Heirs of the Fisherman by John-Peter Pham, OUP £10.99
What an extraordinary book for OUP to be bringing out at this time, in this year. Heirs of the Fisherman is. in fact, the first English edition of a popular (and expert) preconclave introduction to the mores and history of the papal court and personalities over two millennia. It was originally published in America in 2004. Its purpose then was to prepare readers for the approaching death of John Paul 11, and what would and could lie ahead in the months after his anticipated demise. In particular, Pham wrote about the personalities and formularies involved in the papal succession and election. It had. after all, been over a generation since the previous conclave, years that had seen profound changes in the Catholic Church.
Some of these hardly affected how the Church governed and perpetuated itself. Tradition continued to reign supreme. It still does.
About half of Pham's book is concerned with (the then up-to-date) background information leading to the conclave of 2005.
In the future this material will be read by students eager to know how the Church and its members felt before the election of Benedict XVI. For the
moment it is passé, its information and analysis having inevitably been overtaken by events. The inaccuracy in describing Heirs of the Fisherman as "most timely", or an "assessment of the presentday cardinals" who are papabili. is clearly axiomatic, and yet there is too much of genuine worth in this book to dismiss it simply on the grounds of its inapposite publication date.
The narrative lives up to its tantalising and somewhat voyeuristic subtitle of "Behind the scenes of papal death and succession" with a history stretching back through 2.000 years of increasing surprises and general mystique. Nor is that all.
A year after John Paul's
death and Benedict's eke tion, the matters which engaged Pham in 2004 are startlingly relevant and seem destined to remain so. "The issues" facing the Church have not changed: subsidiarity, religious vocations, clerical scandals both sexual and financial, contraception, ecumenism, theological pluralism, and (every aspect of) the place and role of women. It is also extremely useful to have a properly updated list of all the popes from Peter to John Paul II. This wellpresented, attractive hardback, much more than a coffee table addition to the drawing room, is to be welcomed and enjoyed. despite these caveats.