Ian Caldwell The Fifth Gospel: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9781451694147

The Fifth Gospel: A Novel

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9781451694147: The Fifth Gospel: A Novel
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Instant New York Times Bestseller

“Masterful...The Fifth Gospel is that rare story: erudite and a page-turner, literary but compulsively readable. It will change the way you look at organized religion, humanity, and perhaps yourself.” —David Baldacci

“A gripping thriller rich with human drama and forbidden knowledge.” —Lev Grossman

A lost gospel, a contentious relic, and a dying pope’s final wish converge to send two brothers—both Vatican priests—on an intellectual quest to untangle Christianity’s greatest historical mystery.

Ten years ago, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s The Rule of Four became a literary phenomenon that sold nearly two million copies in North America and was hailed by critics as “ingenious...profoundly erudite” (The New York Times), “compulsively readable” (People), and “an exceptional piece of scholarship” (San Francisco Chronicle). Now, after a decade of painstaking primary research, Ian Caldwell returns with a masterful new thriller that confirms his place among the most ambitious popular storytellers working today.

In 2004, as Pope John Paul II’s reign enters its twilight, a mysterious exhibit is under construction at the Vatican Museums. A week before it is scheduled to open, its curator is murdered at a clandestine meeting on the outskirts of Rome. That same night, a violent break-in rocks the home of the curator’s research partner, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest who lives inside the Vatican with his five-year-old son. When the papal police fail to identify a suspect in either crime, Father Alex, desperate to keep his family safe, undertakes his own investigation. To find the killer he must reconstruct the dead curator’s secret: what the four Christian gospels—and a little-known, true-to-life fifth gospel known as the Diatessaron—reveal about the Church’s most controversial holy relic. But just as he begins to understand the truth about his friend’s death and its consequences for the future of the world’s two largest Christian Churches, Father Alex finds himself hunted down by someone with a vested stake in the exhibit—someone he must outwit to survive.

At once a riveting intellectual thriller, a feast of biblical history and scholarship, and a moving family drama, The Fifth Gospel is “a story of sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption. Peppered with references to real-life people, places, and events, the narrative rings true, taking the reader on an emotional journey nearly two thousand years in the making” (Library Journal, starred review).

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About the Author:

Ian Caldwell is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Fifth Gospel and (with Dustin Thomason) The Rule of Four, which sold nearly two million copies in North America and was translated into thirty-five languages. He lives in Virginia with his wife and children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 
 
HISTORICAL NOTE
 
TWO THOUSAND YEARS ago, a pair of brothers set out from the Holy Land to spread the Christian gospel. Saint Peter traveled to Rome, becoming the symbolic founder of Western Christianity. His brother, Saint Andrew, traveled to Greece, becoming a symbolic founder of Eastern Christianity. For centuries, the church they helped create remained a single institution. But one thousand years ago, west and east divided. Western Christians became Catholics, led by the successor of Saint Peter, the pope. Eastern Christians became Orthodox, led by the successors of Saint Andrew and other apostles, known as patriarchs. Today these are the largest Christian denominations on earth. Between them exists a small group known as Eastern Catholics, who confound all distinctions by following Eastern traditions while obeying the pope.
This novel is set in 2004, when the dying wish of Pope John Paul II was to reunite Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It is the story of two brothers, both Catholic priests, one Western and one Eastern.


 
 


 
PROLOGUE
 
MY SON IS too young to understand forgiveness. Growing up in Rome has given him the impression that it comes easy: strangers line up at the booths in Saint Peter’s, waiting for a turn to confess, and the red lights on top of the confessionals blink on and off, meaning the priests inside have finished with one sinner and are ready for the next. Consciences must not get as dirty as bedrooms or dishes, my son thinks, since they take much less time to clean. So whenever he lets the bath run too long, or leaves toys underfoot, or comes home from school with mud on his pants, Peter asks forgiveness. He offers apologies like a pope offers blessings. My son is two years shy of his own first confession. And for good reason.
No little child can understand sin. Guilt. Absolution. A priest can forgive a stranger so quickly that a boy can’t imagine how hard he will find it, someday, to forgive his own enemies. Or his own loved ones. He has no inkling that good men can sometimes find it impossible to forgive themselves. The darkest mistakes can be forgiven, but they can never be undone. I hope my son will always remain a stranger to those sins much more than my brother and I have.
I was born to be a priest. My uncle is a priest; my older brother, Simon, is a priest; and someday I hope Peter will be a priest, too. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t live inside the Vatican. There has never been a time when Peter didn’t.


