‘Conclave’ is the story of a dramatic but little- known event: the selection of arguably the most powerful spiritual person on earth: the pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
It takes place in the near future in the aftermath of the death of a pope who, coincidentally, the author makes clear, resembles Pope Francis.
It’s told through the eyes of Cardinal Lomeli, who is the dean of the College of Cardinals and the individual charged with ensuring that the conclave runs smoothly. He’s in his 70s, and is both a friend and a rival of some of the other septuagenarians who are considered the favorites go be chosen, if not by the cardinals themselves then by the supposedly smart money outside the Vatican.
Lomeli doesn’t envision himself as a pope, though he has long since chosen a name he would use, and he’s generally an admirable figure. In fact the cardinals as a group are as devout as Catholics would hope. Some are also as ambitious as many Catholics might fear, and therein lays the drama in ‘Conclave.’
Among the true contenders is Lomeli’s closest friend, Cardinal Aldo Bellini, a fellow Italian who would like to see another Italian on the throne of St. Peter. Bellini is the Vatican’s Secretary of State. Cardinal Joseph Tremblay, a telegenic, fit, pragmatic individual, is a Canadian. As Camerlengo, he’s a chief administrator of the Vatican’s property and revenue.
Cardinal Goffredo Tedesco is an old-school type who wants the church to be more dogmatic and perhaps less understanding. Cardinal Joshua Adeyami, a Nigerian who would be the world’s first black people and the first African, also is quite conservative, particularly regarding women.
No sooner are the cardinals being cloistered from a curious world than Lomeli and his peers get their first surprise. Another cardinal, one none of them knows, joins the conclave. His name is Benitez; he’s a Filipino who has served in some of the world’s poorest places. The late pope elevated him ‘in pectore,’ known only to the late pope and to God. That brings the number of cardinals eligible to vote to 118; it takes two-thirds, or 79 votes, to be elected pope.
And so the cardinals travel to the Sistine Chapel where, locked in, they vote, as often as four times a day if necessary. The first couple of votes are inconclusive, but leaders do begin to appear.
Revelations of age old misdeeds that surface between ballots help one candidate and hurt another, and though it’s discouraged, the contenders aren’t above lobbying. Adeyami is the favorite among African cardinals and some others in the third world, Tremblay can count on many Westerners, and, of course, many of the Italians lean toward Bellini. The process is jolted by a coordinated attack by Islamic radicals on a church near the Vatican — close enough that the shock wave shatters Vatican windows - as well as Catholic sites elsewhere in the world. That gives the cardinals, who are not supposed to be exposed to outside events, understandable pause about whether to continue. It also reshuffles the deck in terms of the ballots.
Concerned that the Church will look headless when believers need leadership most, the cardinals finally make their choice. The cardinal chosen might not be a surprise, but the author throws in a lulu in the final pages.
The author, Robert Harris, has done his homework on the workings of the Vatican and the conclave, from isolating the cardinals from the world to the traditional step-by-step process by which they cast votes. The various cardinals’ biases are intriguing, as are the historical anecdotes and precedents that flesh out the story.
‘Conclave’ is a superb, well-written novel of the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the conflict between spirituality and personality. For readers unfamiliar with Robert Harris, he’s the author of a number of bestselling novels, including ‘Fatherland,’ ‘Enigma,’ ‘Pompeii’ and ‘Conspirata.’ He lives in England.
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor .