The Young Pope has finally premiered on HBO, and we can only hope it lives up to the memes that preceded it. In the meantime, we’ve put together a list of the ten best books to accompany your viewing of this strange, opulent show.
1. History of the Catholic Church by James Hitchcock
At roughly 2000 years old, the Catholic Church is the longest-enduring institution in the world, as well as one of the most influential. It’s not easy to condense that kind of history and power into a single volume, but James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church does just that. Starting right at the very beginning, with the life and death of Jesus Christ, Hitchcock recounts the history of the Catholic Church up to the present day. Himself a practicing Catholic, Hitchcock gives credit to the Church when due, but also doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of ecclesiastical history. The result is a well-researched, eminently readable, and remarkably balanced history of one of the most powerful organizations in the world.
2. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes by Eamon Duffy
Over 250 men have sat on the Throne of Peter, and trying to pack all of them into one book is no easy feat. Duffy pulls it off, though, with a book that provides a comprehensive view of the papacy from ancient times to the present. He works his way through the papal roll of honor (and dishonor), examining both the good and the bad, and re-creating the social and political context of various papal reigns without getting bogged down in tedious minutiae. Although the book was originally published in 1997, during the reign of John Paul II, Duffy has updated subsequent editions, making this one of the most relevant books on the subject out there. Make sure you get the fourth edition, which covers the resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis.
3. Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
The turbulence and splendor of the Renaissance serves as the backdrop to this historical novel, set in an Italian convent in 1570. Sixteen-year-old Serafina has been sent to the convent against her will in an attempt to separate her from the man she loves. There she is befriended by Suora Zuana, who runs the dispensary and tends to the convent’s medicinal gardens. With her help, Serafina learns to navigate the politics of convent life, even as discord and rebellion break out among the nuns, exacerbated by reforms higher up in the Church. Gorgeously told, with well-rounded characters and a rich plot, this novel brings to life a fascinating chapter of Church history.
4. The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio
A source of fascination for many and the heroes of countless horror films, exorcists are still trained and employed by the Vatican today. Although their work is often shrouded in secrecy, journalist Matt Baglio was able to accompany Father Gary Thomas through his training as an exorcist and subsequent apprenticeship. In the resulting book, Baglio documents not just the training of a real-life exorcist, but also delves into the history of exorcism, controversies surrounding the practice, and what the Catholic Church really teaches about cases of demonic possession. With first hand accounts of exorcisms, interviews with people who have been possessed, and keen journalistic reporting, The Rite— the basis for the Anthony Hopkins film of the same name— is a captivating and often chilling read for both believers and skeptics alike.
5. The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio by Hubert Wolf
In 1858, a German princess, recently inducted into the Italian convent of Sant’Ambrogio, wrote a letter to her cousin, a close confidant of the Pope. In it, she claimed that she was being abused and feared for her life. The resulting investigation into the convent revealed a twisted labyrinth of sex, poison, and abuses of power, all of which is detailed in Hubert Wolf’s book. Wolf was one of the first scholars to be granted access to the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Office of the Inquisition), and his book is a gripping and thoroughly researched tale of a convent in scandal. It’s a true story that reads like a thriller and provides a fascinating account of how one women perpetrated deception, heresy, and murder in the very heart of the Church.
6. Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church by the Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe
The basis for the film Spotlight, this book is the story of the sex abuse scandals that rocked the Church in the early 2000s. The work of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe, Betrayal takes an unflinching look at the accusations of child abuse by priests and subsequent cover-ups on the part of Church officials. It also recounts the struggle of many Catholics who long to stay true to their faith while being horrified at what was uncovered. Fair warning: the book doesn’t shy away from giving the details of the abuse, which makes it, at times, an extraordinarily difficult read. But it’s a groundbreaking work of investigative journalism and one that’s important to understand.
7. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The year is 1327, and the monks in an Italian abbey are under suspicion of heresy. Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate, only to have his mission overshadowed by a series of mysterious deaths. Armed only with the logic of Aristotle, the theology of Thomas Aquinas, and the empirical methods of Roger Bacon, Brother William delves into the secrets of the abbey, determined to get at the truth. Church history and politics serve as the backdrop to this riveting, multi-faceted mystery that was also turned into a movie starring Sean Connery.
8. Church of Spies by Mark Riebling
The Catholic Church’s role during World War II has been fiercely debated. The wartime pontiff Pius XII is often seen as not having spoken out forcefully enough against the Nazis, and has even been labeled “Hitler’s Pope.” There’s another side to the story, though. Far from being a supporter of Hitler, Pius XII spent years waging a secret war against him. The head of the world’s oldest spy service, Pius secretly tape-recorded his meetings with top Nazis and sent birthday cards to Hitler while plotting to overthrow him. Gun-toting Jesuits stole blueprints of Hitler’s house, while the keeper of the Vatican crypt ran a spy ring that stole German war plans. All of this and more is detailed in Mark Riebling’s book Church of Spies, which brings to life an exciting piece of cloak-and-dagger history that is far too often overlooked.
9. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas Woods
In 2007, an atheist philanthropist donated $22.5 million to the Archdiocese of New York, stating “Let’s face it, without the Roman Catholic Church, there would be no Western civilization.” Whether you agree with that assertion or not, author Thomas Woods does, and he makes a pretty convincing case for it in his book, appropriately titled How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Woods moves beyond the familiar tale of monks preserving the wisdom of antiquity in their copied manuscripts, and argues that many of the most basic aspects of Western Civilization— modern science, the free market, the idea of human rights, even modern penal codes— stem directly from the Catholic Church. Regardless of your views of the Catholic Church, Woods’s book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the extraordinary influence this organization has had on history.
10. Mistress of the Vatican by Eleanor Herman
Most people have never heard of Olimpia Maidalchini, but— discounting the legend of “Pope Joan”— she’s the closest any woman has come to wearing the crown of St. Peter. When her brother-in-law (and possible lover) was elected Pope in 1644, Maidalchini used his new office to her advantage. Whether or not she was actually his mistress, she exerted a large degree of influence over him, to the point where she was often the one controlling Papal appointments and other Vatican politics. Herman’s biography is a fascinating look at an ambitious woman who used one of the few means available to her to gain an almost unprecedented amount of power.
Are you watching The Young Pope? What book do you think best accompanies it?
YouTube Channel: HBO
Featured image via Vulture
h/t Paste Magazine