The Vatican

created by

Michael Hewitt-Gleeson and Francesco Caso

The Pontifical North American College in Rome is just a block away from the Fontana di Trevi, that fabulous extravagance of cascading papal kitsch which thrusts itself into the willing but helpless attention of tourists and movie directors alike. As he sat alone in the familiar chapel of the college, itself a lavish marble-encrusted treat of no humble proportions,  the elderly bishop from New York was halfway between his prayers and his memories.

Well, here I am back at this comfortable and familiar college, they wanted me to stay in the Vatican but I’m glad I insisted on staying here. There are so many memories. I’ll meet you at the fountain. How many times did I say that to friends and others who were passing through Rome and wanted to meet up with me while I was studying at the Gregorian and staying here. I’ve always loved collegiate life. It’s all so simple really. You sleep, you eat, you attend lectures. You read, you think, you write.  You escape to go meet a friend at the fontana. I’d always go early and have my favourite pastry in the Forno, the old bakery right next to the fountain. Then I’d go out and search through the never-ending whirlpool of tourists that ebbed and flowed around the cascading monument. What a crush, what a challenge but I’d always find my visitor and away we’d go for an espresso and a chat. This college is such an American haven in the Eternal City. The young priests staying here seem more concerned about getting an air conditioner for their room than anything else. Why not?

Sudden mood change. I know why I’m here now, sweet Jesus. What should I do? What path should I take? There’s always been this great conundrum in my life in the church. The never-ending contradiction. The alternating switch between the sacred and the profane. Such highs and such lows. Maybe it’s some kind of an addiction. Now they want to give me a red hat. It’s obviously because of the Prize. It’s the last thing I need, of course. The Prize has been punishment enough. Can I refuse? If it was just them it would be so much easier to say No. But, dear Jesus, what if it’s you? How can I ever refuse you? It’s always the same dilemma. Is it you or is it them? Are you both the same? Are they your true servants or your immortal enemies? I hardly ever know. When I was a lawyer there were often contradictions but I never seemed to have much trouble settling them in my mind or in the courtroom. But, now it’s different. I’m always stressed and bothered when I’m here. The Vatican is … what was Churchill’s line … a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Something like that. It’s the game of chess that never ends. When Emperor Claudius established the Roman Civil Service he could never have imagined that it would then evolve into the Roman Curia and would endure for 2000 years! How is it possible? What other human organization has survived for so long? Is it really the Holy Spirit? What else could it be? Be calm. I need some rosary therapy. Hail Mary, full of grace …. Ah, that’s better.

Where is he?

He’s in the chapel.

Again? He’s always there. Is he hiding or praying?

Both, I think.

Well, you go and get him. We’ve got half an hour to get there. We can’t keep the Cardinal waiting.

Not The Cardinal, at any rate.

Don’t be impertinent. The walls have ears, even here in the college.

Is the car ready?

Yes.

I’ll go and tell ‘The Good Bishop’.

It’s an awful title? How did he get that horrible nickname? It makes it sound as though bishops, by definition, are bad.

Well … Aren’t they?

Stop it.

I think it was The New York Times. When he got the Peace Prize.

Hhhmph. It would be, wouldn’t it. What a bunch of hypocritical assholes. Murdoch makes even The Cardinal look like a saint.

Erm. The walls. Ears. Remember.

Hurry. Go and get him.

 The young Swiss Guard snaps his crisp and enthusiastic salute to the highly recognizable American icon sitting in the back seat of the Vatican limo. Madonna! A Nobel Peace Laureate who is also a black American AND a Catholic bishop. We don’t get a visitor like that every day of the week. He smartly waves the car through the security gate on into the smallest state in the world. It’s just a few buildings, a supermarket and some well-manicured gardens. A tiny population of less than a thousand. No babies born here every day. Not these days at any rate. These are not merely any old buildings, of course. To be fair, the Basilica of Saint Peter is something so much more. And the Secret Archives of the Vatican, wherever they are housed, are a unique and mind-boggling repository of historical value beyond estimation.  The car stops at the papal apartments and, for the very first time, The Bishop is met by The Cardinal.

His Grace Collier StClair, Archbishop of New York, Juris Doctor, Doctor of Divinity, Nobel Peace laureate, best-selling author, inspirational speaker and a popular hero who is recognised and loved around the world by the People of God, by the media and by atheists alike. Wise, humble, articulate and amusing he’s become a man for all seasons. Think part Mandela, think part Dalai Lama and think … well … part Jesus, really.

