Page 9, 2nd July 1999

2nd July 1999
Page 9
Page 9, 2nd July 1999 — Confusion worse confounded

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Organisations: Christian Church, carabinieri


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Confusion worse confounded

A new encyclopaedia of the Vatican is anything but encyclopaedic, says Brian Brindley

Encyclopaedia of the Vatican and Papacy, edited by Frank J Coppa, Aldwych Press, £70

MANY YEARS AGO, ill the days of Pope Pius XJ1, I encountered in the nave of St Peter's a member of the papal carabinieri, a splendid figure in uniform, complete with cocked hat and white gloves. Mass was being said at a side altar and, when the bell was rung for the Consecration, he knelt on one knee, drew his glittering sword, and pointed it in salute at the Host and chalice during the Elevation. Those were the days when the penitentiaries sat in their confessionals with rods like billiard cues protruding, ready to remit, with a tap on the shoulder, the venial sins of the faithful who knelt as they passed by.

Such objects of admiratio are gone forever, with much else; but the inner workings of the Vatican, the Curia and its Congregations and Commissions and Dicasteries, continue to mystify many of us; they are important, too, because they affect so many aspects of life: the choice of bishops, liturgical revision, the settling of doubts about doctrinal and ethical questions, the discipline of marriage. How the Vatican works is something we all wish to know. So it was with great expectations that I viewed the arrival on my desk of an Encyclopaedia of the Vatican and Papacy. Alas, I was to be disappointed.

The greater part is taken up with biographies of all the popes in alphabetical order from Adalbert to Zosimus. I already have on my shelves two similar books: The Popes (1964) by Eric John and Douglas Woodruff, which has the advantage of including a portrait (of a kind) of every pope; and The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (1986), written single-handedly by the Anglican scholar J N D Kelly, which will not be superseded for a generation. In addition there is An Illustrated History of the Popes (1980) by Michael Walsh, which is in narrative, rather biographical form; and a tome-deluxe by Christopher Hibbert, The Popes (1984), which concentrates on the popes as patrons of the arts. All these other books are arranged in chronological order from Peter to Paul VI or John Paul H.

Frank J Coppa's new work does contain some other useful features: he includes (like Canon Kelly) all the antipopes; and there are summary accounts of all the Ecumenical Councils. Mr Coppa is an historian, and there are numerous short arti cles on the relation ship of the Holy See to secular events, especially in the 20th century; and biographies of some cardinals and other figures. Unfortunately, much of this material is lost in the confusion of the book's arrangement. Mr Coppa has not the mind of an encyclopaedist. To begin with, his idea of alphabetical order is like that of Sherlock Holmes (who, you will remember, indexed "Vampirism" on the same page as "Voyage of the Gloria Scott", "Victor Lynch, the forger", and "Venomous lizard or gila"). Thus there is no entry for "England" either in the body of the work or in the index; quite by chance (while looking for Alexander VI) I came across "Anglican-Vatican Relations" and "Anglo-Vatican Relations". There is no reference at all to Scotland; Ireland gets only "Irish Nationalism and Papacy". Neither "Jew" nor "Israel" is to be found, but there is a long entry under "Zionism, Israel and the Vatican".

The index is perfectly idiotic: most of it consists of naked references to various articles as they appear in the body of the work, in alphabetical order. Thus the index includes the entry "Romanus, pope, 357"; turn to page 357 and there, neatly in the place between "Roman Question" and "Ruffo, Cardinal Fabrizio" is a fourline biography of a pope about whom "no... significant acts or events are known". The index appears to have been compiled by someone who has once seen an index and knows what it should look like but has failed to grasp the principles on which it should be compiled.

These deficiencies of alphabetization and indexing are matched by erratic choice of content.

There is no entry for "Conclave", and no account of the different ways in which papal elections have been conducted (quasi per inspirationem, per scrutinium, and per compromissum) and therefore no explanation of the famous white smoke. There is no entry for Cardinal Rampolla, and no mention of the colpo di stato of the Emperor of Austria that led to the election of Cardinal Sarto as Pius X. There is no account of the ceremonies attendant on the obsequies of one pope and the coronation or inauguration of another. A single entry under "Curia, Roman" lists the Congregations, with brief descriptions of their work, and refers to the Secretariat and Councils and Conunissions; each of these, surely, merits a full entry on its own. There is no account of the apostolic household, or of the guards and chamberlains who have waited on pontiffs — not even the Swiss Guard. In the entry for "Cardinals, College of' there is no list of the suburbicarian dioceses of the cardinal-bishops or of the titular churches of the cardinal-priests, and (believe it or not) no mention at all of the size of the college. There is no explanation of the various ranks of protonotaries and domestic prelates, of whom Adrian Fortescue observed "like the stars, one Monsignore differeth from another Monsignore in glory". There is no account of such obsolete (I think) insignia as the tiara, the flabellum, the ombrellino, and the sedia gestatoria. There are interesting articles on the "Golden Rose" and the "Sword and Hat, Blessed", but none on the Pallium or the Agnus Dei. There is no account of papal heraldry, and no illustrations of papal stemme (or coat of arms) that so usefully adorn the endpapers of Eric John's book.

There is no list of the surnames borne by the popes before they took office. An alphabetical list of popes is copied unthinkingly from Kelly; there is no need for it at all in a book arranged alphabetically. Incredibly, on the other hand, there is no chronological list, so that, if you need to find out who was pope in 500, or 1000, or1500, there is no way, other than by Mal and error, of doing so. IHOPE I will not be thought skittish if I say that I learned more about the Vatican and the Papacy from two novels —Frederick Rolfe's masterpiece Hadrian VII, with its blow by blow account of a Conclave, and Roger Peyrefitte's scandalous The Keys of St Peter, with its bogus minutes of a Congregation — than I have from this superfluous volume.

All but two or three of the contributors are American; the book, though it bears the imprint of a British publisher, was printed Stateside, and spelling and idiom are 100 per cent American. £75 seems a high price for a book of 483 pages. For £70 you can get the latest edition of The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and for another few pounds the paperback edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Popes. It is not just British chauvinism that makes me say that that would be a better way to spend your money.

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