(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the wake of the death of the pope, the sacred college of cardinals convenes in Rome to select a successor. Among the cardinals summoned to Rome is Cardinal Lakota of Ukraine, at age fifty the youngest cardinal and only recently freed from nearly seventeen years of harsh imprisonment in a Siberian labor camp for practicing his faith. Cardinal Lakota, handpicked by Cardinal Rinaldi to offer the sermon on the opening day of the conclave, moves the college with his earnestness, delivering impassioned remarks about the duty of the Papacy to serve the forgotten souls of the Roman Catholic Church. The following day, the charismatic Cardinal Lakota is elected pope by acclamation on the first ballot. He takes the name Kiril I.

Determined to return the Church to its pastoral mission and to raise the spiritual life of the Church’s despondent and indifferent millions, Kiril embarks on a historic call for change. There are crises everywhere—political turmoil in Africa, mass starvation in China, religious persecution in communist countries, global environmental pollution, escalating world population, financial crises in both Europe and the United States, and, supremely, the ever-escalating nuclear arms race. However, Kiril, writing of his spiritual agonies and the immense burdens of his elevation in his diary, sees the Church as made up of individuals needing to realize the hope of their faith. To that end, Kiril, wearing only the simple cassock of a parish priest, ventures out into the Roman streets. He shares coffee with some workers (he is embarrassed to discover he has brought no money), and in a tender moment he offers last rites for a man ravaged by tuberculosis and bonds with the spiritually troubled young woman who is the man’s nurse.

Shortly after his elevation, Kiril is contacted through diplomatic back channels by Kamenev, the Soviet premier who years earlier was his jailer in the Siberian camps. Indeed, Kamenev, who had come to be impressed by the prisoner’s unshakeable faith, had arranged for Kiril to escape. Now, Kamenev wants to secure the new pope’s assistance in organizing a diplomatic...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Confoy, Maryanne. Morris West: Literary Maverick. Milton, Qld.: John Wiley, 2005. A biographical and critical study of West and his work.

West, Morris. The Devil’s Advocate. New York: Dell, 1959. The first of West’s books focusing on the priesthood and Catholic hierarchy. First appearance of Valerio Rinaldi, one of the characters in The Shoes of the Fisherman.

West, Morris. Lazarus. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. A conservative pope undergoes heart bypass surgery and on his recovery finds that his attitudes toward the human and bureaucratic sides of the Church have changed.

West, Morris. A View from the Ridge: The Testimony of a Twentieth-Century Christian. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996. West’s spiritual and autobiographical memoir in which he speaks in his own voice about his deep Christian beliefs.