On Wednesday a new pope was elected: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is now Pope Francis (not “Francis I“, as he still is the first and only with that name), the 266th head of the Catholic Church. “Angels & Demons” by Dan Brown is probably one of the first sources that come to mind when thinking of a fictional Vatican and fictional Pope; published in 2000, the novel saw the Church being led by a Pope Luke, a choice driven by the fact that Saint Luke is patron saint to physicians and surgeons. In fact, the author did not make a casual choice: the plot of “Angels & Demons” centers around a powerful sect’s efforts to destroy the Vatican through the use of antimatter and it is no coincidence that Luke was the name the new fictional pope picked.
But the most interesting episode about a fictional pope takes place in the IX Century and she might not be a fictional pope after all. As a matter of fact, the story of Pope Joan is a combination of truth, legend and folk tales: following the death of Pope Leo IV (the year 855), an English-born woman (known as Johannes Anglicus) who had managed to trick everyone into thinking she was a man, was elected as Pope John VIII, got pregnant and gave birth during the Easter processions, where she was publicly exposed as a fraud. Variants of the legend suggest different continuations of the myth: Joan, as she would later be known by most, was locked up in a convent; according to other versions she died during childbirth or, in the most popular legend, was attacked and killed by the people.
Another fictional pope, both represented in the literary world by Celia Gittelson’s novel and its on-screen version as the movie and theatre play “Saving Grace“, reminds us of the way the press and the public opinion are starting to portray the actual new pontiff, Pope Francis. Leo XIV is a relatively young pope, one that realises the importance of the Church as community, love and care for others and humility. In the book and movie’s plot, the pope travels incognito to a small village where he helps people rebuild an aqueduct. In doing so, he gains a true sense of Christianity and reconnects the role of pope with the simple task of being a priest. Italian director Nanni Moretti’s movie “Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope)“, which was released just two years ago, saw the pontiff renounce his chance. Michal Piccoli portrays Cardinal Melville as he falls into depression shortly after being appointed as pope by the conclave and encounters a psychologist who tries to help him. The man ultimately refuses to become a pope and announces his decision on the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica.