Pauline Hall writes: The Holy Year of 1950 and the Marian Year of 1954 both drew large numbers of Irish pilgrims, including two of my aunties, May and Nancy, to Rome. Shortly afterwards, there appeared (in 1955), a novel of scurrilous elegance, Les Clés de St Pierre by Roger Peyrefitte, translated as The Keys of St Peter’s ‑ an astute, hilarious portrayal of the Rome of Pius XII. Having sold half a million copies, it was banned in Italy.
In an early scene, our hero, the naive baby-faced seminarian Victor Mas wanders through the Vatican gardens. Like everything that has happened to him in Rome, the repeated questioning by guards is puzzling. Further on, he finds a sad moulting eagle in a cage. Heavy-handed secrecy, decrepit majesty and pathos sums up the place and the time.
Victor has moved from a chilly seminary in his native France to join the household of the worldly yet saintly Cardinal Belloro. Like Voltaire’s Candide, Victor is taken aback to find out how the world works, by. the conversations of this bizarre little family ‑ the pompous chaplain, the simple-minded secretary and the cynical valet, with much excited hair-splitting about indulgences, relics, scapulars, miracles and the process of canonisation. Victor is agog at the extravagance of Rome: how everywhere pagan bones push up through the Catholic, though hardly Christian, ground.
On a visit to the Catacombs, Victor literally brushes against another side to the Roman way of life. In the flicker of blessed candles, he is led astray by the gorgeous Paola, a niece of the chaplain, well-versed in holy practices but able to reconcile them with delight in God-given pleasure. Victor’s struggles to mortify the flesh fail. He plunges into a dolce vita as, still warm from Paola’s bed, he makes sure to attend a different church each time for his confession. The final third of the novel spins out his dilemma: will he (still only a subdeacon) leave the ministry for her? Schooled by Paola in his growth from adolescence to manhood, will he go on to become a priest? The matter is resolved a little hurriedly, as during a twenty-minute wait for a phone connection to the Mezzogiorno, he makes a decision that runs counter to what we were expecting.
In parallel with his romantic assignations, Victor’s maturity is driven through discussions with the broad-minded cardinal, who aims to make of him a Roman priest. He learns that the keys of St Peter are the keys to good and evil, but the locks need regular oiling. In the cardinal’s ripe acceptance of the church’s flaws as well as her glory, we hear Peyrefitte’s own voice, patrician and rueful. “She is an old lady who has seen everything.” Like the bemused Victor, we learn that it costs a great deal to bring a candidate for sainthood over the line, or to secure membership of the papal aristocracy, that the Vatican institutions wield significant financial power ‑ reckoned in dollars, not lire ‑ that some cardinals intrigue for impressive coats of arms and special number plates for their American limos. Canonisation is also political ‑ Joan of Arc had to wait till the 1920s. In postwar Italy, shaken and communist-leaning, America looms large. It is important for the Vatican to come up with an American saint.
Cardinal Belloro disdains the childish devotion of Pope Pius’s housekeeper, Sister Pasqualina. Victor notes how, before papal audiences, she checks closely young women’s dress, but passes over the partially open shirt of a boy scout and even suggests that he hitch up his shorts. This passage led to a very public spat between Peyrefitte and François Mauriac, who was offended at the insult to the Holy Father. In the light of subsequent events, today’s readers might have additional reasons for queasiness.
“The Church has an answer to everything, and when she can’t answer, she fixes it that the awkward question gets forgotten,” says the cardinal; and “She enlists error in the service of truth.” But of course this reliance on combinazioni doesn’t serve as well in our less credulous days. The Vatican’s penchant for secrecy about its tangled financial arrangements led in 2015 to prosecutions of writers, so it might seem that little has changed. We hear how Pius XII tries to curb the lifestyles of the cardinals (“trim their lavish trains”) and early in his pontificate, Pope Francis had to remind some cardinals how the lifestyle of a “pharaoh” is incompatible with service to the poor of the world.
Peyrefitte’s interest in the more obscure points of Catholic practice is of less relevance now, yet The Keys remains a good read: for me a better Vatican story than the mumbo-jumbo of Dan Brown. My aunties would have been shocked by this view of the Vatican, but notwithstanding Peyrefitte’s bitchy tone, he honours the way the church grapples with the paradoxes of how to embrace the world.
Image: Detail from Portrait of a cardinal by El Greco