Selecting A New Pope

Claudio Palmisano for The New York Times

Daniela Piermattei, left, leads a tour of the Pantheon based on Dan Brown’s "Angels & Demons," a best seller focusing on the Vatican
The Papacy: Art Invents What Few Really Know

PARIS, April 13 – With the papal conclave deadlocked, the 117 cardinals compromise on a Filipino as pope. When he is assassinated six months later by an Islamic suicide bomber, Cardinal Timothy John Mulrennan, the handsome, media-savvy archbishop of Newark, takes his place, becoming history’s first American pope.

So goes the story of "Conclave," an action-packed first novel published in 2001 by Greg Tobin, a writer from New Jersey. As a result of the death of Pope John Paul II and the conclave scheduled next week to choose his successor, Tor Books is reprinting it in a new paperback edition.

Steeped in ritual, shrouded in secrecy, the sealed forum in the Sistine Chapel where the world’s cardinals elect the pope is probably the oldest and most mysterious electoral body in the world. Laymen hungry to know more must rely largely on novels, films, television docudramas and speculative nonfiction. The accounts range from imaginative distortions of reality to scholarly tomes that can be informative yet dull.

But sometimes even the fiction proves prescient.

"The Shoes of the Fisherman," the 1968 film of the novel by Morris L. West, with Anthony Quinn as the pope, was panned by critics for what they considered an absurd plot. It tells the story of a Ukrainian ex-political prisoner who becomes pope, ministers directly to the faithful and prevents China from going to war – all in an era when the idea of a non-Italian, anti-Soviet, activist pope like John Paul II was considered impossible.

"Angels & Demons" (Atria, 2003), the current best seller by Dan Brown, is at least as improbable. The book – peppered with factual errors, papal scholars like to point out – tells the story of a Harvard scholar, Robert Langdon (also the hero of Mr. Brown’s "Da Vinci Code"), who helps save the Catholic Church from a bomb during a papal conclave convened after a pope is assassinated. The powerful camerlengo, or papal chamberlain, turns out to be the biological son of the dead pope, conceived through artificial insemination.

"The Vatican is really like a royal court full of intrigue and secrecy," said the Rev. Vincent O’Keefe, the former president of Fordham University, who spent nearly two decades in Rome. "Then there is the conclave that is such a mysterious process, with white smoke announcing the election of the pope."

"Ordinary people are not so much interested in how many persons there are in the Trinity," he added. "But they are hungry for all the inside stories."

Tell-all memoirs by cardinals of the goings-on inside a conclave do not exist, partly because of the grave consequences threatened for those who talk. (The only pope ever to have discussed the election process in an autobiography was Pius II in the 15th century.)

Despite the imposed secrecy, there was considerable leakage of information during the conclave that elected John Paul II in 1978. It was widely known in church circles at the time that Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri (who has since died) was the unnamed source in many journalists’ reports on the voting patterns.

The next year, the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley wrote "The Making of the Popes," which tracked the death of Pope Paul VI, the election of John Paul I and his death after a 33- day tenure, and the election of John Paul II. The book jacket describes it as an "exposé" of "the balloting, the intrigue, the politics behind the deliberations" of the cardinals at that time. It includes a special thanks to "Deep Purple," who Father Greeley said is really two sources: one a cardinal who is now over 80 and therefore ineligible to vote, but who will participate in the conclave, which opens on Monday.

"I view the conclave as a political process," said Father Greeley, who is in Rome researching a book to be titled "Making of the Pope 2005." "While the Holy Spirit is at work, as she is in everything, I don’t believe she whispers in anyone’s ear."

Some films and books on the Vatican have also grappled with the broad moral and doctrinal crises facing the church. Otto Preminger’s 1963 film, "The Cardinal," for example, relates the life story of a young cardinal played by Tom Tryon, who is tempted by a woman and wrestles with the thorny issues of premarital sex, abortion and anti-Semitism.

As a priest, Cardinal Mulrennan, the hero and future pope of Mr. Tobin’s novel, deals with alcoholism, pedophilia, racism and celibacy. A German cardinal is portrayed as a homosexual, and an Irish cardinal as a hard-drinking compulsive gambler.

Mr. Tobin, a spokesman for Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., has also written a factual work on conclaves. Barnes & Noble published his serious study, "Selecting the Pope: Uncovering the Mysteries of Papal Elections," in 2003. Other recent nonfiction books on the process include "Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election" (Image, 2002), by John L. Allen Jr., a correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, and "Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession" (Oxford University Press, 2004), by John-Peter Pham.

Distortions are inevitable, given the Vatican’s secrecy, and some who have struggled to capture the church’s inner workings said they felt a strong responsibility to get it right.

"You hope and pray you will be given inspiration, because you’re dealing with such a sacred subject," said Michael Anderson, the director of "The Shoes of the Fisherman," who was given extraordinary access by the Vatican in making the film. "The challenge was to keep the wording and the teachings accurate and at the same time convey the sense of drama."

At one point, he said, Mr. Quinn had to be talked out of quitting the film when he felt that a swelling of his eye had been a curse from God.

"The swelling wouldn’t go down, and we had to shoot around him for 10 days," Mr. Anderson recalled. "Tony found something in Holy Scripture called ‘Monk’s disease,’ which was an affliction of the eye for those who pretend to be holier than they were. He said: ‘I am me. I’m not the Pope. I’m being punished.’ It was a solemn moment."

Father Greeley, like Mr. Tobin, has found the novel a liberating way to elaborate on his nonfiction. In "White Smoke" (St. Martin’s Press, 1996), he tells the story of a conclave in which an American bishop named John Blackwood Ryan, known as Blackie, uses the stealth and cunning he learned in Chicago to further the papal election of a liberal, once-married cardinal. (The cardinal had become a priest after his wife died.)

"It may not be the best way to elect the pope, with the men in red and the secret voting and the white smoke," Father Greeley said. "But as Blackie says in the book, and I may say it, ‘It’s great theater.’ "

Jason Horowitz contributed reporting from Rome for this article.

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