It is the story of the 20th Century’s least-remembered pope, Pius XI, and his attempt at the end of his life to issue a condemnation of Hitler, Mussolini and Anti-Semitism. The setting is Europe just before the start of World War II.
How strongly should a pope or a priest speak out on issues of politics and violence? Can church leaders influence world affairs? Echoes of today’s news.
People at first confuse this pope — Pius XI — with his controversial successor, Pope Pius XII. Pius XII does figure in my story, but at the time he was the pope’s deputy, as Vatican secretary of state.
The other main character is a New York Jesuit journalist, John LaFarge, sent by his editor to Europe in 1938 to assess the prospects for peace. LaFarge had just written a book, Interracial Justice, that called on Catholics to fight for an end to racism in the United States.
Arriving in Rome, LaFarge is summoned by the pope, who asks him to write an encyclical that condemns Nazi Antisemitism. LaFarge is thrown into Vatican politics, with many prelates hoping to block the pope’s daring attack on Hitler.
Two men — a lowly priest and the pope — set out to change history.
The book reads almost as a mystery novel, though it is rigorously researched and annotated nonfiction. I’m attracted to such topics, people who face moral choices in crisis.
Let me know what you think.