The American Jesuit living in Rome—a worldly-wise man whom I interviewed for my novel, The Second Messiah—looked at me with despair when I posed the question I was dying to ask.
“What,” I queried, “is it like having to deal on a daily basis with all the legendary secrecy and bureaucracy within the Vatican?”
Sounding like a man wearied by intrigue, he raised a bushy eyebrow and sighed. “You now, there are times when I’d much rather deal with Don Corleone’s mafia than the pope’s legion of bureaucrats.”
With feuds, betrayals, and all the scheming of a Shakespearean play, I learned that the Vatican is torn apart by jealousies, careerism, ambition, vendettas, and enough skullduggery to rival the boardroom antics of any Fortune 500 company.
My Jesuit friend’s allusion to the mafia is a good one. Even the Irish religious contingent in Rome has a Cosa Nostra tag—they call them the Murphia.
During my time in Rome while I researched The Second Messiah—in which a new American pope is elected, a man who pledges to open up the Vatican secret archives to public scrutiny, which will reveal a centuries-old secret destined to shatter the bedrock of Christianity—I discovered a papacy mired in secrecy, obsessed with its public image, and chained to a centuries-old script that needed some serious rewriting.
In The Second Messiah my fictitious pope, John Becket, is a man with ghosts and secrets in his past, who shakes the church to its foundations when he quits the luxury of the Vatican, preferring instead a frugal monastery cell as his place of residence.
John Becket refuses to wear his expensive tailored papal robes and jewelry. Instead, he wears a simple cassock and neck cross out of deference to an impoverished Christ.
Becket also wants the scandal-hit Vatican bank’s ledgers opened to scrutiny. And he’s not averse to hanging out in seedy back street bars mingling with the local scum and drinking Campari and soda in the company of Rome’s prostitutes.
He’s a man one who may either be a second messiah come as the world’s savior, or an anti-Christ meant to destroy it—take your pick.
When the 85 year-old Pope Benedict recently announced his shock resignation, I must say I was pleasantly surprised.
A well intentioned man to some, to others he did nothing to alleviate the wrongs committed by some Catholic bishops and priests in relation to clerical abuse. During his reign, the Vatican seemed more interested in preserving its power and ‘reputation’, than alleviating the pain and injustice felt by those who as young children were raped and abused.
It’s a failure that must be devastating for so many good priests, and so many hurt victims.
The Catholic Church has been mired in so many scandals, and Benedict’s resignation showed just how serious things are. For the first time in 700 hundred years a pope resigns. That’s huge—an indication of the ret-hot conflicts beneath St. Peter’s dome.
But Catholics have been given a big dollop of hope.
Since the new pope, Francis, was elected, he has begun to change the tradition and image of the papacy.
In many ways, he’s a lot like my fictitious John Becket.
First, as a sign of humility Pope Francis chose to wash the feet of several prisoners, and also included two young women—one a Muslim girl.
On Easter Sunday, instead of splendid, expensive gold-threaded gowns he wore a simple white outfit and cross.
Symbols have always been important to the church, and these acts are powerful symbols. The message: this is not about me.
There are already rumors that Francis wants to close the Vatican bank—linked to money-laundering and other crimes. He wants the church to be a model of austerity and honesty.
To cap it all, he doesn’t wish to live in the magnificent papal chambers, but in a simple two room apartment.
Traditionalists may see all this as the final straw, but for the vast majority of Catholics, Francis’ actions and intent breathe new life and hope into the papacy.
Something is a-changing.
We may be witnessing the election of pope who’s not afraid to kick off the thousand dollar red shoes, take on the powerful vested career interests within the church, and put truth and love first.
On the Vatican’s walls some years ago a disgruntled cleric sprayed graffiti with a can of white paint. It said: The Church believes in truth and justice—but not for Vatican employees.
In fact, truth and justice—and the honest humility and compassion that the Church was founded upon—have been in pretty short supply for a many a papacy.
Me, I’m hoping this new pope has the strength, character and determination to drag the Catholic church screaming and kicking—not just forward—but backward too, if only to grasp once again the root values of truth, honesty and compassion that Christ preached.