Wednesday, November 8th, The Present
Monsignor Colin Michener heard the sound again and closed the book. Somebody was there. He knew it.
He stood from the reading desk and stared around at the array of baroque shelves. The ancient bookcases towered above him and more stood at attention down narrow halls that spanned in both directions. The cavernous room carried an aura, a mystique bred in part by its label. L' Archivio Segreto Vaticano. The Secret Archives of the Vatican.
He'd always thought that name strange since little contained within the volumes was secret. Most were merely the meticulous record of two millennia of Church organization, the accounts from a time when popes were kings, warriors, politicians, and lovers. All told there were twenty-five miles of shelves which offered much if a searcher knew where to look.
And Michener certainly did.
Re-focusing on the sound, his gaze drifted across the room, past frescos of Constantine, Pepin, and Frederick II, before settling on an iron grille at the far side. The space beyond the grille was dark and quiet. The Riserva was accessed only by direct papal authority, the key to the grille held by the Church's archivist. Michener had never entered that chamber, though he'd stood dutifully outside while his boss, Pope Clement XV, ventured inside. Even so, he was aware of some of the precious documents that windowless space contained. The last letter of Mary, Queen of Scots, before she was beheaded by Elizabeth I. The petitions of seventy-five English lords asking the pope to annul Henry VIII's first marriage. Galileo's signed confession. Napoleon's Treaty of Tolentino.
He studied the cresting and buttresses of the iron grille, a gilded frieze of foliage and animals hammered into the metal above. The gate itself had stood since the fourteenth century. Nothing in Vatican City was ordinary. Everything carried the distinctive mark of a renowned artist or a legendary craftsman, someone who'd labored for years trying to please both his God and his pope.
He strode across the room, his footfalls echoing through the tepid air, and stopped at the iron gate. A warm breeze swept past him from beyond the grille. The right side of the portal was dominated by a huge hasp. He tested the bolt. Locked and secure.
He turned back, wondering if one of the staff had entered the archives. The duty scriptor had departed when he'd arrived earlier and no one else would be allowed inside while he was there, since the papal secretary needed no babysitter. But there were a multitude of doors that led in and out, and he wondered if the noise he'd heard moments ago was that of ancient hinges being worked open, then gently closed. It was hard to tell. Sound within the great expanse was as confused as the writings.
He stepped to his right, toward one of the long corridors--the Hall of Parchments. Beyond was the Room of Inventories and Indexes. As he walked, overhead bulbs flashed on and off, casting a succession of light pools, and he felt as if he was underground, though he was two stories up.
He ventured only a little way, heard nothing, then turned around.
It was early in the day and mid-week. He'd chosen this time for his research deliberately--less chance of impeding others who'd gained access to the archives, and less chance of attracting the attention of Curial employees. He was on a mission for the Holy Father, his inquiries private, but he was not alone. The last time, a week ago, he'd sensed the same thing.
He re-entered the main hall and stepped back to the reading desk, his attention still on the room. The floor was a zodiacal diagram oriented to the sun, its rays able to penetrate thanks to carefully positioned slits high in the walls. He knew that centuries ago the Gregorian calendar had been calculated at this precise spot. Yet no sunlight leaked in today. Outside was cold and wet, a mid-autumn rainstorm pelting Rome.
The volumes that had held his attention for the past two hours were neatly arranged on the lectern. Many had been composed within the past two decades. Four were much older. Two of the oldest were written in Italian, one was in Spanish, the other in Portuguese. He could read all of them with ease--another reason Clement XV coveted his employment.
The Spanish and Italian accounts were of little value, both re-hashes of the Portuguese work: A Comprehensive and Detailed Study of the Reported Apparitions of the Holy Virgin Mary at Fatima --- May 13, 1917 to October 13, 1917.
