Overview:

The Pope begins a series of confessions made each night to the Confessor, admitting troubles and doubts about the faith.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Pope hovered forty thousand feet above the coast of Africa, amid the wispy cirro-stratus clouds.

Suddenly, all human languages spoke at once, not in cacophony, but in delicate, percussive synchronization.

All of humanity, dead and alive, spread out above the Sea, on the Earth, and in the Sky of Africa, was calling upon the pontiff to give witness to the Confessor.

Then, from among the people, God appeared, reminiscent of a human being, lifting and twirling as a leaf in the air, completely covered in red linen, wrapped mummy-like and immovable; and God spoke these words to the Pope:  “I can wait until a rush of Sea winds palm the white dunes smooth. I can wait until an Earthling onyx is exposed. I can wait until a pencil-mapped Sky veils the doyen Pleiades. But I cannot wait for you.  Paucorum est intellegere quid donet Deus.”  [It is given to few people to know what God gives.]

Then the Pope awoke from the dream and went about a busy day.

Later, as usual, in the evening, on ancient merbau and marble floors; surrounded by colossal and opulent tapestries depicting unicorns and princes and dogs on the hunt; encircled by frescos of Moses in death, David in tears, Solomon in judgment, Jesus in agony; bounded by deep-dark mahogany chairs and settees and gorgeous threadbare Turkish rugs; in a thousand-room palace housing the papal apartments; all within the larger antique Vatican complex: the Pope spoke—face to face—to the Confessor:

I have kept something from you, from everyone, for a very long time, and I need to tell you because I have an important decision before me, more important than you can know right now.  I want to begin a series of confessions with you—all basically on one theme, and that theme is my doubts about the faith.

Surprised?

I want to admit my doubts to you and tell you why I have them.

As I make confession, I’d like that you simply listen and not respond. I’m acquainted with all the defenses of our religion anyway. And I’m aware of the stratagem that says all those who critique our religion have never really known it. But you must understand I have really known our religion, both intellectually and emotionally.  Its fundamental ideas are not complex.

I want to use this forum—the confessional—because I respect the pedigree of our friendship. And please understand, I do not feel I need forgiveness for expressing honest doubts. Do I need forgiveness for expressing an honest thought? In that sense, I’d like to say, “Bless me, for I have not sinned.” But you may feel I need forgiveness, because I will speak bluntly, even harshly at times. And I suppose from you I desire forgiveness.

Over the next several weeks and months, as is our custom, we’ll meet at night here in my apartment before bedtime, since our days are full of busywork.

The Confessor stood, wordless, kissed the pontiff on the forehead, and then withdrew to leave the Pope alone.

The Pope walked from the large antechamber and entered the papal bedroom, a rather small space in comparison to the rest of the papal apartments: a room outfitted with ascetic rigor and simplicity. Wooden floors, Afghan wool rugs, a single slim bed, a nightstand and lamp, bookcases, a desk and a chair, a reading chaise, a centered window with a view of the Square and the Via della Conciliazione, an adjacent bathroom, an adjacent dressing room.

The Pope’s right index finger, long-ago bent downward at the tip by a playground injury, traced the faces in the photos on the bookcase, on the nightstand, and on the desk. The photos depicted the Pope as a four-year-old amidst shredded gift-wrap with gleeful siblings under a soaring Christmas tree; teenage siblings affecting mock consolations for a teenage Pope’s skiing accident; the Pope as a twenty-year-old guitarist; several toothy and broad-mouthed seminarians arm in arm; the effulgent countenance of the Pope’s mother and father at their young priest’s ordination; a first Mass; another, different, previous, young Pope, handsome, almost pretty; and the Confessor in earlier days.

The Pope traced the round faces in each of the pictures, touching the glass lightly, and then sat upon the bed.

Slippers were peeled off and tossed to a corner. Silk socks were stripped from calves and feet with an overgrown (guitar-playing) thumbnail.

The Pope padded barefoot to the bookcase where a decanter of port sat waiting. Just a sip. A sip or two, and then into the bathroom and into the bath. Then to bed, but still pondering the eternal verities, the everlasting doubts.

The sheets and pillowcases were peach-colored tonight. Peach-colored and with a satisfying chill.

 And the Pope slept but did not dream.

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of atheism and other classes since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA...