Mon dieu! It's an Irish pope


A recent French novel imagines an Irish pope who supports married priests, goes drinking in a Donegal pub and survives an attempt on his life

In a recent French book, Le Pont Des Anges, author Philippe le Guillou imagines that an Irish Benedictine monk from a monastery code-named “Abbey G” will be elected pope in the middle of the present century. One or more of the monks of Glenstal Abbey might be excited, or appalled, at the prospect.

It is true that Le Guillou situates Abbey G in Donegal, rather than Limerick. Donegal is more rugged, more ascetic, more monastic than Limerick – and it has much more tourbe, which means turf. The words tourbe and tourbière (bog) occur regularly in this book. Some French people do indeed imagine that turf is characteristic of the Irish soul. I remember asking Louis Bouyer, the eminent French spiritual writer, who had recently visited Maynooth, what he thought of my native land. He replied unhesitatingly, “Du tourbe!”

Le Guillou wrote an earlier novel, Le Dieu Noir in 1987, which imagined the election of the first black African pope, Miltiade II. Le Pont Des Anges takes up where the previous book ended.

Miltiade has had a long and difficult reign. A holy and intelligent man, he now (sometime around 2030) lies dying, demoralised and almost despairing.

The pope dies, and Tom Sullivan, former abbot of Abbey G in Donegal, and more recently cardinal archbishop of Armagh, finds himself – to his considerable astonishment – walking out of the ensuing conclave as Pope Clement XV.

Holy and intelligent, he is a compromise candidate between various high-powered, ambitious and sometimes ruthless competitors. He is also a compromise between a first-world candidate and one from the impoverished third world. The reader must determine where Ireland lies on a spectrum from highly developed nations to banana republics – taking into account all that tourbe and the economic climate.

The main points of Pope Clement’s, or perhaps le Guillou’s agenda begin to emerge. He appoints bishops as patriarchs in different parts of the world, mostly outside Europe. Their task will be to federate the people of God, forming a vital link between the faithful in all their diversity and the pope at Rome. It becomes clear, too, that Clement is open to the idea of married priests – though not of married bishops, religious, or monks. There seems to be no question of women priests in Pope Clement’s mind.

It is perhaps significant of where le Guillou is coming from that there are scarcely any women in his book – there is just one of any importance, Francesca. She is a stock Roman hostess of soirées, where cardinals can be indiscreet (verbally), and Francesca’s guests can get to know how old mother Vatican is chugging along at the time.

Another interesting character who helps get us out of the churches is Simon Viarmes, a painter of talent who forms a friendship with the pope based on mutual respect. They both also have the habit of wandering about Rome by night – incognito, in the Pope’s case.

Viarmes gets it into his head that the pope needs beautiful contemporary paintings of the 10 angels adorning the bridge across the Tiber near the Castel’Sant-Angelo. So he goes among the Caravaggesque ragazzi of Rome in pursuit of likely candidates to pose nude.

A few years ago, a young woman leaped over a barrier in St Peter’s during a ceremony and knocked Pope Benedict to the ground. The author fictionalises this event. This time, an excited youth, wondering if he has a vocation to the priesthood, decides to button-hole the pope on the topic. When the pope recovers from the surprise of being knocked over on his own tourbe, he talks to the boy and even employs him as a sacristan. The artist Viarmes also employs him, as another of his angels.

Quite soon after his election, Pope Clement makes a private visit to Donegal for the burial of a former abbot of his monastery. He goes out for a walk near night-fall and gets lost amid all that tourbe. He wanders around until, seeing the light of a small pub in a lunar landscape, he goes in, joins the chat, and has a couple of pints. No-body asks him who he is. And I suppose he just happens to have a few banknotes in his back pocket to pay for his drinks.

Pope Clement’s most significant journey is to South America, which is on the brink of schism from Rome, under the ruthless leadership of Cardinal Álvarez of São Paulo. For years, Álvarez has not bothered with daily Mass, the real presence, and certainly not with the primacy of Rome.

All that matters for him is the struggle of the poor against oppression and injustice. But his clandestine promotion of violent methods and his links to terrorist organisations are an open secret.

There ensues an attempt on the Pope’s life. Clement bleeds copiously and, above all, symbolically. His survival is regarded as a miracle. The pope and the cardinal come face to face. Clement delivers the infallible knock-out punch-line, and then returns to Rome, tired but happy.

Good read. Elegant French.

* Fr Andrew Nugent is a Glenstal monk and crime novelist

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