Book preview: The Pope’s Son by Rick Friend

The Pope's Son author Rick Friend

The Pope's Son author Rick Friend - Credit: Archant

Novel tells the extraordinary tale of a Jewish boy who was kidnapped by a Pope

The Pope's Son

The Pope's Son - Credit: Archant

Rick Friend’s debut novel is an account of the abduction of a Jewish boy by Pope Pius the Ninth in the 1850s.

The dentist, who also writes, sings and acts, stumbled upon the story of Edgardo Mortara in Swiss Cottage Library in an anthology of old Jewish Chronicle articles.

One dated July 16, 1858 triggered his imagination: ‘A shocking and almost incredible instance of Papal oppression as having occurred at Bologna.. a child of a Jew, named Mortara was secretly baptised by its nurse… In spite of the remonstrances of the father, and the tears and screams of the mother, their child … was torn from them and taken to Rome.”

A second article stated that the father of ‘the young Mortara’ later met his son in Rome in the street in a procession of young priests. ‘Few words were spoken.’

“That was it, I remember my hair standing on end,” says the Hampstead resident.

“None of my Jewish or Catholic friends had heard about this case – it was a hidden story.”

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Friend spent months in the British Library, poring over books about Pope Pius and the Vatican to find out more about the case. He found it had been well documented in the Catholic Press of the time as well as in newspapers such as The Times.

“I identified strongly with Mortara, having myself been born Jewish yet raised in a non-Jewish environment in Yorkshire,” adds Friend who began writing the novel in the mid 1980s.

“Learning that Father Mortara died in a Belgian monastery, aged nearly ninety, shortly before the Nazi invasion of Belgium, I decided to tell his story in a series of flashbacks. I visited Liège in Belgium and the monastery in Bouhay where he spent his final days; made trips to Bologna, Rome and the Vatican; to Castel Gandolfo and various Italian villages featured in his life.”

He also attended a writing course taught by Highgate author Esther Freud.

The Pope’s Son opens with Raoul, a novice monk tasked with caring for the aging priest, Father Mortara. Raoul is shocked to discover that the old man had once been a Jew called Edgardo, who had turned his back on both the Jewish religion and his parents.

Abducted by order of Pope Pius IX in 1858, when he was only six, he was dragged from his parents in the back streets of Bologna and brought to the rose gardens of the Vatican.

The Pope believed he was justified to take the boy under his wing because he had been secretly baptized as a baby by his father’s maid, who wanted to save his soul when she thought he was dying.

In the novel there is a world outcry. Christians and Jews unite to petition the Pontiff to return the boy to his parents. Sir Moses Montefiore, a British aristocrat, travels to Rome to appeal to the Pope, while Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia and Napoleon III of France use the case to further their campaigns against Pius. However Pius IX refuses, risking his political power for the love of a son he calls his own.

“As the Pope’s Son, Edgardo was given many privileges at a time when the Jews were in ghettos and starving,” says Friend.

“He never tried to return to his parents who were all but destroyed in their attempts to get him back into the Jewish faith.”

In 1870, with Italian Unification, Pope Pius’s power wanes and King Victor Emmanuel takes control of Rome. Fearing that he will be forced to return to his family, Edgardo flees Italy, hiding in monasteries in Austria and France, where the sexual advances of a predatory monk trigger a nervous breakdown.

Friend, who has turned the story into a screenplay, and has previously written plays and a musical, ultimately portrays Mortara as a sad character “beset with guilt and self-justification.”

“Almost 90 per cent of the story of Mortara’s life and events are based on fact,” adds Friend. “This truly sad and perhaps unforgivable act of the Catholic Church should be seen against a backdrop of pre-unified Italy in the 1850s, a country overrun with Austrian soldiers, religious fanaticism and fierce anti-semitism at a time when the Pope was one of the most powerful people in Europe.”

The Pope’s Son is on sale on Amazon via Peach Publishing.