It is difficult for a contemporary reader to appreciate the radical argument of Morris West’s Vatican narrative, The Shoes of the Fisherman, decades after the pontificate of Pope John Paul II (the first non-Italian pope in more than four centuries) and his visionary agenda to redefine the pastoral mission of the Papacy and to involve the Church in an aggressive global social-activist role. Much of West’s achievement, the novel’s international success, came from its timeliness.
In 1963, after considerable pressure from the Vatican, Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev released Josyf Cardinal Slipyj, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, after close to twenty years in the Siberian gulag. Indeed, West had based the character of Pope Kiril I (Cardinal Lakota) on Slipyj. In addition, in 1963, East-West tensions were considerably heightened in the wake of several global events: the nuclear brinkmanship over Soviet missile installations in Cuba; the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy, the United States’ first Roman Catholic president; the convening of the historic Second Vatican Council, laying the groundwork for radical changes in Catholic protocols; and (on the very day The Shoes of the Fisherman was published) the death of the beloved pontiff John XXII. During the next several months the world’s attention was riveted on the ritual of the elevation of Paul VI, who would himself undertake a decade-long effort to open the Papacy to an international congregation.
This timeliness, although it gave the premise of West’s novel marketplace cachet and secured its position as the most discussed (and best-selling) novel of 1963, certainly compromises the significance of the novel in the twenty-first century—after all, the Cold War has long been over, and the Papacy is manifestly no longer an exclusively Italian appointment. The contemporary impact of the novel is further diminished by West’s lengthy (and distracting) secondary plot concerning the efforts of an American correspondent to secure a Church annulment so that he might marry the estranged wife of a prominent Italian politician. The subplot reflects West’s own considerable efforts to secure an annulment from his first wife, who had left him for years...
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