There are two Vaticans in the eyes of the world. One is the earth’s most beautiful place: the temple of art and museum of faith. The other is the sausage factory of Catholicism, a country of old priests who wag the eternal finger. It seems impossible for a boy to have grown up in either of those places. Yet our country has always been full of children. Everyone has them: the pope’s gardeners, the pope’s workmen, the pope’s Swiss Guards. When I was a kid, John Paul believed in a living wage, so he paid a raise for every new mouth a family fed. We played hide-and-seek in his gardens, soccer with his altar boys, pinball upstairs from the sacristy of his basilica. Against our will we went with our mothers to the Vatican supermarket and department store, then with our fathers to the Vatican gas station and bank. Our country was barely bigger than a golf course, but we did everything most children did. Simon and I were happy. Normal. No different from the other Vatican boys in any way but one. Our father was a priest.
Father was Greek Catholic rather than Roman Catholic, which meant that he had a long beard and a different cassock, that he celebrated something called Divine Liturgy instead of Mass, and that he had been allowed to marry before being ordained. He liked to say that we Eastern Catholics were God’s ambassadors, middlemen who could help reunite Catholics and Orthodox. In reality, being an Eastern Catholic can feel like being a refugee at a border crossing between hostile superpowers. Father tried to hide the burden this put on him. There are a billion Roman Catholics in the world and just a few thousand of our type of Greek, so he was the sole married priest in a country run by celibate men. For thirty years, other Vatican priests looked down their noses at him as he pushed paper back uphill to them. Only at the very end of his career did he get a promotion, and it was the kind that came with wings and a harp.
My mother died not long after that. Cancer, the doctors said. But they didn’t understand. My parents had met in the sixties, in that blink of an eye when it seemed anything was possible. They used to dance together in our apartment. Having survived an irreverent time, they still prayed together with feeling. Mother’s family was Roman Catholic, and had sent priests up the Vatican ladder for more than a century, so when she married a hairy Greek, they disowned her. After Father died, she told me that it felt strange to have hands anymore, what with no one to hold them. Simon and I buried her in a plot beside my father, behind the Vatican parish church. I remember almost nothing from that time. Only that I skipped school, day after day, to sit in the graveyard with my arms around my knees, crying. Then Simon would be there, somehow, and he would bring me home.


We were only teenagers, so we were left in the care of our uncle, a Vatican cardinal. The best way to describe Uncle Lucio is that he had the heart of a little boy, which he kept in a jar by his dentures. As cardinal president of the Vatican, Lucio had devoted the best years of his life to balancing our national budget and preventing Vatican employees from forming a union. On economic grounds he opposed the idea of rewarding families for having more children, so even if he’d had time to raise his sister’s orphaned boys, he probably would’ve objected on principle. He put up no fight when Simon and I moved back into our parents’ apartment and decided to rear ourselves.
I was too young to work, so Simon left college for a year and found a job. Neither of us knew how to cook, or sew, or fix a toilet, so Simon taught himself. He was the one who woke me for school and handed me money for lunch. He kept me in clothes and warm meals. The art of being an altar boy I learned entirely from him. Every Catholic boy, on the worst nights of his life, goes to bed wondering if animals like us are really worth the dirt God shaped us from. But into my life, into my darkness, God sent Simon. We didn’t survive childhood together. He survived it, and carried me through it on his back. I have never escaped feeling that my debt to him was so great it could never be repaid. It could only be forgiven. Anything I could’ve done for him, I would’ve done.
Anything.


 



 
 
CHAPTER 1

“Is Uncle Simon late?” Peter asks.
Our housekeeper, Sister Helena, must be wondering the same thing as she watches our dinner of hake overcook in the pan. It’s ten minutes past when my brother said he would arrive.
“Never mind that,” I say. “Just help me set the table.”
Peter ignores me. He climbs higher in his chair, standing on his knees, and announces, “Simon and I are going to see a movie, and then I’m going to show him the elephant at the Bioparco, and then he’s going to teach me how to do the Marseille turn.”
Sister Helena does a little shuffle in front of the frying pan. She thinks the Marseille turn is a kind of dance step. Peter is horrified. Lifting one hand in the air, the posture of a wizard performing a spell, he says, “No! It’s a dribbling move! Like Ronaldo.”
Simon is flying from Turkey to Rome for an art exhibit curated by one of our mutual friends, Ugo Nogara. Opening night, still almost a week off, will be a formal affair to which I wouldn’t have a ticket myself except for the work I did with Ugo. But under this roof, we live in a five- year-old’s world. Uncle Simon has come home to give soccer lessons.
“There’s more to life,” Sister Helena says, “than kicking a ball.”
She takes it upon herself to be the feminine voice of reason. When Peter was eleven months old, my wife, Mona, left us. Ever since, this wonderful old nun has become my life-support system as a father. She’s loan from Uncle Lucio, who has battalions of them at his disposal, and I have trouble imagining what I would do without her, since I can’t pay what even a reasonable teenage girl would expect to earn. Fortunately, Sister Helena wouldn’t leave Peter for the world.


