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Fr Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press, with Joseph Ratzinger 

Joe Fox, the legendary editor at Random House in New York of Truman Capote and John Irvin, told me back in the late 1980s: "The problem, Piers, is that Catholics who buy books aren't your kind of Catholic and your kind of Catholics don't buy books." He had published two of my novels in New York and we were discussing possible future projects in non-fiction. I no longer remember what it was I had proposed but it must have had something to do with the Catholic Church. He took the view that books by Catholic dissenters such as Hans Küng could become bestsellers but no one was interested in an author taking an orthodox line. We settled instead on a book about the Chernobyl disaster.

Twenty years later, the same view, more or less, was put by my agent, Gillon Aitken, when I showed him the manuscript of a novel, The Death of a Pope. It was written in the form of a thriller. The story opens at the Old Bailey where a member of the IRA, a member of Eta and a Basque aid worker, once a Jesuit in El Salvador, are charged with conspiracy to obtain sarin for terrorist purposes. The ringleader, the Basque aid-worker, Juan Uriate, presents a spirited defence. All are acquitted. A young woman covering the trial for a broadsheet newspaper is so captivated by Uriate that she goes to Africa to write about him and his work. The young analyst at MI5 who gathered the evidence for the trial believes the verdict of the jury is unsound. He suspects that Uriarte is planning some atrocity. But when? And where?

So far so good, but there now enter into the story the heroine's uncle, a Catholic priest; a Dutch curial cardinal; and the cardinal's secretary, a Spanish monsignor. There is much talk about the state of the Church. Pope John Paul II is dying. Who will succeed him? What should or should not change in Catholic teaching? An epigraph to the novel is a quote from Polly Toynbee: "The Pope kills millions through his reckless spreading of Aids." Another is from Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Spe Salvi. "Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation." A second opinion thought the novel "old-fashioned", and that "the portrayal and discussion of the Catholic Church's history, rituals, customs and protocols and the challenges and dilemmas the Church faces in the modern world can be heavy-handed and intrusive." 

Others concurred with this view and I agreed that the novel should not be submitted for publication unless, perhaps, to the specifically Catholic publishing house in San Francisco, Ignatius Press. Ignatius had taken a miscellany of my writing on religious and moral topics, Hell and Other Destinations. I emailed a copy of the novel to California and, while waiting for a response, did some rewriting to enhance the characterisation and to make the novel seem less old-fashioned (short sentences, the present tense, few conjunctions or subordinate clauses). In due course, I heard from Ignatius Press that they would like to publish the novel. Gillon thought this would be harmless: San Francisco is a long way from both London and New York.

Ignatius Press was founded in 1978 by the then 37-year-old Jesuit priest, Fr Joseph Fessio and, in the war between liberal and orthodox Catholicism that has been waged since Vatican II, has been in the vanguard of the forces of orthodoxy. Fr Fessio was raised in San José, California. After joining the Jesuits, he studied theology in Lyons in France and subsequently at the University of Regensburg in Germany: there his director of studies was the then Professor Joseph Ratzinger. A year after obtaining his doctorate from Regensburg, he returned to California where he became a thorn in the flesh of the overwhelmingly liberal province of the Society of Jesus. There were stand-offs with his Jesuit superiors: at one time he was ordered to serve as a chaplain in a hospital; but Fr Fessio had friends in high places in Rome. His friend and mentor, Joseph Ratzinger, became Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith in the Vatican, and in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI.

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Bev Malona
May 2nd, 2010
1:05 PM
Many of my associates and good friends are the wonderful home schooling Fox news watching Catholics you described. However there are others who have causiously embeded themselves in the many "diocesan regimes" for example "progressive" religious education programs, seminaries, other "ministries" and gave them all a run for their money! It is a difficult way and much ridicule and suffering is endured. However there is nothing like the coup created when an official small diocesan office brings in a Eucharistic retreat(Youth 2000) attended by over 1000 young people!The reform of the reform is alive and well. There is a growing number of the faithful, and a greying of dissent in the USA.

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