The Omen of the Missing Cherub
It was a mostly cloudy and overcast day as two men dressed in black walked down the Via della Conciliazione in Rome towards the Vatican City. The menace of rain was threatening to appear at any moment but had not yet struck them or the crowds around them. The older of them looked up and around casually. The weather today is perfect. Nobody should recognize us or even remember that we’ve been here.
The two men moved with deliberate purpose as they weaved within and around the people surrounding them. They searched the eyes of other faces trying to blend in while avoiding direct contact. Stay calm. We’re almost there.
He and his partner kept within the shadows of the street-lined buildings as they walked where the darkness would obscure their features and make them harder to identify. He saw his assistant, Jason, check the time on his watch and pretended not to notice. We’re on schedule. We just need to fit in with the crowds. He felt his heart beating hard as he kept pace with the surrounding mass of people in the street moving forward.
He kept peeking at the groups of sightseers and pilgrims all anxious to examine the religious and historical exhibits on display inside. The two men, Americans, were dressed in black Catholic priestly attire and fit right in with the crowds. The other visitors seemed to assume they belonged there and ignored them for more impressive views.
The two men crossed through the entrance into the Vatican City where they saw even more people gathered and milling around. Jason seemed awed by the approaching sight of St. Peter’s Square. It was formed in a great circle bordered by four rows of Roman-style columns opening at the front for visitors. At its center stood an Egyptian obelisk of over 80 feet which drew most of the attention of the bystanders. “It sure is impressive!”
“There’s no time for that now, Jason. We have business inside.” He led his partner past those taking photos of the two fountains beside the obelisk and the buildings in the background. Their pace now intensified to complete the last steps of the journey.
He and Jason continued towards the back end of St. Peter’s Square and onto a walkway leading to St. Peter’s Basilica, a beautiful church containing many more treasures for visitors to behold. They headed along the right hand side where the walkway began and found guards in colorful uniforms outside of the famous Bronze Doors. He took a deep breath. We’re almost there. He carefully watched the guards verify their identification paperwork and then direct them to the entrance of the Papal Palace. Here, again, their identities were checked before they were led to a small, but lavish, conference room to wait. I think my heart is beating harder than ever.
The Americans sat in plush-covered, exquisite chairs constructed of cherry or a fine oak wood and looked at the pieces of artwork hanging beautifully on the walls. The paintings were all of a religious nature or scene, as one would expect, although he didn’t recognize any of them. He didn’t think Jason did, either. This, of course, did not mean that they hadn’t been commissioned by one of the old masters so a well mannered distance felt appropriate. His nerves kept him from sitting fully in his seat and he was listening intensely for the sounds of his hosts approaching. This could be the day. I worked my whole life for this moment. Preoccupied, he was silent so there was a considerable wait before a conversation finally broke out between the men.
Father Wilkins, who spoke first, was the younger of the two and a man in his early thirties. He possessed short, curly brown hair and stood shorter than most but had a booming voice which always created the illusion he was bigger than his actual size. His sparkling gray eyes were clearly excited and eager by the current circumstances.
“Bishop McCarter,” the father began, “we’re finally here. I still can’t believe you brought me with you!”
The bishop, now in his sixties, was quite a bit taller than the younger man. His brown eyes were lively and betrayed his age although it was his only feature to do so. His face was wrinkled by the years and his white hair, what little was left, was thinning badly. His midsection was heavier than he would’ve liked but normal for his age.
“Why wouldn’t I bring you, Jason?” he replied, “After all, you have been my assistant for four years now.”
“Well, you know,” Father Wilkins said as he shrugged slightly, “it was kind of you to invite me on this trip. It could end up being pretty special.”
“We’ve talked about this several times,” his eyes firmly fixed on his companion, ”I don’t know why the Pope asked me to come and it’s pure speculation to try to guess the reason.”
“Bishop McCarter,” the father stated,” you know the Holy Father is going to name you as a cardinal. Why else would he personally summon you here from halfway around the world?”