Pope Benedict XV had ordered the investigation in 1922 as part of the Church's investigation into what supposedly had occurred in a remote Portuguese valley. The entire manuscript was handwritten, the ink faded to a warm yellow so the words appeared as if they were scripted in gold. The Bishop of Leira had performed a thorough inquiry, spending eight years in all, and the information later became critical in the 1930 acknowledgment by the Vatican that the Virgin's six earthly appearances at Fatima were worthy of assent. Three appendices, now attached to the original, were generated in the 1950s, 60s, and 90s.
Michener had studied them all with the thoroughness of the lawyer he'd been trained by the Church to be. Seven years at the University of Munich had earned him his degrees, yet he'd never practiced law conventionally. His was a world of ecclesiastical pronouncements and canonical decrees. Precedent spanned two millennia and relied more on an understanding of the times than on any notion of stare decisis. His arduous legal training had become invaluable to his Church service, as the logic of the law had many times become an ally in the confusing mire of divine politics. More importantly, it had just helped him find in this labyrinth of forgotten information what Clement XV wanted.
The sound came again.
A soft squeak, like two limbs rubbing together in a breeze, or a mouse announcing its presence.
He rushed toward the source and glanced both ways.
Fifty feet off to the left, a door led out of the archive. He approached the portal and tested the lock. It yielded. He strained to open the heavy slab of carved oak and the iron hinges squealed ever so slightly.
A sound he recognized.
The hallway beyond was empty, but a gleam on the marble floor caught his attention.
The transparent clumps of moisture came with regularity, the droplets leading off into the corridor, then back through the doorway into the archive. Suspended within some were remnants of mud, leaves, and grass.
He followed the trail with his gaze which stopped at the end of a row of shelves. Rain continued to pound the roof.
He knew the puddles for what they were.
The media circus started early, as Michener knew it would. He stood before the window and watched as television vans and trailers eased into St. Peter's Square and claimed their assigned positions. The Vatican press office had reported to him yesterday that seventy-one press applications had been approved for the tribunal from North American, English, and French journalists, though there were also a dozen Italians and three Germans in the group. Most were print media, but several news outlets had asked for and were granted on-site broadcast permission. The BBC had even lobbied for camera access inside the tribunal itself, part of a documentary it was preparing, but that request was denied. The whole thing should be quite a show --- but that was the price to be paid for going after a celebrity.
The Apostolic Penitentiary was the senior of three Vatican tribunals and dealt exclusively with excommunications. Canon law proclaimed five reasons a person could be excommunicated: Breaking the confidentiality of the confessional. Physically attacking the pope. Consecrating a bishop without Holy See approval. Desecrating the Eucharist. And the one at issue today --- a priest absolving his accomplice in a sexual sin.
Father Thomas Kealy of St. Peter and Paul Church in Richmond, Virginia had done the unthinkable. Three years ago he'd engaged in an open relationship with a woman, then in front of his congregation he'd absolved them both of sin. The stunt, and Kealy's scathing comments on the Church's unbending position regarding celibacy, had garnered a great deal of attention. Individual priests and theologians had long challenged Rome on celibacy, and the usual response was to wait the advocate out, since most either quit or fell into line. Father Kealy, though, took his challenge to new levels by publishing three books, one an international best seller, that directly contradicted established Catholic doctrine. Michener well knew the institutional fear that surrounded him. It was one thing when a priest challenged Rome, quite another when people started listening.
And people listened to Thomas Kealy.
He was handsome and smart and possessed the enviable gift of being able to succinctly convey his thoughts. He'd appeared across the globe and had attracted a strong following. Every movement needed a leader, and church reform advocates had apparently found theirs in this bold priest. His website, which Michener knew the
Apostolic Penitentiary monitored on a daily basis, scored more than twenty thousand hits a day. A year ago Kealy had founded a global movement, Catholics Rallying for Equality Against Theological Eccentricities --- CREATE --- which now boasted over a million members, most from North America and Europe.
