It was on one particular New Year’s Eve that I lay wide awake in bed with both my head and my heart racing, my mind whirling with far too many notions to count. A cold sweat drenched me to the skin as I lay there trembling--unable to move, unable to breathe, unable even to pray. This wasn’t the first time I’d awaken from dreams of him, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last. He would haunt my every thought, my every dream, my every waking moment until the day I died.
Staring at the high white ceiling above me, I shut my eyes tight and fought to regain my senses--an effort that I found to be in vain. The images that tormented me in my dreams were painted as vividly as reality on the canvas of my memory. I could still see him there before me, as radiant as any saint, bathed in a Heavenly light that seemed to captivate and draw me in. He spoke not a word, but took my hands in his and pulled me to him. Our bodies touched but barely, his robes a whisper of silk against my bare chest. With one graceful hand he made the Sign of the Cross upon my forehead, then placed a soft kiss there as an afterthought. As his warm, honey-flecked eyes met mine, every emotion in that placid gaze seemed to speak to me, to say, “I love you, Ratzi. And I always will.”
I remember waking with a start and sitting bolt upright, glancing frantically around the room. I must be going mad, I thought. For a fleeting moment, I thought I saw him at my bedside, looking down upon me with such reverence, my heart ached. When I blinked, he was gone, and I was alone again. Alone, with nothing but the frigid arms of solitude to hold me close in the lonely night. There was no comfort in that.
God, how I missed him. More than words could begin to express.
With a sigh, I rolled onto my side and once more shut my eyes against the unsettling darkness. It was quiet, deathly quiet--so unnervingly silent that I could hear the ticking of the ancient grandfather clock at the far end of the corridor as if it were right beside me in the room. With each “tick, tick, tick,” time marched mercilessly forward, putting the past further and further behind. The omnipresent prospect of a new year loomed near on the horizon, drawing closer with each passing second.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
A grave sigh escaped me, and I knew sleep would not come easily--if at all--that night.
From down the hall, I heard the unforgiving clock strike eleven, a sound as dismal as cathedral bells at a funeral mass. The new year fast approached, and I wasn’t quite up to facing it. Still, hearing the sound of the old, familiar chime brought back to me a flood of memories from another New Year’s Eve, one in happier times some thirty years past.
The year was 1977, and I was in Frankfurt am Main, giving a lecture on the importance of faith to a group of seminary students at the Cathedral of St. Bartholomew. During my stay in the city, the bishop arranged to put me up in a small cabin near the cathedral. The place was tiny, with three small rooms and hardly enough space to curse a cat, but it gave me the solitude I wouldn’t have had if I had opted to stay in the rectory with the curious parish priest there.
The Friday before the seminar, I was up late into the night, poring over my thesis. With a few revisions, my notes would be in order, and I could rest easily knowing there would be no last-minute scramble to put together material for the lecture. I had long said that procrastination was the eighth deadly sin. Procrastination was next to sloth, as preparedness was to godliness.
At any rate, it had been my full intent on that late evening to buckle down and stay there until the material was completely covered. I brewed a pot of tea and settled in by the fireplace, prepared for a long night. Looking back on it, perhaps cuddling up next to a warm fire with blankets on that chilly night hadn’t been the best way to go. Somewhere between “Good morning, students,” and “the importance of faith in everyday life is,” I fell into a deep sleep.
The next thing I knew, I was hearing the clock on the wall chime midnight.
“Son of a bitch,” I grumbled as I sat up, and was surprised to receive a response.
“Such words, Eminence.” The familiar, heavily-accented voice teased good-naturedly, and my heart skipped a beat in recognition. There before me stood the smirking Polish cardinal, dressed in scarlet finery. Faint flashes of gold on his red robes glimmered in the dim firelight. He was a sight to behold, magnificent as a prince and just as handsome as I had remembered.
“Karol, please tell me I’m not dreaming.”
“If you are, then I must also be.” He smiled, that charming smile of his that made my heart flutter without fail. “In which case I’ve no desire to wake.” In one graceful movement, he knelt by me on the floor, gathering me into his arms, pulling me to his chest. “My sweet Ratzi.” He took my face in his hands and let his gaze come to meet mine. “What a sight for world-weary eyes you are.” He placed a soft kiss at the corner of my mouth. “Happy New Year, darling.” I gazed back at him reverently.
