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The Last Pope

Front cover of an edition of The Last Pope.

The Last Pope (ISBN 1402202458) is a novel written by David Osborn. It was first published in 2005. It takes place after the death of the fictional Pope Gregory XVIII, where the role of his successor comes down to an election between a hard-line conservative cardinal, and a reluctant challenger haunted by his dreams. The story covers the events of the conclave, with frequent flashbacks to previous events.

Synopsis

The passing of humble and beloved Pope Gregory XVIII brings the lords of the Church to the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome to meet in its secret recesses and elect a new pope. One candidate is a caring but guilt-ridden cardinal--the same man seeking divine reprieve from his torturous dreams. The other was his confessor, a staunch defender of the Church's most conservative beliefs. At stake--the future of the Church itself.

Plot

The novel opens with a young priest, Father Agosto Mancini, hearing confessions in Rome. One of the penitents describes a dream, in which he had been a man in second century Carthage who murdered his friend to steal his money and young wife, only to later tire of the woman and murder her too. The penitent claims he does not sin by day but suffers from constant dreams where he commits horrible crimes. As the man leaves, the Father Mancini is horrified to notice that the penitent is a fellow priest. Forty years later, Mancini, now a cardinal, is awoken by his assistant to respond to the death of Pope Gregory XVIII. Acting in his role as camerlengo, he oversees the pope's funeral. Meanwhile, Cardinal Ignatius Heriot, the penitent from the opening scene, arrives at the Vatican to take part in conclave.

Six months before the events of the conclave, a prostitute named Francesca Berenson wakes up in her boyfriend's apartment. After he does not return home, she visits Sotheby's. There, she meets a priest, Father John Zacharias. After she has a panic attack and leaves, he follows her and takes her to dinner to help her calm down. There, she opens up about the scandalous details of her past and is amazed at his compassion. That evening, she packs her possessions and leaves her boyfriend's home. That night, she dwells on her past, from her abuse at the hands of her priest as a teenager to the series of men who have used and abused her over the years, and her descent into prostitution. Realizing she wants to leave this life behind her, she contacts Father Zacharias and asks to join his traveling ministry. Father Zacharias dwells on his own past,  including how the harsh condemnation from the Vatican of an attempt at a dialogue about reform in the Church from several nuns he knew led to one's suicide, and how he subsequently left his parish to begin a ministry of speaking out against corruption in the Church.

Soon thereafter, Cardinal Ignatious Heriot is welcomed at the White House as one of the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That evening, he discusses recent events within the Church, as well as the calls for reform made by Father Zacharias, with the President and his family. He responds to their questions with unease, avoiding answering in support of or in opposition to Father Zacharias and his policies. Ignatius walks through the district, hoping to clear his head of his continued dreams of betrayal.

The next spring, after the death of Pope Gregory XVIII, the conclave is assembled. Ignatius dwells on his past, including his past work as a small parish priest, and before that, the drowning death of his brother, for which he blames himself.

A few months prior, Cardinal Mancini discusses the issue of Father Zacharias with Pope Gregory XVIII, requesting be censored and punished; however, the Pope refuses, instead appointing Ignatius to speak with Father Zacharias.

As the conclave progresses, Cardinal WIlliam Ngordo, an African cardinal, attempts to convince Ignatius to openly run as a candidate, while rallying votes from the Third World in Heriot's favor. No candidate is able to capture enough votes to win.

In the February before the conclave, Sister Jessica, the young administrative assistant to Ignatius, ruminates on the increasingly strict rules she lives under and struggles to come to terms with her vocation. She receives a letter for Cardinal Heriot from the Pope, asking him to meet with Father Zacharias. He allows her to keep the letter as an early birthday present.

Father Zacharias’ ministry grows, and Francesca helps him organize the increasingly large venues needed to seat the growing crowds. At a large gathering at a football stadium, a man attacks Father Zacharias with a belt, calling him a heretic. However, Father Zacharias forgives the man, bringing him to tears. As Francesca later tends his wound, she feels conflicted by the fact that despite the platonic nature of their relationship, he is the first man she truly loves.

