The Pope and the Angels


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 centralism …”

            “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 doubt.

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 afternoon!

            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 Holiness …”

            “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 sea.

            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 imagination?”

            “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 existence alone?”

            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 forget.”

            “And mortal?”

            “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 a Jesuit.

            “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 disrespectful.

            “ … 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 said.

            “I wouldn’t want to call it a boat,” said Newman.

            “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 belief.

            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, seemingly happy.

            “I do not return to any womb,” Gregorius said.

            “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 return to.”

            “You don’t?”

            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?” Gregorius asked.

            Michael said: “Many. But not as many as you.”

            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 world.

            When they had dressed him, as a child, Michael entered. “Welcome,” he said. And added: “It is irreversible.”

            “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 light.

            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.





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