A recent French novel imagines an Irish pope who supports married priests, goes drinking in a Donegal pub and survives an attempt on his life.
In a recent French book, Le Pont Des Anges, author Philippe
le Guillou imagines that an Irish Benedictine monk from a monastery
code-named “Abbey G” will be elected pope in the middle of the present
One or more of the monks of Glenstal Abbey might be excited, or
appalled, at the prospect.
It is true that Le Guillou situates
Abbey G in Donegal, rather than Limerick. Donegal is more rugged, more
ascetic, more monastic than Limerick – and it has much more tourbe,
which means turf. The words tourbe and tourbière (bog) occur regularly
in this book.
Some French people do indeed imagine that turf is
characteristic of the Irish soul.
I remember asking Louis Bouyer, the
eminent French spiritual writer, who had recently visited Maynooth, what
he thought of my native land. He replied unhesitatingly, “Du tourbe!”
Guillou wrote an earlier novel, Le Dieu Noir in 1987, which imagined
the election of the first black African pope, Miltiade II. Le Pont Des
Anges takes up where the previous book ended.
Miltiade has had a
long and difficult reign. A holy and intelligent man, he now (sometime
around 2030) lies dying, demoralised and almost despairing.
pope dies, and Tom Sullivan, former abbot of Abbey G in Donegal, and
more recently cardinal archbishop of Armagh, finds himself – to his
considerable astonishment – walking out of the ensuing conclave as Pope
Holy and intelligent, he is a compromise candidate
between various high-powered, ambitious and sometimes ruthless
competitors. He is also a compromise between a first-world candidate and
one from the impoverished third world.
The reader must determine where
Ireland lies on a spectrum from highly developed nations to banana
republics – taking into account all that tourbe and the economic
The main points of Pope Clement’s, or perhaps le
Guillou’s agenda begin to emerge. He appoints bishops as patriarchs in
different parts of the world, mostly outside Europe.
Their task will be
to federate the people of God, forming a vital link between the faithful
in all their diversity and the pope at Rome. It becomes clear, too,
that Clement is open to the idea of married priests – though not of
married bishops, religious, or monks. There seems to be no question of
women priests in Pope Clement’s mind.
It is perhaps significant of
where le Guillou is coming from that there are scarcely any women in
his book – there is just one of any importance, Francesca. She is a
stock Roman hostess of soirées, where cardinals can be indiscreet
(verbally), and Francesca’s guests can get to know how old mother
Vatican is chugging along at the time.
character who helps get us out of the churches is Simon Viarmes, a
painter of talent who forms a friendship with the pope based on mutual
respect. They both also have the habit of wandering about Rome by night –
incognito, in the Pope’s case.
Viarmes gets it into his head that
the pope needs beautiful contemporary paintings of the 10 angels
adorning the bridge across the Tiber near the Castel’Sant-Angelo. So he
goes among the Caravaggesque ragazzi of Rome in pursuit of likely
candidates to pose nude.
A few years ago, a young woman leaped
over a barrier in St Peter’s during a ceremony and knocked Pope Benedict
to the ground. The author fictionalises this event. This time, an
excited youth, wondering if he has a vocation to the priesthood, decides
to button-hole the pope on the topic.
When the pope recovers from the
surprise of being knocked over on his own tourbe, he talks to the boy
and even employs him as a sacristan. The artist Viarmes also employs
him, as another of his angels.
Quite soon after his election, Pope
Clement makes a private visit to Donegal for the burial of a former
abbot of his monastery. He goes out for a walk near night-fall and gets
lost amid all that tourbe. He wanders around until, seeing the light of a
small pub in a lunar landscape, he goes in, joins the chat, and has a
couple of pints. No-body asks him who he is.
And I suppose he just
happens to have a few banknotes in his back pocket to pay for his
Pope Clement’s most significant journey is to South
America, which is on the brink of schism from Rome, under the ruthless
leadership of Cardinal Álvarez of São Paulo. For years, Álvarez has not
bothered with daily Mass, the real presence, and certainly not with the
primacy of Rome.
All that matters for him is the struggle of the
poor against oppression and injustice. But his clandestine promotion of
violent methods and his links to terrorist organisations are an open
There ensues an attempt on the Pope’s life. Clement bleeds
copiously and, above all, symbolically. His survival is regarded as a
The pope and the cardinal come face to face.
the infallible knock-out punch-line, and then returns to Rome, tired but
Good read. Elegant French.
* Fr Andrew Nugent is a Glenstal monk and crime novelist