Ignatius dines with his friend, a novelist he met after releasing his own book, and her husband, along with various other guests. To his friend's chagrin, one of the guests, the beautiful wife of a politician, flirts outrageously with Ignatius, though he later claims it did not bother him. However, inwardly, he questions the necessity of the vow of celibacy he took as a priest. Later, he dines with Father Zacharias and Francesca, and the two discuss Father Zacharias’ ministry, but Father Zacharias refuses to budge on his stances.

After the dinner with Father Zacharias, Ignatius learns of the death of Sister Jessica's mother. He flies to West Virginia to lend help in any way he can and officiate the funeral Mass. After the service, as he bids Sister Jessica farewell, he holds her chin and kisses her on the cheek, which a photographer captures on film after making a snide remark. The pictures reach the attention of Cardinal Mancini and his personal assistant, who shares them with his lover. Brother Demetrius, a monk who is horrified at the scandal and abuse that takes place among Cardinal Mancini's staff, writes a letter to Father Zacharias warning that elements within the Church plan his excommunication if Cardinal Mancini is made Pope.

Ignatius shares his dreams with his novelist friend, and shares the fact that his research has proven his nightmares are all true historical events. Meanwhile, Cardinal Mancini's secretary calls Sister Jessica's superior who, out of spite towards the younger woman, refuses to clear her name in regards to the untrue allegations of an improper relationship between her and Ignatious.

Francesca goes to the bar of a hotel where Father Zacharias’ entourage is staying. She is shocked and humiliated when a man mistakes her as a prostitute and propositions her. However, her confidence is restored when the bartender protects her and removes the man. She later calls Ignatius to set up a meeting, where she tells him about the letter threatening Father Zacharias’ possible excommunication. She is seen by a security guard leaving Ignatius’ apartment, who tells Sister Jessica's superior about seeing Francesca, who informs Cardinal Mancini's personal assistant.

Ignatius has another dream, in which he is Judas and betrays Christ. The next day, at conclave, Ignatius awakes to discover that a report detailing the fact that Francesca's car had been seen at his apartment had been anonymously delivered to all the cardinals, implying a sex scandal. However, instead of refuting the rumors, Ignatius defends Francesca, telling the cardinals that they would do well to set her as a moral example. When a cardinal calls him Judas, Ignatius accepts the charges, stating that he has betrayed Christ, as have many of the cardinals, and that he plans on rectifying this by defending Father Zacharias, whether from the office of Pope or as a common priest. The college of cardinals shifts his favor, and shortly thereafter elects him as Pope. Ignatius’ first act as Pope is to hold Mass in a common working class church in Rome instead of in the Vatican. In the epilogue, Ignatius discusses some of the reforms he has initiated and notes that the bad dreams which have plagued him for decades have ceased.

Main characters

  • Cardinal Ignatius Heriot is the chief protagonist of the novel, and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. He has spent the majority of his career serving the poor parishes within his archdiocese. His constant nightmares, in which he betrays those close to him, lead him to become a priest in the hopes of ending them. He is reluctant to be considered as a future Pope but stands as the only viable opponent to the ultra-conservative Cardinal Mancini.
  • Cardinal Agosto Mancini is the chief antagonist of the novel, and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. He hopes to become the next pope and to reestablish the Vatican's most conservative ideologies.
  • Father John Zacharias is a firebrand priest who travels around the United States urging reform within the Church and an end to Vatican corruption. His demands gain widespread support but is opposed by the more conservative elements within the Church.
  • Francesca Berenson is a former prostitute who escapes her abusive past and current lifestyle by joining Father Zacharias’ ministry. Throughout the novel, she becomes one of his closest confidants.
  • Sister Jessica is a young nun who works as Cardinal Heriot's personal assistant. Despite her young age, she has been appointed to the position, earning her the envy of her superior.
  • Cardinal William Ngordo is an African cardinal who has influence over the cardinals from the Third World. He supports Cardinal Heriot as a potential candidate for the office of the Pope and attempts to persuade him to embrace this option.
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