Absolute Monarchs

The institution of the Pope – irrefutable source of dogma for Catholics – has over the ages, enjoyed more reverence and better press than in modern days, and has at times been the focus of fiction. Kate Mosse cleverly uses the Pope’s role in medieval tales of torture and Crusades against the Cathars in her mystery – The Winter Ghosts. But, John Julius Norwich’s nonfiction historical perspective across the centuries from Peter through Vatican II in his chronicle of the papacy – Absolute Monarchs – examines the facts behind the stories. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Norwich’s book reads like a text – not quite the “beach-read” described by Bill Keller in his review for the New York Times – 2000 Years of Popes, Sacred and Profane – but Norwich does insert some humor with his own irreverent commentary, and shows no mercy with some of the “idiotic” politics. If you are a fan of exploring family trees or the evolution of dynastic power, Norwich’s study of the popes delivers the longest running line in history – some pious, some crazy, most power-hungry – some great.

Gregory the Great (590-604), a former wealthy civil servant who gave away his lands to the church (a practice that continued through the ages to increase the church’s coffers and influence) had the distinction of being the first monk to become a pope. Although reluctant to take the mantle, preferring the quiet of the monastery, Gregory accomplishments were “great” – from reorganization to foreign relations, along with the famous Gregorian chant (not the calendar; that came with Gregory XIII in 1582).

As I continued to study the popes by Norwich, I came across John Anderson’s article for the New York Times – Who Died and Made You Pope? describing a new film “We Have a Pope,” scheduled for release on Good Friday this week. Pope Celestine V is the focus, another monk elected in 1294. Never to be designated “great” – Norwich describes him as

“…one of the most unsuitable men ever to occupy, however briefly, the papal throne…an eighty-five year old peasant who had lived for more than six decades as a hermit…he lasted for five months, then wisely announced his abdication – the only one in papal history.”

Popes are elected for life, but they can quit, and the film promises an Italian comedy.

I am still reading Absolute Monarchy (and will be for a while – it can only be taken in episodes), but future chapter titles are motivating me onward: “The Monsters” with tales of those ludicrous Borgias; “The Jesuits and the Revolution”; “Pope Joan” – now I want to read the Donna Woolfolk Cross novel.