‘I know. I know. It sounds like a bad movie starring Tom Hanks.” That is the observation of a character in Ralph McInerny’s latest mystery novel, The Third Revelation, about the behind-the-scenes story of the international uprising of radical Islam against the Catholic Church. The story includes murders of high-ranking clerics in the Vatican, international art dealers, a revived duel between former KGB and CIA agents, conspiracy theories about the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II and the Church’s alleged suppression of the true content of the third revelation of Fatima, and a desperate quest to recover the stolen document of that revelation to set the record straight and stave off escalating violence.
Fortunately for readers of McInerny’s book, the resemblances to Dan Brown are all superficial. This is a well-crafted and intricately plotted story that introduces an array of characters and subplots and then deftly weaves them together in the last third of the book. McInerny is also attuned to the way forgeries and hoaxes can infiltrate religious traditions and especially to the way conspiracy theories can grip the minds and hearts of the most passionate believers.
McInerny’s book, without sanctimony or wooden characters, has something to say about the complex propensities of the human soul, for good and for evil, and for the mysterious process known as conversion. The author is also skilled at filling in the historical and theological background in a way that informs without distracting from the story. In 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared and spoke to three peasant children in Fatima. Of the three revelations she delivered, two were made public but the third was not. One of the children, Lucia, who became a Carmelite nun, wrote down its contents in a document that was held in the Vatican Archives to be publicly revealed in 1960. When that time passed and the contents of the third revelation were not made public, suspicion mounted. The release of the document in 2000 — then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote an accompanying commentary — did little to convince the conspiracy theorists. Indeed, to this day there are groups that remain doubtful, despite that fact that Lucia herself testified to the accuracy and completeness of what the Church had made public.
Adding to the drama concerning the Marian apparitions at Fatima was the assassination attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish gunman, in 1981 on the anniversary of the 1917 apparition. A year later, during John Paul’s first visit to the shrine at Fatima, a knife-wielding Spanish priest tried to kill the pope, but merely grazed him. The pope had brought with him to the Shrine the bullet from the previous attempt on his life, the survival of which he attributed to the intercession of Mary. Indeed, John Paul is said to have interpreted the terrifying vision of the third revelation, featuring violence against the pope and other church leaders, as prophesying the attempt on his life.
Of course, documents about what the Church eventually turned up concerning Agca, with whom the pope had a private conversation in his jail cell, are also present in the Vatican Archives. The documents concerning Fatima and Agca are, for a variety of motives, on the wish list of a number of characters in the book. The plot starts with a bang, as one thief, whose motives are unclear until the very end of the book, sneaks into the Vatican, and murders nearly everyone in his path, in order to get at the Fatima document.
What makes the book such a delightful read is the way McInerny sets up everything effectively for the concluding third of the book. Once the revelation that rocks the Muslim world occurs, the pace quickens considerably. Already well-known for his Father Dowling mystery series and another series set at Notre Dame, where he has taught philosophy since 1955, McInerny broadens his scope considerably here. The Third Revelation is an ambitious book that succeeds on many levels: as entertainment certainly, as reflection on the religious ferment of our time and the attack of radical Islam upon the West, and especially as a meditation on the mysteries of moral and religious conversion in the souls of sinners.
Suspicion of the Church arises here not from supposedly enlightened secularists but from traditionalist Catholics who fear that the Church has betrayed its mission. Yet even these characters, whose goal is to “expose the myrmidons of the Vatican as unreliable custodians of the secrets of Fatima,” have sober second thoughts. Alongside a few devout souls, there are overeager converts who act as if they “picked the winning team and had to cheer it on to victory.” There are also many lapsed Catholics, the sort of bad Catholics that populated the novels of Walker Percy, Catholics who think they have made their peace with the Church but discover that they never really left. These are characters whose lives have become dominated by any number of all too human desires — for money, fame, or sex — but who realize a deeper desire, for love and holiness.
This is the sort of popular writing we could use more of — smart, entertaining, and sympathetic to the most tragic struggles and deepest yearnings of the human soul.
— Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.