The Vatican, Vatican City
An Audience with His Holiness, Ardal O’Keefe
As is to be expected, much has been said about the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church; some good, some bad. I can only give my own interpretation.
His Holiness, or Ardal as he prefers to be called in private, is obviously an intelligent man. Possessed of a seemingly irrepressible positive nature, he radiates good humour, patience, and calm. At the tender age of fifty-two, he is the youngest Pope in centuries.
A modest man, Ardal decries many of the old ways but is humble about the changes he himself has wrought in the Church. He greets me warmly, and serves me tea, before answering my questions in a very honest fashion.
Do you believe that this virus was sent by God?
I suspected you might ask me that one. No, I don’t.
I may be a man of the cloth, but I am also a man of science. My first degree was in Chemistry oddly enough. I’m afraid that I don’t believe that God is some sort of fire and brimstone character as some of my colleagues do. Belief is a very personal thing, however, so everyone is entitled to their view.
In this instance, I think that we as a race may have brought this on ourselves, not through any malicious intent, but more through a combination of factors such as dense populations, pollution, mutation of existing viruses or so on. Maybe it was simply bad luck or we disturbed something somewhere that triggered it. I believe my more learned scientific colleagues are still trying to establish this.
I also don’t believe, as some publications have suggested, that it is some sort of divine retribution for allowing same-sex marriages, women to be ordained or any of the other ridiculously spurious arguments that seem to come about. If nothing else, the Zombie War should have taught us that regardless of religion, sexual orientation, colour, belief or whatever other division you care to try and put into place, we are humans, together, fighting in whatever way we can, against one thing.
Do you believe that those who were Infected were evil?
The Infection is a virus, nothing more, nothing less. It does not choose who it infects.
The virus itself is a horrible thing, but it is not inherently evil. I saw colleagues of mine Infected, but also children, murderers, businessmen, young mothers, and people in wheelchairs. A virus makes no distinction between its victims; it is designed by an always evolving nature to spread itself as quickly and effectively as possible. This particular virus was helped hugely by mankind’s predilection for international travel, but it is still a natural phenomenon, albeit one that almost wiped out our species.
I suppose it may yet evolve again, and yes, I do believe in evolution too. There’s a Michael Crichton book that explores this type of virological change through evolution. I’d recommend you read it, almost as good as Jurassic Park, although the name of it escapes me at the moment.
How did you survive?
We were in the right place at the right time, and even now I am still trying to work out whether God had a hand in that or not. Yes, I know, worrying isn’t it, a member of the clergy questioning his beliefs. I am human despite the funny uniform and posh hat, although I don’t do children’s parties.
Sorry, I digress. It’s a bad habit from my student days.
Survival: the previous Pope was preparing to withdraw to the summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. He used it throughout the year for various functions and meetings and had planned a long weekend there with some of the Cardinals to discuss a few matters of doctrine.
I was sent ahead to prepare the place and get things ready for his arrival. I’d taken my time traveling, preferring to take the bus and meet and talk to people as I went. This meant I was away from the normal media scrum, but it all caught up with me as I arrived at Gandolfo. As I walked through the door, one of the guards informed me of the sudden spread of the pandemic, and from then on everything turned to hell in a handbag.
The guards there, and at the Vatican, are very traditional. They are Swiss and dedicated to their posts and of course the church. All of them are fully trained not only in modern army techniques but in the traditional use of the halberd which they drill extensively with. It was that training that saved us, that and the fact Gandolfo was built like a fortress. It very quickly became one, a fortress under siege.
We saw off a few sporadic attacks and quickly realised this would become a protracted battle for survival. Due to its privileged position as part of the Holy City, we had direct lines to many parts of the world, power sources, food, and supplies. You name it, we had it. We even had the spare Popemobile. The Zombies didn’t seem to appreciate the papal wave though.
People joined us in ones and twos. Newcomers were welcomed, but guarded for a few days. Thankfully we only had a few who were infected. They were helped to die, blessed, and buried. That sounds callous doesn’t it, but once they knew what they had, they took themselves away to one of the gardens and did what had to be done. They were immensely brave.
