It was after midnight and Joseph Ratzinger was sitting alone in the darkened living room of his cavernous residence. He sat reclining in a regal armchair, wearing a crisp white robe of the finest silk, his red slippers perched in front of the softly glowing embers of the fire. The slow orange flicker of the fireplace illuminated his weathered face, his wrinkled brow furrowed, his pale eyes fixed listlessly on the dying flames. He coughed intermittently into his handkerchief, his breathing becoming heavier and more laboured each time.
It had been almost a year since the erstwhile Pope had relinquished his duties, aware that his earthly existence would soon be coming to a close. Though satisfied that he had lived a pious and virtuous life, and proud of his tenure presiding over the Church, he was nonetheless troubled by a vague sense of unease. The source of this disquiet was unknown to him, and it preyed particularly heavily on his mind this night.
As the fire finally spluttered and faded into a thin column of grey smoke, the Pope emeritus rose tentatively from his chair to retire for the night. As he stood up he felt a sudden chill sweep through the room from the open window, followed by a brief but brilliant flash of white light. Momentarily stunned, Ratzinger squinted towards the window and saw the figure of a man standing there, bathed in an ethereal blue glow.
Joseph dropped to his knees and looked up with awe at the spirit, bewildered into silence at his appearance.
‘Your Holiness,’ the spectre addressed him.
The figure spoke in a gentle but indefinable voice, his tone at once commanding and comforting. He walked over to Ratzinger and laid a ghostly hand on his frail shoulder.
‘I am the Ghost of Popes Past. I have come to take you on a journey.’
Before Joseph could respond, there was another blinding flash of light, and when he opened his eyes he was no longer in his living room.
Ratzinger recognised his surroundings instantly. He was standing in the library of the University of Munich, where he had studied theology as a young man. He gazed around in wonder, recalling the countless hours he had spent immersed in this magnificent collection of manuscripts. Across the room he recognised the figure hunched over a cluttered pile of books. He approached the table and looked down in astonishment at his own face, hardly twenty years old. The young Joseph pored over an ancient book of scripture, his face rapt with concentration as he painstakingly transcribed the text into a notebook.
The elderly Ratzinger looked up to notice a librarian crossing the floor towards the young scholar. The sound of her footsteps echoed throughout the great hall as she approached, clutching a heavy tome to her chest with one hand. With the other she reached up and pulled her long, black hair back over her shoulder, revealing her soft, porcelain features. Her gaze was fixed on the young scholar, peering at him with a pair of shimmering blue eyes that Joseph had not seen in some sixty years.
‘I found what you were looking for, Joseph,’ she whispered softly.
The young man looked up at her and smiled warmly, taking the book from her hands.
‘Ah, thank you Angela.’
The elder Joseph stood captivated at the sight of the young woman, long-forgotten memories flooding back to him. He and Angela had grown up on the same street, and had been inseparable from a young age. Then the war came and a teenage Joseph was conscripted into the army. Upon resuming his studies after peace was declared, he found that Angela had taken a job at the library, and they were reunited. But the war had taken its toll on a generation of young men like Joseph, and the carefree, mischievous boy she once knew had never returned.
She continued to stand at his side, watching furtively over his shoulder.
‘I…I finish in an hour Joseph. I thought we might go skating down at the lake? You always did love to show off on the ice.’
She chuckled softly to herself at the memory of the cold winter days they spent together as children, skating down the river despite the warnings of their parents, her freezing hand clutched tightly in his.
The young Joseph glanced up to meet her gaze,
‘I’m sorry Angela, I just have too much work to do.’
Her warm smile faltered for a brief moment, then returned.
‘No problem,’ she replied.
‘I’ll see you later, Joseph.’
With that, she turned and headed back to her desk, the young Ratzinger already absorbed in his studies once more. The elderly Joseph felt compelled to follow her, and matched her quick pace across the marble floor.
When she sat down she turned to stare wistfully across the room at the young Joseph for a moment, then sighed heavily to herself and turned back to her desk. She reached into her pocket and took out an old, weathered piece of card and unfolded it delicately. Joseph moved closer, so that he now stood directly in front of her. It was a photograph of two children, a boy and a girl, no more than ten years old. Their arms were clasped around each other’s waists, their smiles beaming from the grainy faces etched into the paper. She ran her fingers across the faces and laughed softly to herself.
After carefully folding the paper up and putting it away again, she sat perfectly still at her desk, staring straight through the invisible observer that stood before her. Struck by the sadness in her eyes, Joseph reached out to put his hand on her shoulder, but it passed directly through her. At that moment there was another flash of white light, and he found himself back in his residence, the room growing cold now as the night encroached, and the silence broken only by the curtain swaying to and fro in the breeze.
The ghostly figure was nowhere to be seen, and Joseph stood alone in the darkness. He tried to make sense of what had just happened, but was too overwhelmed to think clearly. He shuffled over to the chair and sat back into it, his mind racing. Almost at once he was overcome by a great tiredness, and still troubled by the night’s events, he closed his eyes and drifted into a deep sleep.
