“The Pope fathered a child.”
Inside the Sistine Chapel, the camerlegno stood unwavering as he spoke. Five solitary words of astonishing disclosure. The entire assembly seemed to recoil in unison. The cardinals’ accusing miens evaporated into aghast stares, as if every soul in the room were praying the camerlegno was wrong.
The Pope fathered a child.
Langdon felt the shock wave hit him too. Vittoria’s hand, tight in his, jolted, while Langdon’s mind, already numb with unanswered questions, wrestled to find a center of gravity.
The camerlegno’s utterance seemed like it would hang forever in the air above them. Even in the camerlegno’s frenzied eyes, Langdon could see pure conviction. Langdon wanted to disengage, tell himself he was lost in some grotesque nightmare, soon to wake up in a world that made sense.
“This must be a lie!” one of the cardinals yelled.
“I will not believe it!” another protested. “His Holiness was as devout a man as ever lived!”
It was Mortati who spoke next, his voice thin with devastation. “My friends. What the camerlegno says is true.” Every cardinal in the chapel spun as though Mortati had just shouted an obscenity. “The Pope indeed fathered a child.”
The cardinals blanched with dread.
The camerlegno looked stunned. “You knew ? But . . . how could you possibly know this?”
Mortati sighed. “When His Holiness was elected . . . I was the Devil’s Advocate.”
There was a communal gasp.
Langdon understood. This meant the information was probably true. The infamous “Devil’s Advocate” was the authority when it came to scandalous information inside the Vatican. Skeletons in a Pope’s closet were dangerous, and prior to elections, secret inquiries into a candidate’s background were carried out by a lone cardinal who served as the “Devil’s Advocate”—that individual responsible for unearthing reasons why the eligible cardinals should not become Pope. The Devil’s Advocate was appointed in advance by the reigning Pope in preparation for his own death. The Devil’s Advocate was never supposed to reveal his identity. Ever.
“I was the Devil’s Advocate,” Mortati repeated. “That is how I found out.”
Mouths dropped. Apparently tonight was a night when all the rules were going out the window.
The camerlegno felt his heart filling with rage. “And you . . . told no one ?”
“I confronted His Holiness,” Mortati said. “And he confessed. He explained the entire story and asked only that I let my heart guide my decision as to whether or not to reveal his secret.”
“And your heart told you to bury the information?”
“He was the runaway favorite for the papacy. People loved him. The scandal would have hurt the church deeply.”
“But he fathered a child ! He broke his sacred vow of celibacy!” The camerlegno was screaming now. He could hear his mother’s voice. A promise to God is the most important promise of all. Never break a promise to God. “The Pope broke his vow!”
Mortati looked delirious with angst. “Carlo, his love . . . was chaste. He had broken no vow. He didn’t explain it to you?”
“Explain what?” The camerlegno remembered running out of the Pope’s office while the Pope was calling to him. Let me explain!
Slowly, sadly, Mortati let the tale unfold. Many years ago, the Pope, when he was still just a priest, had fallen in love with a young nun. Both of them had taken vows of celibacy and never even considered breaking their covenant with God. Still, as they fell deeper in love, although they could resist the temptations of the flesh, they both found themselves longing for something they never expected—to participate in God’s ultimate miracle of creation—a child. Their child. The yearning, especially in her, became overwhelming. Still, God came first. A year later, when the frustration had reached almost unbearable proportions, she came to him in a whirl of excitement. She had just read an article about a new miracle of science—a process by which two people, without ever having sexual relations, could have a child. She sensed this was a sign from God. The priest could see the happiness in her eyes and agreed. A year later she had a child through the miracle of artificial insemination . . .
“This cannot . . . be true,” the camerlegno said, panicked, hoping it was the morphine washing over his senses. Certainly he was hearing things.
Mortati now had tears in his eyes. “Carlo, this is why His Holiness has always had an affection for the sciences. He felt he owed a debt to science. Science let him experience the joys of fatherhood without breaking his vow of celibacy. His Holiness told me he had no regrets except one—that his advancing stature in the church prohibited him from being with the woman he loved and seeing his infant grow up.”
Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca felt the madness setting in again. He wanted to claw at his flesh. How could I have known?
“The Pope committed no sin, Carlo. He was chaste.”
“But . . .” The camerlegno searched his anguished mind for any kind of rationale. “Think of the jeopardy . . . of his deeds.” His voice felt weak. “What if this whore of his came forward? Or, heaven forbid, his child ? Imagine the shame the church would endure.”
