Meet The Antipope
Pope Michael I, looking psyched to be Pope.
Not a lot of people know this, but the departing Pope Benedict XVI – aka Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, who has announced that he'll be resigning as God's representative on Earth – is not the real Pope. He never was, he was just an imposter and in fact the true Pope lives in a town of 130 people in rural Kansas. He is Pope Michael I and he is unhappy that Benedict has been getting all the rides in golf-buggies, whereas he can't even get everyone to call him by his proper pope-name.
“A lot of people around the town address me as Pope Michael, but some still call me David. Yes, true – I'd prefer to be called Pope Michael, but many people find it strange,” Pope Michael admits, not long after I'd phoned him up for a chat.
There can be no doubting his veracity: his email address is prefixed: "thetruepope", he runs the small website vaticaninexile.com and he signs himself off: "+ Michael pp". Elected in 1990, the 50-year-old Pope has tended his small but global flock for 20 years now. Being Pope is his full-time job: “I was lucky enough to have parents who were financially well-off enough to allow me to go about my Papal duties without need for a full-time job. We've set up a press to print out-of-publication Catholic books, but that's more to help with the costs of our network."
Brought up in a devoutly Catholic family, David Bawden felt from boyhood that he had a calling to the priesthood. When he came of age, he took up that calling. But after a stint at foreign seminaries under the Pius X order, disillusioned with what he viewed as the confused and heretical teachings of the latter-day church, unordained, he returned home and wrote a book, with a woman called Teresa Stanfill-Benns that aimed to answer the question: "Will the Catholic Church survive the 20th century?" The conclusion? By virtue of their heresies, the Roman lineage had vacated the Papacy. There was no fricken Pope! Conclusion: elect a Pope! Conclusion to the conclusion? Hold a Papal conclave.
So it was that a small band of supporters gathered together to search for a man who would uphold and repair the true Catholic tradition that they had watched degenerate over their lifetimes. They were pissed about things like Vatican II: Paul VI's 1963 series of reforms that generally eased the church into the liberal climes of, say, the 18th century. This was to be overturned, as was pretty much everything that wasn't deeply, profoundly conservative.
In the past, Bawden/Michael has railed against Pope John Paul II holding mass in front of semi-naked Papua New Guinean tribespeople. These were and are theologioans who think that, really, it all started to go wrong when they began allowing the mass to be said in English instead of Latin. It's not only the Baptist and Islamic traditions that have a lockdown on fundamentalism, y'know.
So the election went smoothly. The seven needed to elect a pope gathered in a small front-room. July 16th, 1990: the traditional message that has echoed down 2,000 years went out from Belvue, Kansas: "habemus papam" – "we have a Pope!" Imagine that; you're barely 30, one day you can't even make priest, the next you end up Pope. It's like being a ballboy at Wimbledon, then getting promoted to Roger Federer.
He'd won. Though Pope Michael bats me down when I ask if there were any Papal rivals (“It's not really an 'election'... You don't 'run for Pope'.”) Down the phone, the Pope Michael sounds meek at times, almost tremulous – a pinched, high-pitched voice and a clipped manner of response. He is, of course, celibate (it's always an awkward question to ask, but it had to be done) and he refudiates birth control. He also refudiates every single Pope since the 1958 election of the heretic Angelo Roncalli, whose heresies apparently included “being soft on Communism”. “The best of the Vatican line, to me, would be John Paul I – simply because he ruled for the shortest time. It's difficult to choose between them, because they are all heretics.”
VICE: So would you say you're infallible, as Popes are meant to be?
The Pope: Oh, definitely. It's in the teachings. The Pope's edicts are true. There can't be one church at the time of Christ, another a thousand years ago and another today. There is only one true interpretation of scripture.
I see. So it's not like you just always have to win at snooker, or something?
Oh no! Nothing like that. It's only in matters of scripture.
Is the Vatican aware of your existence? Have you ever corresponded with them?
I sent notice of excommunication of Pope John Paul II to The Vatican in 1982. I didn't hear back from him, obviously. Also, when I was first elected in 1990, one of the newspapers did a story and they phoned up the Vatican for comment. Obviously, it was just a typical "no comment" situation.
If he held the reins in Rome, he assures us, the paedo-priests would have had their chips by now. He quotes a 16th century pontiff who decreed the punishment for paedophilia to be death, and a 1917 bull about the instant excommunication of sex-abusing priests.
“I hold prayer meetings, I perform the stations of the cross – and of course there's a lot of people interested in the church around the world – and keeping up with all that correspondence takes a lot of my time.”
Twenty years in, he's still only 50 and there's a lifetime of Popery ahead of him. Though his organisation has plans in place for a fresh Papal conclave, should he pass away suddenly.
“It will run like any normal conclave. Who will succeed me? Well, I don't know, and, to be honest, it's forbidden to discuss the matter of a successor to the present Pope before his death.” This is much like Big Brother nominations, I'd suggest.
“The best thing about being Pope? Probably that I can never be outside of the church. The teachings say that the Pope can never be exiled from God.”
And who, after all, would want to be exiled from God? I like the Pope. The Pope stokes hope.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes
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