The Pope is dead. Cardinals from all over the Christendom begin to arrive in the Vatican to choose the new Pontifice. The last Cardinal to arrive in Casa Santa Marta is the Archbishop of Baghdad; he claims to having been created in pectore (kept close to the chest, as in secret). His documentations support his claim, and he is admitted.
As Cardinals assemble in a conclave, factions emerge and personal interests align according to the currents extant in the Church today (i.e., traditionalists, moderates, liberation theologists, etc). On one side are the Third World Cardinals, grouping those of Africa, Latin America and Asia. The North Americans have a contingent as well, as do the Europeans and the Italians. The Italians in particular, are divided into two factions; those who support the Patriarch of Venice—a staunch traditionalist—, and those who see the more moderate former Secretary of State, Cardinal Bellini, as an attractive alternative. In the middle of it all, is Jacopo Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, who with steadfast leadership will have to keep those interests in check to prevent further divisions in the Church.
Years ago I read two books in Morris West’s Vatican trilogy that are, for me at least, the stick with which I measure every book on Vatican politics. They were not only well written, but turned out to be prophetic as well. I also read White Smoke by Andrew Greeley, a novel about a conclave written by a priest-author. I have also made quite a bit of research on Popes, Vatican politics, and a Pontifice election process. So as I was reading Conclave by Robert Harris I kept telling myself that he wasn’t breaking new ground with this novel.
Robert Harris certainly didn’t tread new ground in Conclave, but the politics and trivia he went into, he nailed. He also commented on current affairs of the Church as a keen observer. In addition, he managed to breathe life into one of the most bureaucratic machines on earth. And let me tell you, that conclave was far from boring…And that ending! Oh, my! In my opinion, Robert Harris succeeded in making his readers aware that while the election of a Pontifice may be guided by the Holy Spirit, there are men with ambitions and agendas doing the choosing, and those elements come into play to influence the outcome.
If you are into Vatican politics, as I am, you will appreciate Robert Harris incursion into this sub-genre. If you are not into that, you may read it and learn new things in the process.