“No, I don’t know that, Jason,” he said. “I only know that I was summoned and I am here to serve.”
“I wonder if he’ll do it while we’re here?” Father Wilkins resumed as if ignoring his colleague’s protests. “I wonder if he’ll do it today?”
“Stop kidding around, Father Wilkins,” he admonished. “You know that there is usually a special ceremony that is announced months in advance. Besides, I’m in my work clothes and not even in the correct wardrobe.” I brought them just in case. They’re still packed up in my suitcase. “You know, I didn’t even consider the possibility of becoming a cardinal until recently?” Not until some of the other bishops mentioned it. Why else would they ask so many of them about me? All the other bishops told me that they are going to do it. I’ll be glad when all the waiting is over!
“I’m sure that they have all the vestments we need here for any ceremony that has to be performed,” Father Wilkins said. He couldn’t hold back a smile to this comment and neither could his aide. During the brief pause in their discussion he heard footsteps outside and the door opened. Their hosts had arrived.
The Americans watched three men enter the room and they immediately recognized one of them. The first man that came in was younger, perhaps in his late twenties, who held open the door and then announced, “His Holiness” signaling the Pope to make his entrance. The Pope walked in slowly making great use of an ornate cane as he proceeded. He looks so old. He doesn’t look like that on television. The Pope’s movements were labored and obviously difficult for him.
With the Pope before them, Bishop McCarter and Father Wilkins both stood up and each then kneeled on their left knee. The Pope presented his right hand so each man could kiss his ring and then the men stood back up as the young man, speaking in an Italian accent, introduced them to the Pope. Back on his feet, Bishop McCarter noticed the third man remaining back by the door and silent as the Pope spoke. The Pope looked primarily at Bishop McCarter with the young man beside him translating from Italian to English for the Americans.
“My young brothers in Christ I thank you for coming on such short notice. It is such a blessing to know that God’s Church is full of faithful men committed to His cause. It is for this reason that I have summoned you. I needed to see you concerning a unique calling in a time of great need for the Church and one that I know you will not refuse. That is especially gratifying since your new position and duties may seem difficult at times and would perhaps test the faith of a weaker man. But, you can be assured, the Lord has spoken to me and I have no doubts about this assignment. Remember always ’… The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.’ Bishop, it was my desire to speak with you personally about this matter but, unfortunately, my schedule and duties will simply not allow it. So, I will have to leave the details to Vice-Gerentes Carchesio. Good day and God bless!”
As the Pope prepared to leave the Americans again kneeled and kissed his ring. The young interpreter held open the door as the elderly Pope slowly and quietly exited leaving the third visitor still in the room. This man waited patiently for several moments, with the room in an awkward silence, before he finally spoke out in a thick, Italian accent.
“My name is Vice-Gerentes Leonardo Carchesio. Bishop McCarter, if you will come with me please,” he stated. “We need to speak privately about a few matters.”
“Of course,” the bishop replied. This is it! The men started to depart the conference room and as the bishop looked back he could see Father Wilkins smile and give him a “thumbs up”.
They walked down a narrow corridor with doors on both sides. The atmosphere had the feeling of an administration building of a large business. But, he didn’t get to look for long as they passed only a few doors before his companion opened one for them both to enter. This was clearly the office of Vices-Gerentes Carchesio. He sat behind his desk and nodded for the bishop to sit across from him. This office was decorated in a similar fashion to the room they had just left and was just as comfortable but smaller.
Bishop McCarter, clearly excited, was the first one to speak. “I feel truly humbled to be considered for this honor.” He smiled broadly.
Vices-Gerentes Carchesio sighed deeply with a concerned and serious look on his face. He hesitated before starting to speak, “Before I go any further let me apologize for the fact that you were not told about the true reason for your visit. And, I hope you haven’t come here with any false hopes or assumptions. Officially, your trip here never happened and you cannot tell anyone about your conversation with His Holiness. Everything that occurs today must remain hidden, which may seem strange, but I think you will understand after our discussion. Your visit has to remain an absolute secret.”
