The Vow
--EKB

The Polish cardinal stood before the mirror, scrutinizing the image of himself reflected there with a dutiful eye. From the doorway, Franz Lutzinger watched, rapt, and wondered just what sort of imperfection the other cardinal might have been looking for. Truth be told, there was not a one that Franz himself could have found. Clad in flowing robes of glittering gold and ivory satin, Karol was an immaculate vision of angelic grace--a sight more radiant than any mortal creature he’d yet to lay eyes upon. Through the high, stained-glass windowpanes, sunlight flooded the room, and in that moment, Franz could easily have forgotten where he was.

“It’s no use, Karol.” His voice was full of awe as he spoke. As he ventured in through the open door, Cardinal Karolek Volodya glanced up with a gentle smile and eyes full of warmth.

“What’s that, darling?”

“I was just saying that there’s nothing to perfect.” He came to stand behind Karol, arms encircling his waist. “I could swear I was looking at an angel standing there.”

“How long have you been admiring me, Eminence?” asked Karolek playfully.

“Fifty years today, my love, if my memory serves me correctly.”

“Oh, you,” said Karol, chuckling. He turned to face Franz and, placing a gentle hand against his cheek, pressed a warm and lingering kiss to his lips. “You are entirely too much.” With that, he slipped from the other cardinal’s embrace and flitted across the room, back to the vanity against the wall. “Dear, would you happen to know what time it is?”

“A quarter past nine.”

“Crap. The ceremony is in fifteen minutes. If I’m late--”

“You won’t be.”

“Now, where in the world did I put my crucifix…”

“You’re wearing it.” Karol glanced down--the flashy pectoral cross was, indeed around his neck--and sighed, shaking his head.

“Thank you, dear. I’d lose my head if it weren’t attached. I suppose--” He paused, toying with the gold sash around his waist. “--I’ve just got a lot on my mind this morning. New popes and what have you. And I’ve no idea what possessed me to accept Primo’s offer to be Master of Ceremonies.”

“You’ll do just fine,” Franz caught the flustered cardinal by the hand, pulling him back to him. “Karol, darling, calm down. Breathe. Everything is going to be fine, I promise you.”

“I know,” Karol surrendered with a wry smile. He slipped an arm around Franz’s waist, and Franz pulled him close. “You’re a dream, you know that?” He nuzzled Franz’s neck. “I’d be a basket case if you weren’t here. And in the midst of all this madness, you’ve managed to remember what today is.”

“I couldn’t possibly forget, my love.”

Karolek looked up; his gaze caught and held with Franz‘s, and in that moment, time stood still. All of a sudden, the present seemingly ceased altogether to exist. And in that moment, the two cardinals found themselves in the same time and place in their minds, back on a morning some fifty years in the past.

The setting was a small parish church just outside Frankfurt am Main. On a quiet Easter morning, well before the first rays of dawn touched the stained-glass windows, two young priests stood side-by-side at the altar at the front of the church.

“I certainly hope you locked the doors,” young Father Volodya spoke, his voice holding a note of nervous uncertainty that was amplified in the open silence of the sanctuary.

“Of course I did,” replied the other with a smirk. “The last thing we need is for Monsignor Lachmann to come busting in here with Cardinal Ratzinger right in the middle of this.”

“That might not go over so well,” agreed Karol with a little smile. “What do you suppose His Eminence would say?”

“Stop it,” Franz deadpanned, mock-sternly, shaking a finger at Karolek. “Stop it, or you’ll go blind.”

“You’re terrible,” laughed Karol, as he met the cool azure gaze of his partner. His smile faded slightly, and he bit his lower lip nervously. “Franz?”

“Yes, my Karol?” There were unspoken questions in the younger priest’s eyes, and he glanced downward, considering his words carefully.

“Are we doing the right thing? I mean--you’re sure you want to do this, right?”

“You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”

“No, no. Of course not. I just don’t want you rushing into something you might later come to--”

“Don’t say it,” Franz interrupted gently, placing a finger to Karol’s lips. “Don’t say ‘regret.’ Don’t speak the word, love. I want to do this. I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life.”

