The Fifth Gospel: A Novel

The Fifth Gospel: A Novel - Ian Caldwell From the “Historical Note” at the beginning of the book …

“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 a 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 tradition 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.”

Father Alex Andreou is a Greek Catholic priest teaching gospel studies to students inside the Vatican, where he lives with his son (Greek priests are allowed to be married if they do so before taking their vows). His brother Simon is a Roman Catholic priest working for the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Both are acquainted with a man by the name of Ugolino Nogara who is currently curator of the newest Vatican Museum installation … an exhibit that both brothers are excited about and fear in equal measures. Nogara has found information that will refute the carbon testing conclusions ruling the Shroud of Turin fake, conclusions that greatly impacted the lives of the two priests when they were boys. One night Alex receives an urgent call from his brother asking for help. When he arrives at his brother’s location he finds that Ugo Nogara has been murdered and, impossible as it sounds, Simon may have had something to do with it. A break and enter into Alex’s apartment which terrorizes his son seems, strangely, to be related. When Alex attempts to get answers about what is going on he is stonewalled – the Pope’s office is unusually interested in the case, the Swiss guard is sworn to secrecy and the Vatican Police are less than forth coming with any information about the break in or the murder. With his son possibly in danger and his brother under house arrest Alex begins his own investigation.

This is the point where the book grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I had been reading bits and pieces of the book here and there when I had time, but when Mr. Caldwell got to the nitty-gritty of exploring the history of the gospels and of the shroud interweaving it expertly with what was going on in the lives of the characters he got my full attention. I finished the last two thirds of the book on Sunday afternoon. Admittedly, I do have a soft spot for conspiracy theories.

In his author’s acknowledgments Mr. Caldwell gives thanks to all the “generous assistance” he received from all kinds of Catholic scholars and theologians, both Eastern and Western, so I am working on the assumption that what he writes about the gospels has a reasonable foundation in truth. That part of the book was fascinating to me. He explores the history of the bible and the evolution of the Catholic Church in it’s shining moments as well as some of its less pride-worthy actions. However, the appeal of the book did not end there. This book is also about the struggle of a family trying to put their family first while living the confines of a country (The Vatican) where there is only one “Papa” and religion dominates every aspect of life.

This is the type of book that makes me wish I belonged to some sort of book club because there are so many other themes and so much imagery that could be discussed but I am refraining because this is a book review.

(Okay sorry - but I have to go there)

Since its publication The DaVinci Code seems to be the standard to which all other books of this type are compared. Yes, I loved it too. I feel The Fifth Gospel holds it’s own and in some respects surpasses Dan Brown’s blockbuster. If you pick up this book looking for another Robert Langdon – be warned – you won’t find him in these pages. You will find a very readable, sometimes complicated and always intriguing story. I feel Mr. Caldwell considered any personal beliefs readers might have and treated the topic respectfully throughout the book but it is a book that just might make you think twice about what you know about Catholicism and organized religion in general. Just as Mr. Brown’s book had me grabbing for some art books and looking up famous works of art this book had me grabbing a bible off my bookshelf to check on Mr. Caldwell.

* Personal note *
Being familiar with the various Saints and traditions involved in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy the following quote made me laugh out loud. Father Andreou sharing his 5-year-old son’s opinion on how to decide which is the appropriate Saint for a particular prayer.

“He told me once that praying is like being a soccer coach and calling saints off the bench.”