This excerpt was written before Karol Józef Wojtyła’s passage to the Otherworld, and certainly before his elevation to sainthood. He had his part to play in my novel, Places of Evil, where my characters confront, and combat, Satan. I trust he smiles down more than ever upon my endeavours. [DE]
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Excerpt from “Places of Evil”
“Who is friend, and who is foe, Holiness?”
“Do you ask of me a catechism?” The Pope peers at Mr. S. with interest. “Indeed a reversal of roles.”
The two men walk among the crypts of the Sagve Grotto Vaticane, moving in and out of the light, cast from each entrance. The Pope has requested the candles and tapers of every grotto be lit, and this is the only illumination. He has also dismissed his attendants and Swiss Guards.
The crypts line a horseshoe-shaped corridor extending from the Old Basilica to the sarcophagus of St. Peter. The Pope has yet to enter any grotto or chapel they pass. As they slowly walk, Mr. S. keeps close to his frail companion. The Pope’s doctors have given him a pager to summon help, if necessary. Mr. S. assumes the Pope is aware of this, as he seems aware of everything around him.
“Holy Father.” Mr. S speaks softly. “Why have you chosen this location for our discussion?”
“With due respect, Holiness.” Mr. S. indicates their surroundings with a sweep of his hand. “There is secrecy – but this is entombment.”
“I think you come to me with death.” The Pope also points. “What better place?”
“I do not interpret my quest so Spartanly.” Mr. S. contemplates their confines before he continues. “The church assumes we live again after this life ceases.”
“Death of the soul.” The Pope stops moving. “Death after death.” He taps his cane against the toe of Mr. S’s left shoe. “This is the platter you place before me. This is what the boy dreams.”
“I was informed you had not been told his dream.” Mr. S. looks at his foot.
“I see those around me skilfully use evasion.” The Pope leans on his cane, and Mr. S. can feel the pressure. “So I have looked all the harder.” He moves the cane, and turns toward a corridor. “Let us continue our stroll.”
The Pope walks with more purpose, and Mr. S. wonders if their conversation gave him time for some rest.
“There is secrecy of a different sort.”
“Holiness?” Mr. S. takes some hasty steps to catch up.
“Satan arrives by invitation.” The Pope’s voice holds humour. “I believe neither of us has requested the pleasure of his company.”
They reach the glow from an array of flickering candles, and the Pope stops again.
“I come to the Grotto every All Souls Day, and in spirit, visit all the cemeteries of the world.” He lowers his voice. “Even after they have ceased to be, the dead entangle the living with their lives. It is a mistake to forget them.”
“Do the dead need our memories?”
“To them, we are echoes.” He nods toward the tomb behind the flickering candles. “They are in their new lives – they do not think of themselves as dead.”
“But you feel these new lives are threatened?”
“That is ultimately the raven hovering over your back.” The Pope expertly snuffs a candle with two of his fingers. “Satan accomplishes nothing with the death of our body – that comes naturally enough.”
“Why do you mention `ravens’, Holiness?” Mr. S. does not hide his surprise.
“Do they now not have their own restaurant in Berlin.”
“Do your functionaries tell you everything?”
“As they avoid topics they think I can no longer handle, they must fill the gaps.” The Pope closes his fingers over the flame of another candle. “A comforting meal might make Berlin a place of pilgrimage.”
“How serious is the Pontiff?” Mr. S. is stock still.
“How serious should I be?” The Pope watches the spiralling smoke rise above his hand. “Since Berlin – bombed, defiled, and built again – is the lair of the Beast, it must be cleansed.” His fingers move to another candle. “Berlin, where evil seeps into the very ground.”
“They have not kept this from you, Holy Father.” Mr. S. gazes at the trinity of extinguished candles before he looks at the Pope. “For even they do not know.”
“A fortiori.” The Pope rubs his two fingers together. “Mother Ursula herself would not engage this topic.”
“Then how do you know?” As Mr. S. steps closer to the Pope, he breathes in the smoke from the candles.
