By S. I. Wells
The Pope lay dying. His most trusted advisors stood by the side of his bed. Some praying. Some weeping. Some worried about the transition of power.
For over two thousand years the Church had survived and prospered. This Pope had begun to dismantle its legacy of riches in service to the poor. He had his supporters and his detractors, but Cardinal Bernardi, the Secretary of State of the Holy See, was neither. His eyes were on the old man's hand. He imagined the weight of the Papal ring on his finger.
At the same hour, a solitary figure in a black cassock stood in the Sistine Chapel. The tourists had gone. The guards were doing other things. Father Alvarez was alone with Michelangelo. Just a humble Vatican librarian and the great painter. The silence of the great hall echoed in his ears. His thoughts were directed to his heavenly father.
As the Pope took his final breath, a hush rang through the corridors of power like a silent death rattle announcing new life to Peter's church.
At that very moment Father Alvarez felt the weight of the future on his shoulders. He was not a cardinal. He was not an archbishop. He was not even a bishop. His plight was no more than that of an ordinary man carrying out the wishes of God and his superiors. He wept openly but did not know why.
The sound of approaching boots marching together against the marble floors ruptured the silence. The Papal guards were coming down the long hallway toward the Chapel.
"Father,…please…" the Sergeant of the guards said softly as he motioned to Alvarez to become part of their phalanx.
The journey to the Papal apartments took no more than ten minutes. The rhythmic march lulled him with an unexpected reassurance. As the group of men rounded the corner to the Pope's bedroom, Alvarez suddenly stopped.
"Please…" Cardinal Bernardi said as he motioned for him to approach the Pope's lifeless, stone-white body. Without voice, he knelt to pray and tried to hold back his tears. Time stood still. No one in the room spoke. The scene could have been painted on a chapel wall or ceiling.
As he rose, Father Alvarez felt a strange force overtake his body. He felt a rush of terror, but remained silent.
"Come with me," one of the priests said.
Father Alvarez obeyed.
In the weeks that followed with all of the pomp and circumstance of laying the Pope to rest, Father Alvarez attended to his usual library duties, his usual prayers and his usual daily routine. The feeling that had washed over him at the Pope's bedside had receded. Everything in his life had returned to normal with one exception. Wherever he walked inside the Vatican or on the streets of Rome, strangers stopped and stared at him. They whispered as he walked by. Some bowed their heads. Some even crossed themselves.
Father Alvarez did not understand. He had no explanation for these reactions. He shrugged them off and put them from his mind.
The College of Cardinals was called into Conclave to choose the next pope. The electricity in the Vatican air was palpable. For Father Alvarez it was an experience like no other in his life. The purpose of the elders, their hushed conversations, their groupings, their serious walks gave credence to the importance of the event.
Days and nights passed without a decision. There was only black smoke two or three times a day as the votes were tallied but no candidate was selected. Outside the Vatican the world stood witness through the constant eyes of the media. The faithful had gathered and stayed in St. Peter's Square. Waiting. Watching. Standing. Sitting. Sleeping. Praying.
The mood within the Vatican walls, however, had turned from elation and excitement to tension and fear. Each minute that passed after the third day of the Conclave gave currency to the idea that time could stand still. Each hour brought new gossip that the Church's future was somehow in danger. To ask for patience in matters of State was beyond most who only wanted to be comforted and to be led.
And, then, in a moment, it was over. The smoke was white. A few Cardinals emerged from the Conclave and began rushing about with intense purpose. The mood of the great building magically transformed itself to one of hope and love.
As he walked down the corridor toward the Vatican library, Father Alvarez smiled. He was happy that the ordeal had come to an end. Happy that his Church would carry on. Happy that his life and duties could be relied upon as routine, contemplative and worthy. His only sadness was for the passing of the Pope; a man who had been more to him than any other person on earth. He had found the orphaned Armondo Alvarez in one of the shanty villas miseria of Buenos Aires. He had taken him in as a child and taught him the ways of the Church. And Armondo had watched as the man he called "Papa" ascended from Priest to Bishop to Cardinal to the throne of St. Peter.
"There he is!" came a shout as six Vatican guards in full dress came marching quick-time toward him.
What had he done? At first he felt like running. But he did not. He stood still looking directly at them and saw himself making the sign of the cross as if to bless them on their path. He did not know why.
"You are Father Alvarez?" the leader of the squad asked softly.
Father Alvarez nodded.
"Please come with us."
The guards now moved in a purposeful way, marching slowly. Solemnly. Surrounding their charge as if to protect him from the world.
As they neared the Sistine Chapel, Father Alvarez was confused. Why had he been summoned? To intrude at this moment on the sacred duties of the Cardinals made no sense to him.
At the doors to the Chapel, the guards melted away and Cardinal Bernardi greeted him with a deference to which he was unaccustomed.
"Please, come this way," the Cardinal said as he motioned in the direction of the Room of Tears.
The Cardinal Dean approached and stopped Father Alvarez in front of the great altar. The Cardinal placed his hands on Alvarez's head to consecrate him as a Bishop and then asked:
"Do you accept?"
Father Alvarez could find no words.
"Do you accept?"
Almost as a reflex, Father Alvarez nodded.
And with that the historic Chapel rang with applause as he was lead into the small room with the red walls where two valets fitted him with the white Papal cassock and the bejeweled miter.
"Please come this way…" the Cardinal Dean said as he motioned to the stunned young man.
As they emerged onto the balcony of the Papal apartment, one million people gathered in St. Peter's Square and beyond applauded and cheered.
"You must choose your name, Holiness. What will it be?"