Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 996
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 Fisherman are revealed in the three major subplots of the novel.
George Faber is an American journalist specializing in news of the Vatican, where he has excellent sources. The middle-aged man is having an affair with a young woman, Chiara Calitri, the wife of a rising Italian politician, Corrado Calitri. The Calitris separated shortly after their wedding, so Chiara seeks an annulment so that she will be free to marry Faber. Faber, desperate to resolve the issue, seeks evidence that Corrado is a homosexual. He offers to pay witnesses to testify. His efforts become known to Corrado, who is able to ruin Faber by cutting him off from his Vatican contacts. The sordid affair becomes known to Kyril; the annulment proceeds nevertheless. Chiara breaks with Faber, who suffers both professional and personal crises. Deeply troubled by the ignominious role he has played, he considers suicide. He is rescued by the intervention of Ruth Lewin, a spiritual protégé of Pope Kyril. The story illustrates the transmission of faith and goodness to Faber through Lakota and Lewin.
Jean Télémonde is a French Jesuit and a brilliant scholar. He has spent twenty years in exile from the Vatican, forbidden by his vows of obedience from publishing his work, which some consider heretical. Now he is recalled to present his revised conclusions to the Holy Office, whose head is Cardinal Leone. Pope Kyril is hoping that his new work will be acceptable to the Holy Office and that it will introduce some more modern thinking into the Church. Télémonde is invited to speak at the Feast of Saint Ignatius Loyola. After the lecture, to Kyril’s sorrow, the Holy Office decides that Télémonde’s thesis contradicts fundamental Catholic doctrine. Leone, himself upset, has to bring the news to Kyril. Leone offers his resignation, which Kyril declines. The opposition to Télémonde’s ideas has been principled; Kyril has learned that even the pope cannot force change too quickly. Télémonde accepts the obedience to which he is commanded but becomes ill and dies almost immediately, by implication, of a broken heart.
In the third subplot a secret channel of communication is opened between Kamenev, now the leader of the Soviet Union, and Pope Kyril. When Kamenev’s agent appears, he informs Pope Kyril that Kamenev needs a private channel of communication with the president of the United States. He asks Pope Kyril for help. After much discussion of the diplomatic and political dangers of such a course, Kyril instructs an American cardinal to inform the president and show him Kamenev’s letters. The establishment of this private conduit between the two leaders reduces the dangers of war as they are able to explore possible compromises freely and avoid the limiting tendencies of their own foreign affairs bureaucracies.
The last issue discussed in this book is Kyril’s project to travel widely outside the Vatican. He is able to persuade the Vatican hierarchy to support such papal journeys. Here too, West anticipates historical reality by a dozen years or more. The travels of the real Jean Paul II could almost have been presaged by the fictional Kyril’s desire to give Catholicism a human and pastoral face.
West’s novel is rich in detail. Obviously familiar with the ambience of the famous buildings and chapels of the Vatican City, he also seems well acquainted with the structure and practices of the Vatican hierarchy. For this reason The Shoes of the Fisherman is both believable and enjoyable.
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