This reading group guide for The Fifth Gospel includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Ian Caldwell. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
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In 2004, as Pope John Paul II’s reign enters its twilight, a mysterious exhibit is under construction at the Vatican Museums. A week before it is scheduled to open, its curator is murdered at a clandestine meeting on the outskirts of Rome. The same night, a violent break-in rocks the home of the curator’s research partner, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest who lives inside the Vatican with his five-year-old son. When the papal police fail to identify a suspect in either crime, Father Alex, desperate to keep his family safe, undertakes his own investigation. To find the killer he must reconstruct the dead curator’s secret: what the four Christian gospels—and a little-known, true-to-life fifth gospel known as the Diatessaron—reveal about the Church’s most controversial holy relic. But just as he begins to understand the truth about his friend’s death and its consequences for the future of the world’s two largest Christian Churches, Father Alex finds himself hunted down by someone with vested stakes in the exhibit—someone he must outwit to survive. Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. “He was my friend. His name was Ugolino Nogara” (17). What does Father Simon Andreou’s behavior at Castel Gandolfo suggest about his true feelings for Ugo Nogara? How does Simon’s younger brother, Father Alex Andreou, interpret the scene he encounters in the garden? Why does Simon’s behavior seem suspicious to Alex?
2. When he returns to Vatican City from Castel Gandolfo, Father Alex discovers that in his absence a man searching for him and Simon broke into his apartment. Why does Alex suspect that Ugo’s murder and the break-in are connected in some way to Ugo’s forthcoming exhibit? What do both of these disturbing incidents reveal about the dynamics of the sibling relationship between Simon and Alex?
3. “The image created a strange tension inside me. . . . [T]he Holy Shroud is king, the image at the heart of our faith” (46). Why is the carbon-dating of the Shroud to the Middle Ages significant to Alex and Simon? What role does their family history play in both brothers’ decision to help Ugo validate the Shroud’s authenticity?
4. What is important about Ugo’s discovery of the Diatessaron in the Vatican Library? Why do Ugo and Father Alex clash over what should be done with “probably the oldest complete gospel manuscript in the world” (85)? How does their disagreement highlight the rifts in historical and religious scholarship concerning the figure of Jesus Christ?
5. When Alex confronts Simon with physical evidence that Ugo was targeted like Michael Black, Simon explains that he cannot reveal more to his brother because he has taken an oath. Discuss the role of oaths in the novel. Does religious secrecy imposed by the papal state take precedence over legal and moral imperatives? How does Simon’s oath affect the information he can give to the papal police in the case of Ugo’s death?
6. “. . . Michael howls, ‘Helping Nogara? That’s what Simon told you he was doing?’ He gives a scornful laugh. . . . ‘Alex, your brother’s been lying to you. Lying to everyone’” (105). To what extent is Michael Black telling the truth when he calls Simon’s honesty into question? How would you characterize Michael’s relationship with the Andreou family? Given that Alex and Simon are ardent believers in uniting the Christian denominations of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, why do they trust Michael Black, who devotes himself to fomenting division between these separate communities?
7. How does Alex’s unanticipated role as a single parent to Peter reframe his understanding of his life’s obligations? How does he make sense of his wife’s unexplained disappearance? Compare Alex’s and Peter’s experiences of Mona’s absence. How does her surprising return to their lives impact them individually? How would you describe her role in the novel?
8. How does Ugo Nogara’s pursuit of the truth about the Holy Shroud set the plot of The Fifth Gospel
into motion? Ugo’s character is revealed posthumously—through flashbacks, voicemails, and notes. What do these pieces of evidence establish about his personality? Given all that we as readers learn about him, does his death seem consistent with the way he lived his life?
9. “Simon stands. ‘I’ve decided that I won’t defend myself against the murder charge’” (141). What does Simon’s decision to opt for silence rather than confess to murder or defend himself reveal about his character? How would you describe Simon’s faith? How does his elite position in the Secretariat add to the cloak of secrecy that surrounds him? How much does Alex truly understand his older brother and his motives?
10. What role does His Eminence Lucio Cardinal Ciferri play in the lives of Alex and Simon? How does his character evolve over the course of the novel? How does Uncle Lucio use his authority to help his family, and what does this suggest about the nature of Vatican politics?
11. Describe the scene at the opening night of Ugo’s exhibit. How do the gestures of religious reconciliation made by Pope John Paul II in the Sistine Chapel at the end of the exhibit alter the course of religious history for Catholic and Orthodox Christians? How is the reunion of these long-divided denominations made possible by a cover-up?
