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Although he knew time was short, Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca walked slowly. He needed the time alone to gather his thoughts before facing opening prayer. So much was happening. As he moved in dim solitude down the Northern Wing, the challenge of the past fifteen days weighed heavy in his bones.

He had followed his holy duties to the letter.

As was Vatican tradition, following the Pope’s death the camerlegno had personally confirmed expiration by placing his fingers on the Pope’s carotid artery, listening for breath, and then calling the Pope’s name three times. By law there was no autopsy. Then he had sealed the Pope’s bedroom, destroyed the papal fisherman’s ring, shattered the die used to make lead seals, and arranged for the funeral. That done, he began preparations for the conclave.

Conclave, he thought. The final hurdle. It was one of the oldest traditions in Christendom. Nowadays, because the outcome of conclave was usually known before it began, the process was criticized as obsolete—more of a burlesque than an election. The camerlegno knew, however, this was only a lack of understanding. Conclave was not an election. It was an ancient, mystic transference of power. The tradition was timeless . . . the secrecy, the folded slips of paper, the burning of the ballots, the mixing of ancient chemicals, the smoke signals.

As the camerlegno approached through the Loggias of Gregory XIII, he wondered if Cardinal Mortati was in a panic yet. Certainly Mortati had noticed the preferiti were missing. Without them, the voting would go on all night. Mortati’s appointment as the Great Elector, the camerlegno assured himself, was a good one. The man was a freethinker and could speak his mind. The conclave would need a leader tonight more than ever.

As the camerlegno arrived at the top of the Royal Staircase, he felt as though he were standing on the precipice of his life. Even from up here he could hear the rumble of activity in the Sistine Chapel below—the uneasy chatter of 165 cardinals.

One hundred sixty‑one cardinals, he corrected.

For an instant the camerlegno was falling, plummeting toward hell, people screaming, flames engulfing him, stones and blood raining from the sky.

And then silence.

When the child awoke, he was in heaven. Everything around him was white. The light was blinding and pure. Although some would say a ten year old could not possibly understand heaven, the young Carlo Ventresca understood heaven very well. He was in heaven right now. Where else would he be? Even in his short decade on earth Carlo had felt the majesty of God—the thundering pipe organs, the towering domes, the voices raised in song, the stained glass, shimmering bronze and gold. Carlo’s mother, Maria, brought him to Mass every day. The church was Carlo’s home.

“Why do we come to Mass every single day?” Carlo asked, not that he minded at all.

“Because I promised God I would,” she replied. “And a promise to God is the most important promise of all. Never break a promise to God.”

Carlo promised her he would never break a promise to God. He loved his mother more than anything in the world. She was his holy angel. Sometimes he called her Maria benedetta —the Blessed Mary—although she did not like that at all. He knelt with her as she prayed, smelling the sweet scent of her flesh and listening to the murmur of her voice as she counted the rosary. Hail Mary, Mother of God . . . pray for us sinners . . . now and at the hour of our death.

“Where is my father?” Carlo asked, already knowing his father had died before he was born.

“God is your father, now,” she would always reply. “You are a child of the church.”

Carlo loved that.

“Whenever you feel frightened,” she said, “remember that God is your father now. He will watch over you and protect you forever. God has big plans for you, Carlo.” The boy knew she was right. He could already feel God in his blood.

Blood . . .

Blood raining from the sky!

Silence. Then heaven.

His heaven, Carlo learned as the blinding lights were turned off, was actually the Intensive Care Unit in Santa Clara Hospital outside of Palermo. Carlo had been the sole survivor of a terrorist bombing that had collapsed a chapel where he and his mother had been attending Mass while on vacation. Thirty‑seven people had died, including Carlo’s mother. The papers called Carlo’s survival The Miracle of St. Francis. Carlo had, for some unknown reason, only moments before the blast, left his mother’s side and ventured into a protected alcove to ponder a tapestry depicting the story of St. Francis.

God called me there, he decided. He wanted to save me.

Carlo was delirious with pain. He could still see his mother, kneeling at the pew, blowing him a kiss, and then with a concussive roar, her sweet‑smelling flesh was torn apart. He could still taste man’s evil. Blood showered down. His mother’s blood! The blessed Maria!

God will watch over you and protect you forever, his mother had told him.

But where was God now!

Then, like a worldly manifestation of his mother’s truth, a clergyman had come to the hospital. He was not any clergyman. He was a bishop. He prayed over Carlo. The Miracle of St. Francis. When Carlo recovered, the bishop arranged for him to live in a small monastery attached to the cathedral over which the bishop presided. Carlo lived and tutored with the monks. He even became an altar boy for his new protector. The bishop suggested Carlo enter public school, but Carlo refused. He could not have been more happy with his new home. He now truly lived in the house of God.

Every night Carlo prayed for his mother.

God saved me for a reason, he thought. What is the reason?

When Carlo turned sixteen, he was obliged by Italian law to serve two years of reserve military training. The bishop told Carlo that if he entered seminary he would be exempt from this duty. Carlo told the priest that he planned to enter seminary but that first he needed to understand evil.

The bishop did not understand.

Carlo told him that if he was going to spend his life in the church fighting evil, first he had to understand it. He could not think of any better place to understand evil than in the army. The army used guns and bombs. A bomb killed my Blessed mother!

The bishop tried to dissuade him, but Carlo’s mind was made up.

“Be careful, my son,” the bishop had said. “And remember the church awaits you when you return.”

Carlo’s two years of military service had been dreadful. Carlo’s youth had been one of silence and reflection. But in the army there was no quiet for reflection. Endless noise. Huge machines everywhere. Not a moment of peace. Although the soldiers went to Mass once a week at the barracks, Carlo did not sense God’s presence in any of his fellow soldiers. Their minds were too filled with chaos to see God.

Carlo hated his new life and wanted to go home. But he was determined to stick it out. He had yet to understand evil. He refused to fire a gun, so the military taught him how to fly a medical helicopter. Carlo hated the noise and the smell, but at least it let him fly up in the sky and be closer to his mother in heaven. When he was informed his pilot’s training included learning how to parachute, Carlo was terrified. Still, he had no choice.

God will protect me, he told himself.

Carlo’s first parachute jump was the most exhilarating physical experience of his life. It was like flying with God. Carlo could not get enough . . . the silence . . . the floating . . . seeing his mother’s face in the billowing white clouds as he soared to earth. God has plans for you, Carlo. When he returned from the military, Carlo entered the seminary.

That had been twenty‑three years ago.

Now, as Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca descended the Royal Staircase, he tried to comprehend the chain of events that had delivered him to this extraordinary crossroads.

Abandon all fear, he told himself, and give this night over to God.

He could see the great bronze door of the Sistine Chapel now, dutifully protected by four Swiss Guards. The guards unbolted the door and pulled it open. Inside, every head turned. The camerlegno gazed out at the black robes and red sashes before him. He understood what God’s plans for him were. The fate of the church had been placed in his hands.

The camerlegno crossed himself and stepped over the threshold.