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Thursday, December 6, 2012

“Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession”, by John-Peter Pham


384 pages, Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0195178340

When Pope John Paul II died the election of his successor had a tremendous impact not only on the more than one billion Catholics around the world, but perhaps even more far-reaching impact on the rest of the world than many analysts appreciate. Not only will the next Pope lead his fellow Catholics, but he will have a significant role to play on the world stage. Despite this import, the way that the Roman Catholic Church goes about selecting its head is a mystery to most outsiders (and probably the majority of its own members). John Peter Pham's Heirs of the Fisherman is the latest in a series of books about the Conclave, the centuries-old ritual of Papal death and succession, a ritual we just a few ago. What distinguishes this book from similar books (e.g., John Allen's Conclave) is that its writing style is more scholarly/academic (so it is not an easy read for non-academics) than Allen's book, which is more popular and written in plain English so that lay audience could pick it up quickly. Like Allen’s, it describes the process of Papal death and succession, the issues and politics at play, and also has the profiles of the leading Papal candidates.

Consequently, I am delighted that John-Peter Pham has written a book that presents a fascinating history of this electoral process and a thoughtful analysis of its current political dynamics. In this light the best part of the book is, in my opinion, the middle section where the author takes the reader through the conclave process step by step and gives fascinating historical anecdotes to illustrate his points. Its first rate political writing. However, Pham's book has its unique features as well, such as a detailed explanation on the evolution of Papal elections over two thousand years (Papal election supposed to be more democratic and participatory during early Church period, where all citizens of Rome could cast their ballots for the new Pope, compared with today, where only 120 cardinals under the age of 80 could vote on it). It also has a detailed description of all Papal elections in 20th century and the issues/politics behind each of them. One would understand that the struggle between liberal/reformist wing of the Catholic Church versus the conservative/traditionalist wing is nothing new; it has been around for ages, probably since the beginning of the Church.

Overall, it is a great book for those who want to understand the Conclave. The book should not be shelved too quickly, since given that the current Pope is already at an advanced age, we might see another Conclave within the next few years, with the same issues and mostly the same Papal candidates at play.

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