Robert Harris’ Conclave: To Pick a Pope

Those of you who have long wished to get an inside look at how the Catholic Church elects a leader (the short line is to the left, or is that the right?) need wait no longer now that Robert Harris has written Conclave: The Power of God, The Ambition of Men (Knopf , 2016).

Cover of Conclave by Robert Harris

Conclave by Robert Harris

Harris has written some thrillers, and Conclave is no exception, given that he takes us inside the Vatican where 117 cardinals (later 118) gather, after the death of the pope, to vote for his successor. In an interview with CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti, Harris, who said his fiction is always “grounded in fact,” acknowledged being given a tour of the areas of the Vatican where conclaves take place and speaking with a cardinal who had taken part in one. He hoped that those who’d helped him would not be “too appalled by the result.”

Cardinals (mostly older men, although those over 80 cannot vote) from all corners of the world arrive at the Vatican for the enclave, held under the supervision of the dean of The College of Cardinals. Having received instructions as to how the process is carried out and prayed for guidance, they go into seclusion in the Sistine Chapel where they will remain, no matter how many ballots it takes, until one cardinal receives 2/3 of the votes and is named the new pontiff of the Catholic Church. Harris said he came to respect the Church during the writing of the book and sees the conclave as “a very clever way to pick a leader,” one that has “served the church well,” given that the cardinals “know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Very early in the book, Harris, through the dean’s observations, makes us aware of those with secret and not-so-secret aspirations to the vacant throne, as well as those who hope to leave the conclave as they arrived, as cardinals. An old saying states that “those who come to the conclave as pope, leave as cardinals,” but that doesn’t stop the not-always discreet lobbying among the group. Gradually, six to eight of the cardinals, worthy and not-so-worthy, become the front runners—and one, who emerges as a holy villain, just happens to be Canadian.

While the balloting itself is interesting, especially when one follows the voting patterns and watches the changes in choice that soon become apparent, Harris throws an unprecedented twist into the proceedings as the dean attempts to ensure the right man ascends to the highest office.



Although the deceased pope is never named, one can’t help but see resemblances to Pope Francis, given the problems he has had to deal with from day one—including a Curia accustomed to holding sway at the Vatican, a corrupt financial institution crying out for reform, a horrendous abuse scandal, clergy he believed had become victims of clericalism, and an attitude of condemnation toward the many Catholics abandoning various Church doctrines. (Interestingly, Pope Francis, in his most recent papal action, bypassed his bishops and gave his priests power to forgive women who have had abortions, although he did not change the church doctrine that considers it a mortal sin. No doubt many women in that situation would not believe they had to obtain forgiveness since they considered abortion a matter of conscience, but others might welcome it.)

But back to Conclave, where ballots continue to be burned so the watching world, including those gathered in St. Peter’s Square, see only black smoke rising into the sky, indicating no leader has been chosen. Security is beefed up for reasons made clear to readers, and a helicopter flies overhead as protesters shout their concerns. The dean, involved in the turmoil surrounding the conclave, hears the protesters and though unable to discern exactly what they are yelling, knows their complaints—pro-divorce, anti-gay marriage, pro-civil unions, anti-contraception, pro-ordination of women, anti-immigration, pro-immigration, etc, etc—all of them having haunted the papacy of the dead pope of whom it was said he “angered the traditionalists and disappointed the liberals.”

Harris’ book is a fast-paced read and a “thriller” to be sure, with a conclusion that many will find difficult to swallow. As to Harris’ hope that those at the Vatican who assisted him in his research will “not be too appalled” at the result, not a chance I’m afraid.

But I, for one, have no problem at all with it.

Featured image: The Sistine Chapel by Alex Proimos of Sydney, Australia CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.



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