Kealy's bold leadership had even spawned courage among American bishops, and last year a sizable bloc came close to openly endorsing his ideas and questioning Rome's continued reliance on archaic medieval philosophy. As Kealy had many times pronounced, the American church was in crisis thanks to old ideas, disgraced priests, and arrogant leaders. His argument that the Vatican loves American money, but not American influenceresonated. He offered the kind of populist common sense that Michener knew Western minds craved. He had become a celebrity. Now the challenger had come to meet the champion, and their joust would be recorded by the world press.
But first, Michener had a joust of his own.
He turned from the window and stared at Clement XV, flushing from his mind the thought that his old friend might soon die.
"How are you today, Holy Father?" he asked in German. When alone, they always used Clement's native language. Almost none of the palace staff spoke German.
The pope reached for a china cup and savored a sip of espresso. "It is amazing how being surrounded by such majesty can be so unsatisfying."
The cynicism was nothing new, but of late its tone had intensified.
Clement tabled the cup. "Did you find the information in the archive?"
Michener stepped from the window and nodded.
"Was the original Fatima report helpful?"
"Not a bit. I discovered other documents that yielded more." He wondered again why any of this was important, but said nothing.
The pope seemed to sense what he was thinking. "You never ask, do you?"
"You'd tell, if you wanted me to know."
A lot had changed about this man over the past three years --- the pope growing more distant, pale, and fragile by the day. While Clement had always been a short, thin man, it seemed of late that his body was retreating within itself. His scalp, once covered by a thatch of brown hair, was now dusted with short gray fuzz. The bright face that had adorned newspapers and magazines, smiling from the balcony of St. Peter's as his election was announced, loomed gaunt to the point of caricature, his flush cheeks gone, the once hardly noticeable port wine stain now a prominent splotch that the Vatican press office routinely airbrushed from photos. The pressures of occupying the chair of St. Peter had taken a toll, severely aging a man who, not so long ago, scaled the Bavarian Alps with regularity.
Michener motioned to the tray of coffee. He remembered when wurst, yogurt, and black bread constituted breakfast. "Why don't you eat? The steward told me you didn't have any dinner last night."
"Such a worrier."
"Why are you not hungry?"
"Evading my questions does nothing to calm my fears."
"And what are your fears, Colin?"
He wanted to mention the lines bracketing Clement's brow, the alarming pallor of his skin, the veins that marked the old man's hands and wrists. But he simply said, "Only your health, Holy Father." Clement smiled. "You are good at avoiding my taunts."
"Arguing with the Holy Father is a fruitless endeavor."
"Ah, that infallibility stuff. I forgot. I'm always right."
He decided to take that challenge. "Not always."
Clement chuckled. "Do you have the name found in the archives?"
He reached into his cassock and removed what he'd written just before he'd heard the sound. He handed it to Clement and said, "Somebody was there again."
"Which should not surprise you. Nothing is private here." The pope read, then repeated what was written. "Father Andrej Tibor."
He knew what was expected of him. "He's a retired priest living in Romania. I checked our records. His retirement check is still sent to an address there."
"I want you to go see him."
"Are you going to tell me why?"
For the past three months Clement had been deeply bothered. The old man had tried to conceal it, but after twenty-four years of friendship little escaped Michener's notice. He remembered precisely when the apprehension started. Just after a visit to the archives --- to the Riserva --- and the ancient safe waiting behind the locked iron grille. "Do I get to know when you will tell me why?"
The pope rose from his chair. "After prayers."
They left the study and walked in silence across the fourth floor, stopping at an open doorway. The chapel beyond was sheathed in white marble, the windows a dazzling glass mosaic fashioned to represent the Stations of the Cross. Clement came every morning for a few minutes of meditation. No one was allowed to interrupt him. Everything could wait until he finished talking with God.
Michener had served Clement since the early days when the wiry German was first an archbishop, then a cardinal, then Vatican secretary of state. He'd risen with his mentor --- from seminarian, to priest, to monsignor --- the climb culminating thirty-four months back when the Sacred College of Cardinals elected Jakob Cardinal Volkner the 267th successor to St. Peter. Volkner immediately chose Michener as his personal secretary.