“If I ask the same question, you will point at `signs’ and `feelings’.” The Pope indicates the extinguished candles. “We don’t see a light, we notice there is darkness.”
“I live in Berlin. I feel the accumulation of evil.”
“I look at the world. I travel the world as no one else can.” The Pope raises his cane. “I see the world – far beyond the orchestrated itineraries of those who invite me.” His breath makes the flame of the candles sway. “I know my history; I have lived the history.” He turns to look at Mr. S., the movement of his cassock making the candles dance. “It is two thousand years since our Lord walked this earth, and I have seen the most evil century of them all. How can I not know the power of Satan?”
“With respect, Holy Father, there are others who – ”
“You bring to me the boy.” The Pope’s breath is against Mr. S’s ear. “The twin who dreams of things he can not dream. His sister, who sees what none of us can see.” His voice fills the still grotto. “You lay into our arms a baby in need of protection. A baby named after Mother Ursula, who knew the ways of facing down the devil.” The Pope holds up his cane. “This body may be beyond repair, but I clearly see the many things arrayed before me.”
The two men stand close together, their faces reflecting the red glow cast by the elaborate candles. Through the silence of the corridor of crypts, they hear the hiss and crackle of the many burning wicks. The Pope is again refreshed by his rest, and starts walking with purpose. Mr. S. takes a last look at the illuminated reliquary, and steps quickly to catch up.
“Who was buried in there?”
“No body.” The Pope stops unexpectedly, and taps Mr. S. on the chest with the handle of his cane. “Only the heart of our revered predecessor, Pius IX.” The Pope chuckles. “It is said they entombed it just to prove he had one.”
They continue with little conversation, the Pope’s cane sounding hard along the corridor. Occasionally the Pope points out a particular crypt or chapel, but does no more than mention who is there. Paul II is given a hearty wave, and Gregory V has the cane pointed at him. Before one entrance the Pope gives a little courtly bow.
“A saint of particular reverence?” Mr. S. is curious.
“No.” The cane jabs toward the entrance. “One of the few ladies to join the ranks of our mausoleum. Queen Christine of Sweden.” He suddenly swings his cane to point along the other side of the corridor. “And there is my immediate predecessor, John Paul I.”
“I did have the pleasure of meeting him, Holiness.”
“Not given a chance.” He shakes his head. “Such is death.”
Mr. S. feels he is being led to more than the end of the corridor, which is not far away. He is less surprised this time when his companion stops.
“Have you noticed these?”
“Holiness?” The cane is not used to point.
“Up.” The Pope shifts his gaze. “Look up.”
Mr. S. does as he is told. He sees a grill in the ceiling, from which diffused light seeps through the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica.
“We refer to them as crypt skylights.” The Pope’s cane thwacks Mr. S. on the leg. “That light is what our lives are, compared to the brightness and warmth surrounding God.”
“I don’t have your conviction.”
“I wonder.” The Pope moves forward. “Would you be doing what you do without the deepest conviction in the world?”
They are now definitely heading for the crypt of St. Peter. When this last and most impressive shine is reached, Mr. S. will chose his questions with care, and then be on his way. He fears he will still be unsure of his destination.
“What do you think of our necropolis?” The Pope’s voice is stronger. “Do you know the Vatican is built upon a city of the dead?”
“Yes.” Mr. S. smiles. “I find it significant as both fact and symbol.”
“A church `built upon this rock’ has become more secure by burrowing into it.” The Pope laughs deeply.
“Your symbol has become real.” Mr. S. taps the side of his head. “I’m not going to try to untangle that. Let’s leave it buried.”
“We humans never leave anything buried, which is perhaps unwise.” The Pope’s voice dips. “Perhaps astute.” He suddenly turns to Mr. S., his hand gesturing grandly. “Have you heard of Flavius Agricola?”
“I don’t believe so, Holiness.”
“A voice from centuries ago.” He lowers his hand. “I like to listen to them.” The Pope leans on his cane, and speaks in a stage whisper. “Flavius Agricola once resided in our city of the dead.”
