The Pope and the
By Guido Eekhaut
From the shadows next to the trellised balcony
door, where the curtain swayed softly in the perfumed evening air,
the indifferent shape of Michael stepped forward. He proceeded
carefully, as if every movement cost him dearly in pain and
remembrance, as if each step led him closer to the end, each effort
used up too much energy. His feet barely left the ground, his long
ochre robe – grey now because there was so little light – barely
made a sound.
While he stepped – and the movement
continued even after he stood still again – he opened his dull black
wings with the heavy grace that Gregorius, from the other side of
the room, could only admire. It touched him whenever he caught sight
of these wonderful wings, a spectacle that was as much functional as
theatrical. And Michael, the Angel-Destructor, knew very well how
this effected people. He knew he could touch the very soul of
Gregorius, this doomed soul of a man who would once be called a
saint because that was what his office included. He knew he could
touch that very soul and affect the man as he had affected all men,
at least those of the true faith. He knew he released into their
world old images and recollections – or were they prejudices, kept
under surveillance by centuries of civilisation?
And while he stepped forward – two
steps sufficed – and his hand stroked the curtain and his nose
experienced the perfumed air, he recognised Gregorius’ gaze: the
gaze of millions of believers, those who had not been disappointed,
those who knew their religion and beliefs to be firm. It didn’t pain
him that he would have to destroy up precisely this believe. It
didn’t pain him – he was only bothered by all the well-meant but
useless energy involved.
Gregorius, who wore a simple
three-piece suit and a tie with the coat of arms of his Holy Office
(one had somehow lost count and didn’t exactly know if he was the
one hundred and forty-seventh of –eight Pope, but white smoke had
escaped from the chimney nevertheless, and so what did it matter),
so Gregorius stood against a cabinet, looking for physical support,
pondering on what this meeting would bring. He had been expecting
Michael, hoping that the nocturnal visit would bring any change in
the status quo that lasted for several months now. But one glance at
the exquisite but partly hidden features of the angel thought him
that no solution was to be expected.
We should have contained them earlier
on, and even from the beginning, he thought in an unguarded moment.
We should have curtailed their power when we were still able to do
so, before the people got to see them. We could have send them back
to that damned place where they came from, and should have done so
well before their charisma could have done any harm.
Such thoughts were all in vain now.
Mere wishes. Even he could smell the air and see the curtain moving,
and he knew that a fresh and less harsh season was coming. That
soothed him. The rainy winter had been going on for ever.
Michael was immobile now. For a
moment he turned his head, still half hidden in shadows, and looked
out the window. From where he stood he could see the coast all the
way to Pula, where the lights of the city were rows of Chinese
lanterns, festive, like a battery of holy candles to beg for the
mercy of the One and Only God. He felt the salt breeze from over the
sea. Then, graciously, he turned his face to Gregorius again, who
had made no movement yet.
“With every visit, your Holiness, I
understand better your decisions to relocate the Vatican to this
place. The peninsula of Verudela is truly a paradise. Still I wonder
if this old hotel is suited for the Pope of the One and True Church.
You must admit that the Old Vatican was more grand and impressive,
something this places misses.”
Gregorius cleared his throat and
wondered if Michael meant what he said. He had wondered about that
before. Each time he had assumed this to be the case, but the doubt
remained. “You know very well why we came here,” he said. “In the
minds of many of the believers – and in that of many outsiders as
well – the Old Vatican was the perfect symbol of the Imperial
Ecclesiastical Power. The riches, the treasures, the patriarchy, the
“I know all about these … diseases,”
Michael calmly said.
“And diseases they were,” Gregorius
agreed. “They distanced us more and more from our followers. We saw
churches emptying, priests resigning …”
Michael looked up. Gregorius fell
silent. “Because of your thirst for popularity you have squandered
the essence of religious feeling. It is the right of the Church to
guarantee the survival of her power, including her worldly power.
You have made it into a popular but much poorer religion.”
Gregorius shook his head, while his
hand touched his tie, as if wanting to erase a little personal sin.
“Don’t forget the concilium of Trente …”
“I forget nothing,” Michael said
impatiently. He advanced two paces and his face slid from the
shadows to a less shadowy area. Gregorius looked away from the
ambiguous face, Angel and Animal at the same time. Why, he wondered,
has the Creator provided them with beauty as well as with
mutilation? To make a point about the implicit imperfection of the
universe? He wondered if this meant that their soul was perverted as
well as sublime. Did the duality go that deep? “Let’s return to that
issue,” he murmured. And he felt intimidated, as would have been
intended by Michael. “There are other things that should occupy us,
things of an higher spiritual order …”
“No,” Michael said, after a short but
uneasy pause. “This is an essential matter.”