Michener knew Clement for who he was --- a man educated in a postwar German society that had swirled in turmoil --- learning his diplomatic craft in such volatile postings as Dublin, Cairo, Cape Town, and Warsaw. Jakob Volkner was a man of immense patience and fanatical attention. Never once in their years together had Michener ever doubted his mentor's faith or character, and he'd long ago resolved that if he could simply be half the man Volkner had been, he would consider his life a success.
Clement finished his prayers, crossed himself, then kissed the pectoral cross that graced the front of his white simar. His quiet time had been short today. The pope eased himself up from the prie-dieu, but lingered at the altar. Michener stood quiet in the corner until the pontiff stepped over to him.
"I intend to explain myself in a letter to Father Tibor. It will be papal authority for him to provide you with certain information."
Still not an explanation as to why the Romanian trip was necessary. "When would you like me to go?"
"Tomorrow. The next day at the latest."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea. Can't one of the legates handle the task?"
"I assure you, Colin. I won't die while you are gone. I may look bad, but I feel fine."
Which had been confirmed by Clement's doctors not less than a week ago. After a battery of tests, the pope had been proclaimed free of any debilitating disease. But privately the papal physician had cautioned that stress was Clement's deadliest enemy, and his rapid decline over the past few months seemed evidence that something was tearing at his soul.
"I never said you looked bad, Holiness."
"You didn't have to." The old man pointed to his eyes. "It's in there. I've learned to read them."
Michener held up the slip of paper. "Why do you need to make contact with this priest?"
"I should have done it after I first went into the Riserva. But I resisted." Clement paused. "I can't resist any longer. I have no choice."
"Why is the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church without choices?"
The pope stepped away and faced a crucifix on the wall. Two stout candles burned bright on either side of the marble altar.
"Are you going to the tribunal this morning?" Clement asked, his back to him.
"That's not an answer to my question."
"The supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church can pick and choose what he wants to answer."
"I believe you instructed me to attend the tribunal. So, yes, I'll be there. Along with a roomful of reporters."
"Will she be there?"
He knew exactly who the old man was referring to. "I'm told she applied for press credentials to cover the event."
"Do you know her interest in the tribunal?"
He shook his head. "As I told you before, I only learned of her presence by accident."
Clement turned to face him. "But what a fortunate accident."
He wondered why the pope was interested.
"It's all right to care, Colin. She's a part of your past. A part you should not forget."
Clement only knew the whole story because Michener had needed a confessor, and the archbishop of Cologne had then been his closest companion. It was the only breach of his clerical vows during his quarter century as a priest. He'd thought about quitting, but Clement talked him out of it, explaining that only through weakness could a soul gain strength. Nothing would be gained from walking away. Now, after more than a dozen years, he knew Jakob Volkner had been right. He was the papal secretary. For nearly three years he'd helped Clement XV govern a derisive combination of Catholic personality and culture. The fact that his entire participation was based on a violation of his oath to his God and his Church never seemed to bother him. And that realization had, of late, become quite troubling.
"I haven't forgotten any of it," he whispered.
The pope stepped close to him and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Do not lament for that which was lost. It is unhealthy and counterproductive."
"Lying doesn't come easy to me."
"Your God has forgiven you. That is all you need."
"How can you be sure?"
"I am. And if you can't believe the infallible head of the Catholic Church, who can you believe?" A smile accompanied the facetious comment, one that told Michener not to take things quite so seriously.
He smiled, too. "You're impossible."
Clement removed his hand. "True, but I'm lovable."
"I'll try and remember that."
"You do that. I'll have my letter for Father Tibor ready shortly. It will call for a written response, but if he desires to speak, listen to him, ask what you will, and tell me everything. Understand?"
He wondered how he would know what to ask since he had no idea why he was even going, but he simply said, "I understand, Holiness. As always."
Clement grinned. "That's right, Colin. As always."
Excerpted from THE THIRD SECRET © Copyright 2005 by Steve Berry. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.