He awoke abruptly a short time later, shivering in the cold air that now pervaded the room. At once he could sense a presence around him, and looked to the doorway. His eyes met with those of the figure that stood watching him, its vaporous bluish aura shining softly in the dark. Ratzinger did not feel alarmed this time.
‘Benedict,’ the spirit spoke, his tone as soft and pleasant as that of his predecessor.
‘I am the Ghost of Popes Present. Come with me.’
Feeling oddly serene in the company of this otherworldly being, Joseph reached out a pale, bony hand to meet the outstretched arms of his visitor. Immediately came the familiar white light, transporting him again to a place that he recognised at once.
He stood in the main Dining Hall of the Pope’s residence, where during his reign he had often hosted lavish dinners and luncheons. The room was sumptuously decorated, the dining table laid for a bountiful feast. He noticed the current Pope seated at the head of the table, surrounded by a number of Cardinals. Each was dressed in his finest robes, the luxury of their attire matched only by the opulence of their surroundings. The congregated guests ate and drank liberally as they talked genially amongst one another, their earnest opining on various Church matters soon ceding to mere lecture and sanctimony as the wine flowed. Ratzinger stood and watched this extravagant discourse, overcome by a feeling of cold detachment that mirrored his corporeal nothingness. After a time the spectre appeared at his side and held out his hand in invitation once more.
After the white light had faded, Joseph found himself in an unfamiliar setting. He was standing over a small wooden table, where a family of four were sitting down to eat. The room was cramped and dimly lit, the candlelight emanating from the table casting large, menacing shadows on the damp stone walls. The children were dressed in dirty, tattered clothes that did little to keep away the bitter cold. Their feet, dangling from the high stools on which they were perched, were completely bare.
Their mother dished out a meagre portion to each of them, saving just the tiniest amount for herself and her husband. As she sat, the four bowed their heads in unison and muttered a prayer of thanks. Blessing themselves, they turned eagerly to their meal, the children wolfing down their helpings in seconds. Joseph stood transfixed as the father stood up and carefully emptied what was left of his paltry meal into his children’s bowls. His eyes were drawn to the wall above the fireplace, where the gentle flicker of the candle glinted on the crucifix that was hung there, beside it a small, framed portrait of the current Pope. As his eyes rested on the image, the brilliant white light flashed again, instantly wrenching him away from the scene.
Joseph was once more standing in his residence, the air now almost insufferably cold. A sombre sliver of pale moonlight that gleamed from the open window was the only relief from the dreary gloom that had enveloped the room. Feeling himself unbearably weighed down by what had transpired, he crossed the room and pulled the window closed, then headed for his bedroom. Hoping for some respite from the weariness that shrouded him, he lay down and pulled the soft, silken sheets over his tired body. As his head hit the pillow he fell instantly into a fitful sleep, plagued by the dark thoughts and half-remembered regrets of a dying man.
When he woke with a start, Joseph immediately felt uneasy. He sensed a sinister presence in the room that disturbed him greatly. A chill ran through his entire body as he perceived a shadowy figure approaching his bedside. This spirit had the same blue glow as the others, but its features were indiscernible. Its face was hidden by a dark hood, and it spoke with a harsh, ominous growl from the black void beneath.
‘Joseph,’ it rasped in a spiteful snarl, ‘I am the Ghost of Popes Yet to Come. I will give you a glimpse into your future.’
A moment later Joseph found himself standing in the corner of the very same room. It was pitch black save for a single candle on the bedside locker. The wind howled outside as torrents of rain battered the window. A figure lay motionless in the bed, curled up as if to ward off the cold. Ratzinger hesitantly approached the bedside and stooped to inspect the man who lay there. For the second time that night the countenance he faced was his own. His weathered features had taken on a deathly pallor, his glazed eyes staring straight ahead but seeing nothing. Joseph recoiled in horror and slumped to his knees on the floor. As the rain continued to pound incessantly at the windowpane, a flash of lightning illuminated the room for a brief moment. When Joseph opened his eyes he was once again in his own bed, sitting upright in a cold sweat, and breathing harshly into the cold, empty air that surrounded him.
When Ratzinger had composed himself he got out of bed and made his way to the living room, still deeply perplexed and troubled by the events of the night. He wandered over to the window and stood staring out at his surroundings. The sun was coming up on the horizon, illuminating the rooftops and church spires of the city that had been his home for so long. He stood there in silence for some time, contemplating the life he had led, with his eyes set fixedly on the rising sun, and tears rolling down his pallid, sunken cheeks.
At the library’s front desk Angela was preparing to leave for the evening. She packed her things away and headed for the front door. She stopped at the exit to wrap up, and as she put on her heavy overcoat, her scarf fell to the floor. As she bent down to pick it up, an outstretched arm appeared above her, and she gratefully took it to help herself up. As she stood, her hand still grasped tightly in his, her eyes met those of the young man she’d known her whole life. She smiled warmly at him, and as he smiled back, she noticed a playful glint in his eye that she had not seen for some time.
‘I changed my mind, my study can wait until tomorrow. If the offer still stands?’
‘Of course,’ she replied with a smirk, as they left the library together, descending the steps into the cool winter’s night with the moonlight guiding their way, and their arms clinched tightly around each other’s waists.