The Ark of Apocalypse

CHAPTER FIVE

The Holy Father 

The oil tanker moved slowly to within site of Rome. Philip and Merlin went up to the deck to look out. The sun was just breaking over the seven hills. It was a time when everything should be quiet, but gunshots rang out intermittently from a distance. The dawning light discovered usurping fires still burning in several places. As the ship approached ever closer, Philip could see that very little of Rome remained. Nevertheless, he could still make out the dome of St. Peter's Basilica. He turned to look down at the old Priest. Merlin was sad, but he was also very angry.

Philip stared at the ancient city and wondered aloud, "How could it come to this?" Not only lay people have died, but thousands of Priests, Nuns, Bishops, and Cardinals. Merlin seemed to know a lot about what had happened to Rome over the past two years.

All Philip knew was that Pope Benedict XVI was shot and killed by an Italian born Moslem in a response to a call for his death.  He was killed during a meeting of his Cardinals. The Moslem road into the Sistine Chapel between two hundred Cardinals; shot Pope Benedict with a machine gun, and then 47 Cardinals before blowing himself up with a hand grenade strapped to his motorbike. Even before the Pope was buried, a new pope was elected by the remaining Cardinals.  The new pope was only a priest and not a bishop, but he was a Cardinal.  He was a theological advisor to the conference from a Brazilian University.  He would be the first black Pope since the third Century.  He spoke seven languages and although young (41 years of age), he was one of the greatest minds in the world.  He chose the same name, Benedict XVII, but had to leave Rome for Germany immediately after his election.  The shooting of the pope caused an uprising of Christians against Italian Moslems and riots broke out everywhere destroying the city. Moslems started bombing cars and buildings everywhere, and Christians hunted down Moslems without mercy.  No one was thinking of Christian charity or forgiveness. 

Why, though, would this new Pope return to Rome when nothing had changed? Worse now, there was no government at all. The army was without leadership and amounted to not much more than a mob itself. The new Pope would not be safe in Rome, but he insisted on coming here anyway. Why?

Simon suddenly appeared on the deck. He was wearing his white robe and with his right hand he gripped that frightening cannon. Respectfully, he asked, "Are you ready?"

Merlin looked at Philip and suggested, "I think you should change clothes."

Philip almost laughed. He was wearing blue denims, a blue hooded sweatshirt, and blue tennis shoes. In contrast, Merlin looked like a bum. He guessed that his attire was a little too casual for a visit to the Pope, but the dark brown, hooded robe that Merlin wore wasn’t any better. The ends of his long sleeves were frayed and the hem was all but gone. He had a rope for a belt, with a long black Rosary that was also made of rope and tucked under the belt. What a sight!

After Philip regained his composure, he replied teasingly, "I think I'll go as I am or I'll make you look bad. Besides, with all I see from here, I think it would be healthier to be dressed for speed than for image."

"As you wish," Merlin replied, shaking his head.

"Then let's go!" Simon insisted as he motioned to one of the hands standing by an electric panel. The hand pulled a lever and the chopper soon appeared. Simon opened the glass door. Philip helped Merlin up and climbed in behind him. Simon went around and mounted on his side. He started the blades swirling and then sat for a minute looking at the morning sky.

Soon, two solid black Apache AHH-64 helicopters, just like Simon's, appeared along both sides of the oil tanker. Merlin did not even blink, but they scared Philip almost to death. He jumped with a start and hit his head on the roof of the cockpit. Simon smiled at the Ark, raised his arm in salute to each pilot in turn, and then he lifted the chopper off the deck and banked to the right. The two other choppers stayed with him, flanking him on either side. The three blackbirds skimmed across the sea and sped over the charred ruins of Rome. Simon altered the formation by pulling up above the other two choppers and they responded by moving closer together under him. The three of them cut through the air like a pyramid.

The sun sat atop the mountains now and shone directly into their eyes. Philip could not see straight ahead, so he looked down. The city looked like it had been nuked repeatedly, but Philip knew that most of the damage had been done by Rome's own citizens. There were crowds in the streets and not one car was moving. Many had just stopped in the middle of the street.

Before Philip knew it, they were hovering over the great square of Saint Peter's Basilica. Philip looked down in sad disbelief. The Bernini colonnade sat in ruins. All the surrounding buildings were damaged to different degrees. The 140 proud statues of the apostles and saints that stood guard over the square as well as the entrance to the Basilica itself had been smashed to pieces and were strewn all over the ruins of the once circular embrace of St. Peter’s promenade. Bernini’s perfectly aligned pillars were scattered on the ground like so many pick-up sticks. The 135-foot ancient Egyptian obelisk that Caligula once set where the sacristy was later built now rested on the steps of the Basilica, having been felled by a raving, raucous mob. This once-pagan sculpture sat piercing the entrance of St. Peter’s in symbolic harmony with the evil chaos enveloping Rome and the world, as if Caligula himself had extended his charred claw out of the everlasting fires of hell to make one final pathetic thrust against God’s own Church.

