With apologies to Charles Dickens.
It had been with relief that Francis retired to his camp bed in the Casa Santa Marta. It had been an eventful day with a General Audience and five newspaper interviews. The spontaneity of it all was exhausting. He left his Ovaltine to go cold on the bedside table and drifted into sleep. The room was dark when he awoke, and no light penetrated the small window. And yet, strange to say, all the bells of Rome were ringing together to call him from sleep.
At the foot of the bed, lowering in the gloom, was a ghostly figure. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Francis could see that the figure was fantastically attired in flared trousers and platform soles, with strings of beads round his neck and flowers in his hair.
‘Are you the Spirit I was to expect?’ asked Francis nervously clutching his crumpled sleeping bag.
‘I,’ said the Spirit, raising a hand in friendly greeting, ‘am the Spirit of Vatican II.’
‘Of the great Council called by Pope John XXIII?’ asked Francis, who though an Argentinian did not want to appear a country bumpkin.
‘Not exactly,’ replied the Spirit sadly. ‘I am merely what became of it. Let me show you what I mean.’
In a moment of time the Spirit took Francis by the hand. The walls of his small cell expanded as if by magic, and he found himself in a grey soulless church, with abstract windows in garish stained glass and a central altar in the shape of a kidney bean. A priest dressed in knitted industrial waste was beginning the Mass. ‘Morning folks,’ said the priest, ‘glad you could join me for our family meal.’
No sooner had he said these words than an ensemble of two guitars, electronic keyboard and a cacophony of drums began a spirited worship song with words both inane and inaudible.
Shivering with horror and revulsion Francis found himself curled up on his bed with the sleeping bag over his head. He could take no more.
Time passed. Now there were no bells, but through the wall of his room slipped a sombre figure in a well-cut lounge suit and a clerical collar. He stood very close to the bed.
‘ I,’ said the figure, ‘am the Spirit of Ecumenism.’
Francis sat up eagerly. ‘I have seen the past, and on reflection I didn’t much like it. What of the future will you show me?’
‘I can only show you’, said the Spirit, ‘what you already know’.
The room suddenly opened up into a vast auditorium, filled with people of every kind. There were Anglican women bishops from Canada; gay Lutheran ministers and their partners from Germany; black Pentecostalists speaking in tongues; a Methodist dance troupe from Malaysia; tele-evangelists with wives like Dolly Parton; all forms of theological and non-theological life were there.
‘This, said the Spirit of Ecumenism, ‘is the Catholic Church as she will be.’
Francis was delighted. ‘All these different people bound together in the Faith of the Church!’
‘Not so fast,’ said the Spirit. ‘In this Church there is no doctrine. Dogma has been driven out by Spirituality. People believe what they want and do what they think to be right.’
‘But that is Protestantism!’ said Francis, pulling back with natural revulsion.
‘Precisely,’ said the Spirit of Ecumenism, as he slipped back through the wall.
There was one more visitor before the night was done. Clad from head to toe in red with a red mozzetta and a broad grin, it was obvious who the third Spirit was.
‘No hiding!’ said the Spirit of Mercy, as he pulled the sleeping bag from the quivering figure of Francis. ‘I am going to forgive you whether you deserve it or not.’
Francis, whose sense of sin had always been acute, was not entirely reassured.
‘Does that mean that I can now do anything I want?’ he asked.
‘Absolutely,’ said the Cardinal. ‘Bien sûr, il te pardonnera; c’est son métier. It’s all a matter of Herz, as I said in my book.’
‘My heart or His?’, asked Francis.
‘Yours, of course,’ said the Spirit of Mercy.
‘But doesn’t that make everything subjective and relative and sort of meaningless and insignificant?’ said Francis, who was not at his sharpest at that time of the morning.
‘You’ve got it,’ said the Spirit of Mercy. ‘And now I must go. My second wife is waiting.’
At that very moment the bells of St Peter’s rang out once more over the Casa Santa Marta, and Francis finally awoke to the clear light of a new day. Though certainly older and wiser, Francis was filled with a strange inner warmth.
There was nothing else for it. He must go and wish Benedict a very happy Christmas.