Reviewed by Patricia Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962-64)
Cynthia Clare Pantedosi, the innocent, young protagonist of Roland Merullo’s novel, Vatican Waltz, enjoys a rich prayer life. Raised a Catholic in Boston, Cynthia senses that God may be communicating with her through visions, but she’s aware that they might simply be foolish day dreams. She’s a serious, humble woman who studies nursing and cooks for her father whose English still reflects his deep, Italian roots. She discusses her visions with Father Alberto, a liberal Catholic priest who comes to accept that Cynthia is not disturbed, and that God may be calling her to the priesthood.
It is Father Alberto who gives Cynthia the nudge she needs to meet with the bishop who, after interviewing Cynthia, reluctantly points her toward Rome. The novel is ultimately about the equality of women within the Roman Catholic Church. Are women of equal worth before God or are they not? After all, the Catholic Church has side-stepped Paul’s words to the Galatians (3:26-29) about the People of God being neither Jew nor Greek; slave nor freeman; male nor female. Women are presently allowed to read Scripture at Mass and serve as Eucharistic ministers, but they may not even be deacons, even though history is clear that women served as deacons in the early church.
At first, Merullo’s book reminded me of The Accidental Pope (St. Martin’s, 2001), a novel by once Boston mayor and U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Ray Flynn, and bestselling author, Robin Moore. In their novel, a widowed New England fisherman, who had left the priesthood to marry, becomes Pope and moves into the Vatican with his four children in tow. He, like Pope Francis, who has been critical of “unfettered capitalism,” returns the Church to its “option for the poor,” the Second Vatican Council phrase stating that the Kingdom of God is here, now. The poor should not have to wait till after their deaths to know it. It is our duty to afford them the means by which their lives will be dignified and not as a result of a hypothetical “trickle down” economy.
Twelve years after the publication of The Accidental Pope, Pope Francis has become the humble fisher of men Flynn and Moore imagined, and author Merullo, as well, reaching out to the “least among us,” washing the feet of a Muslim woman, embracing a man so disfigured, we at home were tempted to turn away from the image. Francis lives in the Casa Santa Marta, a residence for visiting clergy and shuns a throne. He chooses simple clothing over gilded vestments. A man from Argentina, he knows the plight of the destitute. He has rebuked a bishop who flaunted his power with the resources of the faithful.
Catholics who have been waiting for reform are happy with Francis. Yet, although the ordination of women would solve so many of our problems, the Pope says his hands are tied. There can’t even be a discussion about the issue because, the argument goes, Jesus was a man. At the altar, the priest represents Jesus. During the Consecration, for example, Catholics believe the bread and wine become, in essence but not appearance, the body and blood of Christ. They are not mere symbols of Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper. Priests must resemble Christ in his manhood for the sacrament to be valid. Male and female Catholic theologians have disputed this narrow interpretation, but tradition in the Catholic Church is weightier than the Basilica of St. Peter’s.
The Magisterium, derived from Scripture and over two thousand years of tradition, comprises the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. It doesn’t budge easily, especially in response to what most Catholics think is sensible, as in the case of women’s ordination, optional celibacy for priests, or the removal of the prohibition against contraception. (Most Catholics think the latter is nonsense, especially in light of the thousands of women who die in childbirth each year, and the millions who must provide for children for whom they have no resources, not even breast milk.)
Author Merullo is keenly familiar with the fissures in the Church that have caused believers to split off like bits of a continent that break off in response to the shifting of tectonic plates. In an early passage, Cynthia struggles with these issues after the death (murder?) of her beloved advisor, Father Alberto:
“I was starting to feel my love of the Church unraveling like a blouse with a pulled thread. I still had my prayer life-more intense than ever-but the Mass, the most sacred rite of my faith, had started to lose its beauty and power, and that terrified and upset me. In a very real way, the act of attending Mass stood at the center of my life. It meant more to me than schoolwork or career. It was like anything else people look forward to for comfort and meaning-seeing their children, making love with their spouse, a favorite meal, a visit with friends, a run on the beach-not so much an addiction as one of the main pillars of my happiness. Father Alberto’s death had been like an earthquake; the pillar had cracked and become unstable. Every time I sat in the pew and listened to Father Gerencia’s flat voice pronouncing stale platitudes like “God is love, we must love one another as God loves us,” I could feel the pillar tilting and shifting, the life above it sliding down and to the side, more and more of my prayer time being occupied with a stony, dusty bitterness.”
