Europe, like the rest of the world was reeling from the holocaust of an hour ago. Many in the western hemisphere still slept soundly, unmindful of the most horrific single instant disaster since Hiroshima. The U.S. secretary of state along with several senators and a few members of the House had been the American representatives. An overbooked schedule of Cabinet meetings had kept the president and his vice president at home. Millions would thank God for that.
Not so for practically every nation on the face of this earth. Lost in the fiery annihilation were the prime ministers of England, Canada, Austria, Poland, Slovenia, as well as the presidents who ruled France, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Indonesia and South Korea. Casualties included the German chancellor, the vice premier of Russia, the vice chairman of China, the governor general of Australia, the vice president of Italy, the ayatollah of Iran, the sultan of Brunei, the premier of Bermuda, and many lesser leaders. Countless military leaders and heads of states in Africa, South America, Asia and the Mideast, some who themselves had not blinked when they ordered the execution of so many of their own countrymen, were dispatched in the furnace of the finite on the Field of Abraham. Monarchs were wiped out in the blink of an eye - kings from Norway, Nepal, Thailand, Western Samoa, Lesotho, along with princes from Spain, Swaziland, and Liechtenstein, as well as the princess of Denmark and the grand duke of Luxembourg. Ministers, bishops, preachers, priests, monks, nuns, lay religious leaders, holy and unholy men and women met their fate on this first day of November. Thousands of members of the media would communicate no more over the mediums their public had come to depend on.
Those global news gatherers who had survived this sickening inferno - all who had not ventured within ten miles of New Nasiriyah - were now counting the casualties by deduction, researching itineraries of every world leader, what representatives they had sent, who, when, where. It would be a massive obituary of humanity - a tome that might never quite be able to be fully recorded in the historical annals.
Dateline: Vatican City, November 1, 9:30 a.m.
Many were gathering in Paul VI Hall, just off the south side of St. Peter's Basilica, isolated and hidden behind the timeless Bernini Colonnade. This sloping, massive arena had been built back in the late seventies and dedicated in the early eighties in order to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. It was where the Holy Father normally delivered his Wednesday general audiences, except during the summers when the square usually filled to the brim. Once the heat of September gave over to the chills of October, Paul VI Hall was the norm. On this first day of November a light rain fell on the eternal city. It was just enough to make the cobblestones slippery as priests, prelates, and many news personnel filed into the hall, folding up umbrellas.
Sister Bridget McCullough, a member of the Order of the Holy Family of Santa Cruz, and therefore a member of the Papal Household, had been summoned from prayer in the chapel by her superior Sister Agnes de Christi. Sister McCullough went by Sister Bridie, the affectionate name her fellow Vatican staffers knew her by. This young nun had a naivete that allowed her to retain a sixth sense about much that went on about her. Much she would never have bothered with. This morning, however, the look on the mother superior's face had sent a wave of foreboding through the heart of Sister Bridie. It was confirmed a few seconds later when Sister Agnes informed Sister Bridie of what happened.
Sister Bridie was one of the youngest of the Papal Household, appointed shortly before the death of John Paul II. She was a traditional nun through and through who served with dedication and absolute faith in a time of tremendous loss of faith on a worldwide scale. She would need every ounce of that faith as she obediently followed Sister Agnes from the chapel to the side corridor that would take them down another corridor to the passageway under the main steps of St. Peter's to a corridor inside Paul VI Hall.
They proceeded through another passageway inside the hall where a Swiss Guard stood as yet another Guard opened the door into the main hall for the two nuns. Another escorted them to special assigned seats. From the somberness of the crowd's mood, Sister Bridie knew with certainty that whatever was about to be said would shake her secure world as nothing else had ever been able to sway it. She said a brief, spontaneous prayer in her heart for strength, then sat down, trying to keep herself perfectly composed though underneath her bluish gray habit she was trembling.
Other religious - brothers, sisters and priests of various orders - who were assigned to the Vatican in a variety of posts, were already assembled, fidgeting nervously, murmuring among themselves, casting concerned glances about the room as others joined them. That look of consternation was another knife thrust through Sister Bridie's soul. Most knew what and when, but few knew how and, more importantly, why. Those who had not heard were quickly informed by the majority who did. Sr. Bridie glanced at Sr. Agnes who sat rigidly, her face as immobile as stone, and as set in as passive an expression as any sculptor could capture. Sister Bridie instinctively pressed a bead on the 15-decade white Rosary that every nun of her order wore, connected to her cincture and draped down the side of her habit.
After several moments the side door to the great room opened and a contingent of cardinals and monsignors entered. As they somberly took their special seats on the side, photographers jockeyed into place for the ideal shots. Parting the sea of red were Cardinal Macelli and Monsignor Stephen Navarro, the recently appointed head of the Social Communications Council. It had been expected that he would
be made a bishop before the year was out, and soon after an archbishop. It was the privilege of the office and because of his role he was the first to the podium.
"You are here because of the tragic events this morning in Iraq. His Eminence Cardinal Macelli has a prepared statement he will read." Msgr. Navarro bowed as Macelli, dressed in his finest scarlet robes, approached the lectern. Navarro retreated to the side and a bit behind in order to be out of range of photo shots. He was not only a behind-the-scenes kind of official, but also appreciated the photographers' job and wanted to make it easier for them and the croppers in the editing room.
