My name is Paolo dePadova—son of an Italian mother and an American infantryman father, and thanks to a peculiar combination of loyalty and luck I served, for a time, as First Assistant to my beloved cousin His Holiness the Pope of Rome. My tenure didn’t last long. In fact, my duties came to an end as a direct result of the story I’m about to tell here, a story the Pope himself asked me to make public when I felt the time was right. Parts of it will be familiar from headlines in the international news, but, as you might expect, those parts were sensationalized, tarnished by rumor, stained with misinformation. The heart of it, the essence, the real, full story, remains known only to a handful of people, myself included. I share it now in a spirit of reverence and compassion, but also in service to the truth. As my cousin liked to say, “Anche i papi sono uomini.” Which might be translated as “Popes are people, too.”
My odd story begins, oddly enough, with a Buddhist. Or, at least, with the visit of a famous Buddhist to the most sacred halls of Roman Catholicism. It’s common, of course, for a pope to receive visiting heads of state—presidents, prime ministers, first secretaries. Catholics have a great deal of clout in the world’s voting booths, and politicians, even the least religious politicians, like to make a papal pilgrimage. They sit for a photo op with the Pontiff, pretend to exchange ideas, make promises they never intend to keep, then fly back to their luxurious lives and seats of power.
Popes, in my experience, handle these visits with an admirable patience. Disappointed again and again, they nevertheless always seem to hope that the leaders of the world will actually behave in ways that reduce the chance of war and give comfort to their poor.
In the case of the Dalai Lama’s visit, however, the Holy Father had good reason for optimism. Here was a man whose responsibilities were similar to his own, and whose devotion to his faith and his people was beyond question. It was the second year of our joint tenure—the Pope’s and mine—and probably the three hundredth official visit. I was used to the frenzied preparations: security precautions, press conferences, interviews. But when I went to see the Pope that morning I could sense, almost immediately, that the Dalai Lama’s visit would not be typical.
My cousin liked to rise at four, spend three hours in prayer, and then take a light morning meal. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays when he was in Rome, Giorgio—as my parents and I had always called him—asked that I have breakfast with him in his relatively humble accommodations: a three-room suite at the Domus Sanctae Marthae hotel in Vatican City. Seven a.m. sharp.
This wasn’t easy for me. At seven in the morning I’m not yet at my best—not that my best is very good at any hour—but out of devotion to the famous man and in deference to his inhumanly busy schedule, I always showed up on time. In order to reach the papal chambers, even with my top-secret Vatican credentials, I had to run a gauntlet of security officials and various secretaries. After doing so on that morning I went, at last, along a familiar, carpeted corridor and tapped on a set of wooden doors twice my height.
“Entra, cugino!” the Pope always yelled joyfully. Come in, cousin! That day it was no different.
The velour curtains hanging from the windows of his dining area had been pulled aside and, even at that early hour, a golden sunlight poured through the glass. The Pope was dressed casually in dark pants and a white T-shirt, a medal of the Blessed Mother looped on a thin chain around his neck. As was his custom and preference, he was barefoot (he liked to say it linked him, however subtly, with the poor of this world). The sunlight fell on one side of his face, catching a smile so sincere and sparkling it would have caused the most devoted atheist to convert. He gave me the warmest of embraces. Another minute and we were sitting opposite each other at a small, marble-topped table. An aide brought a typical breakfast—pear slices, pots of herbal tea, two pieces of Dutch chocolate the size of bottle caps. (The Pope is famous for his sweet tooth.) We prayed over the food and began to eat, but, knowing him so well, I could see a rising tide of trouble, a splash of anxiety on the skin of his face.
“What’s wrong, Your Holiness?”
“Oh, stop it,” he said in his fake-gruff voice. “For the one thousandth time, Paolo, please and kindly call me ‘Giorgio’ or ‘Pope,’ anything but ‘Your Holiness.’ I’m not worthy of that title, and it’s like a wall between me and the cousin I love.”
“Impossible, Your Holiness,” I said. “I’m a simple man. If I start calling you Giorgio in private, I’ll slip someday and say it in public.”
“Sì, e poi?” Yes, and then?
“And then my enemies will attack me, and attack you for hiring me.”
“Yes, and then?”
“Your judgment will come into question . . . and I’ll be out on the street.”
It was all a joke, a comic routine. “You keep me sane, cousin,” the Pope liked to say. “Joke with me. Make me laugh. Remind me that I am, in fact, a human being, not a figurehead.”
“Something’s bothering you, Pope,” I said.
He smirked, looked sideways, chewed meditatively on a slice of pear. “I can no more hide my thoughts from you than I can hide my sins from God.”
“What is it?”
“Beautiful, intelligent, stubborn, rich, impossible to live with—which is why I no longer live with her. In short, the same as always. Don’t change the subject. What’s wrong?”