“If we’re wrong,” said Karolek softly, “then this act condemns us both. I could endure that, but I wouldn’t want it for you. I love you too much.” His hands were trembling when Franz took them in his own.

“I would stand at the gates of Heaven,” declared Franz earnestly, “and I would ask God himself how it could be wrong to love someone so fully, so completely, as I do you.” He squeezed Karol’s hands gently, reassuringly.

“So,” said Karol with a sedate smile. “How does this work? Two priests marrying one another, I mean. Where should we start?”

“Well,” ventured Franz, “I suppose we should begin by clasping hands, like so. And since I’m the oldest, and was ordained before you, I should state my vows first.”

“Right,” Karol rolled his eyes playfully. “Age before beauty.”

“Beauty before grace,” Franz countered with a smile. “Shall we, Father?”

“Yes, Father. Proceed.”

Their eyes locked and Franz squeezed Karol’s hands once more, his heart picking up a rapid tempo in his ribcage. This was it; there was no turning back now. He took a deep breath and began.

“I, Franz, take thee, Karol, to be my partner, to be the one and only true love of my life. I promise to cherish our union, and I will fall in love with you more and more with each passing day. Here in this church and in the presence of God, I give you my hand, my heart, and my unconditional love. My heart is yours, Karol--now, and for the rest of my life.”

When he had finished, Franz beamed lovingly at the man in front of him, his heart still fluttering like so many caged butterflies. “Your turn,” he said.

“No pressure,” said Karol, and they both laughed nervously. Karol took a deep breath, exhaling it slowly. “All right. Here goes. I, Karol, take thee, Franz, to be my partner and constant companion from this life to the next. This I promise, loving what I know of you, and what I have not yet come to know. I promise--” Tears sprang to his eyes, running down his cheeks in rivers of emotion. He paused, wiping them away with the sleeve of his cassock. “I promise,” he continued, “to be your friend and lover, and grow with you throughout the seasons of both our lives. I will honor and cherish you, protect and comfort you, and love you unconditionally until the end of time.” His voice wavered as he spoke, barely above a whisper now. “I love you as I could never love another. All that I am is yours.” A shuddery sigh escaped Franz then.

“Oh, Karol.”

“Franz, if you don’t kiss me now, there’s a chance I might turn into a complete, sobbing mess.” Karolek laughed as Franz pulled him into his arms and kissed him deeply, his lips lingering a long moment. “I love you,” he murmured in Polish, and Franz just smiled, letting his fingers flit reverently over silken blond hair.

Franz could still remember the way the first rays of dawn broke through the stained-glass windows then, seemingly a blessing from God on that promising Easter morning. At the time, he had found there were no words to express all the ways he loved Karolek.

Standing beside him today, he found there still were none.

The moment between them was to powerful, so mutually profound, that for a long moment, neither of them spoke.

When Karol had at last regained his voice, he placed a hand lovingly on Franz’s cheek and whispered the heartfelt words he still remembered to that day.

“I love you as I could never love another. All that I am is yours.”

Franz couldn’t help but falter. In the bright emerald eyes that gazed back into his own, he could still see shades of the shy, awkward Polish boy he’d fallen in love with his first summer in the seminary.

“You know,” Franz said, “I’ve kept my promise. Every time I look at you, I fall in love with you all over again.”

“Oh, Franz. You sweet, darling man.”

Their lips met in a kiss that was warm and familiar, an expression of a love that had not at all faltered nor faded with the passage of time.

“We should probably get going, love.” said Karol at last, glancing up at the clock. “Lest Cardinal Sandrini have our heads.”

“I haven’t seen Carlo all morning, have you?”

“To my knowledge, he’s been with Primo.”

“Alone?” Franz raised an eyebrow. “I see. If you ask me, something’s definitely going on with those two.”

“Oh, stop.” They reached the door, and Franz bowed, gesturing toward it.

“After you, my love.”

“Oh, no,” smirked Karol. “Age before beauty.”

“Beauty before grace, darling.”

Together, the two cardinals walked from the rectory, heading in the direction of the elevator. With any luck, they would make it to St. Peter’s just in time for the coronation of the new pope.

FIN