Friday, July 10, 2015

I Promessi Sposi

While in New York on vacation after last week's Paulist community retreat, I was invited to be the Guest Discussion Leader at Saint Paul the Apostle parish's monthly Great Catholic Fiction Book Discussion Group (a group which I used to be very involved with back when I was on the parish staff there more than 5 years ago). July's book was The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) by Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873). The Betrothed is an enduring classic of modern Italian literature, standard reading in Italian high schools. Its literary merits aside, its special significance today and the obvious reason it was chosen for the group is the influence it had on the young Jorge Bergoglio, when the future Pope was growing up in an Italian immigrant milieu in Argentina. Pope Francis says he has read it three times and recalls how, when he was a child, his grandmother Rosa had him memorize the novel’s famous opening sentence, that begins Quel ramo del lago di Como ...

I have to confess that, for all its historic and literary significance, it is a book I had not only never read but had never known anything about before. But its influence on the Pope naturally made me interested in reading it now. 

At a recent General Audience, Pope Francis recommended the novel to engaged couples to read before marriage. So I began the discussion by asking the group what they thought of that recommendation! Set in the Spanish-ruled Duchy of Milan in 1628, the novel is a tale of romantic love between two young "betrothed,"  a skilled silk worker and a peasant girl from the same village (Renzo Tramaglino and Lucia Mondella), whose marriage plans have been frustrated by a malevolent nobleman (Don Rodrigo) and their excessively prudent, i.e., cowardly, parish priest (Don Abbondio). The novel follows Renzo and Lucia's commitment to one another through the many twist and turns that separately take them through a serious of problematic and dangerous situations until they are eventually reunited and finally joined in marriage by the same Don Abbondio. In the meantime, we experience the macro-story of war, famine, and plague and the micro-stories of a number of major and minor characters - among them , in particular, a holy Capuchin (Fra Cristoforo) and a virtuous Cardinal (Federigo Borromeo, a real historical personage and relative of his predecessor in the see of Milan, Saint Charles Borromeo), both of whom embody and model a type of churchman very different from the conventional time-serving, down-to-earth Don Abbondio and the aristocratic nun who never really had a vocation (La Monaca did Monza). In addition to lecturing Don Abbondio on his pastoral responsibilities, Cardinal Borromeo is also instrumental in the transformation of L'Innominato, and "unnamed" thuggish minor noble (based on the historical figure Francesco Bernerdino Visconti), whose spiritual conversion marks the key turning point in the story. Both the cultivated Cardinal Borromeo and the Capuchin Fra Cristoforo represent the priesthood as a holy and fulfilling vocation lived in service of God's people. It is easy to recognize in their behavior and in that of the various other virtuous characters (mostly ordinary people) important motifs in Pope Francis' approach to priesthood and his preoccupation with those on the peripheries - as well as his theme of the Church as a "Field Hospital" in the novel's vivid description of the Milanese lazzaretto, in which the victims and survivors of Milan's Plague of 1630 were housed and ministered to by the likes of Fra Christoforo

Finally, to assist the reader who has successfully navigated the novel's 700+ pages, the devout Catholic author succinctly summarized the moral of the story in the book's final sentence: "that misfortunes most commonly happen to us form our own misconduct or imprudence; but sometimes from causes independent of ourselves; that the most innocent and prudent conduct cannot always preserve us from them; and that, whether they arise from our own fault or not, trust in God softens them, and renders them useful in preparing us for a better life. Although this as said by poor peasants, it appears to us so just, that we offer it here as the moral of our story."


1 comment:

  1. It was quite an interesting book and discussion. Thanks Father Ron!