The lead article in the Review section of the March 9 Wall Street Journal began “The next pope should be a man who…”
But, wait. Before you start to fill in the characteristics: What if the next pope is a woman?
In Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Magnificat (Hidden Knowledge, 1999) that’s exactly what happens. The papal conclave is shaken to its foundations when the pope it elects turns out to be not just a woman, but a non-Catholic, and a non-European. Moved by the Holy Spirit, all of the cardinals have written the name of Zhuang Renxin, who turns out to be a widowed magistrate from a highly politicized Tibetan-border region of The People’s Republic of China.
Pope An, as she chooses to be called, may be brand-new to Catholicism but she’s wise to the ways of party politics and government corruption. She’s appalled by the Vatican, from its jewel-encrusted costumes to social protocols that prevent her staff from offering a guest a cup of tea unless the pope herself has been served first. (Ironically, relaxation of the tea-service protocol averts an attempt on her life.)
For her crash course in Catholicism, Pope An looks to the early documents of the church and the life of Jesus. She concludes there is little support in the church’s early history for many of the religion’s most controversial contemporary practices. In short order, Pope An is allowing priests to marry, opening the priesthood to women, and eliminating the luxury and ostentation that surrounds the Vatican. Her changes threaten the political, religious, financial, and cultural structures of Catholic countries worldwide and enrage many of the cardinals who represent them.
While Yarbro, thanks to her usual meticulous research, handles issues of politics and religious dogma deftly, Magnificat is as much contemporary thriller as alternate history. As Pope An and her followers (including a vocal minority of the cardinals) embark on these sweeping changes, mysterious deaths, poisonings, murder, blackmail, and bombings ensue. Someone is trying to kill the new pope, and suspects abound, from sophisticated intelligence operatives from the U.S. and Russian governments to a crew of unsavory hit men funded by the Protestant religious right in the U.S.
Ready to dive into Magnificat for an insight into the real-life conclave going on right now at the Vatican? You’ll find electronic versions on Amazon.com and at Hidden Knowledge, as well as on iTunes and the Barnes and Noble website.
Just don’t look for at your neighborhood bookstore. Magnificat has never appeared in print.
Yarbro, best known for her historical Saint-Germain vampire series, wrote Magnificat in the early 1990s not because it fit a publishing niche but because she felt compelled to tell the story.
“Everyone once in a while I have a book that insists on being written, and Magnificat was one of those books,” she says.
But, once it was completed, the manuscript turned out to be impossible to place. Despite Yarbro’s established reputation, publishers weren’t eager to bet on a lengthy thriller about Vatican corruption, with strong feminist and fantasy elements.
Yarbro eventually brought her manuscript to Hidden Knowledge publisher Michael Ward, a pioneer in electronic publishing. As a result, Magnificat became one of the first novels to have its initial publication in ebook format. It came out to favorable reviews from Analog, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly in 1999. (Ward recalls with some amusement that the review copy CDs he sent out had to be accompanied by printouts for less-than-computer-savvy reviewers.)
Yarbro recalls that much of the inspiration for Magnificat came from discussions with a relative who had converted to Catholicism.
“At one point he said it was very important that ‘Catholic’ meant ‘universal,'” Yarbro recalls. “And that anyone on earth, through the grace of God, could be pope.”
The comments haunted her. Yarbro kept asking herself “what if?” and eventually devised an ingenious scenario by which a non-Catholic could be elected pope and the election would be binding.
Magnificat opens with the behind-the-scenes story of that vote — actually, two votes, because the cardinals attempt to conceal the results of the unanimous initial election and pass off one of their own as the winner. The rapid demise of their fraudulent pope frightens them into cooperating, however reluctantly, when the results of their second vote are, again, mysteriously unanimous.
Yarbro’s cardinals represent the far-flung factions of the Catholic church. They include a Los Angeles prelate who has risen to prominence for his role in quelling gang violence, a radical socialist from South America, a staunch conservative from Canada, and a liberal Texan (whose savvy, down-home political observations may put you in mind of the late Molly Ivins).
Magnificat includes hints of the pedophilia scandals that have shaken the church in the years since Magnificat was originally published. But only hints.
“When I first put the book together I had more about misbehaving bishops and cardinals,” Yarbro recalls. “But that was one of the Elements that every single place I submitted felt was too much. I left in some oblique references.”
What else about Magnificat might be different if she were writing the book today?
“There’d be a lot more nuns in the in the story,” Yarbro says. “Powerful religious women, like the ones Pope Benedict rebuked for being politically active. Pope An would have some real allies.”
It’s interesting to contemplate what those women, and their points of view, might have added to the book. For while the cardinals, diplomats, and journalists in Magnificat come to life on the pages, Pope An herself remains very much a mystery — one that Yarbro reveals only in the final pages of the book.
Ironically, if Magnificat had initially appeared only in print, it might no longer be in stores. But now that electronic publishing is widespread, this thought-provoking book is completely accessible — as well as wonderfully timely.