The meeting room for the Religion Roundtable is located on the lower of the two underground levels that form the base of the Apostolic Palace. As Janet reaches the bottom step and heads into a long hallway, she’s taken aback by the ominous music coming through the sound system. It is the guttural utterances of Catholic monks mixed with creepy organ music. It brings to mind the Gregorian chants she first heard in her college “Music Appreciation” class. She didn’t appreciate them then, and she doesn’t appreciate them now.
She wonders if this same music in a different setting would be fine. It could be the combination of exposed stone and low lighting that is giving the music more credit than it deserves for giving her the creeps. Either way, as she moves cautiously down the empty, poorly-lit hallway, she keeps looking over her shoulder.
Once Janet turns a corner and nears the double-door entrance of the spacious conference room, she relaxes a bit. Hearing the voices of the other guests chatting about in their native languages ignites a sense of excitement. She believes the Religion Roundtable will be one of the highlights of her year.
Unfortunately, Benjamin was not invited. Both were disappointed to learn that assistants and interpreters cannot participate in the Roundtable. The discussions of human rights violations and the true perils of war make this a closely-guarded event. Once Janet received her official invitation, she sought out more information about the hush-hush gathering. The premise of the group is that religion is often faulted for wars and then asked to shoulder the humanitarian efforts of the fallout. To hold an honest discussion of what is happening at the front lines of war zones— as well as at the back lines of the refugee camps—each of the twelve invited religions send one representative to take a place at the table.
In addition to the twelve guests of the world’s religions who will be seated at the table, the fifteen U.N. Ambassadors on the U.N. Security Council are offered a seat in the back of the room. Interpreting is done by the speaker’s personally-provided assistant. Other members of governments and the International Press Corps are banned. This certainly explains why she had not known or heard of this gathering before President Cohen asked her to attend.
The invitation mentioned the meeting is conducted in the group’s official language of French. The host’s assistants must repeat each sentence in Italian, English, and Spanish. The languages used are chosen from the countries with the “greatest diversity of religions.” The best she could find in her research was that this Roundtable had been attended by representatives of the same twelve religions since its inception. No one seems to know who chooses to invite which religions, but the rumor is no religion has ever declined the invitation.
The most curious thing Janet found was that the Far East is only represented by China—and only in the Ambassador seating area. China doesn’t have a designated religion, and only formally recognizes five of the world’s religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism (though the Chinese Catholic Church is independent of the Catholic Church in Rome).
Janet takes a quick glance at China’s U.N. Ambassador, Zhang Wei. She finds this to be a curious attendee since seventy-five percent of China’s citizens self-describe as being non-religious. Furthermore, since 1949, the nation has been governed by the Communist Party of China. This atheist institution prohibits political party members from practicing any religion while in office. As far as the citizens are concerned, the nineteenth century Cultural Revolution destroyed, or forced, all religions underground. Openly practicing any religion in China can result in legal persecution.
She was told by her contacts at the U.N. headquarters that China’s position has been to send their U.N. Ambassador to honor the importance of the formative “teachings” of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in their society. Whatever the reason, she dismisses her curiosity with their right to represent as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
From across the huge round table, Janet recognizes two fellow Americans: Dr. Jonathan Peters and Cardinal Dorothy Mallow. Dr. Peters is the elected leader of the United Protestants (UP). To have a formidable power as a group, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church led the way to unite all the non-Catholic Protestant churches of the world. With the greatest membership numbers in the U.S., they structured the organization in such a way to ensure an American is always at the table.
When UP formed, the Catholic Church of America separated into its own group, led by American Cardinal Dorothy Mallow. For now, the arrangement is working well for the Catholic Church. It gives them their own representative to speak to their concerns and observations. Through the reorganization of both groups, the United States is guaranteed a presence at the table. Until the separation in 2018, the Pope was the one to represent the world’s Protestants at the Roundtable, and an American had not participated.
Even so, the representative of the Catholic Church and the leader of the other Protestant churches must share a vote. If there is a difference of opinion between the two, the Catholic Church decides the vote. They must share the seat at the table as well. They alternate years. In this odd-numbered year the Catholic Representative, Cardinal Mallow, will have the seat and Clergyman Jonathan Peters is seated closely behind.
Janet is in awe of Cardinal Mallow. She admires how she broke through the glass ceiling and became the first woman elevated to the rank of cardinal. Following the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis of 2018, the Pope who preceded Kellan opened the priesthood to women and married men. Not only were women and married men admitted, they were fast-forwarded through the ranks.
The Catholic Church feared it might not make it through the sex-abuse crisis and its many paid settlements unless it did something revolutionary. They knew they had to do something to prove to the world they intended to stop the exploitation of children. Placing women and married men into the mix was controversial, but probably the sole reason the church survived, and even flourished, in the new order of the world religions.
The official separation of the Protestants from the Catholic Church was initiated by Protestants hoping to spare themselves from any fallout of the sex-abuse scandal. They too have been growing in numbers, mainly because the new generation following the Millennials—the Primaries—are returning to the Church for spiritual guidance. As the leaders of the world religions take their seats at the roundtable, Janet waves at the two Americans and finds her chair in the back of the room.
Pope Kellan opens with a greeting in French and reads the Creed of the Religion Roundtable. After the minutes of the previous year are read and approved, the Pope announces he has a “surprise” for the group before they discuss new business. “As you know, last year’s Roundtable expressed a desire to have an emblem fashioned that could represent this group’s mission. They wanted to become visible to the world and seen as a united front. I am pleased to announce the requested Medallion has been designed and is in this very room today. It awaits your approval. I have seen it, and am extremely impressed. I hope you will like it as well.”
As he finishes, four young men enter the room and pick up the four corners of the cloth draped across the large circular table. As they carefully roll back the cloth, the medallion is slowly revealed. It has been cut to the exact size of the massive table.
There are gasps of approval and awe throughout the room. Janet whispers, “It’s stunning!”
A picture of the medallion is put up on the screen behind the Pope. “Yes, it is indeed beautiful. But, more than beautiful, it is meaningful. There are messages within the design. The emblems of each of our twelve religions are represented in one of the twelve spokes of the circular design. The emblems are made of black onyx and set upon four alternating metals: gold, silver, copper, and brass.
“We have a special guest here today who was instrumental in the design of the medallion and will come forward to interpret its meanings. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Master Anna Cohen.”