The early morning hours of November 3rd were a solemn time for the Vatican. A private matter, well-guarded from the general public. The entire Papal household had been alerted and after Lauds, the majority were on hand, cleaning and performing various sacristan duties as the coffins began to be escorted in the side door. Slowly each was extracted from the trucks, emptying the bowels of the ten-wheelers of the venerated cargo. By noon St. Peter's would be open for public mourning which would go on for the next three days - from noon to 8 p.m. and then from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. the following day. Normally the Roman Pontiff's body would lie in state for three days, symbolic of the three days in the tomb Christ spent, but things were not normal and thus, possibly through Macelli and Vendhem's machinations, the funeral had been moved up a day.
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Dateline: Rome - St. Peter's Basilica - November 3, 7:15 A.M.
Already thousands of mourners had gathered in St. Peter's Square as the winter winds swirled in, bringing with it a cold rain that chilled the brave souls standing outside. Most tried to take cover under the Bernini Columns encircling the Square. Soon there was not even room for that. This prompted a decision by one of the higher-ups to open Paul VI Hall immediately to accommodate the mourners and protect them from the elements. It was unprecedented, but these were unprecedented times.
As grateful, but soaked and chilled mourners filed into the cavernous hall, Sister Bridie was busy polishing off candlesticks, carrying linens and palls into St. Peter's where scores of others were engaged in similar sacristan duties. Lauds had been completed, now the task at hand took precedence as workers prepared for the official viewing by the public.
Though sadness permeated the great basilica, Sister Bridget McCullough harkened back to what she had always been taught: The Church does not mourn death. Yet, even Sr. Bridie's superior Mother Agnes de Christi looked upon the row of coffins and seemed to age before the junior nun's eyes. The Church rejoices, the Irish nun told herself, trying to be brave for her fellow sisters, especially Mother Superior. Death was but a beginning of eternity. A foreverness without pain or fear. Only the love of God awaited. Oh, there might be a delay - from a day to several hundred years, quite possibly, Sister pondered in remembering the Church's teaching on Purgatory - a stopping-off point, so to speak, a way-station before being admitted into the celestial kingdom.
Why then was there such a pall in the church this morning, a grief so thick it was almost palatable?
Sister Bridie had no answers on this bleak morning. She tried to encourage and be enthusiastic, but under the circumstances even the usual spark she exhibited seemed out of place today. She silently prayed for each person as they were brought in contained in their inconspicuous pine boxes. All was sealed. No coffins would be open, even the Pope's.
As each coffin was brought in and placed on its marker, a cadre of sacristans soon covered it with an appropriate bier cloth suitable to the office of the deceased. Cardinals who had accompanied the Pope at the Field of Abraham were placed to either side of the Holy Father's. Scarlet shrouds covered those coffins, lined up in their order of seniority rather than rank or Curial office. The biers of Bishops spanned out in a semi-circle flanking the Pope and the Princes of the Church. Whether archbishop or bishop, each was covered with a magenta shroud. Two priests followed each coffin, setting a placard with the respectful name of the cleric on the edge of the coffin, flanked by three floor-length candlesticks on each side of every coffin. The remains of priests fanned out behind the bishops' coffins and past them came the nuns, only a few, and several lay persons employed by the Vatican. The coffins of twelve Swiss Guards were given a special place on the outer edge in a semi-circle that encompassed all the other coffins. Even in death they would stand sentinel over the Pope and others in the hierarchy.
A hush filled this massive basilica as word spread like dominoes that they were bringing the Pope's coffin in. All stood respectfully in place as twelve Swiss Guard proceeded the cortege, followed by a monsignor with the censer incensing the air. Eight Swiss Guards carried the coffin, a unique molded brass one specially prepared for the Pope. The pine box had been inserted inside the larger, more ornate casket. Behind a bishop in a black cope with matching humeral veil held aloft the Montrance exposing the Blessed Sacrament. His hands wrapped in the veil so that only cloth touched the vessel that held the true presence of Christ. The procession moved slowly as the choir followed behind, chanting in low tones the Dies Irae as if in dress rehearsal for the funeral in two days. As the somber cavalcade came into view, all knelt blessing themselves and bowing as the Blessed Sacrament passed them. Tears and sniffles could be heard from not only the nuns, but several men as well. It was a solemn, somber moment.
Sister Bridie helped Mother Agnes back to her feet, the arthritis shooting up to her hip. The younger nun braced the elder's frail frame on her shoulder and eased her to a chair. "Ya be mindin' the good Lord and pray seated, please, Mother Agnes. Please?"
The Mother Superior raised the surrender flag with an exhausted nod. No longer could she keep up with the others. Quite possibly she had become more of a burden than a help to the younger sisters, but they showed the utmost respect and no one was more helpful, more understanding than Sister Bridget.
The funeral train had reached the center before the altar as the uniformed pall bearers lifted and slid the heavy casket into place on the prepared stanchion. The Pope's crest was very visible on top as a contingent carried a white velvet shroud to cover the casket. It, too, bore the papal seal. Gently it was laid over the casket and all knelt and prayed as the monsignor incensed the casket walking completely around it. All that could be heard in this huge chamber was the clinking sound of the chain hitting the gold-plated censer. After five minutes the lead cantor intoned the Litany of Saints. The words Exurge Domine, adjuva nos filled the basilica, bouncing off the accoustical panels which were so expertly positioned and camouflaged that they were not noticeable to the human eye. They that had been first put in place during the pontificate of Pius XI.
