Politician-turned-author Raymond Flynn (with the help of novelist Robin Moore) has come out with a book whose cleverness and political timeliness would make even Tom Clancy jealous. In The Accidental Pope, first-time novelist Flynn has spun a smart and entertaining tale of the unlikely election and subsequent rise to fame of the Catholic Church's 265th pope. The timing of this novel about Vatican high politics could hardly be more prescient, coming at a time when Pope John Paul II's failing health has Catholics and non-Catholics alike actively speculating on his possible successor.
This admittedly highly incredible tale takes as its launching point the accidental election by the Council of Cardinals of Billy Kelly a Cape Cod fisherman, a widower and father of four, and a former priest who scandalized his Massachusetts parish by leaving the clergy in order to marry to the highest church office. Kelly accepts the cardinals' peculiar offer and ascends to the papacy as Pope Paul II (the latter day fisherman symbolically takes the papal name of history's most famous fisherman, the church's first pope). It soon becomes clear that Paul II was elected not through accident but through divine provenance, and that it will fall on his shoulders to reform the church in hopes of attracting a new generation of Catholics into the fold. Upon taking office, the new pope almost immediately sets out to resolve many of the questions facing modern Catholicism including such weighty issues as the role of women in the church, the interdict against clerical marriage, the increasingly desperate plight of the Third World and the question of contraception. The fictive American pope's role as a Vatican outsider allows him to bring a refreshing perspective to the debate on these issues.
As former mayor of Boston and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican from 1993-97, Flynn intimately understands both American Catholicism and Vatican politics, and his familiarity with his subject matter comes through in his writing. (Not unsurprisingly, both the U.S. ambassador and the state of Massachusetts receive high praise in Flynn's narrative.) Most of the novel's action takes place in Rome, but the fantastic and fast-paced plot takes the reader from Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts, to Belfast, Ireland, to Rakai, Uganda, finally returning to the Eternal City where Flynn's amazing story ends on a note that is simultaneously tragic and hopeful.
Laura Beers is assistant literary editor of The New Republic.