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John Julius Norwich: A Papal History

“It would have been a good last chapter, but there you have it,” says John Julius Norwich “no one knew it was going to happen.” If the British historian and traveller had published ‘The Popes: A History’ in 2013 instead of 2011, he would have had for his epilogue an event quite unlike any other in the history of the papacy – the resignation of a pope. An agnostic who takes care to establish he has no axe to grind, Norwich (officially the 2nd Viscount Norwich) has met four popes in person and knows the others as intimately.

John Julius Norwich at Taprobane Island, Weligama last month. 

His book touches on the lives of 265 of them and stretches to encompass usurpers and antipopes. Beginning with St. Peter, considered the first pope by many, to his modern counterparts who live in an unimaginably different world as the leaders of a Catholic church over 1.2 billion strong, Norwich gives us a glimpse into the lives of the men who created the ‘world’s oldest continuing institution’ and in the process, helped shape the modern world.

Here to speak at the recently concluded Serendip Coast Festival in Galle, Norwich was last in Sri Lanka 20 years ago to visit a friend. His desire to write a book about the popes is in fact older, an ambition he has harboured for close to 25 years. Norwich resigned from a distinguished career in the Foreign Service in 1964 to become a writer.

He has since authored over a dozen books, of particular note being multiple volumes on the histories of Byzantium and Venice. (Along the way he also wrote and presented some 30 historical documentaries for the BBC alongside other programmes for T.V and radio.) However, interest in his book on the popes has surged in the wake of recent events. Now, as believers watch Pope Francis for clues as to how he will cope with Pope Benedict still on the premises as it were, Norwich has his own take on the resignation – “My view is that a pope cannot or should not resign.”

In 2000 years, only two popes have ever abdicated, but neither case is remotely parallel to this one because they were forced to do so. When asked if he would speculate about what prompted the resignation, Norwich, now in his eighties himself, says: “I think he was probably just a tired old man, I feel rather sympathetic to him myself.” This doesn’t mean though that he looks favourably on the resignation. Pope John Paul II, who was diagnosed in 2001 with Parkinson’s Disease and continued to serve (aided by the Curia) until his death in 2005, exemplifies his thinking. “You can’t resign. It’s a life sentence.”

Aside from the papacy itself, popes have typically had little in common: some were 12 years old when elected, others were closing in on 80. They were the sons of farmers and aristocrats; one reigned for a month, another for quarter a century. Their influence on the secular world waxed and waned with the quality of their alliances. Says Norwich: “Some were violently ambitious, some absolutely hated the idea of being pope and desperately wished they hadn’t been elected. Some genuinely felt they could do good, some felt the situation was hopeless and they could never do good. Some actually enjoyed it and some hated every second of it.”

He found evidence of unsuitability with the likes of Pope Leo X who wrote to his brother: “God has given us the papacy, now let us enjoy it.” The Borgia Pope Alexander VI was so controversial that he has his own TV series. Some Popes have been a blend of vice and virtue. While Sixtus IV made an eight-year-old boy the archbishop of Lisbon, he also commissioned the Sistine Chapel. Innocent III was instrumental in consolidating the Papal States but initiated the horrors of Fourth Crusade. The medieval popes for all their shortcomings were the men who turned Rome from a marshy, “weedy little malarial hot pot” into a great Baroque city. There was Pope Leo I, who bought off Attila the Hun and protected Rome and Leo XIII who opened the Vatican archives to researchers and founded the Vatican observatory as a testament that the church was not against “solid science.”

Pope Francis: Determined to shake things up a bit

Despite his religious convictions or the lack thereof, Norwich appears to have a deep respect for the papacy. Of the four popes he has met, the first was at his own dining table in the 1940s. Pope John XXIII (elected in 1958) was then the Papal Nuncio in Paris and a frequent guest at the table of Norwich’s father Duff Cooper and his wife, Lady Diana Cooper.

As the British Ambassador in Paris, Duff Cooper was the person Churchill had chosen to deal with General Charles de Gaulle. (Norwich tells an anecdote that involves him eating a slice of pie lightly dusted with ash from de Gaulle’s cigarette.) Lady Diana was a celebrated beauty, a friend and muse to the poet Hillaire Belloc who described her as the woman with ‘a perfect face immutable,’ and to the writer Evelyn Waugh who immortalised her in fiction as the character Mrs. Stitch. (H.G. Wells was one of many of the family’s famous acquaintances.)

Norwich seems to have inherited something of both of his parents in his talent for diplomacy, his love of history and travel, as well as his writing (his father was the author of six books including a notable biography of Charles-Maurice, Prince de Talleyrand). He was young when his father passed away, becoming the second Viscount Norwich at the age of 24. But among all the people his parents introduced him to, Angelo Roncalli still stood out – in particular the future Pope John XXIII had a tremendous appetite for food and drink. “Everybody loved him. He was the one I knew best.”

A second brief encounter came at a personal audience with Pope Pius XII; a third when he was asked to accompany the Duke of Norfolk to Pope Paul VI’s coronation in 1963. The fourth and his favourite is John Paul I who was found dead in his apartment a mere 33 days after he was elected. Norwich, the chairman of the Venice in Peril fund and an ardent admirer of the city, had many occasions to meet Albino Luciani who then served as the Patriarch of Venice. “He was a darling man, with the loveliest smile – the warmest, most genuine smile I’ve ever seen on anybody I think,” says Norwich of the man popularly dubbed ‘The Smiling Pope.’

In the wake of his death, conspiracy theories abound. Norwich favours the one that holds corruption in the Istituto per le Opere Religiose, commonly known as the Vatican Bank, responsible and links it to the death of the Italian Roberto Calvi, dubbed ‘God’s Banker’ for his close ties to the Holy See. He believes that Pope John Paul I, a man with an extraordinary eye for figures and a deep rooted aversion to cover-ups, was threatening to upset the applecart.

“There was the motive – here was a man who was brilliant in hunting out these things. He was going to get to the bottom of this quite quickly and when he did a lot of heads were going to roll, a lot of very important heads,” says Norwich, pointing out that with the Italian police allowed in only by invitation, the Vatican is a hard place to police effectively. Whether Pope John Paul I was murdered or not, we may never know but his death is revealing of the pervasive loneliness the papacy inflicts. Where medieval popes seemed to give up little in the way of worldly comforts, modern Popes must give up equal relationships and even friendship, says Norwich. “You’re in for a terrible loneliness if you’re made pope, there’s no question about it. Most of them take their meals alone. You’re nodded to and worshipped as you go by.”

For better or worse, it’s what’s in store for the recently elected Pope Francis, someone who appears to be determined to shake things up a little. (Most recently he made headlines when he washed the feet of two women, one a Muslim, in a notable departure from the Holy Thursday tradition.) For his part, Norwich isn’t anticipating a sea of change. Will Pope Francis deserve his own chapter in histories yet to be written? We’ll have to wait and see.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 14 April, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Susantha Liyanawatte.

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