My son disappears into his bedroom and returns holding his digital alarm clock. With his mother’s gift for directness, he sets it on the table in front of me and points.
“Sweetheart,” Helena assures him, “Father Simon’s train is probably just running behind.”
The train. Not the uncle. Because it would be hard for Peter to under- stand that Simon sometimes forgets fare money or becomes absorbed in conversations with strangers. Mona wouldn’t even agree to name our child after him because she found him unpredictable. And though my brother has the most prestigious job a young priest can hope for—he’s a diplomat in the Holy See Secretariat of State, the elite of our Catholic bureaucracy—the truth is that he needs all the grueling work he can get. Like the men on our mother’s side of the family, Simon is a Roman Catholic priest, which means he’ll never marry or have kids. And unlike other Vatican priests, who were born for the desk and the ample waist, he has a restless soul. God bless Mona, she wanted our son to take after his dependable, unhurried, satisfied father. So she and I made a compromise when we named him: in the gospels, Jesus comes upon a fisherman named Simon, and renames him Peter.
I take out my mobile phone and text Simon—Are you close?—while Peter inspects the contents of Sister Helena’s pan.
“Hake is fish,” he announces, apropos of nothing. He’s in a classifying stage. He also hates fish.
“Simon loves this dish,” I tell him. “We used to eat it as kids.”
Actually, when Simon and I used to eat this dish, it was cod, not hake. But a single priest’s salary stretches only so far at the fish market. And as Mona often reminded me when planning meals like these, my brother—who is a head taller than any other priest inside these walls— eats as much as two ordinary men.
Mona is on my mind now, more than usual. My brother’s arrival always seems to bring with it the shadow of my wife’s departure. They are the magnetic poles of my life; one of them always lurks in the other’s shade. Mona and I knew each other as children inside the Vatican walls, and when we met again in Rome, it felt like God’s will. But we had a cart-and-horse problem—Eastern priests have to marry before they’re ordained, or not marry at all—and in retrospect Mona probably needed more time to prepare herself. The life of a Vatican wife isn’t easy. The life of a priest’s wife is even harder. Mona kept working full-time until almost the day she gave birth to our blue-eyed baby who ate like a shark and slept even less. Mona nursed him so often that I would find the refrigerator empty from her attempts to replenish herself.


Only later would everything come into focus. The refrigerator was empty because she had stopped going to the grocery store. I hadn’t noticed this because she’d also given up eating regular meals. She prayed less. Sang to Peter less. Then, three weeks before our son’s first birthday, she disappeared. I discovered a bottle of pills hidden under a mug at the back of a cabinet. A doctor at Vatican Health Services explained that she had been trying to bootstrap herself out of depression. We must not give up hope, he said. So Peter and I waited for Mona to come back. Waited, and waited.
Today, he vows that he remembers her. These memories, though, are really details from photographs he’s seen around the apartment. He colors them with knowledge gleaned from television shows and magazine advertisements. He hasn’t yet noticed that women at our Greek church don’t wear lipstick or perfume. Sadly, his experience of church seems almost Roman Catholic: when he looks at me, what he sees is a lone priest, solitary, celibate. The contradictions of his own identity are still in his future. But he names his mother constantly in his prayers, and people tell me John Paul behaved in a similar way after he lost his mother at a young age. I find comfort in that thought.
At last the phone rings. Sister Helena smiles as I hurry to answer it.
“Hello?”
Peter watches anxiously.
I’m expecting the sounds of a metro station or, worse, an airport. But that’s not what I hear. The voice on the other end is faint. Far away.
“Sy?” I say. “Is that you?”
He doesn’t seem to hear me. The reception is poor. I take this as a sign that he’s closer to home than I expected. It’s hard to keep a signal on Vatican soil.
“Alex,” I hear him say.
“Yes?”

He speaks again, but the line is swimming in static. It occurs to me that he might’ve made a detour to the Vatican Museums to see Ugo Nogara, who’s been struggling with the pressure of finishing his big exhibit. Though I would never say so to Peter, it would be just like my brother to find an extra soul to tend on his way in.
“Sy,” I say. “Are you at the museums?”
Down at the dinner table, suspense is killing Peter. “He’s with Mister Nogara?” he whispers to Helena.
But on the other end of the line, something changes. There’s a burst of hissing I recognize as wind blowing. He’s outdoors. And here in Rome, at least, it’s storming.
For a moment, the line clears up. “Alex, I need you to come get me.”
His voice sends an uncomfortable tingle up my back. “What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I’m at Castel Gandolfo. In the gardens.”
“I don’t understand,” I tell him. “Why are you there?”
The wind sets in again, and a strange noise slips through the ear- piece. It sounds like my brother moaning.
“Please, Alex,” he says. “Come now. I’m—I’m near the east gate, below the villa. You need to get here before the police do.”
My son is frozen, staring at me. I watch the paper napkin slip off his lap and drift through the air like the pope’s white skullcap caught in the wind. Sister Helena, too, is watching.
“Stay right there,” I tell Simon. And I turn away, so Peter can’t see the look I know is in my eyes. Because the sound in my brother’s voice is something I don’t remember ever hearing there before. Fear.

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