The papal apartments were just gone, the first casualty of war. The museum had been looted, and whatever could not be carried out was laid waste. The chapel named after Pope Sixtus IV had been sacked. The work of Roselli, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Signorelli, and of course Michelangelo was mostly lost forever. The once spectacular, imposing ceiling had collapsed. Ominously, though, the figure of Christ on the back wall, sitting in Final Judgment of the world, seemed to radiate out of the confusion. The demons reaching up for the damned must have turned and smiled hideously as the sons of man devastated the artistry of their forefathers on their way to their well-deserved eternal reward. Significantly, the tombs of the popes had not been opened, and their sacred bones rested still in the sanctuary of St. Peter’s lower level. But everywhere else there was destruction, as if Satan himself could no longer be restrained by the hand of God. But Philip knew better than that. God had merely released the leash a little; the ancient serpent was merely in the process of strangling himself with the surplus line.

The two support choppers dropped to within a few feet of the ground and spun around very slowly. The few people in the square ran away as quickly as they could. The right chopper stopped moving for a moment and sat suspended in the air, pointing at the ruins to the entrance to the square. Suddenly, both machine guns spat fiery rounds through the entrance and down the long street as a warning, making sure they hit nobody. Finally, it settled down and stopped its blades, but kept its guns trained on the entrance. The second chopper landed near the steps of the Basilica.

Simon spun his bird around very slowly, looking very carefully all around. Finally, he lowered it to the ground between the other two, waited a minute while performing a final scan, and then shut off the engine.

"Wait here a minute," Simon said as he grabbed his M-60 and stepped down slowly from his seat. He walked around the chopper with a firm grip on the machine gun. Everything was quiet. He lowered his weapon and raised his right hand. One by one, over forty men stepped into the open square, Each had strange looking automatic weapons. They were specially made with movable spring loaded barrels and electronically shot.  They could be changed from 9mm to 50 caliber and because of the spring barrels still hand held.  Each stepped forward to within 40 feet of the chopper. They then stopped and formed a circle, saying nothing.

From the top steps of the great Basilica of St. Peter a man appeared dressed just like the rest of them, except that he had no gun. He walked quickly down the steps towards Simon. They hugged each other like old friends and talked for a few seconds. Simon looked at Philip and with an upward turned palm, pointed his hand at Philip.

Philip watched in wonder. Simon and the other man started towards the chopper door. It was obvious that, whoever these men were, they went through a lot of trouble to get Philip here, and get him here safely. But who were they? They had kidnapped him and his family from Germany. They guarded and served them at Madeira, escorted him to Rome, and were now going through great pains to see to his safety in this war torn city. But why?

Simon opened the door, and Philip stepped down. The other man said nothing but kept staring at him. They went around and helped Merlin down. "Je m’appelle Pierre de Saint Clair, Abbe de l’Ordre," he informed Philip as he bowed before him.

"That's a fancy name." Philip thought, "What does it mean and what is the Order?" But he only replied, "Oh! You speak French?"

"Yes!" He bowed his head again and pointed towards St. Peter's dome. "Shall we go?"

Philip followed him up the long steps, carefully stepping around the fallen columns and pieces of statue. When they reached the top of the steps, Philip realized for the first time that the roof of The Greatest Roman Catholic Church on Earth was partially gone, except for the dome and the Altar. The Church was in the shape of a cross, with the dome and the Altar at the center. They were walking down the long marble floor of the nave where thousands of Cardinals once gathered for the councils, where hundreds of Popes and kings had walked, where thousands of saints had stood in awe of the majesty and the beauty. But now the roof was damaged, the walls were bare and scarred, the internal statues were damaged, and the Pieta was splattered with paint.

At last they reached the Altar. The four twisted gold pillars still supported Bernini’s canopy, and together with the Altar they sat beneath the great dome, barely held up by the remaining pillars and walls! St. Peter's tomb was still there, beneath the canopy, untouched. Steps led directly down to it, and Philip descended without asking permission. He knelt down on one knee and bowed his head in front of the tomb. After a moment of prayer, he rose and climbed back up the stairs, went around the three men to the main Altar, and climbed the steps to the top. He then knelt down on both knees before the Tabernacle and bowed down to the marble floor. He remained in that position praying for a few minutes, pleading for an end to this global madness and suffering, for an end to the persecution of the Church, an end to the millions and millions of deaths.

He made the sign of the cross and lifted his head from the floor, but remained on his knees. The sun shot rays of light all through the Altar and it bounced off the golden pillars like lasers. Philip's eyes had been closed, so it was difficult to focus at first, but as he strained them through the brightness, he became aware of a long white robe directly in front of him. He squinted and looked up. It was The Holy Father.