12. “So this is why my friend died. Because I taught him how to read the gospels. And because he had the bravery to speak out about what they revealed” (381). How does Alex’s hermeneutical expertise enable him to connect Ugo’s death at Castel Gandolfo to the truth about the Shroud’s authenticity? Why does Ugo use a code involving the gospels to reveal the truth about the Shroud to Simon?
13. “Simon peers down at me. And there is such heart-splitting love in that look” (403). Why does Alex falsely confess to Ugo’s murder? To what extent is Alex’s deception guided by his faith? What does Alex’s calculated lie signify to Simon? How do both brothers, through their actions in this book, embody the passage from John 15:13—“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”?
14. How does the author characterize the community of Vatican City? What does its nearest neighbor, the city of Rome, represent to many Vatican City dwellers? How do some of the minor characters in this novel—figures like Guido Canali, Sister Helena, Gianni Nardi, Leo and Sofia Keller—enhance your appreciation of secular and religious life in this altogether unique city-state?
15. Alex identifies himself early in the book as an Eastern Catholic. How might his minority status within his own Church give Alex a heightened appreciation of the religious hierarchies in Vatican City? How would this novel differ had Simon Andreou been its narrator? Enhance Your Book Club
1. In The Fifth Gospel,
brothers Alex and Simon share the belief that they are to submit themselves and their lives to God. Their faithfulness to God’s will leads them down very different paths. Have members of your group discuss the significance of faith in their own lives. How, if at all, have religious traditions shaped who they are as people? How have they shaped other members of their family? Members of your group may want to consider the moral or religious underpinnings of their childhood, and examine how they have followed or departed from them in their adult lives.
2. In The Fifth Gospel,
Ian Caldwell examines the profound emotional impact of losing a parent. In the case of Alex and Simon, the early deaths of their father and mother force them to rely more closely on each other; in the case of Alex’s son, Peter, the sudden disappearance of his mother in his infancy colors his young world incalculably. Some members of your group may have experienced the early loss of a parent firsthand. How does Caldwell’s theme resonate with them? What qualities do children who grow up without parents seem to exhibit? Have members of your group consider the characters of Peter, Alex, and Simon in their discussion.
3. The Shroud of Turin functions almost as a character unto itself in The Fifth Gospel.
Rumors of its holy presence haunt the tight-knit Vatican City community in Caldwell’s novel, and its appearance in the Sistine Chapel at the exhibit organized by Ugo Nogara seems partly responsible for enabling the reconciliation between Orthodox and Catholic Christians. Ask members of your group to discuss their feelings about the Shroud. Do they believe it to be a holy relic? How does the carbon dating of the Shroud to the Middle Ages affect their thinking about it? Members of your book group may choose to discuss the significance of the Shroud to them, and what the mystery surrounding the Shroud’s origins represents to a wider world audience, both religious and secular. A Conversation with Ian Caldwell Ten years have passed since the publication of your first novel, The Rule of Four, and the release of The Fifth Gospel. How many of those years did you devote to writing The Fifth Gospel?
All of them! I started writing The Fifth Gospel
even before The Rule of Four
was published, so it’s been almost a dozen years of work. But the first incarnation of this story was completely different: a team of archaeologists goes searching for a lost wonder of the world that, as the characters discover in the end, changed the way Jesus came to be depicted in Christian art. When I finished writing that manuscript in 2006, I realized I’d told the wrong story. The adventure novel didn’t engage deeply enough with the question I cared about most: how Jesus became a subject of Christian art, since the gospels never describe his appearance and early Christians were opposed to making images. Where did the tradition of a long-haired, bearded man come from? Eventually I decided to rewrite the book and set it at the crossroads of faith and art: the Vatican. I had a feeling the switch was going to involve some research, but the Vatican is the world’s smallest country, so how much research could it really take? Famous last words . . . You cowrote your first novel with a childhood friend. How would you compare the experience of writing fiction with a partner to writing a novel on your own?
The monastic part of writing—the solitude and self-imposed discipline—agrees with me. Since I have three sons under the age of ten, those hours of deep silence and inner grappling feel almost medicinal! I do make a lot more blockheaded storytelling decisions than I did back when I had a friend looking over my shoulder, but fortunately my old coauthor is just a phone call away, and we still eyeball each other’s drafts. Dusty [Thomason, cowriter of The Rule of Four
] now works in Hollywood and writes mainly for TV. He’s more at home in the West Coast creative world, and I’m more at home in this East Coast one, but we’re on the phone all the time, trading stories and comparing notes. What drew you to setting your novel in the notoriously insular Vatican city-state, and how challenging was it for you as a fiction writer to re-create its environment in your narrative?