Gregorius turned toward the Angel
again and was able to withstand the terrific glare in the creature’s
eyes. “Tomorrow,” he said, softly.
The wings seemed to gain in volume
while spreading, shining black, a blackness that refracted and
devoured light at the same time. Nearly without sound, with no more
than a soft murmur, Michael stepped back, touching the ceiling with
the tip of his wings as if inscribing it with bloody characters.
Then he blurred, like a fading lamp, a sigh, a doomed moment of
Gregorius was once again alone in the room.
Breakfast bored him. He played with the food, ate
a bit but tasted nothing. He chewed mechanically, as if he was a
doll that was programmed to eat every morning, out of habit, after
being set in motion by the first rays of the sun.
Finally he pushed back his chair over
the uneven floor and took his first real decision of the day. He
would convoke the committee at once. Long enough now he had endured
the provocative suggestions of Michael and the other Angels – some
of whose names he didn’t even know or could pronounce. Time for
action. Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, Michael would appear again
on the balcony of the Old Vatican while on the square tens of
thousands of followers would kneel, and than he, Gregorius, would
have yet another argument less against the black-winged intruders.
Yet an argument less. As if he had many left. His supply of
arguments was nearly depleted. Whatever the situation, the One True
Church would have to take action.
Against Michael? The barbaric
certainty with which this ambiguous feathered creature had presumed
this name still angered him. Michael. So many other names had been
more appropriate. But – at that first terrible meeting, on which
occasion Gregorius had expected the End of Times to be near – the
Angel had taken the name of the Archangel himself. Michael. As if
the large crowd on the Saint Peter’s Square would not have demanded
the return of the one true Pope to the womb of the church. As if,
after all, there still was a womb.
But we, he cautiously thought, have
come here, in Croatia, to bury ourselves in this modernistic hotel
complex, because we thought … well, for a large number of reasons.
He pushed the intercom button, the
one that connected him to all the churches and diocese, all bishops
and cardinals, all lay helpers and priests, everywhere on the globe.
He assembled his committee, left it to his secretary to make
preparations. That same afternoon. He was adamant: that same
And when he returned late that same
evening in his chilly room, exhausted, he expected Michael next to
the window, but there was only the shadow of his absence, and the
spectre of failure. As cardinal Newman, who represented the former
apostate, had said: we can no longer deny the sublimity of our
office. If we would again remove ourselves from the vulgar people –
he used the Latin term – we could once again command the respect
that the most loyal part of the believers expects from us. And if
this is a return to tradition, a step back, then let it be a return
to tradition. We have never been a church of the common people.
And the faithful Umberto Assini, most
Roman of Romans, most popular of the democrats, had nodded at
hearing these words, approving, however saddened. He had subscribed
to this truth with a modest movement of the head and had looked at
Gregorius as if even he couldn’t help it but to find much, much
truth in the cardinal’s words.
And the others. None of them, except
for a doubting figure like Brown and an opportunist like Kensai
Ubizo, had really supported him. Am I, he thought, the prisoner of
my own cardinals and bishops? Am I the prisoner of those who at
night and with black wings pay me a visit?
He expected Michael. Michael didn’t
come. Only a servant came, who washed his feet, but the servant was
deaf-mute and couldn’t be asked for his opinion.
The following morning he was plagued by a
persistent headache. He knew that headache: an old, demanding
friend. To be cast away with medicine, but he could not find the
vial. Breakfast again went by unnoticed, just as the late sunrise.
The servants cleared the table. They were the melancholic
grandchildren of stonemasons and farmers, and considered it a great
privilege to serve the Holy Father. It reminded them of the times of
the Empire, which had its nerve-centre not far from Pula, in much
earlier times. When they were finished and had disappeared trough
the soundproof doors, he raised his arms above his head and yawned.
Some administrative routine awaited him, but his secretary could
handle that easily, aided by cardinal Sharp, a strong-minded
Benedictine of noble descent.
Gregorius rose and stood at the
window. The Mediterranean Sea, formerly controlled by barbarians and
non-believers, but even now the centre of superstition and
non-Christian religions. Twenty centuries, and we have not yet been
able to bring the whole world to the One and True Church, he
thought. Not that this was a major problem: that way there was the
challenge of potential conversion, but it was more than telling
concerning the stagnation within the church.
