‘Credo’ by Kevin Clark
Because of its serious subject matter, this story is recommended for more mature readers. | Study this story for the way that the author withholds information, so that the progression of ideas reaches the climax right at the end. This short story is one of several that are paired with the Bayley Bulletin Winter Quarter Short Story Contest.
Clang, screech, clank.
The bolt on the steel door slid back and the door began to swing open. The man, sitting on the bed, was reflexively filled with a sense of dread. That door was rarely opened, and when it was, the result was never good.
The man was not sure when the door had last been opened, but it had been a long time. Months perhaps, or maybe even a year. It was difficult to keep track of time when there was no sunlight to mark the passing of day and night. To a man sitting alone in a jail cell, the concepts of day and night start to lose meaning.
Perhaps it was just one endless day that the man endured; or one endless night.
As the door swung open, the man shielded his eyes from the bright light that shone in from the corridor and bathed his cell in a glow to which he was unaccustomed. He prayed that if they took him out again, they would kill him so that he could be free of this life. He had prayed for death many times, especially during the torture, but it had never come. Perhaps, he had thought, there is still more for me to do in this life. But what that could be, sitting in isolation in a jail cell, he knew not.
Two men entered the cell, one dressed in the usual uniform of a prison guard, a submachine gun tucked under one arm, anticipating the possibility of resistance that the prisoner could not possibly offer. The other man wore a different uniform, one the prisoner did not recognize, but it was clear that he was no lowly prison guard.
His uniform jacket looked new and crisp. His dark gray pants sported a perfect crease, and his black boots reflected the light from the corridor as if it were the sun. The newcomer was splendidly decked out, probably some high-ranking officer in the army or the secret police.
The officer spoke, “Stand up, prisoner.”
The prisoner stood, as quickly as he was able.
“Turn around, let me look at you,” said the officer.
The prisoner turned around slowly.
“Hmm, I thought that after so many years here you might have gone mad or be on the verge of death. But you don’t look so bad. I think you will do after all,” he said. He then called out some words in a language the prisoner did not understand. In a few moments, another officer entered the room, carrying a large parcel.
“I have something for you here. These are the clothes you were wearing when you arrived. I’m as surprised as you that they weren’t burnt first thing. But that worked out well for us. Providential, you might say,” the officer said with a little laugh. “In any case, get out of that prison outfit and put on your clothes. I will be back in fifteen minutes to collect you. Then we are going on a trip.”
The other officer put the parcel down on the bed and the two officers and the guard left the room, leaving the prisoner in his twilight again. The prisoner sat on his bed, next to the parcel. He pulled the brown paper away from the bundle, and saw a flash of red and black. It was a robe, a sash, a cap, a pair of soft shoes.
At first, he did not recognize these items as being his. But the officer said he had worn them when he arrived, so they must be his. Yes, he began to remember, they were his. He had worn them in what seemed like another life, during another age of the earth–an age that had passed away and perhaps would never come again.
He slipped out of his prison uniform, and slowly began to dress in his own clothes.
Fifteen minutes passed, and the officer entered the room again.
“That is more like it!” he said. “Now, instead of ‘prisoner’, I shall call you ‘Francis Cardinal Mills’. As a Prince of the Church, we must all treat you with the proper respect.”
“Do you mock me, sir?” asked Cardinal Mills.
“No, indeed, I do not mock you. A Cardinal of the Church you were before you came here, and so you shall be again,” the officer said.
“Is this done as an act of kindness to an old man, or do you want something?” asked the Cardinal.
“Oh, there is little done in the world merely out of kindness, Your Eminence. But other details are not for me to divulge. It is the General Secretary himself who has summoned you, and he will tell you all that you need to know. My job is merely to act as a courier, to make sure that you are delivered to him. Come.”
With that, he was taken from the prison in a limousine and driven to the airport, where he was placed upon an airplane headed for New York City. As the secret police officer had said, everyone treated him with the utmost respect, as the Prince of the Church that he was. They gave him fine food and drink, but he found that after eating the prison broth and bread for so long, he could not eat much else.
When he arrived in New York City, he was taken to the finest hotel and told to get a good night’s sleep, for much was to be done the next day. Lying on a real bed, where before he had lain only on a cot for so long, he cried. And he wondered to himself if perhaps he was really still in prison, and had gone insane.
