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AS ÁVILA’S UBER raced eastward through the darkness, the admiral wondered how many times during his years as a naval officer he had made port in Barcelona.

His previous life seemed a world away now, having ended in a fiery flash in Seville. Fate was a cruel and unpredictable mistress, and yet there seemed an eerie equilibrium about her now. The same fate that had torn out his soul in the Cathedral of Seville had now granted him a second life—a fresh start born within the sanctuary walls of a very different cathedral.

Ironically, the person who had taken him there was a simple physical therapist named Marco.

“A meeting with the pope?” Ávila had asked his trainer months ago, when Marco first proposed the idea. “Tomorrow? In Rome?”

“Tomorrow in Spain,” Marco had replied. “The pope is here.”

Ávila eyed him as if he were crazy. “The media have said nothing about His Holiness being in Spain.”

“A little trust, Admiral,” Marco replied with a laugh. “Unless you’ve got somewhere else to be tomorrow?”

Ávila glanced down at his injured leg.

“We’ll leave at nine,” Marco prompted. “I promise our little trip will be far less painful than rehab.”

The next morning, Ávila got dressed in a navy uniform that Marco had retrieved from Ávila’s home, grabbed a pair of crutches, and hobbled out to Marco’s car—an old Fiat. Marco drove out of the hospital lot and headed south on Avenida de la Raza, eventually leaving the city and getting on Highway N-IV heading south.

“Where are we going?” Ávila asked, suddenly uneasy.

“Relax,” Marco said, smiling. “Just trust me. It’ll only take half an hour.”

Ávila knew there was nothing but parched pastureland on the N-IV for at least another 150 kilometers. He was beginning to think he had made a terrible mistake. Half an hour into the journey, they approached the eerie ghost town of El Torbiscal—a once prosperous farming village whose population had recently dwindled to zero. Where in the world is he taking me?! Marco drove on for several minutes, then exited the highway and turned north.

“Can you see it?” Marco asked, pointing into the distance across a fallow field.

Ávila saw nothing. Either the young trainer was hallucinating or Ávila’s eyes were getting old.

“Isn’t it amazing?” Marco declared.

Ávila squinted into the sun, and finally saw a dark form rising out of the landscape. As they drew closer, his eyes widened in disbelief.

Is that … a cathedral?

The scale of the building looked like something he might expect to see in Madrid or Paris. Ávila had lived in Seville his entire life but had never known of a cathedral out here in the middle of nowhere. The closer they drove, the more impressive the complex appeared, its massive cement walls providing a level of security that Ávila had seen only in Vatican City.

Marco left the main highway and drove along a short access road toward the cathedral, approaching a towering iron gate that blocked their way. As they came to a stop, Marco pulled a laminated card from the glove box and placed it on the dashboard.

A security guard approached, eyed the card, and then peered into the vehicle, smiling broadly when he saw Marco. “Bienvenidos,” the guard said. “¿Qué tal, Marco?

The two men shook hands, and Marco introduced Admiral Ávila.

Ha venido a conocer al papa,” Marco told the guard. He’s come to meet the pope.

The guard nodded, admiring the medals on Ávila’s uniform, and waved them on. As the huge gate swung open, Ávila felt like he was entering a medieval castle.

The soaring Gothic cathedral that appeared before them had eight towering spires, each with a triple-tiered bell tower. A trio of massive cupolas made up the body of the structure, the exterior of which was composed of dark brown and white stone, giving it an unusually modern feel.

Ávila lowered his gaze to the access road, which forked into three parallel roadways, each lined with a phalanx of tall palm trees. To his surprise, the entire area was jammed with parked vehicles—hundreds of them—luxury sedans, dilapidated buses, mud-covered mopeds … everything imaginable.

Marco bypassed them all, driving straight to the church’s front courtyard, where a security guard saw them, checked his watch, and waved them into an empty parking spot that had clearly been reserved for them.

“We’re a little late,” Marco said. “We should hurry inside.”

Ávila was about to reply, but the words were lodged in his throat.

He had just seen the sign in front of the church:


My God! Ávila felt himself recoil. I’ve heard of this church!

He turned to Marco, trying to control his pounding heart. “This is your church, Marco?” Ávila tried not to sound alarmed. “You’re a … Palmarian?”

Marco smiled. “You say the word like it’s some kind of disease. I’m just a devout Catholic who believes that Rome has gone astray.”

Ávila raised his eyes again to the church. Marco’s strange claim about knowing the pope suddenly made sense. The pope is here in Spain.

A few years ago, the television network Canal Sur had aired a documentary titled La Iglesia Oscura, whose purpose was to unveil some of the secrets of the Palmarian Church. Ávila had been stunned to learn of the strange church’s existence, not to mention its growing congregation and influence.