From her position Sister Bridie noted at once the drawn look on Macelli. He looked a bit tired...but then he always did, she recalled. It was unusual for someone from interior affairs to address the press. However, considering those prelature offices that had been eliminated on the Field of Abraham, those conventions were hardly of importance now.
Sister's hand slipped from beneath her protective blue-gray scapular and she made a swift but reverent Sign of the Cross as Macelli cleared his throat. All eyes in the room were riveted on this man whom she thought of as an eclipse, but she'd never figured out of what kind of penumbra this rotund prince of the Church was. She knew he generally irritated a majority of people, including herself, but he always pursued his duties as head of Internal Affairs with an obsessive devotion. He had acquired even more authority. He was the inner voice of the Vatican. He was a power to be reckoned with.
"My brothers and sisters," Macelli began in practiced tones that resembled a seminary professor lecturing a new group of students. No one in the room moved, coughed, sneezed or blinked. "It is now official as most of you are aware. At 8:22 this morning, 10:22 in New Nasiriyah, our dear Holy Father was murdered - nay martyred - along with 81 cardinals, 113 bishops, and..." He studied the figures just handed to him by a familiar priest in cassock. Through her tears Sister Bridie could recognize him as Father Roberto Urazzi. The cardinal continued, "...from our last count 497 priests, 182 nuns, 44 lay brothers, and 368 seminarians. Ah, there were, ah...63 total from the Holy See. This includes various members of the traveling party, His Eminence the Secretary of State, 11 Swiss Guards, the traveling Master of Ceremonies, and..."
One brash reporter could wait no longer. He yelled out in a high Italian pitch, "How did this happen?"
Another followed, suitably brash, "We have a right to know." Then several other media members joined in seeking answers. Immediately all protocol was thrown to the wind.
Macelli sought to regain control, "In the first instant you will feel, as is only natural, abhorrence. Yet, I remind you that we are representatives of the Vatican State, and as such we must conduct ourselves at all times above reproach. What has happened? Well, God let's happen what must. That we accept."
Sister Bridie clenched her hands beneath her concealing scapular and chided to herself, "Me thinks thou dost protest too much. Get on with it, will ya? You've no need to be sermonizing us."
As if hearing her plea, Macelli glimpsed down toward the ornate lectern only briefly and when he glanced back up, it was as if a veil concealed his eyes. "If you desire me to continue, I demand order." The feeding frenzy of journalistic sharks abated into shallower, still waters.
"Please, ladies and gentlemen, I will endeavor to answer each question as best I can. I ask all to be patient. One at a time please." Pointing to a mustachioed man in the second row. "Yes, the gentleman there."
"George Sizemore, Boston Globe. Can you estimate the number that are dead?"
Macelli was assertive, "No definitive details at this time. To my understanding authorities and UN officials are just arriving in Baghdad and it will be even longer before they arrive on the scene. Aid is underway for any survivors if, pray God, there might be the miracle that some did escape those deadly explosions. The figures I just read to you are fairly accurate." He gestured to another reporter.
"Donald Jeffries, London Times. Can you say for certain that His Holiness is dead?"
"There's no doubt from what we all saw that we was among the first to perish. In the third row."
"Tom Scarborough, Fox News. Has anyone come forward to claim responsibility yet?"
"No, although reports are surfacing that it was the responsibility of radical Israeli factions in retaliation for the destruction of Jerusalem in March."
Scarborough was not to be dismissed so easily, he dug deeper, "But wasn't the rabbi of Jerusalem also annihilated in the explosion?"
"From what we've been able to determine, yes. But the Holy Father's Apostolic letter, which he released just yesterday, could be the reason."
Sarto Ronconi was taken aback, "L'Osservatore Romano, Your Eminence? We were never informed of such a document."
It was the opening Macelli was waiting for. "Copies will be distributed immediately following this news conference. My aid Fr. Urazzi will have copies available for all."
He shot a commanding eye to Urazzi near the door and the priest flung it open and headed for the elevator. It would take him to the third level, a regular Kinko's under the stadium seats of the "Upper Room" conference hall. Here in this long, fairly narrow grotto Xeroxes would fire off copies of the 5 master copies, one in English, one in Italian, one in German, another in French and a final one in Spanish. 200 copies of each translation would be reproduced, collated and stapled within ten minutes. Meanwhile, in the great hall below Macelli continued to field questions.
"Goran Vycokovic, Zagreb press. What about the Russian and Greek Orthodox Patriarchs? And the Grand Imam? And..."
Macelli cut him off, "They're all dead. All of them. There is no possible way they could have escaped. We must accept that and move on." He pointed at a young woman with her dark hair pulled back. "Yes?" Another started to rise and the cardinal signaled. "No not you, her."
"Giovanna Merecini, 30 Giornale. Your eminence, what preparations are underway for electing the next Pope?"
"Well, as you know there is a nine-day waiting period," Macelli pontificated. "We have the funerals, the calling of the Conclave. Unfortunately, unlike a year ago, there will only be a third of the College now. We may make some modifications such as waiving the duration of time, considering the circumstances. I have it on good authority exceptions will be made and the burials of the deceased done quickly."
Whose authority could that be? Sister Bridie pondered. The Pope couldn't have told him. The Papal Secretary of State was dead also, as were three-fourths of the Princes of the Church. What authority was he speaking of. Surely the Holy Spirit didn't infuse him with that air about him. She felt a sudden guilt of pride. Instinctively she sought to douse the vice with a quick but sincere "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa," as she beat her breast in reparation for her thoughts.
Next issue: Second Chapter - Episode Five
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!