The Clowns of God

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Category: Classic
Date Published: September, 2003
Number of Pages: 240
Print Price: $12.46
eBook Price: $

The Clowns of God is an intriguing title for this, the second book in Morris West’s Vatican Trilogy.  The phrase evokes many questions for the reader – as well as for those around her, as I discovered carrying the novel around with me as I read it.

The questions which the reader raises are part of the theme of West’s work.  Does God care? Are we merely his playthings, his “clowns?” Is there a purpose in our existence? West explores the answers to these complicated questions through the lives of his well-formed and complex characters – individuals who are struggling as much as we are today.

The plot centers around Pope Gregory XVII who recently has been forced to abdicate the Chair of Peter by his brother bishops.  He has been granted a vision of the end of the world and, for many reasons, it is decided that a pope cannot be a prophet and that the vision should remain a private revelation. The curia has suppressed his encyclical which would have told of the coming tragedy.

The plot gains momentum as the now ex-pope begins to reach out from his imposed seclusion.  The first contact he makes, with his old friend Carl Mendelius, sets in motion events that will influence and advance the main theme of the novel. Pope Gregory, or Jean as he becomes known, sends his hidden encyclical to his old friend hoping to gain his opinion as well as his help with spreading the message of his vision.

Mendelius, for his part, cannot make an immediate judgment but he does understand the need for the college of bishop to silence the ex-Pontiff, “…it was a disturbing and dangerous document. Emanating from so high a source it could not fail to raise alarm and panic.  Among the militants it might easily serve as a rallying cry for one last crusade of the elect against the unrighteous.  To the weak and the fearful it might even be an inducement to suicide before the horrors of the last times overtook them.”

Carl Mendelius is a knowledgeable man, ex-Jesuit priest, and now married with two grown children.  He is a respected historian and professor in his native Germany as well as abroad.  The professor’s story introduces topics of particular importance to families as we are introduced to young and old alike struggling with the idea of an impending war.

The professor’s travels aid West in moving the story forward to its climax.  When in Rome, Mendelius witnesses an attempted murder and becomes a target of terrorism himself.  The effect of the good professor’s desire to help a wounded man will eventually pull Jean from his seclusion and back out into the world to tell others of his vision.

West’s idea of the “clowns of God” becomes more apparent after this turning point in the story. Jean meets many people and addresses subjects caused by the looming war and possible global annihilation.  Mendelius’ fears have shown themselves to be true; Jean encounters people contemplating euthanasia and suicide.

One of the most touching of these moments comes as the former pope meets the little “clowns of God” who are handicapped children.  Jean learns that the government has devised a plan to dispose of these little ones should war become a reality. It is after the awareness of these horrors that Jean becomes a “clown of God” himself in an attempt to silence the drums of war and warn people of the impending result of their actions.

This novel is extremely difficult to “sum up.” There is so much here that is worthwhile.  After reading it twice in preparation for this review, I think the overriding message is one of communion.  Not communion with God necessarily (though that is our ultimate goal) but communion with our fellowman as a reflection of our communion with God. Each character seems to be reaching out for an “Otherness” that he or she is called toward. There are glimpses of it in the small communities that are represented—a small women’s artist community, the little group of “clowns” and their caregivers, and even (in a small way) in the student group formed in anger.

The most perfect illustration of the souls’ union with God and one another comes at the end of the novel where many of the characters ban together to find some form of peace with one another as they attempt to live through whatever the uncertain future brings. The end is the most telling part of the story as it is only through working together, aided by Mr. Atha (Jean’s physical therapist) that any form of peace becomes possible.

It is also at the end that the former pope is confronted with his own doubts. “…I do feel myself to be a battleground, still in dispute.  I am drawn to a safe indifference.  I am tempted to lose all faith in a loving deity.” He, like many of us, wonders if he matters, if anything matters.  In the end he is able to take that leap of faith and declare his belief as we each must eventually do.

Having read this novel twice, I will likely read it again.  West provides a realistic and thought-provoking look at the problems facing our world today and he reminds us of the beauty and “oneness” of which we are each called to be part.  He also shows that it is normal to doubt and fear what is to come.  More importantly, he shows that no matter what the future brings, there is a Constant on whom we can depend.

ISBN-13: 978-1902881843
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.6 x 1.2 inches

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Michelle Sheehan Tholen is a graduate of Catholic Distance University (CDU). She holds a Master's Degree in Theology with a concentration in Catholic Culture from that institution and a BA in English from the University of Maryland University College. She is the mother of two, lives in Bayou Vista, Louisiana with her husband, Paul and teaches English at Hanson Memorial High School. Mrs. Tholen is a writer for the CDU Year of Faith blog at

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