|Author||P. G. Maxwell-Stuart|
With the passing of Pope John Paul II and the subsequent election of Benedict XVI last month, this 1997 book officially becomes a little out of date (always inevitable when dealing with a living lineage). Nonetheless, the book will give readers with little knowledge of the papacy the basic story behind how it arrived at its current state (those who already have knowledge of the papacy and its history will likely learn nothing new).
It's a dizzying journey, and doubtless much had to be left out to fit the entire 2,000 year journey into one volume (two volumes may have been more appropriate). Still, those not seeking details and the nitty gritty of the papacy can come to a cursory appreciation of the office's history and evolution since its founding during the late Roman Empire.
After a 2-4 page preface (not a lot of background) the book leaps into history beginning with St. Peter in the 1st century AD. What follows is far too complex to summarize (which this 240-page book proves more than anything). However, the basic high-level progression of the papacy from St. Peter, to shadowy and difficult beginnings up to the 15th century, to international secular superpower (complete with corruption) through the 18th century, to a humbled return to spiritual leadership of the world's largest church in the 20th century, can be adumbrated. Readers will see most of the highlights of the history, but likely come away with little understanding of the office itself.
To be fair, the papacy heartily challenges any attempt at summarization. Being the world's longest running office, it touches the Roman Empire, medieval Europe, countless wars, innumerable countries and peoples, Charlemange, the crusades, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, Napolean, two World Wars, and the modern industrialized world. Any short summary of this lineage is bound to leave out countless details. As an introduction to the basic history of the papacy, this book succeeds fairly well. As an introduction to the office itself, however, it does not fare so well. As long as readers go into this book with the expectation that it's almost purely history, the disappointment shouldn't be too harsh. The book will whet the interest of anyone with a shred of curiosity about this enormous institution. Other books will have to fill in the details, ultimately. To take some examples: why popes traditionally take a new name upon election isn't really even discussed. The section on Gregory I will likely leave readers wondering why he's called "Gregory the Great". The section on Alexander VI includes more details on Savanarola than the pope himself. The infamous "cadaver synod" of Stephen VI in the 9th century receives a very brief treatment. The "Pope Joan" hoax gets mentioned but with almost no detail whatsoever. The terms "Vatican I" and "Vatican II" are not used anywhere in the book (the longer "First Vatican Council" and "Second Vatican Council" are used instead).
On the up side, numerous pictures from all eras pervade nearly every page of the book. The copious pictures alone make the book worthwhile. Sidenotes shed some light on special subjects (e.g., the alleged discovery of the bones of St. Peter, the Carolingian Empire, the crusades, the Fransiscans and Dominicans, the former papal palace at Avignon, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the building of the current St. Peter's Basilica, the formation of Vatican City, etc.).
In the end, expect brevity from this book and expect to come out of it with numerous questions. But also expect to have a basic understanding of the history of the world's oldest extant office of authority. Those with little or no knowledge will find a great starting point here.