A modest knock on the door. “Come
in,” he said, turning. The sharp profile of cardinal Sharp filled
the widening gap between door and doorpost. The rest of his body
followed, dressed in the blood-red habit with silver cross. “Your
“No new audiences, I hope, cardinal,”
Gregorius said. Not again a crowd of supplicants eager for the most
impossible favours, and not always on the spiritual level. He could
no longer offer them consolation, even if his prayers remained as
strong as ever and his voice as convincing as before. He had those
that had made the long trip to Pula nothing more to offer than the
old routine of listening and talking. He often felt deceived but he
knew that he was – if Michael was right – the deceiver.
“Your holiness,” Sharp patiently
said. That patience was his most important and fruitful quality,
apart from his knack for languages. “The Ecumenical press wonders,
Your Holiness, how you will react to the statements of the
Archangel, who again today …”
The power of the spoken word eludes
us, Gregorius thought. Even so with cardinal Sharp. The Ecumenical
press? Jesuits, all. And some orders of less importance that drift
along in the wake of their spiritual masters and make incoherent
noises. But first the Jesuits. He had missed the opportunity to
deprive them of their power. Too late now for that. The Church of
the People, indeed. But against the will of the richer orders. Goes
to prove that money has all of us in its power.
“Your holiness?” Cardinal Sharp tried
to bring him back to reality.
“Yes, cardinal, yes. I will send a
message into the world later. Leave me now. I will write a text that
will keep them out of the way for the time being. Thank you.” Sharp
left him alone, but unwillingly. While the day passed he did a lot
of thinking, but didn’t write a text. He was happy enough for not
being disturbed. He felt a recluse, and would have thought himself
all alone in the world if there hadn’t been any boats out on the
That evening Michael disturbed his
loneliness. Rushing of the wings and the robe, again half of the
face in darkness. Ambiguous? Without doubt. Shamelessly ambiguous.
The face seemed to say: I am Good and I am Evil. Gregorius didn’t
doubt that for a moment.
“Not bad as performances go, this
afternoon,” Michael softly said. He spoke modestly but wasn’t modest
at all. He didn’t bother with speaking up, as if not his voice but
his presence was most important and meaningful. As if the corporeal
expression was more important than the word. And what about the
writing, Gregorius thought. The manuscripts, the incunabula, the
expensive and fragile bibles? Has the word suddenly become a
second-rate citizen in the city of communication? Michael, unaware
of the troubled thoughts of the church-father, continued: “It was
magnificent, those thousands of people on the square. Religious
ecstasy. Each time I come to comprehend your predecessors even
better. It’s intoxicating, to feel this power over the people …”
“Banalities,” Gregorius said.
The wings seemed to gain in volume,
rushing, rushing as leaves in an autumn wind, sand, dead bushes.
When Michael spoke again his voice sounded profoundly different, as
if the dark side spoke, the Holy Animal inside him. “Do not address
me about banalities when discussing the faith of your followers,” he
said. “In the end you do not deserve their worship. You are a public
servant, you wear the uniform of a public servant.”
“They are indeed my followers,
my flock,” Gregorius said angrily. “And only history will
learn us if I am worthy of them.”
“I am history,” Michael firmly
said, and Gregorius couldn’t decide whether it was the Angel of
light or the one of darkness speaking.
“For a servant of the people you
presume too much,” he recklessly said. This wasn’t a mere public
servant speaking, but a real church father that felt threatened, not
only on account of his function, but also in the essence of his
power. “After all, where do you come from, you and all the others?
From a place thousands of light-years away, or from our
“Does that make me a servant?”
Michael asked with, so it seemed, real surprise. “Does it matter
where we came from? Are my actions not suitably justified by my
Gregorius shrugged. “Your existence
is not in doubt, but your pretences to your specific role are.”
“There was a time when doubters were
burned alive or transformed into pillars of salt.”
“I wouldn’t know what punishment
would suit me best.”
Michael seemed to shrink, as if the
surrounding darkness took more and more possession of his energy
while his wings failed to provide him with protection. “There is no
reasoning with you,” he said, the Dark Side barely suppressed by the
Light. “I go now, and will continue my work as before. I do not
judge you, that is not within my power. You are merely human, do not
“And mortal, indeed.”
“That I prefer.”
And Michael disappeared, leaving
behind a scent of oiled wings. Gregorius bowed his head. Perverted
imagination, he prayed, how can I withstand thee? I would like to
join you, where-ever you travel. Is it a universe that only exists
in our imagination? I will join you even then, and will place me in
your hands without reservation.
And then he folded his hands as if he
intended to pray, but quickly suppressed that impulse. Even then the
Angel’s influence was so powerful he felt closer to God. So much for
the enormous spiritual power of the creature. And that power,
he thought, will destroy us all.