“And your miraculous daughter, Anna Lisa?”
“Fine, also, though I haven’t seen her in four months. She misses you. Rosa, for some reason, thinks Anna Lisa has a serious boyfriend. Now, tell me, what’s wrong?”
More pensive chewing. A sip of tea. As was his habit—part of his ongoing battle with the demon of sugar—he broke one of the coins of dark chocolate in two and handed the larger piece to me. Another moment and out came the truth. “I have a confession to make.”
“I’ll call Cardinal Forgereau, your confessor. Let me finish the meal and I’ll—”
“Not that kind of confession, Paolo. You’re right. I’m troubled. I feel . . . lately I’ve been feeling, I don’t know . . . soffocato. Stifled. Constrained.”
“Emotionally or spiritually?”
He shook his head, frustrated. “I can’t describe it.”
“Should we cancel today’s events? Say you’re not feeling well? The Dalai Lama and his entourage are here until tomorrow, we can still—”
More headshaking. “It’s not that. I’m anxious to see him. I feel so badly about not meeting him when he was in Rome with the Nobel laureates. That was shameful and foolish of me. I listened to bad advice—a terrible weakness of mine—and now I want to make it up to him.” The Pope paused again, shook his head in small movements. For a moment he couldn’t seem to make eye contact, an exceedingly rare occurrence with this man. At last he looked up. “Could you do me a favor, cousin?”
The Pope is from Argentina—everyone knows that—and his first language is Spanish, of course. But his parents—like my mother—were Italian-born, and so, in honor of our shared heritage and in deference to the traditions of the Church, we usually spoke Italian with each other. This had the added advantage of not arousing suspicion among my numerous enemies in the Vatican bureaucracy. With most of the Pope’s visitors, English was the preferred tongue. I’m fluent, thanks to my parents, but the Holy Father sometimes struggles, and he hesitated so long then, spent so much time placing another pear slice between his lips, chewing, swallowing, that I worried he couldn’t find the words in either of those two languages and would revert to Spanish, a tongue I habitually mangle and wreck. Another pause, and then, in an embarrassed way, he said, “I’ve been having very odd dreams, cousin. Ho avuto stranissimi sogni, cugino. I sense that God might be sending me messages, in a kind of code.” He paused again. His embarrassment—so rare—embarrassed me. I wanted to ask about the dreams, but I held my tongue. He looked away, looked back. He said, “Potresti creare un piano d’azione, cugino?” Could you put together a plan, cousin?
“Certo, Holy Father. Of course. What kind of plan?”
Another smirk of displeasure. More hesitation. Then: “If I wanted to, say . . . take an unofficial vacation . . . three days, four at the most . . . could you work out the logistics?”
“Of course, Your Holiness. But anyone here could do that. Your travel office. One of the administrative assistants. People say John Paul used to slip away to Cortina d’Ampezzo to ski. It’s not hard to arrange such a thing, even with the security—”
“But I would want it arranged in secret . . . to disappear for a few days,” the Pope surprised me by saying. He was still having eye-contact issues. Unprecedented. “I don’t want to go anywhere in that foolish bubble of a vehicle. It’s a cage. It separates me from my people. And I don’t want the bodyguards or the travel office to know about this. I don’t want anyone to know. You and I. Rosa, if she wants to come along. We could make a side trip to see Anna Lisa, go to certain other places I have in mind. Three or four days . . . You’re staring at me.”
“I’m looking for signs of dementia, Your Holiness . . . with all due respect. Your face is probably the most famous face on earth. Certainly the most famous in Italy. And you and I are going to sneak away? And what? Ride the Autostrada, have lunch with my daughter, take a swim? This isn’t Buenos Aires. We’re not nine and fourteen anymore.”
“It’s absurd,” he admitted. “You’re right, as usual.”
A veil of sadness fell across his face. To cheer him, and really only to cheer him, I said (and I will forever take responsibility for this remark), “Maybe the Dalai Lama could come along. I’ll give some kind of knockout pill to the two security details, then spirit you both away.”
The Pope’s smile illuminated the room like light from a second sun. He took a sip of tea, washed it around in his mouth, swallowed, flashed the magnificent smile again, and then seemed to slip into the garment of his papal authority. I’d seen this before, hundreds of times, a magical transformation. He’d told me once that it was fine and good to be humble, but at some point, if you were, in fact, going to lead, you had to be comfortable using power. “Un piano d’azione, per favore.” A plan, please, he said, as if he hadn’t agreed, a few seconds earlier, that the whole idea was ridiculous. “Hypothetical but detailed. By dinnertime, if you would.”
I went along with our little game. “I’ll have it on your desk by lunch, Holy Father,” I said.
“No, no. Nothing in writing.”
And even after hearing those words, even after registering the stern expression on his face, I was sure my cousin the Pope must be joking.
Copyright © 2017 by Roland Merullo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.