I was attracted to the challenge of writing about a secretive place . . . only to find out that this particular place wasn’t as secretive as I’d thought. In fact, there’s probably no better-documented place on earth than the Vatican, once you know how to find what you need. Two-thirds of the city-state can be visited most days of the year by almost anyone. The pope is one of the most photographed people on earth, and considering that his golf course–size country has its own daily newspaper, publishing house, radio station, and TV operation, in any other context the Vatican would be accused of media oversaturation. On top of that, books have been written on every subject from the pope’s finances to the pope’s clothes to the pope’s cars, and on the seedier side of things there are paparazzi who will sell you aerial drone photos of the inner Vatican and recount, step by step, how they broke into the pope’s summer residence to take compromising photos of the Holy Father in his private swimming pool. (You also wouldn’t believe some of the things that turn up on eBay.) What surprised me most, though, and what made a great impact on The Fifth Gospel
, was the willingness of Catholic priests with Vatican experience to talk openly about their lives. We novelists haven’t given them much incentive to do that, but they did it, anyway. So one of the biggest challenges of creating the Vatican of The Fifth Gospel
was how to do justice to the huge volume of factual information at hand. Eastern Catholicism is not well known. How did you come to learn about it, and what led you to make Alex Andreou, the protagonist of your novel, an Eastern Catholic?
At an early stage of researching The Fifth Gospel
, I was reading books on different subjects when everything suddenly converged. While learning about the internal legal code of the Catholic Church (canon law), I’d found out there are separate codes for Latin Rite (“Roman”) Catholics and for Eastern Catholics. I’d also been reading a biography of Pope John Paul II, who in his final years tried to reunite the Catholic and Orthodox Churches but couldn’t quite fix the problem that many Orthodox view Eastern Catholics as obstacles rather than as middlemen. And of course I’d been scanning hundreds of pictures of Vatican life, and whenever there was a big enough gathering of cardinals, I noticed that a few of them were dressed in unusual robes and headpieces and jewelry. Since Catholic clerical dress is as rule-bound and complicated as the American tax code, I knew there must be a reason for that. What I didn’t expect to find was that the pope oversees almost two dozen Catholic rites I’d never known existed, and that their Christian traditions offered a new perspective on what I’d thought of as Catholicism. The writing of The Fifth Gospel
coincided in my own life with a decade in which I got married and had three children, so one of the ancient Eastern traditions that resonated with me was the practice of allowing married men to become priests. I’d known from the beginning that I wanted to write not just about a Vatican priest but about a Vatican family
. Now I had a way to do it. The Fifth Gospel repeatedly addresses the theme of the loss of a parent. Even Ugo’s focus on the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin seems grounded in a preoccupation with the death of Jesus Christ, the eponymous father of the Christian Church. Did this theme grow organically out of your novel as you wrote it, or was it something that you knew from the beginning would play an important part in Alex’s story?
It emerged naturally from the source material. The importance of suffering and sacrifice is probably greater in Christianity than in most other religions. There’s a lot of foreshadowing and symbolism in the gospels that make it clear Jesus’ life and ministry are being understood retrospectively in terms of his death, which was the loss of a parent-like figure for the disciples. But what makes Jesus’ execution even more painful to read is his abandonment by those same disciples who had been his loyal followers: his
loss of them
. I wanted the novel to deal with those emotions not only in the context of scripture but in real-world terms, in real suffering, in real pounds of flesh. I wanted Alex’s final choice to be freighted not only with his feelings toward Simon but expressive of how faith and experience had taught him to cope with loss. In the course of your research for this book, did anything you encountered relating to life in the Vatican especially surprise you? Please explain.
