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A Resurrection for the Pope : LAZARUS<i> by Morris West (St. Martin’s Press: $19.95; 293 pp.) </i>

<i> Campbell, a free-lance writer, edits the Storytellers column regularly for Book Review. </i>

Fat, aging, physically unpleasant to behold, Ludovico Gadda was--in the eyes of his surgeon--a prime candidate for the very illness wracking him: a blood clot that, at any minute, could kill him and which makes an immediate double-bypass operation an absolute necessity. After all, as his Jewish heart specialist, Sergio Salviati, acidly points out to his patient: What can you expect when you’re 30 pounds overweight, eat like a peasant farmer, have gout, a sky-high blood-uric-acid count and your only exercise is a few daily paces around your study?

But this isn’t your ordinary, bad-tempered, self-centered, dispassionate heart patient. Ludovico Gadda also happens to be Leo XIV, bishop of Rome, patriarch of the West, successor to the prince of the Apostles, vicar of Christ, Supreme Pontiff.

So begins Morris West’s “Lazarus,” an absorbing novel of a complex man who just happens to be the Pope and who is facing up to his mortality in the face of dual threats to that mortality--the cardiac disease that makes open-heart surgery necessary and, at the same time, the discovery of an assassination plot on his life by the terrorist group, the Sword of Islam.

Like Lazarus himself, whom Jesus brought blinking into the sunlight after four days in his grave, Leo XIV also must face the terrors of being reborn after his operation. And, in his reflective hours, he is a man who is dismayed by what he sees: that from a rigorous peasant upbringing in a family that was essentially loveless, he became an ambition-driven priest climbing in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to become, ultimately, a Pope without humor or compassion--an ironfisted reactionary ruthlessly crushing dissent and anything smacking of reform; a man who has split the church and has become the very thing that one embittered priest told him he would become: ". . . the Supreme Shepherd, but you don’t see the sheep--only a vast carpet of woolly backs stretching to the horizon”; a Pope revered by his flock because it is expected of them as good Catholics, but just as pointedly unloved by them. As in his previous best sellers, “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” and “The Clowns of God,” author West’s knowledge of the inner workings of the Catholic Church is encyclopedic-- the political infighting, the jealousies, the stresses and strains that abound in the Vatican. But much of the Pope’s soul-searching, the hunger to go back and undo so much of the damage he has done to the church he loves, is seen through the eyes of those who surround him: kindly, retired Cardinal Drexel, who has the natural inborn love of mankind that escapes the Pope; Nicol Peters, the Vatican correspondent for the London Times; Msgr. Malachy, too close for comfort, in the Pope’s eyes, his own Barry Fitzgerald; darkly handsome Msgr. Matthew Neylan, who resigns from the church in sadness because it is not a place of love, but a place of paper-shuffling. And through Tove Lundberg, the lover of the Pope’s surgeon and, herself, the illegitimate daughter of a priest.

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Hanging over it all is the threat of the ever-circling, deadly Sword of Islam, coming closer and closer to the repentant, reborn Pope.

It is a tribute to novelist West’s skill that “Lazarus” is perhaps a more gripping story for a non-Catholic reader than it is for one of the faithful. But both will find it --and its surprising finale--an agonizing story of a man in torment, impossible to forget.


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