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The pundits and the pontiff

Tuesday Book; EMINENCE BY MORRIS WEST, HARVILL, pounds 15.99
PAPAL ELECTIONS are notoriously difficult to predict. The present incumbent, John Paul II, was not mentioned on any pundit's betting slip before he emerged in a puff of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel in 1978 as the first non-Italian to preside at God's business address on earth in 455 years, the first ever Slav to sit on St Peter's throne and the youngest holder of the office in 130 years.

One long-time observer of the Catholic Church could, however, claim with some justification to have seen him coming. Morris West had published in 1963 in The Shoes Of The Fisherman, the story of the emergence of an eastern Europe Pope to turn the world's biggest multinational on its head. The novel was, it was later revealed, on Karol Vojtyla's bookshelves in Krakow before he left for the historic conclave of 120 or so cardinals who have the task of electing the Bishop of Rome.

Twenty years on John Paul is clearly ailing, suffering, it is said, from Parkinson's Disease, immobile, unsmiling and disappointed that the revolution behind the Iron Curtain, which he did so much to foment in Poland, has failed to bring about the spiritual reawakening of Europe which he anticipated. And speculation is rife about who will succeed him and what that will mean for an embattled and divided Catholic Church.

So Morris West had judged the moment right to return to his crystal ball. Eminence is a powerfully written and persuasive critique of much of what is amiss in the contemporary Catholic Church. It is strong on plot, perceptive about the trials and tribulations of holding one's faith in an intrusively secular world, and peopled by characters who will be easily recognisable to any observer of current Vatican machinations. And it contains a prediction.

Its best attribute, however, is pure fiction, Cardinal Lura Rossini, an Italo-Argentinian prelate who was tortured by the military during his country's "dirty war". His freely-acknowledged weaknesses and flawed humanity make him both a mesmerising character and one who lives the yawning gap between the ideals of his church and realities of Catholics' lives.

Though it is Rossini who holds the key to the papal election, the eventual victor is the Jesuit Archbishop of Milan. West is not quite so blatant as to give any one of the princes of the church who figure in his fictional conclave their actual name, but his tip is clear and, compared to his hunch last time, uncontroversial. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan will be the next Pope. The twist in the book is how this liberally-minded intellectual persuades the more traditionalist amongst his colleagues, currently busily denigrating him in private, to vote for him.

The Shoes Of The Fisherman was published three decades ago when West was at the height of his popularity. It was later made into a film with Anthony Quinn. West had another bite at this particular cherry in 1990 with Lazarus, the tale of a hard-line traditionalist pope, with overtones of John Paul II, who recovers from a near-death experience a changed man and sets about a reformist agenda for restoring the church to its former esteem in the hearts of the faithful.

In terms of the author's worrying analysis of the state of Catholicism, Eminence adds little to Lazarus. Yet it is a message that bears repeating. West's feeling for the human cost of outmoded policies remains acute and contemporary as, for instance, when Rossini describes his hardest moment as a priest as holding a baby over the baptismal font and knowing that he will never be able to do that for his own flesh and blood.

Yet, with West now in his eighties, there are occasional hints that he may be stuck in an earlier age. The activities and style of the many journalists who play pivotal roles in the unravelling of the narrative is the least convincing aspect of Eminence. Their intensely personal but oddly stilted reports belong to The Daily Telegraph of the 1960s and bear little resemblance to anything that would appear in newspapers today.

It is, though, a minor complaint. Morris West remains the doyen of the many writers who have tried through journalism and fiction to double-guess and influence the conclave of cardinals, one of the most secretive but influential group of electors in the world. In the realm of fiction, Baron Corvo in Hadrian VII and ex-priest Peter de Rosa in Pope Patrick pale into insignificance alongside West, sacrificing authenticity for cheap humour.

What is remarkable is the apparently undiminished appeal for writers of the papal election. The church is in steep decline in the West in terms of numbers, vocations and influence. Yet we are fascinated with this medieval process to elect a Pope whom most of us will then ignore.

Perhaps it is the power, or the secrecy of that heady mix of religion and politics. Perhaps too it is a result of the exclusion, in our democratic era, of the 1 billion Catholics around the globe from any vote for their leader. At least through books they can have their say and feel a part of the process. And perhaps too it is a tribute to the extraordinary charisma and impact of John Paul II himself. Though aged and unwell, he continues to make news and therefore give the issue of his successor a broader resonance in an otherwise secular age.

The author's `The She-Pope' is published by Heinemann.

Peter Stanford