Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Temple Micah.
Micah Reader in December 2018 by Brenda Levenson
Conclave, by Robert Harris was published in 2016. The title borrows a word that is rarely used and designates a “private meeting or a secret assembly.” Aptly enough, it applies to the assembly of cardinals, “the princes of Catholicism” as one reader noted, who gather at the Vatican following the death of the pope, for the purpose of electing a new one. The author sets the story in 2022, lest his readers might draw conclusions applying to current times.
The cardinals come from all parts of the world and at first congregate according to their nationality and common language. Eventually they break from the mold to extend their social contacts. Our readers remarked on the number of tongues cardinals speak, as they preside over the churches of many different countries in the course of their career. Latin unites them to a point. In the Middle ages it was the choice language of the intellectual elites, spoken by all university students. In later centuries it would be replaced by French as the diplomatic form of communication. Our readers brought up the role of Hebrew today as playing that of Latin in the past, at least in terms of our prayer book, which can present a problem if the translation is not in English!
Readers shared their view of a conclave as similar to a political convention in which members engage in infighting. Politics abound and secrets are sometimes revealed. The pomp and circumstance that sets Catholicism apart from other religions was meant to intimidate the illiterate masses of the past, as were the majestic cathedrals they built with their blood. The beautiful stained glass windows were to tell the story of Christianity as did the icons of earlier times. Observant Catholics are not allowed to read the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible), could it be for fear of contamination to the humanistic content of Deuteronomy? Nuns were traditionally teachers, but at the Conclave they served as waitresses, bringing the cardinals their meals in the dining room which they then cleaned. Equality of women was not on the agenda.
Our readers praised the “brilliant writing” and the choice of words by which Robert Harris keeps our interest as suspense builds up. Every cardinal present has the required qualities and authority to be the new pope, but which one is it to be is the question that hangs as Jacobo Lomeli, who is in charge of the happenings, prays not be elected. The ending of the book is unexpected and, dare I add, funny?