10 Books to Read Before (or After) Watching HBO's The Young Pope

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10 Books to Read Before (or After) Watching HBO's <i>The Young Pope</i>

You’d be forgiven if you thought The Young Pope was just a crazy Internet meme, rather than an actual show airing on HBO, as it’s taken social media by storm. The story, featuring Jude Law as a pope elected at a young age, promises to be a lush, intricate spectacle, and will only further society’s constant fascination with the inner workings of the Vatican. If you’re as interested in the Catholic Church as I am, you should absolutely check out these books before (or after!) you watch the series.

1. The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church by John Thavis

John Thavis was a journalist covering the Vatican for over 25 years, and you can bet he learned some fascinating things about the inner workings of the Catholic Church during that time. This book is structured as a series of essays, each tackling a different subject, from the inner handling of the sex abuse scandals to the politicking behind Pope Francis' election. It's never malicious or gossipy, instead presenting the information in an incredibly readable manner with a general warmth. It may sound dry, but it's anything but.

2. Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

The year is 1570, and sixteen-year-old Serafina is a bright and sharp young woman who's been forced into a Catholic convent against her will, to separate her from the man she's in love with. Serafina is focused on escape, but she slowly learns to navigate the politics that comes with convent life. As Serafina finds herself caught up in the spiritual factions that divide the convent, dictates from higher up in the church threaten to change the way these nuns live. This is a gorgeous novel, full of well-rounded minor and major characters.

3. Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich

How do you write a history of a two-thousand-year-old institution? That's what John Julius Norwich attempts (and succeeds at) in his ambitious book. He dispenses with rumors and legends for the most part, focusing mainly on what we know. This is aimed at the layperson, rather than the scholar, so it may feel a bit broad (most of the book is devoted to popes over the last two or three centuries), but it's the only way such a book can actually be readable. His writing style is very engaging, making this book as entertaining as you'd hope it'd be.

4. Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

You may have heard the legend that a female Pope once sat on the throne of Peter (Peter was the first pope), and author Donna Woolfolk Cross brings her to life in the excellent novel Pope Joan. This historical novel tells a Dark Ages take of a young woman named Joan who takes up her brother's identity after he's murdered and enters a monastery. Calling herself Brother John, she brings attention to herself through her scholarship and healing abilities and begins to rise through the ranks of the church.

5. The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal by Hubert Wolf (trans. Ruth Martin)

The words "scandal" and "convent" bring up interesting mental images, and Hubert Wolf writes the history of one such Catholic convent from the 1850s. Not only do readers get to see exactly how a convent functions through his precise history, but they also get a sense of the political climate. The beginning of the book drags a little, but once Wolf sets the stage, it climbs to thriller pace as Wolf details affairs, heresies, and severe abuses of power. You'd never think a nonfiction history of a 19th century convent could be so interesting.

6. Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church by The Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe

If you haven't watched the movie Spotlight, you're missing out on one of the best films of the past few years and one of the best films about journalism, period. If you want more detail about how the investigation happened, and what the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe uncovered about sexual abuse at the hands of priests in the Catholic Church and the attempts by the organization to cover it up, then read this book. It's incredibly written, but a warning: the movie tried to shy away from the details of abuse, focusing more on reporting. This book details exactly what happened to the children, which makes it a very difficult (but necessary) read.

7. The Vatican Princess by C.W. Gortner

You've probably heard of the Borgias—a family whose very name brings about whispers of scandal, affairs, and even incest. When Rodrigo Borgia becomes Pope Alexander VI, he uses his children (yes, pope, children—a saint this guy was not) to help further his ambitions. His daughter, Lucrezia Borgia, was subject to her father's orders and expected to make any and every sacrifice necessary for the sake of her family. Gortner brings this 15th century woman to life, detailing the corruption and splendor of the Vatican and the Catholic Church during this time.

8. God's Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican by Gerald Posner

The Vatican was a major force in shaping world affairs (and still wields influence in many areas) for centuries, but they never could have achieved that kind of power without a lot of money at their disposal. These days, the politics in the Vatican are ruled by who holds the purse strings. In this history, Gerald Posner chronicles the intrigue within the Vatican's financial dealings and their accumulation of untold amounts of wealth. It's especially interesting, given rumors (and a full-fledged conspiracy theory) that Pope Benedict XVI's attempts at reforming the Vatican bank directly led to his resignation.

9. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

A modern classic, The Name of the Rose takes readers to a Franciscan monastery in medieval Italy. The members of a wealthy, reputable abbey are accused of heresy, and Brother William is dispatched to investigate. When he arrives, a series of bizarre murders adds urgency to his search: What is happening at this abbey? This book is fascinating, though not always easy to read. William uses logic to put together clues for this puzzle, but as a backdrop to his search, Eco provides a history of the politics of the Catholic Church. It's dense, but incredibly interesting, and the murder mystery is really well done.

10. Mistress of the Vatican: The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini, The Secret Female Pope by Eleanor Herman

Yes, it's another lady pope story! This time, the tagline is a bit misleading though, because Olimpia Maidalchini never actually wore the pope's hat. This 17th-century woman was the mistress of a man elected pope (also her brother-in-law) and, at times, controlled him: virtual pope, if not pope in name. This biography is intricately researched and provides a fascinating look at how the church worked, as well as a biography of an incredible woman who used the few methods available to her to gain power and influence.