“This is a much better start than I expected,” I said with a coy grin, placing my arms around his neck. “Though I must know what divine force schemed to bring you here at exactly midnight on New Year’s Eve.”
“Coincidence?” Karol’s tone was light, playful.
“Perhaps,” replied Karol, nonchalantly. “It just so happened that I was on my way from Zurich back to Warsaw this evening, and the train stopped here overnight.”
“Well, if that’s not fate, it’s a well-orchestrated coincidence.” Karol laughed, and I could feel the melodic noise reverberate from deep within his chest. I lay my head in the crook of his shoulder and we both fell silent: he, running a hand languidly up and down my back, and I, reveling in his closeness and enjoying the warmth of those strong arms wrapped around me.
It had been far too long, I realized, since he had held me like this. Weeks had passed since we’d last met just before Thanksgiving. Since then, not a day nor night had gone by that I hadn’t thought of him. When he was gone, I missed him terribly. But in his arms, I was in Heaven, and my very world revolved around his existence near me.
“Yes, my love.” His eyes met mine again directly, and I faltered. From the very beginning, he‘d had that effect on me.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“So am I.” Presently, he shifted his weight to lie back on the pillows, taking me down with him. We lay there on our sides, our bodies barely touching, but the familiar electricity between us unmistakable. “I’ve missed you, Ratzi.” An undeniable note of desire was present in his voice, and my mind registered it with a resounding tingle in the pit of my stomach. I smiled, letting a hand trail slowly down his scarlet-clad chest.
“And I’ve missed you, Lolek.” A devious smirk worked its way onto my features as I toyed with the flashy gold pectoral cross dangling from around his neck. “Want to know what else I’ve missed?” He glanced down at my hand and smirked.
“That cross, because it’s yours?”
“And I still have yours,” I pointed out smartly. “But, no.” I leaned closer, implying, inviting. Begging. My lips were but a few inches from his. “Guess again.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea.” His tone betrayed him, told me he had quite a few ideas on his mind that were probably along the same lines as those on my own. I closed my eyes and leaned still closer, awaiting the touch of his lips upon mine--a blessing quickly granted. Our lips met in a kiss that was slow and sensual, full of passion. The intensity of it elicited a moan from me as Karol deepened the kiss, cupping the back of my head with his hand, burying his fingers in my hair. His other hand was on the small of my back, pulling me closer.
I fell, melting into his embrace as a comforting, familiar warmth washed over me. I felt the slow stirrings of an emotion I’d not felt in so long, not since the last time we had been together. He was the only one in the world who could make me feel this way, I realized, as he kissed me warmly, his lips claiming mine, his hands roaming assuredly over my body. In all my years in the clergy, through decades of chastity, he was the only one who could ever truly test my resolve--my ability to resist temptations of earthly pleasure--and break me. Completely.
He kissed me until I was breathless and trembling in his arms, quaking with a desire I acknowledged but didn’t dare speak aloud--not that I ever had to, not with him. Somewhere in the midst of our passionate exchange, my cleric’s shirt had been unbuttoned and cast off, and Karol’s hands found a slow, assured path over my tingling flesh. I felt the smooth, cool touch of his palms enticing me as they caressed my chest, ran appreciatively down my stomach, then back up. A soft moan escaped from me, and my back arched involuntarily as my body responded dramatically to his touch.
“Karol…” I gasped, and he smirked wickedly in response. Then his voice was in my ear, husky and arousing, painfully erotic.
“My beautiful Ratzi,” he murmured in Polish. “I want you so badly.” A moan slipped from me simply at the promises of pleasure in his voice. Already, I was pressing against him, my hips grinding into his. Our lips met again, hotly, in a kiss that was a mere prelude to something far more physical--something I could tell we both craved just as badly. My hands busied themselves with the buttons on his scarlet cassock, and with pushing away layers of confining clothing. He went for my belt buckle, unfastened it swiftly and whipped my belt off, slinging it somewhere over his shoulder. When there was at last nothing standing between the two of us, I found myself being pounced backward onto the disarrayed pile of blankets and discarded clothing.
Chest to chest, I felt the contact of skin on skin, hot and silken and purely electrifying. He bore me onto my back and kissed me hard, more insistently. Then he shifted his weight, pressing into me, his hips moving suggestively against mine, and for a moment, I saw stars in front of my eyes.
“Oh, Karol…” I gasped.
