Our book today is Pope Patrick, a thoroughly delightful 1995 novel by ebullient former Catholic priest Peter de Rosa, and it tells the story of kindly Irish cardinal Father Brian O’Flynn, who, at the Papal conclave assembled to elect a new pontiff, is serenely convinced, as he puts it, that popes, like pineapples, don’t grow in Ireland. But he’s reckoned without the twisted politics of the Curia – some of his fellow cardinals like the fact that he’s a nonentity in their behind-the-scenes power struggles, and others imagine the ease with which he could be manipulated once he’s installed. When they finally do elect him pope, all parties expect the smooth continuation of business as usual. But when Patrick awakens after a heavy bit of pillar falls on his head, he’s not the same back-bencher he was before. Suddenly, the new Pope (without hesitation, he chooses the name Pope Patrick) is interested in change, in accountability – in bringing a simple sense of Christianity to a conclave that’s forgotten the very concept.
What follows from such a corny premise could have been a syrupy disaster, but in De Rosa’s hands, it’s a witty and ultimately winning meditation on virtually every aspect of being a Catholic in the modern era (the book’s era is slightly more modern than the mid-90s we all remember: in a prescient move, De Rosa invents a vast and quite militant Federation of Islamic Republics that stretches from Morocco to Pakistan). Pope Patrick is a kind and humble man, but he has very clear opinions on a whole range of subjects most popes treat with diplomatic silence, as in the extended and fantastic scene in which the new Pope draws the hard-line British Prime Minister Denise Weaver a hypothetical she finds quite startling:
“Would you indulge an old man in a bit of make-believe?”
She positively gushed. “Of course, Holiness.”
“Well, just suppose that from the sixteenth century, Ireland was the imperial power and Ireland had colonized England.”
Weave swallowed a grin. “It’s hard to imagine.”
“Try. Imagine Irish invaders closing all English churches and hunting down clergy and laity like dogs. These brutal Irish refused to tolerate Protestants in Britain, even though they made up ninety-nine percent of the population. From Dublin, they sent over an Irish Cromwell, if anything so appalling can be imagined. This Paddy O’Cromwell put the English to the sword, forbade them to worship according to their consciences. The natives who survived were forced west to the mountains. It was Hell or Wales for them.”
“Worse, my dear, imagine towns like Durham, ports like Southampton and Liverpool, being handed over to Irish traders. Whereas Protestants – Britons, that is – had once own all of England, by 1759, they owned but five percent of it, the least productive parts. Ah,” Patrick sighed, taking her hand as if in sympathy, “then came the Penal laws. Protestants excluded from government, the professions, the army and navy. No rights of inheritance. The British even had to pay ten percent of their incomes to the Catholic priest who might not even have a single parishioner.”
It was only her misplaced pledge of loyalty that kept Denise Weaver in the room.
“In the 1840s, a dreadful famine followed in Britain. Well, not exactly a famine. There was enough produce to feed twice the population, but the British could only grow potatoes on their little patches of land. Alas, the spuds were ruined by blight. Yet still the Irish invaders exported British grain and livestock to Ireland. Irish priests started promising starving Protestants bread and soup if only they become Catholics. British tenants were evicted by Irish landlords as soon as they failed to pay rent on what was really, you’ll recall, their own land. The Irish wanted to replace the British with cattle, which fitted the landscape better.”
By time time he’s reached the present day in his hypothetical, Weaver has stormed out of the room, calling him insane.
Naturally, it isn’t too long before Pope Patrick begins to feel “the long pain for which there is but one remedy: home” – and so he makes a tour of Ireland, and De Rosa’s prose becomes appropriately lyrical as Patrick remembers with freshened clarity his long-ago childhood:
In a moment of mountain magic, time’s broken tablets were mended. Long-closed doors sprang open; the cuckoo clocks of memory burst forth into song.
He who had never fathered a child was his own son. In the intricate corals of his brain this ghost-son saw peat fires red as cherries, the particular peculiar shapes of potatoes picked from the ridge. He heard again the roar of the old, white, almost human ass, counted the safety pins, her “medals,” on his mother’s apron, knew even the precise angles of them. Oh, Mother, Mother, you who put out saucers of milk for the hedgehogs and cracked nuts for squirrels and were so neat you peeled and eyed the seed potatoes before you let Father sow them.
The years, Lord, where have they all gone?
In this drowning recollective moment he saw forgotten faces, heard lost conversations, watched little, probably long-dead children, their pet names and surnames linked indivisibly like summer-and-winter, day-and-night, their features, even in hand-me-down clothes, as clear and detailed as when he saw them, sixty years before, laughing, riding bicycles or sneezing as they jumped on hay carts piled higher than a house. Suddenly, everything mortal seemed deathless and deserving.
Through most of his pontificate, Patrick enjoys the company of his dog Charley, and this not only leads to some of the book’s funniest moments but also to a quick exchange that is, quite predictably, my own personal favorite, when a bishop makes a theological point:
“I thought dogs had no souls, Holiness.”
“Maybe not like ours.” Under his breath: Maybe better.
De Rosa is an old showman, so Pope Patrick brims with plot-twists and humor, and there are scenes that will make all but the coldest atheist heart tremble with sympathy. This is grand, assured, and very sentimental writing, but precisely controlled. Readers familiar with the Papacy might detect some echoes of Pope Adrian VI in the story of Patrick’s outsider appeal (readers not so familiar are urged to read De Rosa’s book on the subject, Vicars of Christ, or watch this wonderful video review of it), but there are twists and turns aplenty here for readers of all convictions. My Catholic readers are urged to find a copy right away – not only will you laugh like you haven’t since the last time you read J. F. Powers, but you’ll also think a great deal about things you might have previously taken for granted. My non-Catholic readers will dawdle along behind as is their wont, but they should read it too. This is joyous stuff.