You can tell a lot about person by what they read.
Since the moment he shyly greeted us from the Vatican balcony and asked for our prayers a mere 18 months ago, the world has been trying to understand the phenomena that is Pope Francis.
Last year, he gave an far-ranging interview that ended up making international headlines. Much was made about the Pope’s comments on some hot-button issues (comments that were mostly taken out of context in the media). The article itself is 24-pages and, for anyone willing to invest the time to read it, a lot can be learned about Jorge Bergoglio.
I read the interview shortly after it was published, and was touched by the Holy Father’s view of the Church as a “field hospital” for a suffering world and other insights into this fascinating man. But, as a writer, I was particularly excited by this little-reported gem:
“I have read The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me by heart the beginning of The Betrothed: ‘That branch of Lake Como that turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains….’
The Betrothed has been on my TBR list ever since, and I finally got to it. First published in 1827, it is considered a masterpiece of Italian literature and historical fiction. The Betrothed is long and sometimes a slog–it bears the imprint of being written in a time of greater attention spans– but it is a beautiful novel of love, suffering and mercy.
The novel takes place in 17th Century Italy, before the unification of the Italian states, during a tumultuous time of famine, plague and societal unrest. The story centers around a young peasant couple, Renzo and Lucia, who want little else than to be married and live their simple lives. But a powerful, lustful noble has his eye set on the pious, lovely Lucia and sends his henchmen to threaten their parish priest with death if he performs the ceremony. The cowardly priest’s acquiescence to the nobleman’s evil intentions puts in motion the couple’s struggles to be united in matrimony.
The injustice of the rich and powerful against the poor is certainly a theme throughout the book. Yet, The Betrothed is not a rich vs. poor story, but rather a story about the power of mercy and forgiveness over hatred and vengeance. Each of the characters–including the vilest–are portrayed with a certain sympathy, as if even Manzoni is hopeful that they might, at some point, respond to grace and seek redemption.
It is almost impossible to read The Betrothed today without seeing the likeness of Pope Francis in the character of Cardinal Frederigo. Believed to have been based on a real 16th Century prelate, Frederigo leads his flock through the times of war, famine and plague by his example of humility and his personal involvement with their sufferings. He visits homes, fearlessly ministers to plague-victims and goes without food so those in most need might be saved. Yes, he is saintly, but Manzoni gives us a man who is still fully human. Cardinal Frederigo’s dress-down of the weak-willed parish priest is not too be missed.
Pope Francis said, “Manzoni gave me so much.” Could he perhaps mean that in Frederigo, he saw the kind of priest he wished to be? Do we have Manzoni, in some small way, to thank for this amazing pontificate? After reading The Betrothed, I think yes.
Manzoni surely never dreamed that his book would inspire a Pope almost 200 years in the future. That, my friends, is the power of good historical fiction.