit. But then, no one I have ever met does.

I knew it was he speaking even before I turned back around to the congregation. I had long been able to pick his instrument out in the choir when he sang with them. There was something in it almost unearthly pure.

The sharp gasp that arose from the congregation echoed and died in the cavernous silence that followed. No one spoke. No one even whispered as little Santiago left the apse and walked resolutely into the confessional booth and clicked the door closed behind him.

It took every bit of self-control I could muster to finish the Mass. To this day I don't know how I did it, but I did.

All eyes were on me, I suppose, as I approached the confessional afterwards. I say "I suppose" because I literally can't remember the short walk from the altar to the confessional. I was in some state far beyond shock. I was feeling ... nothing. No anger. Not even sadness. It was as if emotion was too flimsy a thing to support the weight of that moment.

I sat down in the priest's side of the confessional booth and slid open the screen, relying entirely on my own experience and on tradition now. I'm sure I couldn't have formed anything even remotely like a plan of action just then.

I must have expected to hear Santiago's penitent voice saying: In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, my last confession was one week ago. But I did not hear those words. Santiago could not pray in the name of the Holy Spirit. Not then, nor indeed ever again.

"I'm sorry, Father," is all he said.

I waited until I was sure there was nothing more forthcoming. Then I spoke in a voice that was no doubt choked with fear and confusion, the voice not of a shepherd but of a man in desperate need of an answer. For that I surely was.

"Why, Santiago? Why have you done this horrible thing? You do know what you have done, yes?"

"I do, Father. I blasphemed the Holy Spirit."

My throat was desert dry now. I desperately wanted water, feared I could not even speak without it. But there was none at hand, so I spoke in a hoarse rasp. "Why? Why did you do this? Are you angry? Did you want to hurt us? Because you have. You have hurt everyone."

"I'm sorry. I had to, Father. I had to do it for them."

"Them? For whom, Santiago?”

"For all the souls in Hell who suffer. For the souls of those who will never know the love of God. Who will never know any love or even forgiveness. For them, Father."

"I don't understand. You want to help them? How does this help them?"

"Now I can be with them. I can tell them that someone loves them. Maybe even hold them. And now even if my courage fails, I can't turn back."

I knew everything in that moment. In a searing flash of insight I understood it all. Not only what Santiago had done, but why. And why my own faith was a fraud. Why all of our faith added up to nothing. Not unless every single one of us was willing to do the same as this brave boy. To be better, more forgiving, than the God we worshiped.

Santiago had blasphemed the Holy Spirit. It was the one unpardonable sin. God Himself either would not or could not forgive him. He had damned his own soul for eternity. Because he was good. Because he knew that no soul was undeserving of love and kindness forever and ever, and he was willing to pay the ultimate price to right that wrong.

I began to cry.

"It's all right, Father," he said.

It shames me now that I could not speak. I could not offer solace. Or thanks.

After a few minutes of silence I heard Santiago leave the booth. Then I heard the commotion outside in the nave. The congregation, a few of them at least, had regained their wits. They were challenging him. Questioning him. As far as I could tell, he did not answer. He remained as silent as our Lord at trial, whose example he was following down a path that none of us had ever even imagined existed.

It's an old joke you have no doubt heard. Or not even a joke, just a quip really. My father used to tease me with it when as I child I would declare my desire for something I could not have. New clothes. A TV set. Or just for the other boys to stop bullying me at school.

"People in hell want ice water," Papa would say.

It never occurred to me, or anyone I've even known, that someone might love them enough to carry it down there personally.