Of this I’m certain: If the Church had ordained women even fifty years ago, the pedophilia that has turned my church inside out, that has victimized thousands of young children, mostly boys, would never have happened. Catholics who remain faithful are not faithful to the institutional church. They know the difference and won’t let the bastards who abused children, nor the bishops who covered up their crimes, rob them of the church they love. We have suffered with the victims, have known humiliation, and are damn angry at the men who abused their power and the system that concealed the abuse. Many Catholics have walked away. Some of these, however, have told me that, in their hearts, they’re still Catholics. The Catholic culture can seem as deeply ingrained as our nationality or ethnicity. It is as if there were Catholic genes in our DNA.
Although Merullo surely wrote most of his book, if not all, before Pope Francis was elected, the author’s Cardinal Zozzimo could have been modeled after Francis, a humble man who is playful with children, does not judge gays, and walks among the poor and homeless.
Cynthia finally meets Zozzimo after encountering the treacherous, lethal tactics of “Lamb of God,” a Dan Brown-styled, murderous cult that is likely threatening the elusive cardinal as well. Zozzimo recognizes that Cynthia may be the person the Church has needed to return it to the values shared by the earliest Christians. Will he be the figure who paves the way for Cynthia to be the first legitimately ordained (in the eyes of the institutional church) Catholic woman priest?
I wanted the plot to stay on a serious course, wanted the obstacles to be credible. What were the reasons, for example, behind the nefarious exploits of the cult? In the end, Merullo evokes the reader’s imagination, perhaps in the way Catholics who love Pope Francis await the outcome of his papacy. Will he execute the changes Catholics long for, or will he only pave the way for the Pope who will? I yearn for the first outcome, but, at the very least, need the second. I can’t begin to consider that he might do neither.
Despite my cavil about the Dan Brown detour, I thank Roland Merullo for bringing the issues to life through Cynthia. He writes in her voice and that voice is credible.
There is hope for the Catholic Church. After all, according to Austrian priest, Father Helmut Schuller, who founded the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, “the faith of the Catholic Church was once in the hands of Mary Magdalene.” Several Catholic groups are working for reform: Call to Action, Future Church, Voice of the Faithful, and the Women’s Ordination Conference are just a few. Already there are Roman Catholic Women Priests, believed by many to have been legitimately ordained by a male successor of St. Peter. These women have been excommunicated, and those women preparing to become priests will be excommunicated, but they persist, forming their own communities, sometimes sharing pastoral responsibilities with priests who have relinquished their vows to marry. They celebrate Mass, serve the poor, and administer the sacraments. Some nuns in hospitals not served by Catholic priests are hearing the confessions of the dying, giving the blessing so death may be peaceful. Catholics are finding their own ways of getting around the institutional Church. In the meantime, Pope Francis will soon be appointing several new cardinals, who, in turn, will choose the next pope. The ones who chose Francis did not do so badly. Maybe we’re turning the corner.
Patricia Taylor Edmisten’s latest book is A Longing for Wisdom: One Woman’s Conscience and her Church. She also wrote Nicaragua Divided: La Prensa and the Chamorro Legacy, The Mourning of Angels, her Peace Corps novel, Wild Women with Tender Hearts, winner of the 2007 Peace Corps Writers Award for Poetry, and The Treasures of Pensacola Beach. Additionally, she wrote the prologue and afterword to, and translation of, The Autobiography of María Elena Moyano: The Life and Death of a Peruvian Activist. Edmisten lives in Pensacola, Florida and Montezuma, North Carolina.