Rome, 15 September 1635
For over two weeks he had been coming to the church. I watched him walk in, with strong, purposeful steps, and yet he was clearly carrying a great weight. He would hold a stick but not use it to walk. He would always take a bench at the back of the congregation, and would sit, motionless, staring at the floor for hours. Then finally at the end of the day, he would stand, but struggling to his feet, grasping at his stick, like an old man of sixty or more. It was as if he aged twenty years on the bench. He would stumble out of the church, not a word to anyone, he would not take the sacrament; he would just leave. Only to return the next day.
I was only two years a priest and very lucky to have been placed here, in this most unusual of churches, once home to the pagan gods of Rome. But the Lord had not tasked me with any great work yet, or so I felt. The endless confessions of petty sins, how so and so had taken the Lord’s name in vain when he dropped his hammer on his foot, how such and such had maybe admired his brother’s wife in an ungodly way, all easily erased with a simple absolution, were, I confess, beginning to grate. My calling, I felt strongly, was to help people reach God as I had been helped. I have been enormously fortunate and in my time of need, not so many years ago, God saved me. I thought for a higher purpose than this, but perhaps two years of boredom was a test. With this man – was he once a soldier, I wondered? – I gradually began to feel that God indeed was giving me something worthwhile to do. I had to take this man’s confession.
“Pietro, it is perfectly acceptable for you to approach him.” Father David Sapienza, an elder priest at the church, my sponsor and mentor, stood next to me as we watched the man enter the church and take his seat. The warm September rain was pouring through the eye of the rotunda, catching the midday sun, a beautiful dance of light and sound. It was hard to believe that the architects of this church, well over a thousand years ago, had worshipped heathen gods and yet created something which could so embody the Holy Spirit. We skirted around the large puddle formed by the fountain of rain falling from the oculus.
“Clearly his burden is great. He must not carry it alone. Besides, I think soon he will scare away the rest of the congregation. I don’t want us to lose even more of this place!” David was referring to the portico – the bronze had been requisitioned by Pope Urban, rumour had it to make cannons for his fortress. David did not really love our Pope as much as he should, but his misgivings he kept quiet, perhaps only aired to me and then only hinted at.
I looked at the man as he sat, once again staring at the floor. “Very well, I said. When?”
“Now”, said Father David, “He always looks so weak after. Don’t worry about your chores today. We can get someone else to wave the incense around.” I walked towards the bench where the man was sitting and sat next to him.
“My Son?” I always felt awkward saying this. I was a young man of twenty – this man could have been my father, grandfather even. He did not respond, staring at the floor, and, I noticed, gripping the bench in front of him so tightly that his knuckles might burst through his skin.
His coat was old and worn and his face gaunt. He did look like an old soldier, or a sailor. I’d seen so many veterans, in the smaller churches, while I was being trained, but none here in the grand Pantheon before. I’d never approached one of these men before, but to me it felt like this man could have been my father, lost in one of the battles against the Calvinists. At least he didn’t smell bad. I put my arm around him.
“Sir, can you hear me?” Slowly, he loosened his grip and lifted his head to face me. It was as if I had awoken him from a dream, probably a nightmare, and as he focussed on me he began to look increasingly bewildered. I kept my arm around him. He must learn that the Lord will never give up on him.
“Son, would you like to confess?”
“Confess?” He said as if speaking a foreign language. Certainly his accent was unfamiliar. But he had understood me.
“Yes. You have been coming here a while, yet you do not take the sacraments. If your soul is not in a state of grace, I would be happy to hear your confession.”
“You – you would give me that gift?” I didn’t know then if he was referring to my age and obvious lack of experience, or whether he was so unused to altruistic human contact that he couldn’t believe anyone would offer him anything.
“Yes. Everything I have, I was given.”
“Given? By who?”
“By the Lord, through my friends, my family, people I have met. I have nothing that I value that I was not given. It is my duty and my joy to give to others, too.”
We stared at each other and I thought I could see a tear welling in his eye. He looked away.
“Yes, we have a box just over there. Can you walk?”
“I can walk. It will be… it will be difficult Father.”
“The Lord will help us.”
He smiled. “Do you have any food?”
Johannes, he was called, ate like a dog, as if he didn’t know when his next meal would come. Perhaps this was true – like so many veterans, he may have lost his family, and had no money – but as he swallowed the bread, dipped in the olive oil I had found for him in the kitchen, and gulped down the wine enthusiastically, I could see the strength come back to him, and even a little light in his eyes. He had refused the meat we had.
