The late pope, a character clearly inspired by the current Pope Francis, had agitated the upper leadership of the Church. His willingness to consider and occasionally embrace change has upset the traditionalists. His commitment to reforming the finances of the Church has scared the many who have profited from their positions. The Church is among the world’s most bureaucratic of institutions at the Vatican.
An unsettled Church must now select a new pope through a conclave of the cardinals who are under 80 years of age.
Cardinal Lomelli, as Dean, organizes and presides over the conclave. Following precise rules set down over centuries he prepares the Sistine Chapel for the voting and the Casa Santa Marta as the residence for the cardinals.
Over the next 3 weeks 117 cardinals arrive in Rome from all the corners of the world. Among Lomelli’s first surprises is the arrival of Vincent Benitez from Iraq. He provides documentation that the deceased pope had recently created him a cardinal in pectore (in his heart). It is an appointment where the pope, usually for the safety of the new cardinal, does not announce the appointment even to the highest ranking members of the Curia. There will be 118 voters.
For the election each cardinal is to look into his conscience and vote for the cardinal he considers best. Campaigning is discreet but fierce. Will the papacy be returned to an Italian after a trio of non-Italian popes? Could it be a cardinal chosen from one of the First World countries who have never had a pope? Can the cardinals support a candidate from one of the poorest nations of the world?
What struck me was the measured pace of a vote for each and every ballot. Each of the names of the cardinals is called out and he affirms his presence. Each writes his chosen name on a ballot and, in order of seniority, individually goes to the urn and deposits the ballot. Those counting the vote announce the name on a ballot as it is unfolded. It is a ritual so different from modern voting practices where large groups vote with the push of a button and the results are tallied instantly. Each vote of the conclave takes hours. The process offers time for contemplation and prayer.
With the cardinals sequestered from the world there is never a break from the intensity of the decision. They eat, talk and vote together.
Unexpected issues arise that affect the leading candidates. The cardinals are not without sin. It is a thriller but with a stately tempo. Bodies do not fill the Sistene Chapel.
I appreciated how Harris creates a tension that builds and builds. I wish more thriller writers could accept tension does not have to result from constant violent action.
I found myself anxious to know the result of the next ballot. Harris convincingly places the shifting vote totals between the traditionalists, the progressives and the non-aligned.
As a Catholic I appreciated his balanced approach. Many writing about the Church today can focus on no more than scandals. Little regard is given to the dedicated religious who work to meet the spiritual and temporal needs of the faithful.
Harris writes so well of historic events. He effortlessly inserts information that enhances the plot. However, I was disappointed in the ending. There was one twist too many with that final twist a contrived political statement about the Church. It spoiled my enjoyment of a well written book. But for the conclusion Harris had a great book.