The Swiss guard, guarded. The members of the clergy prayed, tended the gardens and grounds, and we reverted to a very monkly existence.
Thankfully, for all of our combined sanity, there were children around. They made our lives worth living. Belief sustained us, but the children gave us hope in an otherwise very dark world, and a reason to fight on.
We heard nothing from the Vatican after a few weeks and assumed the worst.
And then we were alone.
The Castle Castel Gandolfo overlooks Lake Albano about 15 miles southeast of Rome, on the Alban Hills. It is one of the most beautiful towns in Italy. And as I said earlier, we resorted to more monkly pursuits.
As most senior Cardinal, I became senior monk, but otherwise, we discarded all titles, all pomposity, and became tillers of the earth, brewers, fishermen, herdsmen, keepers of bees, and carers. Some decided to fight.
Did you fight?
No, I did not. My choice.
Some chose to, some did not. Those who chose not to fight tended to the wounded, provided care, reloaded weapons, and carried water during battles.
All of those who chose to fight were blessed by me personally and absolved of all sins. You may think it a fine line to choose, but to my mind, the Zombies were not people anymore. We could not murder them if they were already dead.
Let me ask you a question and let your readers ponder the same. Is the greater sin to destroy something that is to all intents and purposes dead, or allow the destruction of an innocent child?
I am happy with the choice we made. I saw children grow, not die. We preserved the future and buried the past.
We prayed with those who chose this most difficult path. They are perhaps akin to the old Warrior monks and Knight Crusaders, although I would hope they had a less detrimental effect on other faiths this time around.
We fought in the ways we could. We survived. I’m not sure ‘winning’ is the correct term in this instance.
How Did You Become Pope?
I was pretty much the last man standing if I’m honest. Only four cardinals survived the War. Most had gathered at the Vatican prior to the trip here and didn’t survive.
The Vatican was overrun almost immediately, as huge amounts of people made their way there hoping that they could be saved by the then Pope, who was obviously expected to perform some sort of miracle. There was no miracle and the place turned into a murderous pit of ravaging Infected.
Maybe that last statement is incorrect though. There were miracles, some few of us survived, us and other small groups. That, given the circumstances we faced, was perhaps the miracle.
Apart from myself, there was one other cardinal in America, but he died a few weeks after peace was declared there. Another survived in Africa but decided not to put himself forward for it. My other colleague was here, and he was the one who nominated me.
I hope I prove worthy.
How does the church move forwards from this?
We change, as the world around us has changed.
I remember an old joke from a comedy series called The Vicar of Dibley on BBC television. The lady vicar (and a credit to lady vicars everywhere I might add) starts a joke:
Q. How many Church of England Bishops does it take to change a lightbulb?
The Roman Catholic Church is very much the same. We have to embrace change and go back to the simpler messages of the bible.
Love, peace, forgiveness, belief.
I know we could start a massive theological debate about other messages that are contained therein, and indeed the other faiths that survived the war. But, for me, those are the tenets of my belief, and that is the way we as a church will carry on.
We have been very much reduced by the War, but we survive. My belief survives. For those people who want to pray, we will be there for them. For those people who need us in whatever way, we will be there for them. For those people who don’t need us at the moment, we will be there if they ever do.
The church cannot exist as the ponderous great machine we used to. We are here to serve in perhaps a more simple fashion than before, but we are still servants of God and the people. I may be Pope, but I am still a man of the cloth, a man of God, and I hope a man of Good perhaps too.
It’s a subtle little ‘O’ that isn’t it. Perhaps I am a Man O’God, it suits my Irish roots more.
Ah, my brain has come up with an answer. The Andromeda Strain, that’s the book I mentioned earlier, it’s by Michael Crichton. Strange how the human mind works isn’t it? I have a tremendous capability for forgetting things. Tipofthetongueitis I believe it’s called.
Now, I have a question for you. Would you like to come and see my bees? We produce some lovely honey…