Sharp played with the silver cross around his
neck, which irritated Gregorius. What irritated him even more was
the tense silence of the cardinal, listening to the reports of the
other members of the daily committee as if nothing more important
was being discussed than the details of the Easter celebration or
the candidates for the office of assistant bishop in Quatar. But the
conversation was about Michael and some of his fellow angels
appearing on the balcony of the Old (and to many only) Vatican. And
cardinal Montpellier, in a bad mood on account of the early hour,
said: “What it comes down to is this choice: whether we stay here in
Pula and continue our radical stance against the Angels, or we …”
“Capitulate,” Bishop Brown said. Also
“We adapt,” cardinal Newman said.
Whose face was as black as the wings of the Angel.
“We avoid a new schism,” the
secretary said, but as he had no rank and no name he was ignored.
“There is, however, a position from
which to negotiate,” Gregorius said. He had a feeling to belong to
neither camp, as if at the same time unassailable and unimportant.
Maybe he was only a pawn in this battle, a holy pawn but
nevertheless. He wondered if he would not be better off spending
some nights at a wake in the chapel, prying for divine advice. But
that sort of practise belonged to the Old Church.
He noticed the disapproving glance of
Sharp, the movements of the cardinal’s hands over his red habit, the
silver cross momentarily forgotten. “We have chosen the wrong
peninsula,” the cardinal said.
“Beg your pardon?” Newman asked.
“Peninsula,” Sharp repeated. “Italy
is, like Verudela, where we are now, a peninsula.”
Involuntary, Gregorius looked
outside. Far away, along the coast, was Pula, but here on the
peninsula the illusion of isolation was carefully kept alive, as if
the New Vatican was situated in the middle of a desert. This added
to an atmosphere of atonement, so that everybody was constantly
reminded how important his own office was.
“Your Holiness?” bishop Brown said.
“Yes?” Gregorius said.
“We have not yet received any answers
to the question concerning the origin of these Angels.”
“Do you wish to imply,” Sharp asked,
“that they are fake angels? That would make things only worse.”
“No, no,” Brown grumbled. “I meant …”
“That they are genuine angels,” Sharp
interrupted him again, without mercy. “That would be the end, pardon
the popular expression. Either explanation is unacceptable to us.”
“It doesn’t really matter what they
are,” Newman softly said. “It matters what they do.”
“We are straying from the main
point,” Sharp said, impatient. “His Holiness will need an official
position on their continuous presence. And the people like to
believe in miracles and magic. We are here to keep the True Faith
far away from that sort of things.”
“They want to …” Gregorius started.
He had not been listening to the others.
“Yes?” Sharp asked, somewhat
“ … destroy us,” Gregorius finished.
He himself was surprised by that conclusion. “But if they’re real, I
mean, send by …”
“Then we’re in the wrong boat,” Brown
“I wouldn’t want to call it a boat,”
“Oh, yes, a boat. Noah’s Ark.”
Gregorius rose. “Gentlemen, I would
like to retire.”
“But, your Holiness,” Sharp
whispered, “we haven’t discussed anything yet.”
“I am sure you can handle those
discussions perfectly by yourself, cardinal,” Gregorius said. And he
fled to his chambers. Where he stood with his back against the door
for a while, shaking, his mouth dry, sweating. Only after some
fifteen minutes could he move again. He sat on his bed, stretched
out and fell asleep.
The crowd on the St. Peter’s Square attained near
ecstasy, with some occasional flagellation and the total immersion
in religious feelings that had become almost extinct in the West
since the late Middle Ages. Within a few moments one of the Angels
would appear on the balcony where for generations only Popes had
stood. For a short while the crowd would be in his mental power,
ecstatic, intoxicated by his presence. The miracle had become an
almost daily routine. And as far as Gregorius was concerned – clad
in a grey suit and a hooded cloak – it was a threat. He had not seen
Michael again since that evening, and he had decided that he would
have to pay the Angel a visit. As he had to find out why his
followers, his followers indeed, chose in always greater
numbers to return to the Old Church in the Old Rome.
He had made the trip from Pula in
utmost secrecy. Even Sharp didn’t know. He had pretended a long
wake, with fasting and incense and candles. But instead of praying
he had changes his clothes and had made the voyage to Rome, on his
own civil passport. And in Rome he had found a small hotel, where he
remained an anonymous pilgrim. And why, he thought, should I not be
an anonymous pilgrim. Maybe that’s why I am here: to pray for the
immortality of my soul.