It was most unorthodox to take a member of the congregation here to the church kitchen, but it felt like the right thing to do. I was dressed in my finery and Johannes in his rags sat in the kitchen used by the many workers who helped maintain the church. It would have seemed odd to any witness, but there were none, save Father David who had nodded his approval as we’d walked in entirely the opposite direction to the confession box.
“Are you ready to confess now, Johannes?” I asked, as he polished off the end of the second loaf.
“Yes, Father Pietro. Thank you for the food. This… this will take a lot out of me, and I will be exhausted afterwards. The question is, are you ready?”
We hadn’t spoken much yet as I’d watched him eat. I wondered what horrors the war had visited upon him.
“I am ready, Johannes.”
We walked down the stairs back into the rotunda, and Johannes strode purposefully into the box. He seemed taller now than before, stronger, he held his stick in the air, not using it to walk with. I entered my side of the box.
“You may begin, my son”.
“I do not know where to begin, Father…” he paused for a while and then he started, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been many, many years since I last confessed…”
I waited for him to continue. He did not, and I could see through the grille that he was silently sobbing. I had to prompt him. “You fought in one of the wars?”
“I did, Father. I was at Bílá Hora – you may know it as the White Mountain – Bohemia. I saw many things. So much death. I lost my family.”
“As did many, my Son. But you fought in the name of our Lord. Your heart is heavy, but I cannot see your sin here, yet.” I paused for a while, allowing him to prepare for his next words. “Please, continue.”
“I wanted to take what they took from me. There was this child. I held him, in my arms. I had my knife.”
This could be worse than I feared! A child? The man killed a child? Lord, give me strength to hear this man’s confession and deliver him to you in a state of grace.
“I could not do it. He could have been my son.” Relief.
“I could have saved, many, many men, but I could not bear the thought of taking this child’s life. Even though I knew the consequences of not. My gift, my curse.”
“Go on. Tell me about this ‘curse’. The Lord will forgive you.”
“He should not. Many years ago, I was just a child, I had a fever… A stranger came to visit, I do not know if he was a priest, or a doctor. Perhaps he was the devil. Maybe it was a dream from the fever. He told me I had three… three abilities. Then he left.”
He slid away the grille. Tears were streaming down his face. He looked me straight in the eyes and I felt as if I was looking at the face of God. I was captivated, but terrified.
“I can see.”
“What, Johannes – what can you see?”
“I can see the future. For my sins I cannot change it!”
We had been trained to spot charlatans and I must confess my immediate instinct was anger at having been tricked by this fraudster, but he carried on staring at me. He held my gaze and extended his hand through the window.
“The second ability. I can show. Take my hand, Father.”
I hesitated. “Take my hand.” This time it was like a command. Gingerly I gave Johannes my hand.
“Do not let go, no matter what you see.” He grasped my hand tightly.
The box was on fire and outside in the rotunda I could hear the congregation were screaming and wailing. I held Johannes’s hand and he held mine. “The flames will not hurt you. You will be safe. They will not hear you or see you. Do not let go of my hand, until I tell you.”
The box had burnt away around us and I could feel the heat but it did not burn and the ashes did not seem to land on us. We stepped out of the box, still holding hands. The ground was shaking. I did not recognise the congregation, or the strange priest leading it. Above us, through the oculus, I could see the moon, but it was partially obscured by a monstrous, jagged shape, blacking out the stars.
“Do you know where we are?” shouted Johannes above the hurricane blowing through the doors of the Pantheon. “This is Rome, Father, a thousand years from now!”
“Each time it is different! Never exactly the same… but no matter what I do… that rock…”
The Roman concrete was falling from the ceiling, crashing on the ground, hitting and killing many of the congregation as it fell. Still they prayed, they wailed. I felt a sudden pull, and we were off the ground, being pulled upwards to the hole, with the rubble and the people and the benches. The moon was fully obscured now.
The rotunda ceiling had completely fractured, it was impossible to see where the oculus had been, and we were being pulled upwards towards a huge rock falling from the sky. I could see Rome ablaze as lightning struck the ground again and again.
“Is this what your God intends, Father Pietro? Is this His Plan?”
I could not answer.
“This is the end, Father Pietro… Let go!”
We were back in the box, intact. Johannes had collapsed, and I sat there, shaking.