The next morning they came for him. When he asked where they were taking him, they told him he was to meet with the General Secretary of the party.
“The General Secretary?” he asked. “Has the party moved its headquarters?”
“Yes, Your Eminence, the General Secretary has been in New York for almost two years now. We have taken over the former UN building.”
So it was off to the UN building that they went. The Cardinal had worked at the building many years before in the Vatican diplomatic corps. But now a huge banner sporting the party symbols hung down the front of the building.
He was taken inside and ushered into a large but sparse office where he was asked to wait. He laughingly thought to himself that at least here was one case of not treating him as a Cardinal. In the old days, people waited for him.
Presently, a tall, thin, gray-haired man with a neatly tailored suit entered. They had never met, but the Cardinal recognized him from pictures as the General Secretary Victor Cherkov.
“Ah, welcome, Your Eminence, I am so glad you could join us. I must admit that when one of my aides first brought up your name, I thought you were dead. I was so happy to learn otherwise,” said Cherkov.
“I’m glad not to disappoint, Mr. Secretary.”
“I trust that all the arrangements we made for you have been satisfactory, Your Eminence,” Cherkov said.
“I have no complaints. The accommodations have been much nicer than what I am used to.”
“I must apologize for what you have been used to. I really don’t think that there is much need for such unpleasantness anymore, now that we have triumphed over all our opponents. In fact, you will no doubt be glad to know that I have ordered the release of all living cardinals,” Cherkov said.
“How many cardinals are left?”
“Hmm, that is a sad story. I think there are only about half of what there were several years ago. A lot of them were old, much older than you. No one lives forever, eh?” Cherkov said.
“What of the Pope? Have you released him?” the Cardinal asked.
“That is part of the sad story, and really the reason I have asked to see you. It seems that the Pope has died. My people tell me that he went on a hunger strike or some such thing, and the poor man simply wasn’t up to it,” Cherkov said.
Forced hunger strike, more like it, the Cardinal thought. “The Pope is dead, and you have released the Cardinals from prison. What, are you thinking of having an enclave to elect a new Pope?” he said with a derisive laugh.
“Why, Your Eminence, you anticipate me exactly,” said Cherkov, rubbing his hands together with obvious enthusiasm. “You look perplexed. Let me explain. We have taken over the whole world. America was the last to hold out, but with no allies left and no will to continue a long fight, even America eventually capitulated. Oh, Your Eminence, the day we raised our flag over the Capitol building in Washington was a great day. We let it fly there for a while, but then I decided the Capitol building was too much a symbol of everything that had been wrong in the world—you know, American aggression and all that. So, after a couple of weeks, we blew it up. Perhaps you saw it. We had all the news media there. Oh, that was thoughtless of me. You didn’t receive television where you were, did you?”
Cherkov continued, “In any case, as I said, we had conquered the world. So what was left to do? Well, one little problem we continued to have was your Church. People seemed to think that the Church could withstand the pressure that we would bring to bear. Even when we imprisoned the Pope and all the Cardinals, people in many backward countries have maintained this idea that the Church will survive. This has made people less pliable than they ought to be. It has given them hope that they really should not have. Now, in certain places, we tried some rather heavy-handed repression. But for all that unpleasantness, we can’t seem to get rid of this belief in the Church. It’s been rather frustrating, to be honest.”
“Many men who have fought the Church over the centuries have shared that frustration,” the Cardinal said.
“Yes, Your Eminence, it has given me more sympathy for Nero and Caligula than I thought I would ever have.”
“Those who fought the Church have died, Mr. Secretary, but the Church has gone on,” said Cardinal Mills.
“If nothing else, I do have to give your false god high marks for staying power. But I hope to succeed where others have failed. Now, I know that sounds a bit full of myself. But I think I can do it. I think the others failed because they tried to destroy the Church from the outside. The more they persecuted the Church, the more people rose up and joined it. Mass executions just don’t work. And believe me, we’ve tried,” Cherkov said.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Secretary, I do believe you.”
“So I have decided that the only way to destroy the Church is from the inside. And that is the reason I have called you. I have decided that along with being General Secretary, I would like to be Pope.”
“You … you want to be Pope?” asked the Cardinal.
“Yes, I want to be Pope. As Pope, I can destroy the Church,” Cherkov said.