“I assume he was not a Pope I haven’t heard about.”
“Flavius well pre-dates our humble personages, although he falls under the ire of Urban VIII in 1612.”
“So much for resting in peace.”
“Tut tut.” The Pope’s stage whisper becomes more aggressive. “You interrupt our tale.”
“Ab ovo usque ad mala.” Mr. S. spreads his hands. “Pray continue.”
“Paucis verbis.” The Bishop of Rome pauses a long moment, staring at Mr. S. “Flavius Agricola left his fellow mortals some final words of advice, which he had chiseled into the stones of his mausoleum. `Mix the wine, drink deep, and do not refuse the pretty girls the sweets of love/for when death comes, earth and fire devour everything.’”
“I must say, Holy Father – at the risk of being offensive – it sounds like good advice.”
“I am not offended.” The Pope nods his head. “The gifts of God are meant to be accepted.” He lifts his cane and shrugs his shoulders. “But my esteemed predecessor, Urban VIII of happy memory, was of a different opinion. He had the sarcophagus of Flavius Agricola broken up and thrown into the Tiber.”
“Exitus Flavius.” Mr. S. reverts to a stage whisper of his own.
“Bone and stone.” The Pope’s voice lowers. “The lesson remains.”
“Forgive me, Holy Father.” Mr. S. looks closely at the other man. “What am I to do with this knowledge?”
“Teach it to the boy.”
“Preach it, if you have to. He is being consumed by doom and death.” The Pope’s voice raises to the level of a sermon. “This is why he dreams of Satan. Death is important – but it comes at the end of life, not in its midst.”
“Janus leads us somewhere, Holy Father. That has to be played out.”
“Of course.” The Pope twists his cane in his hands. “But after this is done, do not just give the twins a vacation. Add more living to their lives.”
The Pope resumes walking. Soon they approach the halo of light cast into the corridor by the candles of St. Peter’s crypt. When they stop at its entrance, the Pope nudges Mr. S. playfully.
“Two altars – no waiting.”
“Are we to pray?”
“There is always a place for prayer.” He stands without the use of his cane. “My advice about the boy – it is also for you.” He slowly turns his head to gaze across the crypt. “Come.”
Mr. S. follows down the steps, and over the polished floor to the sarcophagus of St. Peter.
“Do you know what they found with the blessed bones?”
“No, Holy Father.”
“Mixed together were the remains of two younger men, an elderly woman, a pig, and a horse.” The Pope rests on his cane. “To know such things helps keep one humble.”
“We are all God’s children,” suggests Mr. S.
“And some of us are chosen.” The Pope smiles. “Indeed, some of us are anointed.” He turns his back to the spectacular chamber. “But few of us seek out Satan to end his ways.”
“Do you believe in Satan, Holy Father?”
“Ah – the catechism again.” He stares at Mr. S. “The question, I suspect, which you do not want to ask.”
“I sometimes feel I am on a fool’s errand.”
“And I sometimes feel I pray to the emptiness of space.” The Pope touches Mr. S. on the face with his fingers. “Such is the residue of despair.”
“Do we stop evil?” Mr. S. looks unflinchingly into the other man’s eyes. “Does evil come from Satan, or is it woven into Man himself?”
“Neither Satan nor God are restricted to the absolutes of human reason.” The Pope lowers his hand.
“Do you mean it’s both?”
“Take any child.” The Pope counts on his fingers. “Two years, four years, six years old. They already know right from wrong. Such awareness is innate.” He grips his cane tightly. “They must ask Satan into their lives – but Satan will never refuse them.”
“Satan makes them evil?”
“Satan offers them opportunities.” The Pope leans forward on his cane. “Satan may even make them chose. But the choice is theirs alone.”
The Pope takes a couple of steps toward the nearest candle holder. His movements are both careful and exact. Before Mr. S. is aware of what is happening, the cane flashes through the air. It decapitates the thick candle a handsbreadth below the flame. The segment of sputtering wax and wick tumbles across the floor.
“However, when one’s belief returns, that is what one does to Satan.”