“Ratzi…” he purred in response.
He set his sights lower, placing kisses heavily upon my neck, my shoulders, my collarbone. His lips found the line of my throat and blazed a trail down the center of my chest.
“Oh, please, please don’t stop…”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he murmured into my neck. In that moment, I wanted him, needed him, ached for him more than I had anything in my entire life.
“Take me, Karol,” I pleaded, completely without shame. “Please. I need you, now.” He replied with a smirk that would have made the Pope himself blush twelve shades of scarlet, one for each apostle.
Luckily, Karol was never one to make me wait.
As the clock struck one, we lay tangled in one another’s arms. For a long moment, neither of us spoke, and we just lay there, clinging to one another as if to salvation. When after a long moment I found my voice again, the first thing I said was, “I love you, Karol.”
“I love you more,” countered Karol with a playful smirk, lightly ruffling my hair.
“Prove it.” I nuzzled his collarbone affectionately. He chuckled in response.
“All right, but I‘m going to need a minute here.”
“Oh, you.” I rolled my eyes playfully. “I meant, prove it by staying with me tonight.”
“Now that you mention it,” he said with a grin. “I don’t see any business so pressing that I‘d need to be back in Warsaw at four in the morning.”
“You always were fashionably late anyway.” I laughed and cuddled closer, and he wrapped his arms tighter around me. “I could stay like this forever,” I said blissfully. Karol smiled that soft, saintly smile that he was so apt to offer.
“Forever is a long time, Ratzi.”
“Not nearly long enough when I’m with you.” I felt him squeeze my waist gently. “Karol?”
“What do you suppose this year will bring?”
“Hmm.” He paused a moment, contemplating. “Well, my guess is as good as yours.” He stroked my hair gently, meditatively. “I’m hoping this year will be a year of peace and prosperity for the world over.”
“I knew you’d say something like that,” I said with a smile. “Can you believe it, though? 1978, already. I guess it’s true, what they say about time.”
“That it flies when you’re having fun?”
“Something like that.”
“Speaking of time,” ventured Karol, “we should both get some rest.”
“Right,” I agreed. “You leave for Poland in the morning, and I still have a blasted speech to write.” I sighed, resting my head against Karol’s chest. “We can‘t worry about those things now.”
“You’re the only thing on my mind, dear.” I smiled and closed my eyes.
“I love you, Lolek.”
“I love you too, my Ratzi.” I felt his hand lightly stroking my hair, before I slipped into dreams.
I woke to the glaring beams of day assaulting my retinas and instinctively knew that it had to be at least late morning or early afternoon. Time was the enemy--and the dastardly foe had gotten a head start on me. Cursing myself inwardly for sleeping the day away, I willed myself to rise--a mildly daunting task. I wasn‘t getting any younger.
I winced as I made my way toward the kitchen. I needed to make a quick phone call to touch base with the bishop before I truly buckled down to finish my lecture notes.
When I turned the corner, something on the table immediately caught my eye: a solitary white rose, weighing down a piece of paper lined with Karol’s elegant handwriting. I felt my heart flutter as my fingers lifted the letter to read it.
My darling Ratzi, it began, as so many of his letters did. Happy New Year. I’m sorry I had to leave you so soon, and without saying goodbye. Were it up to me, I’d have stayed forever and an eternity by your side. But as we both know well, the Lord calls me back to His purpose--and His work is never done. I wish you all the blessings in the world for this coming year, and darling, do not fret. We shall be together again soon. Until then, stay strong for me and for yourself. You are always in my heart, in my thoughts, and in my prayers. With love, Karol.
I remember my heart nearly overflowed with love for this man, this saint on earth. And though I was alone, I could feel him with me. No matter how long we were apart, I felt his heart with me always. I knew time would not keep us separated for long.
Perhaps it was knowing this that kept me grounded when I was without him. Perhaps it was this knowledge that kept me sane.
In those brighter days, there was always a hope that existed deep in my heart, that no matter how far either of us roamed, we would always find our way back to one another. That hope of mine had fled the moment his soul left this earth to join the angels on high.
With Karol gone, only bleak darkness and fading memories of happier times remained in my life. I was lost and abandoned, and with such a great burden placed upon my shoulders that I had never asked for; the crown I wore had been unjustly placed. I was no shepherd, no earthly saint as he was--only a man disparaged by a task I knew I was far too small to take upon myself.
