The Malta Independent 17 July 2024, Wednesday
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The Pope of the Apocalypse

Noel Grima Tuesday, 21 May 2024, 14:12 Last update: about 3 months ago

‘I Giullari di Dio’. Original title: ‘The Clowns of God’. Author: Morris West. Publisher : Arnoldo Mondadori editore / 1961. Pages: 358pp

In the seventh year of his pontificate, two days before his 65th birthday, in the presence of all the cardinals reunited in Consistory, Jean Marie Barette, Pope Gregory XVII, signed the letter of resignation, removed from his finger the Ring of the Fisherman, gave it to Cardinal Camerlengo and read out the laconic speech of farewell.

"My brethren, what you demanded has now been carried out. I am certain that you will now explain to the Church and to the world what has been done. I pray you will now choose a valid person. God knows you need one."

Three hours later, accompanied by a colonel of the Swiss Guards, he was knocking on the door of the Monte Cassino monastery and putting himself under the authority of the Abbot.

The colonel immediately returned to Rome and informed the Cardinal Camerlengo that his order had been carried out.

The Camerlengo sighed with relief and prepared to announce that the Holy See was vacant and that a conclave to elect a new pope would be held as soon as possible.

Thus begins the second volume of the Vatican trilogy by the famous Australian novelist Morris West.

Many of West's novels bear uncanny resemblance to events that took place later.

Back to the book. Jean Marie becomes a simple monk, taking part in the liturgy and also helping out in the kitchen.

And he keeps remembering what it was that led to his resignation.

Gregory XVII had worked very hard to promote better relations between peoples and to see the Christian ideals triumph.

But suddenly and inexplicably he had been forced to resign. His mental strength was said to have deteriorated and the Curia cardinals finally faced him with an ultimatum: either resign or be declared clinically insane.

Gregory had claimed he had experienced an apocalyptic revelation - the Second Coming was approaching. He intended to tell the world through an encyclical.

This raised an immediate alarm. The encyclical risked raising the level of alarm around the world to impossible heights. People were already living in tension and the world risked collapsing in a world war. Everywhere people were preparing for the final battle for survival.

Jean Marie is visited by a lifelong friend, Carl Mendelius, who though not fully convinced his friend had received a revelation, accepts to take out with him a copy of the banned encyclical and a long interview with the former pope.

Then Mendelius, who had already been involved in a terrorist attack, is almost killed in turn.

This decides Jean Marie who exits the monastery and sheds the monkish habit for civvy street.

He is now on his own for the first time in his life and is forced into a life of anonymity as he is hounded everywhere.

Yet he also finds examples of hope. At the Place Du Tertre at the back of Sacre Coeur in Paris he stumbles on a community of women living a Christian life together.

On a different level he is befriended and defended by friends in high finance who in turn have friends on the other side of the divide. And he establishes a close relationship with an important Russian minister who is frightened that a Russia without grain will go on the offensive.

Then Jean Marie is persuaded to write another book, a child writes to God. He takes the name Johnny, the circus clown.

And when the clock is about to strike midnight he is persuaded to speak at a high-powered gathering but...

The book ends with two conclusions - recovery after a stroke and surviving a nuclear catastrophe in a hidden valley in the Alps. Two messages of hope.

Morris Langlo West was an Australian novelist, one of the great storytellers of the 20th century.

He wrote 28 novels, many of which were made into films, and published in 27 languages.

At the age of 14, he entered the Christian Brothers seminary. His family was quite poor and he was very embarrassed by the frayed second-hand school blazer that revealed his family's poverty. He later said he joined the Christian Brothers Juniorate in Victoria at 14 as a kind of refuge from a difficult, lonely childhood.

He eventually became a teaching novice, but left the order on the eve of taking the final vows. He decided he could not live within the restrictions of a disciplined, celibate institution where ignorance was equated with innocence. However, he left the religious life not knowing how to knot his own necktie.

He married Elizabeth Harvey in 1941 and worked in the Intelligence Division of the Australian Army. Their first child Julian was born in 1942 when he published his first novel, Moon in my Pocket, a thinly veiled autobiographical story of his life. It sold well and was among the first books to shed light on life within religious communities.

In 1943 he became a journalist in Melbourne but after 10 years he suffered a breakdown, sold his share of the business, left his wife and settled in Sydney.

In 1955 he went to live in Sorrento, Italy. His first popular success was Children of the Sun (1957), a non-fiction account of the slum children of Naples.

His works often focused on international politics and the role of the Catholic Church in international affairs.

In The Shoes of the Fisherman he described the election and pontificate of a Slav as pope, 15 years before the historic election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II.

The book reviewed today, The Clowns of God describes a pope who resigned the papacy to live in seclusion, 32 years before the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, when West had long been dead.

His novels include The Devil's Advocate - A dying priest is sent to investigate a so-called saint in a village in the south of Italy; Daughter of Silence (1961) - in mid-summer in a Tuscan village a woman shoots the town's mayor; The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Ambassador (1965) - a fictionalisation of the events surrounding the coup and assassination of the South Vietnamese president; The Tower of Babel (1968) - the Middle East on the brink of war; Summer of the Red Wolf (1971) - an emotional love triangle in the Outer Hebrides; The Navigator (1976) - an expedition to the Island of the Dead;  Proteus (1979) - a covert organisation aims to free the prisoners of conscience around the world and The Clowns of God (1981).

He died at his desk on 9 October, 1999 in Sydney.


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