Vatican culture is an odd concoction of the old and the new, with Americans often serving as representatives of the new. On the one hand, there are throwbacks to an older time that most Americans have trouble envisioning; for instance, the clock atop the pope’s palace at Castel Gandolfo has only one hand, and its face is divided into only six hours instead of twelve, because that’s how time was kept before Napoleon took over the country and imposed modern standards. On the other hand, whenever the pope is flirting with a newfangled technology, you can count on American Catholics to be first in line to give him the goods. One of the first papal automobiles was a gift from Americans. Americans supplied the modern steel shelving at the Vatican Library, and are still playing a major role in digitizing the book collection. (The only microfilm copy of the pope’s most important texts, in fact, is in St. Louis.) The Vatican Observatory’s new cutting-edge facility is located not in Italy but in Arizona, the Holy See Internet Office was founded by an American nun from Long Island, and the Vatican internet domain suffix—.va—was procured by an American archbishop. Even the papal Latinist, who works down the hall from the pope, translating official documents from Italian into the ancient language of Rome, was until recently a Milwaukee native whose most talked-about job may have been creating Latin menus for the Vatican Bank’s new cash machines. Why do you think the mysterious origins of the Shroud of Turin continue to arouse considerable controversy in today’s culture?
I’d say the controversy that erupted after the radiocarbon testing of the Shroud in 1988, which declared the Shroud a medieval fake, has now given way to an interestingly stable disagreement between the two camps. There are millions of people who consider the Shroud a fake because they believe science has delivered the final word, and there are millions of people who continue to travel to Turin to see the Shroud during its occasional expositions because their faith remains unshaken. The Fifth Gospel
tries to open up both sides to new perspectives. On the one hand, there may well have been some irregularities about the cloth sample of the Shroud used in the radiocarbon tests. And something resembling the Shroud certainly existed before the earliest date given by the carbon-dating results. We have texts from before that date that refer to a burial-cloth relic or a cloth imprinted with a mystical image of Jesus. On the other hand, Catholic biblical scholars themselves have expressed doubts about the Shroud, and The Fifth Gospel
shows that a scientific reading of the gospels raises important questions about it. Ugolino Nogara is a fascinating, exuberant, and contradictory character. Was it challenging for you as a writer to confine him to a posthumous role in your novel?
Not at all—I’m not shy about using flashbacks! And death is a powerful tool for concentrating the significance of a character’s life. What made Ugo challenging wasn’t confining him to a posthumous role, but taking him on a journey that moved between certainty and doubt about the Shroud, and making him a man who inspired both confidence and skepticism in others. In a world of unwavering religious convictions, ambiguity and contradiction are powerful forces, and with both Ugo Nogara and Michael Black I tried to make the most of them. The relationship between Simon and Alex in The Fifth Gospel reveals the typical complexity of sibling dynamics, but also the stratified and hierarchical nature of Catholic leadership. What did you learn in your fictional exploration of professional status within such a sprawling religious institution?
The Vatican is unusual within the Catholic Church: because it’s an ecclesiastical state, its internal rules reinforce the hierarchy in small ways you would never see elsewhere. At the Vatican medical clinic, for instance, bishops have their own private entrance. At the Vatican grocery store, they can cut to the front of the checkout line. Priestly rank determines where you’re seated at events, whether you can call for a car from the Vatican sedan pool, even how quickly you get service from a Vatican repairman. But it cuts in the other direction, too. Having so many high-ranking clergy in such a small area can be equalizing and even humbling. In any other Catholic diocese, being a monsignor would be something special, and being a bishop would mean standing at the top of the hill. But when diocesan bishops talk about their trips to the Vatican (which are required of them every five years), they sometimes sound as awed as young priests from rural parishes describing visits to their big-city bishops. Everyone in the priestly hierarchy feels that way in the presence of the pope. It was only a few decades ago that the pope was carried around on a portable throne, and visitors meeting him in person would show their respect by kissing his shoe. If you were a Vatican bureaucrat who received a work call from the Holy Father’s phone, it was customary to kneel while answering it. So despite the outer pageantry of Vatican life, there also remains a deep inner sense of respect and humility that keeps (some!) prelates more down-to-earth and accessible than you might expect. Are there any aspects of the Christian faith that you’ve depicted in this book that you think will surprise or disturb your readers? Which ones and why?
Christians of different denominations interpret the Bible differently. At the risk of oversimplifying, some believe every word of scripture should be understood in a literal, factual sense, while others, going back to some of the Church Fathers, believe the Bible is sometimes literal but sometimes symbolic. In The Fifth Gospel
, Father Alex interprets the Christian gospels according to the modern historical-critical method that has been embraced by the Catholic Church and taught in its seminaries for the past seventy years. For Christians who have never looked at the gospels carefully side-by-side, and especially for Christians who hew to biblical literalism, the results might definitely be surprising! Agnostics and atheists might also be surprised by how rigorous and scientific Christian scholars are willing to be with their own holy texts, even when it leads them to difficult conclusions, as it does in The Fifth Gospel