Morris West was an Australian writer whose deep interest in and commitment to Catholicism provided the central theme for nearly all of his thirty novels. When The Shoes of the Fisherman, his novel of internal Vatican politics, was published in 1963, it met with mixed reviews. Some literary critics felt that the plot was too thin. The book nevertheless became enormously popular. More than twelve million copies were sold, propelling The Shoes of the Fisherman to the top position on The New York Times best-seller list for many weeks.
The novel begins with the death of the pope and the arrangements for a conclave to elect a successor. The story focuses on Kyril Lakota, who is a Catholic priest in the Soviet Union during World War II. After the war he is elevated to a bishopric and soon thereafter arrested and tortured. After Lakota has been imprisoned in Siberia for seventeen years, his chief interrogator, Kamenev, organizes an escape for him. It has become politically embarrassing for the Soviet Union to continue his imprisonment. After Lakota makes his way to Rome, he finds that the dying pope has made him a cardinal. At the conclave of cardinals convened to elect the pope’s successor, Lakota is nominated and elected through the intervention of two of the most influential cardinals: Rinaldi and Leone, both of whom believe that it is time for the election of a non-Italian Pope. West’s novel anticipated by fifteen years the election of Pope John Paul II (born Karol Jozef Wojty), the first non-Italian Pope since the sixteenth century.
Despite self-doubts, Lakota accepts election and becomes Pope Kyril I. His Siberian experience and his efforts to minister to fellow prisoners have made him acutely aware of the need for the spiritual and pastoral functions of the Catholic Church. However, the Vatican is a huge enterprise in which money, size, and tradition have produced immense bureaucratic inertia. Thus Kyril is presented with a paradox: To move too quickly to serve the pastoral needs of the Church may deny him the support of the senior Vatican officials who are needed to carry reforms into reality. Yet, to move too slowly or not at all is to make the Church increasingly irrelevant to the masses of the world’s people—and the Church has been losing membership. Kyril prays for guidance and strength. His attempts to deal with the central paradox of The Shoes of the...
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