Accidental Pope, The

Flynn, Raymond|Moore, Robin|Flynn, Ray
The former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican and the bestselling author of The French Connection join forces to write an unforgettable novel about a humble fisherman who is elected pope.

Reviews

Reviewed: 2021-04-01
This was a fun vacation read. As a Catholic and a diplomat, I was amused by the Vatican hijinks and the humor inherent in the idea of "accidentally" electing an unusual Pope. I appreciated the author's choice to include the working of the Holy Spirit in the process instead of trying to take only a worldly approach. For one thing, it acknowledges the mindset of Catholics that so many people try to dismiss today. It also helped with the suspense of disbelief at what could otherwise seem to be a contrived plot.

The characters were well written and distinct, and by the end of the book you really do love some of the main characters making it sad to see them go. There are some chapters that are purely character pieces, without much connection to the overall plot - this could be jarring for some readers, but for those familiar with reading short stories it's enjoyable, and it helped bring humor into some points that could otherwise be rather dull.

I was also highly amused at how often Pope Peter II reminded me of the current Pope Francis! Much of the criticism levered at the fictional pope sounds very much like the criticism of the real pope now, demonstrating how well the author understands the tensions between different factions within the Church as well as the various demands and expectations put on a pope.

The midlevel rating, though, is because of two points - the underdevelopment of certain plot points, and the tangible vitriol for the US State Department.

The election of "Pope Bill" and his installation are very well developed and written, but the back half feels rushed and like a puzzle missing several pieces. It's as though once the character was installed as Pope, the author realized he needed a juicier plot and so started spinning up various different problems and conspiracies to be solved. Unfortunately, none of them are really resolved. There's an attempt with the "encyclical" that covers everything and the kitchen sink, but seeing as the book ends with its publication and not its implementation, it feels more like a band-aid than a solution. There's lots of talk about reforming the Vatican Bank, but that never actually happens. And then there is a "conspiracy" in Africa with the Orthodox Church, but the only meetings with the Orthodox seem to "confirm" the conspiracy, and not do much about it. The solution presented is to bring in former priests and more laity to do missionary work in Africa, but there's also a missed opportunity for the US Ambassador character to help build international support for such work. Instead, the Church is left adrift trying to solve the problem of AIDS, genocide, and poverty on its own while the nations of the world continue on their merry commercial paths. Honestly, with the number of subplots introduced the back half of the novel could have become a series of shorter mystery novels. Perhaps that was how the author originally envisioned the story, only to settle on one novel.

I was also disappointed that the conversion of Colleen, the pope's daughter, was done completely "off-screen". This could have generated a lot of interesting discussions in the book as she questioned certain things, and found ways that the Holy Spirit was speaking to her as it was to her father. Instead, we're suddenly told by a cardinal that he has a "convert" and Colleen stands up to take communion at mass, with no explanation as to why she changed her mind or even what that ultimately meant to her. Aside from the pope, this had been the character I was most looking forward to seeing the development for, but it wasn't there.

The latter problem was the depiction of the State Department and career Foreign Service in the novel. Ray Flynn was a political appointee ambassador, and clearly had a rocky relationship with the Department. I'm no stranger to the tension that can arise between political appointees and career diplomats, it definitely exists. But the level of vitriol in the book was jarring. Every single one of the career characters was depicted as completely self-serving and incompetent, without any others to balance it. It really threw me out of the story several times, making me wonder if someone had poisoned the Ambassador's dog or something to engender such disgust. It also hindered the novel by limiting Amb. Kirby's role as a friend of the Pope. What work we did see being done by Kirby was most often damage control and trying to save his position, rather than actually working with the resources of a diplomat to address the world political problems seen in the book. Frankly, it was disappointing because, seeing the book had been written by a former Ambassador to the Vatican, I was looking forward to reading more about the US-Vatican relationship. Instead, that felt pushed to the side in favor of the personal friendship and media shenanigans.

In general, I'd say this is an amusing read for those who follow Church politics and are familiar with the usual arguments between traditionalists and modernists. Just don't take it too seriously.
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