My God. Why hast thou forsaken me?
I rose from my bed and walked to the window, gazing toward the night sky. The moon was a sliver hanging by a thread over the hallowed dome of St. Peter’s, the stars a thousand pinpoints of light from Heaven. He was up there somewhere, I knew it, among saints and the souls of the departed in the Kingdom of God. I could only hope he was watching down on me from where he was. As selfish as the thought was, I wondered if he still thought of me where he was--if he missed me the way I missed him.
My God, why have you forsaken me?
My God, why…
In the sanctity of my own chamber, I unraveled. Tears came, streaming freely down my cheeks, each bitter drop a manifestation of each and every doubt, frustration or heartbreak that had thus wounded me. God, my Father in Heaven, why have you abandoned me in this despicable hour of darkness, oh God? I sobbed brokenly into my hands, wanting nothing more than to exorcise this demon of black despair from the pit of my soul. Dear God, why place this burden upon my alone?
“You are not alone.” Christ almighty. I froze where I was by the window, wide-eyed and stricken with an emotion borne of curiosity and primal fear. The voice I’d heard seemed to come from both inside and out, to surround me completely, to speak to me directly. I found myself backing toward the window, not quite sure what I was afraid of, but whatever it was, it terrified the hell out of me.
“In the name of God,” I answered aloud, my voice wavering, quaking as I was. “Manifestation, be you demon or saint, or God himself, I demand you show yourself now.”
“Do not be afraid.” There was that voice again, sweet and melodic, and just vaguely familiar--no. No, it cannot be. Joseph Alois Ratzinger, you have completely lost your wits. I squeezed my eyes shut, willing myself either awake or sane, whichever happened to come first. “Open your eyes,” commanded the voice, gently but firmly. I hesitated, knowing the sight that might greet my eyes could very well affirm the fact that I’d indeed lost my mind. This would be my moment of truth. God be with me. I opened my eyes, steeling myself for what might lay before me--but for this, nothing could have prepared me.
There before my very eyes stood my angel Karol--truly an angel now, in every sense of the word. He was draped in robes of shimmering gold, and had the appearance of a man thirty years younger. He was the way I remembered him before he had fallen ill in later years. He was youthful and vibrant, the embodiment of vitality. I stood agape, unable to truly believe that what I was seeing was in fact reality.
“Merciful Mary,” My voice was thin and trembling, my knees threatening to give way. “I am either dreaming or insane.” At this, Karol laughed and the room itself seemed--literally--to illuminate, to radiate with a heavenly light. He moved toward me and took both my hands.
“I assure you, you are not insane.” Nor was I dreaming, I realized. I glanced down at my hands in his, intensely aware of his fingers squeezing mine. The very sensation was overwhelming in the most powerful of ways. As I squeezed his hands in return, elevating my gaze to meet his, I felt the sting of tears welling up in my eyes again. In an instant he was embracing me, taking me and holding my tightly in his arms. Oh God, he was so close to me--so close I could feel some indescribable warmth pass from his soul to mine. A sense of great relief came over me, and I buried my face in his shoulder, unable to do anything but weep.
At once, his hand was stroking my hair, caressing my face. “There, there, darling,” he soothed me. “You know you’re far too lovely to cry.” He lifted my face and kissed the tears from my cheeks. I drew in a shaky breath and realized faintly that I was clinging to him quite shamelessly. Presently, his eyes were fixed on mine, meeting my gaze with that all-too-common look of sedate compassion. “My love, I so hate to see you this way.”
“I’m sorry, Karol,” I blurted out. “It’s just that I’ve found myself under an inexplicable amount of stress as of late, I don’t want to be pope, I’m a nervous wreck, I think I’m losing my mind, and I miss you more than words can even express. I feel like everything is coming down on me all at once, and I just--” I sighed gravely. “I feel like I’m drowning.”
“You’ve no need to apologize,” murmured Karol, pulling me closer. “The world can be that way. Cruel and harsh. Some days, it can seem like all hope is lost, your prayers are going unheard, and there’s no one around to catch you when you fall.” He gave me a gentle smile. “Believe it or not, I’ve been there.”
“I know,” I sniffled feebly. “But you’re so much stronger than I am. I don’t think I can do this, Karol.”
“I believe you can,” he said matter-of-factly. “In fact, I know you can.”
