Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Morris West in The Shoes of the Fisherman

Morris West was a prolific Australian author who died in circumstances he probably would have wished—sitting at his desk writing the final chapters of his book, The Last Confession.

He trained to be a Christian Teaching Brother but did not take his final vows. Living for most of his life in Europe, he addressed themes in politics, particularly the role of the Roman Catholic Church in shaping international affairs.

It is interesting to note that his popular book, The Shoes of the Fisherman, which envisaged the election of a Slavic Pope, was published in 1963, fifteen years before the ascension of the Polish priest, KarolWojtyla, to become John Paul II.

The plot of many of his novels played around a central question. In this excerpt from The Shoes of the Fisherman, which was adapted into a film, Morris West raises important questions about the nature of service and the qualities of effective leadership.

It begins with a conversation between two cardinals who had gathered to elect a new Pope.

Cardinal Rinaldi said, "What would you do if you had to begin again?"
"I've thought about it often," said Leone heavily.

"If I didn't marry—and I'm not sure but that's what I needed to make me half human—I'd be a country priest with just enough theology to hear confession and just enough Latin to get through Mass and the sacramental formulae. But with heart enough to know what griped in the guts of other men and made them cry into their pillows at night.

I'd sit in front of my church on a summer evening and read my office and talk about the weather and the crops and learn to be gentle with the poor and humble with the unhappy ones.... You know what I am now? A walking encyclopaedia of dogma and theological controversy. I can smell out an error faster than a Dominican. And what does it mean?

Nothing. Who cares about theology except the theologians? We are necessary but less important than we think. The church is Christ—Christ and people. And all the people want to know is whether or no there is a God and what is His relationship with them and how they can get back to Him when they stray."

"Large questions," said Rinaldi gently, "not to be answered by small minds or gross ones."

Leone shook his lion's mane stubbornly.
"For the people, they come down to simplicities!
Why shouldn't I covet my neighbour's wife?
Who takes the revenge that is forbidden to me?
And who cares when I am sick and tired and dying in an upstairs room?
I can give them a theologian's answer. But whom do they believe but the man who feels the answers in his heart and bears the scars of their consequences in his own flesh?
Where are the men like that?
Is there one among all of us who can wear the red hat?”

Geoff Pound

Source: Morris West, The Shoes of the Fisherman, Heinemann, London 1963, 6-7.