“The Hidden Saint, The Sixteenth Century Church in Crisis” is a fascinating read. The novel explores the four main challenges the Roman Catholic Church faced in the sixteenth century: a Muslim invasion, forcible conversions in the new world, clashes with the Protestant movement and immoral behavior of the clergy. Bauer is a gifted writer and choreographs this historical deep dive through the narration of Roberto Vecchi, the bodyguard to Carlo Borromeo, a cardinal and archbishop of Milan and truly one of the great reformers of these troubled times. The transformation of Roberto from swordsman to enlightened husband, father and deacon balances the historical elements of the novel producing a very interesting story. Amazon Review by Vincent Donovan May 19, 2017.
The Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century faced four major challenges: a Muslim invasion; dissent over forcible conversions in the Americas; clashes with the new Protestant movement; and immoral behavior from members of the clergy. The Council of Trent countered these threats by laying out the fundamental beliefs of the Catholic Church and listing punishments up to and including excommunication for inappropriate behavior.
Roberto Vecchi narrates the story as the bodyguard to Carlo Borromeo, nephew to Pope Pius IV, and son of the Count of Arona. Carlo wishes to follow a religious career and has been assigned responsibility for implementing the decisions of the council. Roberto prefers a comfortable future to labors in an apathetic church, assuming he lives long enough to have a future. Roberto’s devastating skill with a sword causes him to find a ready partner in Ernesto Mancini of the Orsini clan only to be restrained from dueling by Carlo with the threat of excommunication.
Our story takes place primarily in Rome and Milan, but we find an unwilling Roberto off to the famous Colegio de San Gregorio in Spain which had such a great influence on the encomenderos of Latin America, and to Lepanto where the deciding sea battle takes place between the Catholic Fleet and the Muslim Fleet. When the restraining influence of Carlos over Roberto begins to lose its power, the lovely maid, Celia Bartolini, enters the scene and reminds Roberto that his soul is not the only thing he might lose should he unsheathe his sword.
The silver flash of the halberd’s axe swept past my nose, causing me to hit the back of my head on the chair. The Pontifical
Swiss Guard ignored me as they continued the changing-of-the-guard ceremony outside the pontiff’s office. All movements were
made without a word.
My sire, Don Carlo Borromeo, mesmerized with the ceremony, offered no words of comfort for the pain I felt. Instead, he watched
as the four guards—carrying seven-foot halberds—and their sergeant snapped to and about with precision. All wore the guard’s
black beret, vertical-striped, three-color uniform, with a high ruff collar of lace drawn into deep, regular folds.
My full attention was on the silvery axe blade with its central spike, for it had barely missed me. Mounted on the halberd’s long
wooden shaft, it reflected the winter light from the windows as it swung about. The click-click of army boots snapping to unspoken
commands soon ended. The new guards went to attention at the closed door to the pontiff’s office, their halberds held tightly along
their right side, the departing guards’ sounds no longer echoing in the room.
“They’re tall, aren’t they,” I said.
Carlo looked at the remaining guards. “More than just tall—courageous as well.”
“Why do you say that?”
“When troops of the Holy Roman Empire sacked Rome about thirty years ago, one hundred and eighty-nine Swiss Guards were
on duty. One hundred and forty-seven sacrificed themselves on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica so that Pope Clement VII could escape
down a secret corridor to Castel Sant’Angelo. The remaining guards accompanied the pope.”
“So they knowingly gave up their lives to protect the pope?” I said.
“Yes. That’s why new recruits to the Swiss Guard are sworn in every year on the day of the massacre, May sixth.”
I didn’t answer him—what else could be said? I admired bravery, but not stupidity. Carlo saw the guards as martyrs for the
faith; I saw healthy men give up the most precious thing in life for a man in clerical garb. Too many priests were gluttons, fornicators, or
blasphemers in my mind.
When Carlo’s hazel eyes drilled into mine, I looked down, for I had the feeling he could read my thoughts. He had every intention
of becoming a priest and I knew that. My family had served his family for three generations, so whatever he decided to do, I would
follow, but I didn’t have to like it. I looked at his rich tunic with its silver buttons—a fitting garment for a member of his aristocratic
family. My plain black guard’s tunic had bone buttons, nothing pretentious about it. If Carlo ever became a priest, he would have to
give up his rich tunic, and I would have to give up any hope of improving mine.
The only sound was the breathing of the fourteen men anticipating an audience with the Holy Father. These sounds of life
bounced lightly off the shadowy walls, broken only by the occasional blast of wind striking the three frosted windows closed
against the frigid January air.
A gatekeeper priest sat behind his small oak desk playing with paper. The gatekeeper ignored the guard and the guard ignored
him. The paper on the desk held everyone’s name and reason for wishing to meet with the pope. Supplicants were prioritized and
escorted in and out of the pontiff’s chambers with an unsmiling, businesslike attitude—no extraneous conversation and no friendly
humor. Prince, tradesman, or serf, one’s reason for being here dictated the speed with which one entered the pontiff’s office, and
only the pontiff could overrule the gatekeeper.
“How much longer do you think it’ll be?” I asked Carlo.
“We just got here. I’d wager some of these men have been here for hours,” he answered.
“Do you think our luggage will be safe with the porters?”
Carlo laughed. “You worry too much. We’ve had the same porters since Milan and have lost nothing. Put a little trust in your
I looked at my master and thought how little he knew about trust. This was an evil world filled with evil men and women. I
trusted no one—except perhaps for Carlo. “Oh, I trust the porters,”I lied. “I’m concerned because we haven’t found a room yet, and
“Relax,” Carlo said, patting me on the arm.
My eyes turned to the fourteen supplicants sitting in high-backed oak chairs with red cushions. They were scattered up and
down the two parallel rows of twenty-five chairs. One row of chairs was positioned under the three windows, and the other row along
the opposite wall. High born and low born were mixed throughout the room, but all the chairs next to the gatekeeper were filled in
hopes that closeness would result in an early call.