“The Cardinals would never elect you Pope. The idea is absurd.”
“I think they will elect me Pope. And I have brought you here because, as the Dean of the College of Cardinals, I think you can help me. You can help convince the other Cardinals to vote for me,” Cherkov said.
“Why would I help you, and why would the Cardinals make you Pope?” asked Cardinal Mills.
“First, because the Pope has died and there is no Pope. The Catholic Church needs a Pope, right? But if you elect anyone else as Pope, that man is quite likely to go on a hunger strike and die, just like the old Pope. No matter how many Popes you elect, I think each of them would go on a hunger strike. Secondly, you believe, don’t you, all that idiocy about the ‘gates of hell’ not prevailing? So you should believe that I can’t destroy your Church. And if I can’t destroy your Church, why not elect me Pope? The ultimate test of faith, isn’t it?” Cherkov said.
The Cardinal thought for a moment and said, “I don’t think the College of Cardinals will comply with your request unless you give some concessions.”
“Such as what?” Cherkov asked.
“For example, all religious prisoners of conscience must be released, especially the bishops, priests, and nuns.”
“I thought you might ask for something like that. I am prepared to release all the bishops as a good will gesture even before being elected Pope. Of course, if I did not become Pope within a reasonable amount of time, we could always round them back up,” Cherkov said.
“Would you be willing to allow the Church freedom to operate?” the Cardinal asked.
“There’s freedom and there’s freedom,” Cherkov said. “Is any one of us really free? But upon being elected Pope, I assure you, I will take care of the Church. So, will you recommend me to the College?”
“Mr. Secretary, I am but one of many. We will all—those of us who are left—have to discuss it. But I will certainly bring your proposal to them.”
In little more than a week, the Secretary General arranged for all the living Cardinals under the age of 80 to be transported to the Vatican. St. Peter’s had been turned from a church into a museum, but for the occasion of the meeting of the Cardinals, it was made a church again, and sealed off from the public.
Cardinal Mills had known most of the Cardinal personally before his imprisonment, but the men he saw around him now, he hardly recognized. Their faces had changed much, but most could be distinguished by their voices. Their voices were strong, though their bodies were weak.
As the longest-serving Cardinal of those gathered, Cardinal Mills spoke to the conclave, “Your Eminences, it has already been explained to you what we have been asked to do. General Secretary Cherkov has asked us to elect him Pope. What discussion is there?”
“How can we even think of electing such a man as this to be Pope? He is a murderer, one of the great murderers in history,” said Cardinal Vazquez.
“Murderers have been Pope before,” replied Cardinal Molini. “Some received the Ring of the Fisherman through murder.”
“But no one in history has murdered on the scale of Cherkov,” said Cardinal Ryan.
“What will happen if we do not elect him Pope?” asked Cardinal Arete.
“If we do not elect him Pope, then he has said that he will kill whomever we do elect. However many times we elect a new Pope, he will have the man killed,” said Cardinal Mills.
“We have all been imprisoned for years,” said Cardinal Ryan. “What fear could we have of death now?”
“Perhaps we do not fear death,” said Cardinal Mills. “In prison I often prayed for death. And I am prepared for death now, or years from now, as Christ wills. But what would it gain for the Church and the people to keep electing men who would soon be killed?”
“We can outlast him. Perhaps he would tire of the struggle,” said Cardinal Arete.
“What struggle, Your Eminence? He will be sitting in comfort in his office, dispatching his men against any new Pope. He can do that as often as he wishes. And don’t forget, he has released all the bishops. If we elect a Pope besides him, the bishops will go back to jail,” said Cardinal Mills.
“If that is what happens if we do not elect him, what happens if we do?” asked Cardinal Ryan.
“That is known but to God,” said Cardinal Mills. “Many men who were not holy have become Pope. Some have become good Popes, and others have remained bad. But through it all, the Church founded by Jesus Christ has remained. I believe it will remain in spite of Cherkov. Indeed, if I did not think it would remain always, I would not be here.”
“When we vote, we must swear before God that we vote for the man we think is best suited to be the next Pope,” said Cardinal Arete. “How can we in good conscience swear that about Cherkov?”