The smile on his face was now gone and he struggled with the broken English of his fellow bishop. “I’m not sure I understand, Vices-Gerentes Carchesio,” he replied. A secret? He resettled in his seat.
“Well,” the Italian bishop when on, “let me explain by telling you a story. Just a few days ago, in the deserts outside of Damascus, someone dug up the Holy Ark of the Covenant. So far, the event has stayed relatively unknown but news that big will soon leak out across the world.”
“The Ark has been found?” he exclaimed. “That's incredible! But what exactly does that have to do with me?” Why doesn’t anyone know that the Ark has been found?
Bishop Carchesio picked up a photograph that was on his desk and handed it to the American. “Do you know this man?” he questioned.
“No,” he leaned forward as he studied the photograph.
“That is a picture of an American named Ray Beter. He came to the attention of the Church about a month ago when he began to predict the recovery of the Ark,” Bishop Carchesio stated.
“Really? I’ve never heard of him.”
“Let me be precisely clear about this man. He actually named the exact date when the Ark would be found and the location,” the Vice-Gerentes said. “No one noticed until his predictions came true.”
“The Lord must really have his hand on this man,” How could he have known? What’s really going on here?
Again, the Italian Bishop paused and the serious look returned to his face. “His Holiness has taken a personal interest in this man. He has begun to have visions, terrifying visions, and believes that the recovery of the Ark is an omen of the apocalypse which he fears will take place soon. His Holiness has also had visions about this American and believes that this man will somehow be involved in it all. He wants the Church to be able to keep an especially close eye on him. That's why he summoned you.”
“Of course I'll do my best but I don't even know this man. So I'm not sure how I can help,” he leaned back in his chair.
“The Holy Father asks you to make this your first responsibility, Bishop McCarter,” the Italian Bishop stated.
“But what of my other responsibilities?” he asked. “His Holiness must know that I have many duties?”
“Let me again be perfectly blunt. As of now, if you have no other responsibilities,” the Vices-Gerentes said coldly.
He sat quietly in his chair as an awkward silence fell between them. Am I not to become a Cardinal?
In just a moment his host began to speak to him again, “His Holiness has heard many good things about you, Bishop, and he has not made this decision without great consideration. I can tell you from personal experience that these recent events trouble him greatly and are a burden on him. His health is not good. His Holiness is worried that he will not live to see this matter concluded, and I'm sure that you could see for yourself just how ill he has become. The Holy Father is relying on you in this important hour to serve the needs of the Church.”
He nodded his head and answered, “Yes. I am here to serve. I’ll do it.”
“His Holiness knew that he could depend on you,” the Vices-Gerentes said as he smiled for the first time. “You are to be given a special position within the United States government that investigates matters such as this. In fact, you will be the head of a whole department. This will allow you to get close to this man without it seeming strange or unusual. You are to report his activities to us, as possible, but reveal your connection to the Church to no one. Stay close to this man but observe him only and do not interfere. The Church will place individuals nearby that can intervene if it becomes necessary. Is that understood?”
“Yes, of course. I've got it,” he answered. “I will be the eyes and ears of His Holiness.” Am I no longer a Bishop?
“Oh, and there's one more thing I should probably mention while I'm at it,” Bishop Carchesio said.
“What’s that?” he asked. What now? How much more disappointing can this get?
“Well, when the Ark was discovered one of the angel cherubs was missing off of the lid. Isn't that curious?” the Italian stated.
That’s strange. “What does it mean?” he queried.
“We think it may be an omen; a sign that His Holiness is right. It is the end of all things,” the bishop said solemnly.
He entered the conference room slowly and with his head down. Father Wilkins has been waiting for a long time. Jason burst out when he first saw his friend come back into the conference room,” Congratulations, Cardinal ...” He saw Jason’s mouth open and confused look. “Bishop, where are your robes? Why are you dressed like that?”
“Jason, the Pope has given me a special new job. I've resigned from the Church.”