The crowd suddenly, collectively,
held its breath. Gregorius looked up. It was Michael on the balcony,
no doubt about that. Even if these wings were no longer black as the
night, but mirrors filled with intense light, like crystals and
prisms, more colour than the human eye could bear. More colour than
could exist, even in paradise. Is it paradise whence thou cometh
from, Gregorius thought. And he noticed how to the people around
him these colours were more than mere colours, more than a
reflection of light. It was intoxication. This was the only real
And with people crying and shouting,
some even flinging themselves to the ground, while the light of the
prismatic wings engulfed the square, Gregorius fled, not to his
hotel but in the direction of the Old Vatican. Because there is
only one way this can be stopped, he thought.
The Old Vatican was no longer
guarded, as before. With the gates open, it was amazing that crowds
of believers didn’t invade the premises. The whole of it seemed
deserted, as if the Church had not turned its headquarters over to
Angels but to ghosts. The buildings were still and chilly. He
suddenly felt painfully lonely. Somewhere Michael must be hiding.
The whole situation suddenly seemed hopeless, his journey a mistake.
Even if he could find Michael in this labyrinth …
The Angel found him. His wings dark
again, a double shadow following him along the corridor. “It pleases
me much,” he said, “to find you here. Finally you have decided to
return to the womb of the Church.” He brought his hands together,
“I do not return to any womb,”
“But you do, your Holiness. You do.
And you know what? Tomorrow we will both appear on the balcony,
together. For everybody to see …”
Gregorius shook his head. “That will
not happen. I came to convince you to return to …”
“To our womb?” Michael
laughed, a sound pure as the crystal and prisms his wings had been
made of. “To our womb! Why not. Except that we have no place to
Michael stepped back. “We have
this,” he said, with a gesture that encompassed the Vatican, or
maybe the whole world. “That is all.”
“There has to be more,” Gregorius
said, not believing.
Michael turned his head from one side
to the other, allowing Gregorius a glimpse of both Angel and Beast,
Light and Darkness. Michael opened his mouth to say something, but
just then appeared half a dozen of Angels, wings as black lace
veils, and he remained silent.
“How many of you are there?”
Michael said: “Many. But not as many
The Angels formed a circle around the
Pope, a magical circle. “Tomorrow,” Michael said, “we stand on the
balcony together. The Old Church. All of us.” And he stretched out
his arms, towards Gregorius.
When they came for him it was daytime again. He
could not understand why he had slept that long. They came for him
and dressed him in a white robe with gold en red rushes, a robe he
recognized. The Old Church had encouraged this sort of pompous
display, out of touch with all possible realities in the secular
When they had dressed him, as a
child, Michael entered. “Welcome,” he said. And added: “It is
“Of course,” Gregorius said. He
fingered the robe.
“The people awaits,” Michael said.
And to Gregorius he sounded a bit impatient. Maybe, he thought, only
in my imagination. Or are you more than Light and Darkness? Are you
maybe just a little bit human as well?
The Angels accompanied Gregorius
through the corridor, where painful light entered overhead. He saw
their faces change from Beast to Angel and back to Beast again every
time they passed by a window. Those faces remained immobile, but he
recognised pain and exaltation depending on the direction of the
And finally: the balcony. The
challenge of the sun-drenched square. The hundreds of thousands
whose cruel and insane cries drifted upward like a sea of sound.
And he thought: here and now we
decide about all that is to come for the Church and for mankind.
Even if Michael has maintained he is the only future guide available.
And forward they stepped, over the
cold tiles of the balcony, the Angel and the Pope. And Gregorius
knew he would be damned if he kept up this role.
He halfway turned to Michael and
rested his hand on the Angel’s shoulder. Michael, wings dripping
light, turned his head, and it was the side of the Light that
Gregorius was allowed to see. This is irrevocable, he
thought. He pushed aside both pity and awe. This is not the way,
he thought, but I have more to lose than you. And he pushed
Michael forward, to the edge of the balcony. Michael didn’t at first
understand what was happening, and when he did it was too late. He
tried to get hold of the balcony’s edge but lost his balance.
Graciously almost, and accompanied by the thousandfold shout of the
crowd – a shout that could pass for exaltation or maybe not – he
fell over the edge. Gregorius stepped forward to look, to follow the
Angel in its fall, because he thought: maybe he will use his
wings. And for a moment it seemed Michael wanted to fly, his
wings crackling with light. But they were too heavy and cumbersome
and maybe they weren’t suited for flight, and Michael fell down,
sixteen meters below, on the steps of the building, and it seemed
his last shout was echoed by the crowd, a shout that blinded
Gregorius while the square was swept away by a fierce flash of light
that left him in a white nothingness.
Much later he thought: I have
killed their God.