According to lore, the Palmarian Church had been founded after some local residents claimed to have witnessed a series of mystical visions in a field nearby. Allegedly, the Virgin Mary had appeared to them and warned that the Catholic Church was rife with the “heresy of modernism” and that the true faith needed to be protected.

The Virgin Mary had urged the Palmarians to establish an alternative church and denounce the current pope in Rome as a false pope. This conviction that the Vatican’s pope was not the valid pontiff was known as sedevacantism—a belief that St. Peter’s “seat” was literally “vacant.”

Furthermore, the Palmarians claimed to have evidence that the “true” pope was in fact their own founder—a man named Clemente Domínguez y Gómez, who took the name Pope Gregory XVII. Under Pope Gregory—the “antipope,” in the view of mainstream Catholics—the Palmarian Church grew steadily. In 2005, when Pope Gregory died while presiding over an Easter mass, his supporters hailed the timing of his death as a miraculous sign from above, confirming that this man was in fact connected directly to God.

Now, as Ávila gazed up at the massive church, he couldn’t help but view the building as sinister.

Whoever the current antipope might be, I have no interest in meeting him.

In addition to criticism over their bold claims about the papacy, the Palmarian Church endured allegations of brainwashing, cultlike intimidation, and even responsibility for several mysterious deaths, including that of church member Bridget Crosbie, who, according to her family’s attorneys, had been “unable to escape” one of the Palmarian churches in Ireland.

Ávila didn’t want to be rude to his new friend, but this was not at all what he had expected from today’s trip. “Marco,” he said with an apologetic sigh, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can do this.”

“I had a feeling you were going to say that,” Marco replied, seemingly unfazed. “And I admit, I had the same reaction when I first came here. I too had heard all the gossip and dark rumors, but I can assure you, it’s nothing more than a smear campaign led by the Vatican.”

Can you blame them? Ávila wondered. Your church declared them illegitimate!

“Rome needed a reason to excommunicate us, so they made up lies. For years, the Vatican has been spreading disinformation about the Palmarians.”

Ávila assessed the magnificent cathedral in the middle of nowhere. Something about it felt strange to him. “I’m confused,” he said. “If you have no ties to the Vatican, where does all your money come from?”

Marco smiled. “You would be amazed at the number of secret followers the Palmarians have within the Catholic clergy. There are many conservative Catholic parishes here in Spain that do not approve of the liberal changes emanating from Rome, and they are quietly funneling money to churches like ours, where traditional values are upheld.”

The answer was unexpected, but it rang true for Ávila. He too had sensed a growing schism within the Catholic Church—a rift between those who believed the Church needed to modernize or die and those who believed the Church’s true purpose was to remain steadfast in the face of an evolving world.

“The current pope is a remarkable man,” Marco said. “I told him your story, and he said he would be honored to welcome a decorated military officer to our church, and meet with you personally after the service today. Like his predecessors, he had a military background before finding God, and he understands what you’re going through. I really think his viewpoint might help you find peace.”

Marco opened his door to get out of the car, but Ávila could not move. He just sat in place, staring up at the massive structure, feeling guilty for harboring a blind prejudice against these people. To be fair, he knew nothing of the Palmarian Church except the rumors, and it was not as if the Vatican were without scandal. Moreover, Ávila’s own church had not helped him at all after the attack. Forgive your enemies, the nun had told him. Turn the other cheek.

“Luis, listen to me,” Marco whispered. “I realize I tricked you a bit into coming here, but it was with good intentions … I wanted you to meet this man. His ideas have changed my life dramatically. After I lost my leg, I was in the place where you are now. I wanted to die. I was sinking into darkness, and this man’s words gave me a purpose. Just come and hear him preach.”

Ávila hesitated. “I’m happy for you, Marco. But I think I’ll be fine on my own.”

“Fine?” The young man laughed. “A week ago, you put a gun to your head and pulled the trigger! You are not fine, my friend.”

He’s right, Ávila knew, and one week from now, when my therapy is done, I will be back home, alone and adrift again.

“What are you afraid of?” Marco pressed. “You’re a naval officer. A grown man who commanded a ship! Are you afraid the pope is going to brainwash you in ten minutes and take you hostage?”

I’m not sure what I’m afraid of, Ávila thought, staring down at his injured leg, feeling strangely small and impotent. For most of his life, he had been the one in charge, the one giving orders. He was uncertain about the prospect of taking orders from someone else.

“Never mind,” Marco finally said, refastening his seat belt. “I’m sorry. I can see you’re uncomfortable. I didn’t mean to pressure you.” He reached down to start the car.

Ávila felt like a fool. Marco was practically a child, one-third Ávila’s age, missing a leg, trying to help out a fellow invalid, and Ávila had thanked him by being ungrateful, skeptical, and condescending.

“No,” Ávila said. “Forgive me, Marco. I’d be honored to listen to the man preach.”

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