“Because perhaps it is true,” said Cardinal Mills. “We live by faith, and not by sight. We do what we can and we trust that God will make up for what is lacking in us. And, in truth, there is not much else we can do. I for my part, intend to vote for Cherkov. But you all must discern the will of the Holy Spirit to decide your votes.”
“Shall we then vote?” asked Cardinal Arete.
And so the vote was taken, and soon after, the white smoke rose from St. Peter’s—a sight most people thought the world would not see again.
Two weeks after the vote, and one week after the installation of Victor Cherkov as the new Pope, Cardinal Mills was summoned in the evening to Cherkov’s office in New York. He was escorted into the same office as the one he had been in a month before, when Cherkov was only General Secretary and not Pontiff of the Universal Church.
“Ah, Cardinal Mills,” the Pope began, “I wanted to thank you again for your work in securing my election. I must confess, though I did not show it, I had my doubts that it could be done. But you did it.”
“Your Holiness, we like to think that the Holy Spirit does the choosing,” said Cardinal Mills.
“In any case, I wanted you to be here tonight. I have scheduled a special television presentation—a presentation that you might find particularly interesting.”
“And what is that, Your Holiness?”
“Yes, a most interesting presentation. I have scheduled this to be seen over the whole world on every station, fifteen minutes from now. And twenty minutes from now, I think that your church will finally be dead. What Nero and Caligula and Stalin could not do, I will do,” Cherkov said.
“And how will you do that?” asked Cardinal Mills.
“I am going to solemnly declare, as the infallible Supreme Pontiff, that there is no God and that Christianity is a hoax and a lie,” Cherkov said with a laugh. “I’m sorry, did I forget to mention that was my plan the last time I saw you?”
At that moment, one of Cherkov’s aides entered the room and said, “Mr. Secretary, you should be getting to the studio.”
“Yes, I was just going. Cardinal Mills, the studio is right down the hall. Would you like to come and see this momentous occasion in person?” asked Cherkov.
“You honor me, Your Holiness,” said Cardinal Mills.
And so the men left the office together. In the hall they met several other high-ranking Party officials, including the Vice-Secretary and several Ministers. They all walked the short distance to the television studio. The General Secretary—the Vicar of Christ on earth—took his place in a chair behind an ornate, oak desk. On the wall behind the desk flew the flag of the Party and the flag of the Vatican.
Cherkov received some last minute touch-ups to his makeup, and then the countdown started to airtime. The Vice-Secretary turned to Cardinal Mills and said, “The world has been waiting for this for two thousand years. Now we will finally put an end to your Church. This will be an historic day. The whole world will see that the Party is stronger than your Nazarean.”
The red light on the camera went on, and Cherkov started to speak. “People of the world, as you know, I have been duly elected Pope of the Catholic Church. As the Supreme Pontiff, I will now make a solemn declaration to the Church and to the World.”
Cherkov paused a moment, looked down at his copy, and then started to speak again. The people in the room were puzzled at first, because he seemed to have departed from his text. They were not sure what he was saying, if he was saying anything. He had started off in English, but now he seemed to be speaking some other language. After a while, he stopped and then started up again in what sounded like a different language.
The Vice-Secretary said “I thought he was only going to speak in English tonight. Perhaps he is giving his statement several languages.”
The Cardinal turned to him and smiled. “Yes, his statement is in several languages. First, he spoke in Latin. Then he spoke in Greek. And now he has just started in Spanish. He is repeating the Nicene Creed. And I think if you keep him on long enough, he may repeat it in every language of the world.”
In the year 537, a man named Vigilius was elected to the papacy. His election was brought about through the machinations of the Empress Theodora, who wanted him in the See of Peter in order to confirm the Monophysite Heresy. The exact nature of the Monophysite Heresy is not important here; the point is that Vigilius was put into the papacy specifically to teach a heresy that had been condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Of course, if the pope were to formally teach a heresy that had previously been formally condemned, it would have meant that the Church could not be counted upon to teach truth. It would mean that the gates of hell had prevailed against the Church.
As much as Empress Theodora may have wished it, however, she did not control Pope Vigilius. Despite any promises made to the Empress, once he became pope, Vigilius upheld the same teaching as his predecessors. Not all men who become pope are holy, but the Holy Spirit works through them nonetheless.
Down through history, many men have tried to destroy the Church. None has succeeded. And none ever will.