Mortati’s voice was tremulous. “The child has already come forward.”
“Carlo . . . ?” Mortati crumbled. “His Holiness’s child . . . is you.”
At that moment, the camerlegno could feel the fire of faith dim in his heart. He stood trembling on the altar, framed by Michelangelo’s towering Last Judgment. He knew he had just glimpsed hell itself. He opened his mouth to speak, but his lips wavered, soundless.
“Don’t you see?” Mortati choked. “That is why His Holiness came to you in the hospital in Palermo when you were a boy. That is why he took you in and raised you. The nun he loved was Maria . . . your mother. She left the nunnery to raise you, but she never abandoned her strict devotion to God. When the Pope heard she had died in an explosion and that you, his son, had miraculously survived . . . he swore to God he would never leave you alone again. Carlo, your parents were both virgins. They kept their vows to God. And still they found a way to bring you into the world. You were their miraculous child.”
The camerlegno covered his ears, trying to block out the words. He stood paralyzed on the altar. Then, with his world yanked from beneath him, he fell violently to his knees and let out a wail of anguish.
Seconds. Minutes. Hours.
Time seemed to have lost all meaning inside the four walls of the chapel. Vittoria felt herself slowly breaking free of the paralysis that seemed to have gripped them all. She let go of Langdon’s hand and began moving through the crowd of cardinals. The chapel door seemed miles away, and she felt like she was moving underwater . . . slow motion.
As she maneuvered through the robes, her motion seemed to pull others from their trance. Some of the cardinals began to pray. Others wept. Some turned to watch her go, their blank expressions turning slowly to a foreboding cognition as she moved toward the door. She had almost reached the back of the crowd when a hand caught her arm. The touch was frail but resolute. She turned, face to face with a wizened cardinal. His visage was clouded by fear.
“No,” the man whispered. “You cannot.”
Vittoria stared, incredulous.
Another cardinal was at her side now. “We must think before we act.”
And another. “The pain this could cause . . .”
Vittoria was surrounded. She looked at them all, stunned. “But these deeds here today, tonight . . . certainly the world should know the truth.”
“My heart agrees,” the wizened cardinal said, still holding her arm, “and yet it is a path from which there is no return. We must consider the shattered hopes. The cynicism. How could the people ever trust again?”
Suddenly, more cardinals seemed to be blocking her way. There was a wall of black robes before her. “Listen to the people in the square,” one said. “What will this do to their hearts? We must exercise prudence.”
“We need time to think and pray,” another said. “We must act with foresight. The repercussions of this . . .”
“He killed my father!” Vittoria said. “He killed his own father!”
“I’m certain he will pay for his sins,” the cardinal holding her arm said sadly.
Vittoria was certain too, and she intended to ensure he paid. She tried to push toward the door again, but the cardinals huddled closer, their faces frightened.
“What are you going to do?” she exclaimed. “Kill me?”
The old men blanched, and Vittoria immediately regretted her words. She could see these men were gentle souls. They had seen enough violence tonight. They meant no threat. They were simply trapped. Scared. Trying to get their bearings.
“I want . . .” the wizened cardinal said, “. . . to do what is right.”
“Then you will let her out,” a deep voice declared behind her. The words were calm but absolute. Robert Langdon arrived at her side, and she felt his hand take hers. “Ms. Vetra and I are leaving this chapel. Right now.”
Faltering, hesitant, the cardinals began to step aside.
“Wait!” It was Mortati. He moved toward them now, down the center aisle, leaving the camerlegno alone and defeated on the altar. Mortati looked older all of a sudden, wearied beyond his years. His motion was burdened with shame. He arrived, putting a hand on Langdon’s shoulder and one on Vittoria’s as well. Vittoria felt sincerity in his touch. The man’s eyes were more tearful now.
“Of course you are free to go,” Mortati said. “Of course.” The man paused, his grief almost tangible. “I ask only this . . .” He stared down at his feet a long moment then back up at Vittoria and Langdon. “Let me do it. I will go into the square right now and find a way. I will tell them. I don’t know how . . . but I will find a way. The church’s confession should come from within. Our failures should be our own to expose.”
Mortati turned sadly back toward the altar. “Carlo, you have brought this church to a disastrous juncture.” He paused, looking around. The altar was bare.
There was a rustle of cloth down the side aisle, and the door clicked shut.
The camerlegno was gone.