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Cardinal Mortati was sweating now in his black robe. Not only was the Sistine Chapel starting to feel like a sauna, but conclave was scheduled to begin in twenty minutes, and there was still no word on the four missing cardinals. In their absence, the initial whispers of confusion among the other cardinals had turned to outspoken anxiety.

Mortati could not imagine where the truant men could be. With the camerlegno perhaps? He knew the camerlegno had held the traditional private tea for the four preferiti earlier that afternoon, but that had been hours ago. Were they ill? Something they ate? Mortati doubted it. Even on the verge of death the preferiti would be here. It was once in a lifetime, usually never, that a cardinal had the chance to be elected Supreme Pontiff, and by Vatican Law the cardinal had to be inside the Sistine Chapel when the vote took place. Otherwise, he was ineligible.

Although there were four preferiti, few cardinals had any doubt who the next Pope would be. The past fifteen days had seen a blizzard of faxes and phone calls discussing potential candidates. As was the custom, four names had been chosen as preferiti, each of them fulfilling the unspoken requisites for becoming Pope:

Multilingual in Italian, Spanish, and English.

No skeletons in his closet.

Between sixty‑five and eighty years old.

As usual, one of the preferiti had risen above the others as the man the college proposed to elect. Tonight that man was Cardinal Aldo Baggia from Milan. Baggia’s untainted record of service, combined with unparalleled language skills and the ability to communicate the essence of spirituality, had made him the clear favorite.

So where the devil is he? Mortati wondered.

Mortati was particularly unnerved by the missing cardinals because the task of supervising this conclave had fallen to him. A week ago, the College of Cardinals had unanimously chosen Mortati for the office known as The Great Elector —the conclave’s internal master of ceremonies. Even though the camerlegno was the church’s ranking official, the camerlegno was only a priest and had little familiarity with the complex election process, so one cardinal was selected to oversee the ceremony from within the Sistine Chapel.

Cardinals often joked that being appointed The Great Elector was the cruelest honor in Christendom. The appointment made one ineligible as a candidate during the election, and it also required one spend many days prior to conclave poring over the pages of the Universi Dominici Gregis reviewing the subtleties of conclave’s arcane rituals to ensure the election was properly administered.

Mortati held no grudge, though. He knew he was the logical choice. Not only was he the senior cardinal, but he had also been a confidant of the late Pope, a fact that elevated his esteem. Although Mortati was technically still within the legal age window for election, he was getting a bit old to be a serious candidate. At seventy‑nine years old he had crossed the unspoken threshold beyond which the college no longer trusted one’s health to withstand the rigorous schedule of the papacy. A Pope usually worked fourteen‑hour days, seven days a week, and died of exhaustion in an average of 6.3 years. The inside joke was that accepting the papacy was a cardinal’s “fastest route to heaven.”

Mortati, many believed, could have been Pope in his younger days had he not been so broad‑minded. When it came to pursuing the papacy, there was a Holy Trinity—Conservative. Conservative. Conservative.

Mortati had always found it pleasantly ironic that the late Pope, God rest his soul, had revealed himself as surprisingly liberal once he had taken office. Perhaps sensing the modern world progressing away from the church, the Pope had made overtures, softening the church’s position on the sciences, even donating money to selective scientific causes. Sadly, it had been political suicide. Conservative Catholics declared the Pope “senile,” while scientific purists accused him of trying to spread the church’s influence where it did not belong.

“So where are they?”

Mortati turned.

One of the cardinals was tapping him nervously on the shoulder. “You know where they are, don’t you?”

Mortati tried not to show too much concern. “Perhaps still with the camerlegno.”

“At this hour? That would be highly unorthodox!” The cardinal frowned mistrustingly. “Perhaps the camerlegno lost track of time?”

Mortati sincerely doubted it, but he said nothing. He was well aware that most cardinals did not much care for the camerlegno, feeling he was too young to serve the Pope so closely. Mortati suspected much of the cardinals’ dislike was jealousy, and Mortati actually admired the young man, secretly applauding the late Pope’s selection for chamberlain. Mortati saw only conviction when he looked in the camerlegno’s eyes, and unlike many of the cardinals, the camerlegno put church and faith before petty politics. He was truly a man of God.

Throughout his tenure, the camerlegno’s steadfast devotion had become legendary. Many attributed it to the miraculous event in his childhood . . . an event that would have left a permanent impression on any man’s heart. The miracle and wonder of it, Mortati thought, often wishing his own childhood had presented an event that fostered that kind of doubtless faith.

Unfortunately for the church, Mortati knew, the camerlegno would never become Pope in his elder years. Attaining the papacy required a certain amount of political ambition, something the young camerlegno apparently lacked; he had refused his Pope’s offers for higher clerical stations many times, saying he preferred to serve the church as a simple man.

“What next?” The cardinal tapped Mortati, waiting.

Mortati looked up. “I’m sorry?”

“They’re late! What shall we do?”

“What can we do?” Mortati replied. “We wait. And have faith.”

Looking entirely unsatisfied with Mortati’s response, the cardinal shrunk back into the shadows.

Mortati stood a moment, dabbing his temples and trying to clear his mind. Indeed, what shall we do? He gazed past the altar up to Michelangelo’s renowned fresco, “The Last Judgment.” The painting did nothing to soothe his anxiety. It was a horrifying, fifty‑foot‑tall depiction of Jesus Christ separating mankind into the righteous and sinners, casting the sinners into hell. There was flayed flesh, burning bodies, and even one of Michelangelo’s rivals sitting in hell wearing ass’s ears. Guy de Maupassant had once written that the painting looked like something painted for a carnival wrestling booth by an ignorant coal heaver.

Cardinal Mortati had to agree.