Pope Benedict stood right in front of Philip, only a few feet away. He wore a white robe with a wide white belt, a white Rosary, and a white cap on top of black curly hair. His skin was black and his eyes were sparkling and soft. In his left hand was a gold staff curved at the top like a shepherd's stick, and in his right hand was a large sword, golden from top to bottom with red and blue stones in the cross-shaped handle. The tip sat on the floor, and Benedict held the top forward and to one side.

Philip did not attempt to get up nor did he want to speak! He had never been in the presence of the Holy Father before, even though he had been to St. Peter's many times.

"You are Philip Von Habsburg?" Benedict questioned very softly.

"Yes," Philip answered softly, quickly realizing that he had addressed the Holy Father rather badly and then adding, "Your …. Your Holiness."

"I have longed to see you face to face. Yes, at last we meet as I knew we would one day. For many years the popes before me have waited for you."

"Your Holiness, I do not even know you, let alone know that you were looking for me." Philip was still kneeling, but now only on one knee.

"Bow your head for my blessing." With the help of Simon, the black shinned Pope raised the large sword and laid it on Philip's right shoulder.

"By the power vested in me from God through Peter and all his successors throughout the centuries, I proclaim you King of France, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and King of Jerusalem. Henceforth, for so long as you shall live, all who obey you, obey me; and all who disobey you, disobey me and therefore disobey God, and they shall be considered cast out from the Kingdom of God and His Church forever."

Philip had started to rise to protest, but the sword was heavy. When the blessing was concluded, Simon helped remove the sword from his shoulder, and Philip stood. It was then he realized how tall the Holy Father was in stature, tall and thin.

"Most Holy and Sweet Father, I don't know what all this means, but I am just a husband and father. I want nothing more of this world than to be left with my family in peace. My grandfather was king, but I do not have his qualities, nor his ambitions. He was a saint of a man, as was my father, but I…my Lord, I have been…a great sinner."

"My poor sweet friend, I have not picked you. God selected you from the beginning of time, just as He selected Moses, and not because Moses deserved it! Quite the contrary, Moses was a coward and wanted no part in God's plans. But he obeyed, as will you."

Philip ran his hand through his hair and shook his head from side to side. "No! No! No! How can I be king of France? There is no more France. Who would believe me? Who would I be king of, the dead? They would laugh me out of France! An Emperor! My grandfather was Emperor and he died a broken man, to whom no one paid attention. I'm sorry, Your Holiness, but you have the wrong man for whatever you have in mind."

"Philip, Philip, Philip! Oh man of little faith! We are taught by the words of the Gospel that in this Church and in its power there are two swords, a spiritual and a temporal one. For when the Apostles said, 'Behold, here are two swords, the Lord did not reply that it was too many, but enough! He who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter, has wrongly understood the Word of the Lord when He says: 'Put up again thy sword into its place.' Therefore, both are in the power of the Church: the one, indeed, to be wielded BY the Church, and the other FOR the Church. The former rests in the hand of the priest, the latter is wielded by the hand of kings and knights at the behest of the priest. For it is necessary that one sword should be under another, and that the temporal authority should be subjected to the spiritual, for the Apostle says, 'There is no power but from God and those powers that are, are ordained of God."

Philip dropped to his knees again and looked up at the Holy Father with bewilderment in his eyes, "Be it done unto me according to your will, Your Holiness, but I have no idea what to do."

"Go with Father Merlin and he will show you," replied Benedict, turning towards Pierre de Saint Clair and taking a leather folder from him.

"This is my official de fide declaration that you are now King of France, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and King of Jerusalem. This is your authority and this is why people will obey you. Copies of this are now being sent to all the Cardinals and Bishops of the Church. They in turn will pass this word on to all the priests and Catholics throughout the world."

Philip took the binder in both hands and looked down at it with glassy eyes. He turned towards Simon. The Giant handed him a beautiful emerald studded, golden crown. Benedict placed it on Philip's head.

"This is the crown of St. Steven. It has been preserved these many years for this moment. May the blessings of St. Steven go with you. And this is the sword of Joseph of Arimethea. May it help you defeat all the enemies of Holy Mother Church. Go now with Merlin and he will teach you what you should do. He will strengthen you. You must leave here quickly. Danger is all around us!"

"But what about you, Holy Father?"

"I will be safe here in Rome. I will go back to the catacombs as my predecessors did until you make it safe for me to return again. Peter belongs in Rome."

Philip walked down the steps of the altar and out the violated side wall of the dome without turning back. Twelve men in white robes with red crosses followed behind him, their strange looking guns at the ready.

Outside, Philip stood in disbelief. Blue denim slacks, blue sweatshirt, tennis shoes, a golden crown, a golden sword, and real tears made of him a silly spectacle.  What now for this reluctant 40 year-old king?