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Hoping to establish a Russian sphere of influence in Rome, Soviet Premier Piotr Lylich Kamenev arranges for the release of political prisoner Kiril Lakota, an archbishop of the Russian Catholic Church who has been held in a Siberian prison camp for 20 years. Before he leaves for Rome, Lakota is briefed by Kamenev on the world situation, particularly the extreme famine in Red China which has brought the world to the brink of atomic war. After the briefing, Lakota is escorted to Rome by Father Telemond, an ailing Jesuit priest whose nonconformist philosophical writings on evolution are under examination by a Pontifical Commission. Upon arriving at the Rome airport, Lakota is interviewed by George Faber, an American television newscaster whose extramarital activities are threatening to destroy his marriage. Lakota is made a cardinal by the pope, who, like Kamenev, sees him as a bridge between East and West. A short time later, while Father Telemond is answering the charges of the Pontifical Commission headed by the staunchly conservative Cardinal Leone, the pope collapses and dies. Coincidental with the pope's death, the Chinese begin to mobilize along the Indian and Mongolian borders. The cardinals go into conclave to elect a new pope, and a deadlock in the consistory of the sacred college results in Lakota's being chosen pope against his will. The first non-Italian pope in 400 years, Lakota chooses the name of Pope Kiril I, in memory of the saint who carried the Gospel to Russia. Almost immediately, Premier Kamenev asks the new pope to mediate the Chinese crisis. That night, feeling a need to be with the people, Kiril dresses in plain priestly clothes, wanders through the streets of Rome, and accidentally encounters Faber's wife, Ruth, a physician. After he has helped her to understand that love is missing from her marriage, Kiril is brought back to the Vatican by his emissaries. He then travels to Outer Mongolia for a meeting with Kamenev and the Red Chinese leader, Chairman Peng. Following his pledge that he will try to find a solution to the famine in China, Kiril returns to Rome and asks Father Telemond to share his problems. Before the young Jesuit can offer advice, however, he is stricken by a cerebral hemorrhage and dies in Kiril's arms. Alone with the magnitude of his papal office, Kiril makes peace with his old enemy, Cardinal Leone, and then makes his decision. On the day of his coronation, as he stands on the balcony of St. Peter's Cathedral, Pope Kiril I removes the papal crown from his head and pledges all of the vast wealth of the Catholic Church "for the relief of our hungry brothers." If necessary, the Church will "strip itself down to poverty."