The reigning pontiff in his last earthly moments declares privately in his personal journal that his two-decade reign as head of the Catholic Church may not have been God-ordained at all. Upon his death, these same diaries are removed by illegal means and published, exposing not only this statement, but also private confidences made to the Pope. Careers of clerics are wrecked worldwide. The power of Rome is undermined. The world Church is understandably in shock.

Against this backdrop enters Luca Rossini, a powerful and effective cardinal who is himself struggling with a personal past which haunts him daily. Many feel he should denounce this part of his life, forgive and forget, but ironically to do so would absolve his salvation as well as his curse. Upon the death of the Pope, Rossini finds himself no longer secure. He is alone with no one to protect him, his secrets, or his position from the next Pope who will more than likely be a political enemy. It is not a positive portrayal of the Church. It presents administrators and priests sometimes devoid of faith who act within job descriptions only, and within political scandals best left for the secular world. In the end, though, there is light. The final chapter is surprising.

The clerical setting, even though a powerful story about love, honor, and truth, will limit the book's appeal for the general marketplace, but it does have a specialized audience. Unfortunately of late there has been a deluge of Vatican novels along with TV series such as Nothing Sacred that make stories of mystery and/or scandal in the Church and priests who've lost their faith almost trite. This book isn't. It deserves to be singled out rather than grouped with the masses, pardon the pun.

The issues are heavy: the marriage of priests, the treatment or acceptance of homosexuals, the rights of women. Morris West, the internationally best-selling author of 25 novels and several books of nonfiction, has portrayed a world Church that has erred from its true calling. His main characters feel sincere pain that in mission and in faith the See of Peter has abandoned them. The timing is interesting and, with the story set so tightly in the past several decades of Rome, Argentina, and in the contemporary world, it is easy to draw comparisons between the policies of the aging and frail Pope of Eminence and the present leader of the world Church. Whether justified or not, at times the story appears to contain a personal agenda on the part of West, a nonfiction book in disguise, i.e. a clerical Primary Colors. This does not imply disrespect. Regardless of its place as fiction or fictional nonfiction, West does not approach the subject of the Church lightly or with irreverence.

Eminence has distinguished itself as a selection of the Literary Guild.

Clay Stafford is a writer and filmmaker living outside Nashville.

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