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The Shoes of the Fisherman, Morris L West, William Morrow and Company, 1963, 374 pp
Almost every year from 1940 to 1963, there has been at least one Christian novel on the Top 10 Bestseller list. The Shoes of the Fisherman took the #1 spot in 1963. It is the story of a Pope, how he was chosen, and what he faced in trying to keep the Catholic Church relevant in the postwar, communist influenced Cold War era. Kiril Lakota, Ukrainian Russian, victim of torture in the gulags, becomes Pope Kiril I.
According to the Author's Note in the front of the book, "This is a book set in a fictional time, peopled with fictional characters." He wrote the novel in 1962. Pope John XXIII reigned from 1958 to 1963. He was known as "The Good Pope," and influenced both Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was succeeded in 1963 by Pope Paul VI, known for his reforming of the Catholic Church to be more open to the world, to engage in dialogue with people of other religions, and to champion social justice.
Morris West's Pope Kiril I is a fictional combination of the two and I had to marvel at the author's prescience. I remember bits of all this, especially what we called the Ecumenical movement, but what I remember most is the Time Magazine cover in 1966: black with a red border and taking up three-fourths of it in bold red letters was the question "Is God Dead?"
As novels go, The Shoes of the Fisherman is not great but not awful. My religious upbringing, rejected and revised by me years ago, left me with almost a gag reflex when anyone starts pontificating (pun intended) on how if everyone could just be brought to believe in the one Christian God, we would have peace and justice in the world. (My sincere apologies to anyone who believes this way.)
As I gagged my way through the story, also full of examples of people who behave most uncharitably, I was struck once again by the fairy tale of religion. Just believe, try to do the right thing, and though you will suffer, you will live forever in Paradise after you die.
For me, the novel was good for a look at the inner workings of the Vatican, though I have read better ones, particularly The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell. Over the years, West completed what is called his Vatican Trilogy with The Clowns of God in 1981 and Lazarus in 1990. Should I read them?
(The Shoes of the Fisherman is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)