In Philbrook’s dramatic thriller debut, a U.S. attorney is elected as the new pope, but his radical ideas for changes in the Catholic Church are met with resistance that may turn deadly.
When the 120 voting cardinals are hopelessly deadlocked in selecting the new pope, Cardinal O’Bryan recommends international business lawyer James Flahvin. James isn’t even a priest, but he’s a charismatic financial manager—something the fiscally struggling Catholic Church desperately needs. The attorney becomes the first American pope and right away starts making waves: Many of his views—like advocating birth control, married priests and homosexuality—contrast with the church’s beliefs. Cardinal Sicoli seems to be James’ loudest adversary, especially after the pope disperses the cardinal’s supporters throughout the world. But Cardinal Sicoli, who sincerely believes James to be the Antichrist, continues to oppose the pope—opposition that may prove dangerous. Despite its evocative title, the novel is much more drama than thrills. The cardinals’ election process, for instance, takes some time; it’s 10 weeks before they even include James’ name. But that scene, and others involving the church’s activities, is fascinating and also quite informative for readers unfamiliar with Catholicism (ballots from an unproductive vote are burned with a chemical to produce black smoke, whereas white smoke indicates a successful election). Similarly, James is shown preaching in various countries or discussing notable topics (usually with cardinals) such as abortion, poverty or women being ordained as priests. These segments sometimes come at the expense of plot, but they’re often inspired, including James’ notion of unity: “People need to find a way to discover they are far more alike than different. They need the genuine opportunity to realize that their differences pale in comparison with what they have in common.” The protagonist’s flaws make him even more appealing; he struggles with doubt, like most believers, and is tormented by loneliness and his wife’s death, driving him to drink excessively at night. The latter part of the book becomes decidedly more intense, as Pope James goes on a “Religious Heritage Tour” in the U.S., unaware that a devout follower of Cardinal Sicoli may act on his lethal intentions.
The thriller aspect is a mere subplot, but the story of a provocative new pope questioning tradition is both poignant and probing.