The Holy Vatican Grottoes are located beneath the main floor of St. Peter’s Basilica. They are the burial place of deceased Popes.
Vittoria reached the bottom of the spiral staircase and entered the grotto. The darkened tunnel reminded her of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider—black and cold. Lit now only by the flashlights of the Swiss Guards, the tunnel carried a distinctly incorporeal feel. On both sides, hollow niches lined the walls. Recessed in the alcoves, as far as the lights let them see, the hulking shadows of sarcophagi loomed.
An iciness raked her flesh. It’s the cold, she told herself, knowing that was only partially true. She had the sense they were being watched, not by anyone in the flesh, but by specters in the dark. On top of each tomb, in full papal vestments, lay life‑sized semblances of each Pope, shown in death, arms folded across their chests. The prostrate bodies seemed to emerge from within the tombs, pressing upward against the marble lids as if trying to escape their mortal restraints. The flashlight procession moved on, and the papal silhouettes rose and fell against the walls, stretching and vanishing in a macabre shadowbox dance.
A silence had fallen across the group, and Vittoria couldn’t tell whether it was one of respect or apprehension. She sensed both. The camerlegno moved with his eyes closed, as if he knew every step by heart. Vittoria suspected he had made this eerie promenade many times since the Pope’s death . . . perhaps to pray at his tomb for guidance.
I worked under the cardinal’s tutelage for many years, the camerlegno had said. He was like a father to me. Vittoria recalled the camerlegno speaking those words in reference to the cardinal who had “saved” him from the army. Now, however, Vittoria understood the rest of the story. That very cardinal who had taken the camerlegno under his wing had apparently later risen to the papacy and brought with him his young protégé to serve as chamberlain.
That explains a lot, Vittoria thought. She had always possessed a well‑tuned perception for others’ inner emotions, and something about the camerlegno had been nagging her all day. Since meeting him, she had sensed an anguish more soulful and private than the overwhelming crisis he now faced. Behind his pious calm, she saw a man tormented by personal demons. Now she knew her instincts had been correct. Not only was he facing the most devastating threat in Vatican history, but he was doing it without his mentor and friend . . . flying solo.
The guards slowed now, as if unsure where exactly in the darkness the most recent Pope was buried. The camerlegno continued assuredly and stopped before a marble tomb that seemed to glisten brighter than the others. Lying atop was a carved figure of the late Pope. When Vittoria recognized his face from television, a shot of fear gripped her. What are we doing?
“I realize we do not have much time,” the camerlegno said. “I still ask we take a moment of prayer.”
The Swiss Guard all bowed their heads where they were standing. Vittoria followed suit, her heart pounding in the silence. The camerlegno knelt before the tomb and prayed in Italian. As Vittoria listened to his words, an unexpected grief surfaced as tears . . . tears for her own mentor . . . her own holy father. The camerlegno’s words seemed as appropriate for her father as they did for the Pope.
“Supreme father, counselor, friend.” The camerlegno’s voice echoed dully around the ring. “You told me when I was young that the voice in my heart was that of God. You told me I must follow it no matter what painful places it leads. I hear that voice now, asking of me impossible tasks. Give me strength. Bestow on me forgiveness. What I do . . . I do in the name of everything you believe. Amen.”
“Amen,” the guards whispered.
Amen, Father. Vittoria wiped her eyes.
The camerlegno stood slowly and stepped away from the tomb. “Push the covering aside.”
The Swiss Guards hesitated. “Signore,” one said, “by law we are at your command.” He paused. “We will do as you say . . .”
The camerlegno seemed to read the young man’s mind. “Someday I will ask your forgiveness for placing you in this position. Today I ask for your obedience. Vatican laws are established to protect this church. It is in that very spirit that I command you to break them now.”
There was a moment of silence and then the lead guard gave the order. The three men set down their flashlights on the floor, and their shadows leapt overhead. Lit now from beneath, the men advanced toward the tomb. Bracing their hands against the marble covering near the head of the tomb, they planted their feet and prepared to push. On signal, they all thrust, straining against the enormous slab. When the lid did not move at all, Vittoria found herself almost hoping it was too heavy. She was suddenly fearful of what they would find inside.
The men pushed harder, and still the stone did not move.
“Ancora,” the camerlegno said, rolling up the sleeves of his cassock and preparing to push along with them. “Ora! “Everyone heaved.
Vittoria was about to offer her own help, but just then, the lid began to slide. The men dug in again, and with an almost primal growl of stone on stone, the lid rotated off the top of the tomb and came to rest at an angle—the Pope’s carved head now pushed back into the niche and his feet extended out into the hallway.
Everyone stepped back.
Tentatively, a guard bent and retrieved his flashlight. Then he aimed it into the tomb. The beam seemed to tremble a moment, and then the guard held it steady. The other guards gathered one by one. Even in the darkness Vittoria sensed them recoil. In succession, they crossed themselves.
The camerlegno shuddered when he looked into the tomb, his shoulders dropping like weights. He stood a long moment before turning away.
Vittoria had feared the corpse’s mouth might be clenched tight with rigor mortis and that she would have to suggest breaking the jaw to see the tongue. She now saw it would be unnecessary. The cheeks had collapsed, and the Pope’s mouth gaped wide.
His tongue was black as death.