Grace Under Fire

Judy Roberts reviews The Secret Cardinal by Tom Grace.


by Tom Grace

Vanguard Press, 2007

256 pages, $24.95

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He’s an ex-Navy SEAL who is about to lead a team into the People’s Republic of China to free an imprisoned bishop.

Nolan Kilkenny also happens to be Catholic, but at the moment he’s only praying “occasionally,” still reeling from the loss of his astronaut wife, Kelsey, and their infant son, Toby. Both died after the couple decided against treating Kelsey’s cancer while she was pregnant. Now Kilkenny, the hero of four previous novels by Grace, is burying himself in his work and has gone to Rome to resolve a technical problem at the Vatican library.

Or so he thinks. When he is ushered into an audience with Pope Leo XIV, he is asked to find a way to free the bishop of Shanghai, Yin Dao-ming, from the Chinese prison where he has been for 30 years. Twenty years ago, Kilkenny learns, Leo made Bishop Yin a cardinal in pectore (meaning “in the breast,” as in the secret place of the heart).

Grace’s latest novel draws its inspiration from the plight of the Church in China and the life of Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, who died in 2000, 15 years after his release from a Chinese prison. Like Yin, Cardinal Kung steadfastly refused to denounce the Pope during his 30-year imprisonment. And, unknown to Bishop Kung until after he was freed, Pope John Paul II had created him cardinal in pectore in 1979.

The author, who is Catholic, became intrigued with the cardinal’s story and the Church’s situation in China after reading a tribute to Cardinal Kung by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. Seeing the thread of a possible novel, Grace subsequently wove it into The Secret Cardinal, a suspenseful tale rich with intrigue, unexpected turns and gritty characters.

Grace’s story is made all the better by detailed descriptions of the Vatican — its buildings and artwork as well as its inner workings, including an inside-the-Sistine-Chapel look at a papal election. You guessed it — a pope dies in the novel and must be replaced.

The Secret Cardinal is a deft blend of fact and fiction, but the author is careful to separate both at the book’s end. For example, a key character — Cardinal Malachy Donoher — heads something called the Vatican Intelligence Service. Grace makes clear that no such entity exists.

Although Grace is an excellent storyteller, The Secret Cardinal exceeds its entertainment value by raising awareness of China’s persecuted underground Catholic Church, which has been illegal for more than a half century.

The book also scores points for recognizing Church teaching on human life in its account of why Kilkenny and his late wife postponed treatment of her cancer until after their child could be safely born. Grace weighs Kilkenny’s fidelity to his faith against the loss he suffers by letting it play out in a conversation between Cardinal Yin and Kilkenny.

Here, readers are given a compassionate picture of the Church as Yin, no stranger to suffering for doing the right thing, is able to offer manly comfort and counsel to Kilkenny: “You and your wife made a decision based on faith and hope, yet still suffered a great tragedy. I believe God is aware of this tragedy. …” This is refreshing stuff in a novel from a secular publisher.

Grace’s latest work is representative of his previous novels, in which sex and profanity are used sparingly in comparison to other books in this genre. Even so, some of the descriptions of torture are somewhat graphic, and may be too much for sensitive readers. Overall, however, this is a fine read that lends a Catholic presence to popular literature in the secular culture.

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.