These were the electrifying thoughts firing up in the mind of The Cardinal as he waited impatiently on the steps of the papal apartment for the limousine slowly ferrying this extraordinary man to this important, no historic, meeting. I must get this right. I need this man, the Holy Mother Church needs this man, like no other. This is the man who can make or break us. With him, through him, I can return the Church to its rightful place as the supreme governing power of Europe and indeed the future light of this entire wayward world. I must succeed at winning him over. He must become my man. Or else.

Well, this is going to be interesting. I’ve been both dreading this meeting and anticipating it, for a long time. The Bishop shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He’s carried a memory of his time as a Vietnam veteran in the 60s in the form of a dull back pain that asserts itself during times of stress. He squirms a little and stretches in a routine that usually makes it go away.

Although he had been in communication with The Cardinal both directly and indirectly for some years, and had met him publicly on several ad limina occasions this was the first time they would meet, seriously, strategically, and in private. And this was no ordinary man. This was no ordinary Cardinal, for that matter. Think part Medici, think part Talleyrand, think … well … part Berlusconi? No, surely not.  Maybe part Joseph Kennedy of Boston. But with Hollywood looks and European style. A dashing,  charming, jealous macchiavelian who ruled the Roman Curia, and some say the Papacy, with an iron claw in an embroidered velvet glove. A truly formidable and powerful man.

Collier StClair from Atlanta was about to come face to face with His Eminence Cardinal Sylvester Pelucci. Former head of the Inquisition whatever it’s recent rebranding.  Now, Dean of the College of Cardinals and also Cardinal Secretary of State. Second only to the Pope himself and one of the most powerful men in the world. They say he speaks 8 languages. He’s an organist virtuoso. He smokes Cuban cigars, is a gourmand and has the best table and cellar in the Eternal City. The fact that he is a notorious womanizer is the worst kept secret in Rome.

He’s going to offer me a Cardinal’s hat. I’m about to step into the lair of the spider. I will need all my wit and wisdom and that will hardly be enough. Sweet Jesus, you are my protection. I hope, I trust, you will be all I will need. What else is there?

Welcome my dear brother to the home of your Father on Earth and in Heaven. Welcome to your home. His Holiness commands me to give you the warmest wishes from his heart and may I add my own delight at the opportunity to embrace you and to meet with you, intimately, at last. The tall red prince of the Church  warmly and sincerely embraced the purple bishop like a true prodigal brother who’s come in from the cold, home at last, and held him and then released him after just the right amount of time. They both stood on the steps, in silence for a short while, gazing at each other with deep and respectful curiosity. For both men knew that this was just the beginning.

Crisis!

After a most refreshing espresso accompanied by some small pastries that were probably the best he had ever tasted and a limoncello to ‘calm our nerves’ the conversation progressed elegantly but inexorably from interesting and current Vatican gossip to the real reason that drew these two men together. The church was about to face one of the most shattering of all the crises it had ever faced in 2000 years. This was going to be a threat to its very survival. In a time of 24/7 news reporting, social commentary and global communication that was completely and utterly outside the control of the Vatican. Twitter, what the hell was that! The Cardinal had visibly shuddered. My brother, I am bereft and inconsolable to have to tell you that tomorrow the Pope of Rome, the Vicar of Christ, the Holy Father himself is going to resign. Not only will this be the first time in 500 years but Pope Innocent will not only resign but he will do so in disgrace. Madonna!

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In the conclave that follows Pope John XXIV is elected by the College of Cardinals who carefully and deliberately choose the 74-year-old American pope because of his goodness – his humility, credibility, life experience and wisdom. He follows in the tradition of ‘Good Pope John’ XXIII (and the Pope Kyril character in Morris West’s Shoes of the Fisherman). He is the recently created Cardinal Archivist and Librarian of the Vatican Secret Archives, Dr Collier StClair. A DalaiLama/Mandela-like character, StClair is naturally humble and kind, wise, witty, articulate and charismatic. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and later a Nobel Peace Laureate. He is loved by the media and admired internationally because of his devotion to the welfare of children and his strong stand against child abuse in the Church which won him no friends in the Vatican. Inspired by Matthew 18 Dr StClair founded the Children of Yeshua, a world movement for the legal protection of children’s rights. Entering the priesthood much later in life after a distinguished career in Law his PhD in Theology was entitled A Definitive and Comprehensive Two Thousand Year Search for the True Sayings of Yeshua, The Nazarene. He is an outlier. He is the first black pope.