“No, I can’t,” I protested, my voice rising an octave. “I’m not the man you were. And I damn well can’t be the pope you were.”
“God chose you for a reason, as he did me,” Karol pointed out.
“Right,” my tone was mildly bitter. “God chose you to save the world. God chose me out of spite.”
“Don’t you speak that way, Your Holiness,” Karol scolded me gently. “I know they’re saying I’m a tough act to follow, but you can do this, Ratzi. Trust me. I believe in you.” I sighed gravely, a heavy, doleful sound that seemed to ring loudly in my own ears.
“You‘re right,” I admitted. “I just wish I didn’t have to do this alone.”
“You are never alone,” Karol said sweetly. “God is always with you. As am I.” He placed a kiss softly at my temple, the touch of his lips as soft and as light as a feather. Then, as we had so often done, both of us simply fell silent, communicating through one another without so much as a single spoken word. He pulled me close, and in that moment, there was nothing more I wanted than for him to simply hold me forever. But as the saying goes, nothing lasts forever.
After a seemingly fleeting moment, I heard him sigh, felt his grip on me relent--and I knew he was about to let go again. “It’s nearly midnight,” he said softly. “I fear I must go.”
“No,” I wrapped my arms tightly around his waist, clinging to him like a child. “You can’t leave me. I can’t bear to lose you again.”
“You’ll never lose me. Know, my love, that I will always be with you. When you hurt, I will ache with you. And when you lay yourself down to sleep, I will hear your prayers.” He smiled serenely. “Do not despair, my sweet Ratzi. This is not the end for us.” He stepped back, clasping my hands tightly in his once more. “You and I, we will be together again when God wills it. But you still have much work to be done here, Benedict.” I felt my face flush.
“May I receive your blessing?”
“Certainly.” As in my dreams, he raised a hand and made the Sign of the Cross upon my forehead. Then he kissed me gently, tenderly, letting his lips linger upon mine.
“I will make you a saint,” I vowed, violently blinking back tears--I would be damned if I started crying again. At this, he smiled.
“And I shall do the same for you.” He let my hands go, and I knew our parting was near.
“Will I see you again?” I asked sullenly. “In this life, I mean?”
“Of course you will,” replied Karol with a wink. “After all, I’m never too far away.”
And as the clock down the hall struck midnight, my eyes snapped open, and I sat bolt upright in bed, sweating and trembling.
It had all just been a dream.
This has got to stop, I thought to myself as I rose from my bed to open the window, in hopes that the rush of the cold night air might sober me to some degree. Even so, I still found myself shaking violently, found it difficult to breathe. Just a dream, Joseph. It was only a dream…
As I turned from the window, something odd and out of place caught my eye at a glance. There on my desk by the window was a sheet of paper of some sort, fluttering in the slight breeze, held in place by a solitary white rose. My heart nearly stopped right then and there. You have got to be shitting me. Taking in a deep breath, I dared myself closer.
And when I saw the paper, lined with the elegant manuscript, and read the familiar words, my blood ran cold in my veins.
My darling Ratzi, it began, as so many of his letters had. Happy New Year, my love. I’m sorry I had to leave you so soon… And strangely, these words he had written me near thirty years before had never rung so true until now. We shall be together again soon, I know. Until then, stay strong for me and for yourself. You are always in my heart, in my thoughts, and in my prayers. As I read his words again, I felt a flood of emotions--hope, loss, love, faith--all at once. And for the first time in the months since I had lost him, I felt a true and honest smile come to my face.
Placing the letter on the desk, I turned back to the window and gazed once more up at the night sky. Each star in that vast indigo sea seemed to shine more brightly than before, as if with the promise and hope of a new year and a new day. Suddenly, things didn’t seem so grim--and my task didn’t seem entirely impossible. You can do this, Ratzi. I believe in you.
Perhaps, I thought, he had never truly left me at all.
And maybe, just maybe, he was right. Perhaps I could do this after all.
At last resolved, I shut the window and headed back to bed, somehow confident that I could finally sleep. The clock on the wall read 12:15: fifteen minutes into the new year 2006. In less than six hours, half the world would be gathered on my doorstep. And somehow, the task of facing the new year seemed less daunting.
I settled into bed, pulling the covers back over myself. As I closed my eyes, the candle on the nightstand flickered and died. And it was in that moment that I realized darkness wasn’t something I had to fear, not now or ever again.