Another priest was just finishing the Litany, Et fidelium animae per misericordiam Dei requiescant in pace. Amen. Then silence again as the monsignor placed two heaping spoons of incense into the censor which a deacon held, then handed it to the monsignor to incense the casket again. Then the choir began singing the Asperges Me. The procession slowly began to wind its way toward the back chapel. Leaving the Swiss Guards behind the six altar boys led the bearer of the Sacred Monstrance as the monsignor, aided by a deacon, walked backward incensing the Blessed Sacrament with the choir following behind as they made their way to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the rear side of St. Peter's where it was always kept for perpetual adoration.
Even for Sister Bridie, the marble floor felt colder this morning, harder on the knees. She could appreciate how it affected Mother Superior. Just as the younger nun was about to utter a silent complaint, she thought of her dear Lord traipsing up Calvary barefoot, falling on the hard, jagged rocks, the sweat and blood beading with dirt and grime. His throat parched by the dust, His shoulder aching from the heavy weight of the crude wooden tree he carried. If He could do that, 'Surely then, Sister Bridget Mary McCullough, you be kneelin' and not be a complainin' now,' she told herself.
She could not see it, no one could. Only the angels and saints could see the graces pouring into the soul of their protege - a simple, holy nun who felt no more important than any of the others in this basilica as she resumed her work ever more reverently.
Dateline: Rome - Sei Albergo - November 3, 8:00 A.M.
So deep was Niki's sleep that he didn't know if Ogidi had returned to the apartment. Nothing disturbed his rest. No sound of an opening door, or footsteps tip-toeing across the floor aroused him, no voice calling him from his oblivion. Just his body clock. Four hours was the norm for Niki. Like clockwork
With a sudden awareness the Greek priest's eyes flew open. He looked hurriedly, but blurringly at his watch. He was off the couch and looking around the small apartment for Ogidi or any sign he had been there.
On the small table which stood against the far wall Niki noticed a paper bag which he hadn't seen earlier when he entered. How did he miss it? He had no doubt Makuta had been there. Why hadn't Ogidi awakened him? He berated himself silently for sleeping so soundly that he had missed the man. Anyway, the good doctor had the forethought to provide some sustenance for his Greek guest.
From the bag Andriopoulos pulled out a loaf of fresh bread and a slab of cheese, and hungrily tore off a piece of the bread as his eyes searched for a knife to slice the cheddar. God, he was famished. Makuta had been wise to bring this. Why hadn't he stayed?
In his search for a utensil to part the cheese he spied a note neatly penned near the bag. The script was like fine lace, a style of penmanship Niki hadn't seen in many years and certainly the last type of calligraphy one would ever expect from a medical man's pen.
Yet Ogidi's note was clear and precise. He wished his Greek friend to refresh himself and rest. He would return to the room after he had completed another task assigned to him by his International Organization. He would be back by early afternoon.
Niki was thankful he would have more time to make his own plans and see to his own preparations.
He didn't know where the feeling came from or why, but he was seized by a powerful sense of relief...a reprieve, as it were, from the inevitable meeting between him and Dr. Makuta Ogidi.
Perhaps, Niki told himself as he broke off another piece of bread and cheese and began to pat his pockets, he would feel more comfortable after he tended to what he needed to do. Maybe he had to make certain just where things stood here in Rome before he too eagerly accepted Makuta's observations, opinions and, perhaps, even his aid.
Andriopoulos began to move quickly. There in the bathroom was an extra toothbrush, toothpaste and a razor. His opinion of Makuta skyrocketed immeasurably as he pulled off his tattered clothes and turned on the nozzle to the shower. Ten minutes later he was a new man. Breaking off a last piece of cheese, he stuffed it into his pocket, and headed out the door, relocking it behind him as he stuck the key into his shirt.
Activity on the Via de S. Basileos was in full swing as Niki ducked under a welcome awning, the rain pelting the canvas above. Despite the weather he couldn't stay there all day. Taking a cardboard box from near a stack of produce, he covered his head and scurried to the corner, turned left and headed up Via L. Bissolati, keeping an eye open for a clothing shop.
He spotted a small thrift shop half way up the street. Within minutes he had found some non-descript, plain and rugged clothing that would allow him a chance to better blend in. He emerged in dark trousers, a very faded sports shirt over which he had placed a navy blue sweater, and, of course, his own jacket, the pockets still containing his treasures. He had exchanged his worn shoes for a pair of sturdy walking shoes with rubber soles.
It was still early in the day. Makuta wouldn't be around until mid-afternoon, Niki calculated. He would take the opportunity to do some investigating. His whole priesthood had been an active, underground ministry. A test in learning how to think on his feet with Fasif guiding him, calling the plays. All those years had given Niki assurance, confidence. It had kept him lithe and sinewy in build, a man seasoned to rough times, bad weather, scant food and abundant faith. All this he needed now...and more!
"Gallagher," he whispered as he hailed a taxi, "I'll find you tonight, my friend. When we meet again we're going to perform miracles. With God all things are possible."
Next issue: Seventh Chapter - Episode Five
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!