Monday, November 18, 2013

A book recommended by Pope Francis

Read any good books lately? I just finished one recommended by Pope Francis to the millions who read the interview in which he said the church shouldn’t be a “small nest” protecting its mediocrity and must focus on issues that matter.

During the interview, the pope was asked about writers who inspired him. Francis spoke about an 1827 novel written by Allesandro Manzoni, “The Betrothed.” He’s read it three times. If this pope read it three times, we should read it at least once. By the time I ordered the book, it was a best seller; seems having the pope mention your book is good for sales.

“The Betrothed” opens with a delightfully written description of the story’s setting in Northern Italy. Readers learn the central event in the book’s plot is the planned wedding of an innocent, loving couple Lucia and Renzo. However, a local villain has designs on Lucia and sends his “bravoes” (thugs) to threaten the priest, Father Abbondio, about what would become of him if he performed the wedding.

Edgar Allan Poe reviewed Manzoni’s book in 1835. Poe said Manzoni was “as alive as Luther himself” to the abuses of the church. “We knew that something was wrong, but what that something might be, was never certainly known. The author has unveiled the mystery. He has withdrawn a curtain, behind which we had never been permitted to look.” That very curtain has, over time, covered the failures of protestant and Catholic churches alike.

A fearful, compromising priest, Father Abbondio is the novel’s metaphor for what Pope Francis called, “a small chapel” holding “only a small group of selected people.” Abbondio represents Christians led by fear, aligning with the powerful to the detriment of the weak. “Don Abbondio did not come into the world,” writes Manzoni, “with the heart of a lion.” Abbondio complies with the villain’s demands, leaving Lucia and Renzo only one alternative.  They must flee for their safety.

But the church Francis calls to “heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful” is established through the lives of Christ-like priests who demonstrate the courage born of their own faith. Father Christoforo and Cardinal Borromeo represent the church at its best. In one deeply moving scene, the Cardinal meets with a man so evil that villagers refer to him only as “the unnamed.” The Cardinal greets the villain with these words, “Well, this is a happy and precious occasion...though there is an element of reproof in it for me.”

He who is unnamed is stunned. “Reproof for you? Do you know who I am? Do you know what awful things I have done in my life?”

The Cardinal says, “Do you think that the pleasure I feel at seeing you could have been inspired by the visit of a man of whom I had never heard? I feel that pleasure for you whom I have so long loved, for whom I have spent so many tears and prayers. So…you have good news for me?”

“Good news?” Me? What good news could I have for you?” asked the unnamed.   “The news that God has touched your heart,” said the cardinal, “and wants to make you his own.”

In those few words, the villain is gracefully transformed. Readers grasp how this book inspired a Pope to challenge us to think, “This church with which we should be thinking should be the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.”

The Cardinal later sacrifices his life in service to those suffering from the plague. With assistance of others who are led by faith rather than fear, Lucia and Renzo triumph and the story becomes one of victory of the better angels of the church and humankind.

Apparently God is big enough to inspire more than one book and through
“The Betrothed,” God has inspired a pope who is on his way to changing the world by making the universal church relevant again. Blessings!

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