For your summer reading pleasure I thought I would recommend one of my favorite Catholic works of fiction, which you have probably never heard of: I Promessi Sposi (usually translated The Betrothed). Although unknown to most Americans, it is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of Italian literature, second only to Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s a great read because it’s filled with danger and adventure. It’s a great read because of its cast of inspiring protagonists and wicked villains, both portrayed believably. It’s a great read because everybody enjoys a good love story. I recommend it to you because while being loads of fun it is also a piece of great literature, accessible to everyone. It is also deeply Catholic in a way that never feels forced. Rather, it is the product of a Catholic mind and a Catholic heart living in a Catholic culture.
I Promessi Sposi was written by Alessandro Manzoni in the first part of the 19th century. Set in the turbulent 17th century of Northern Italy (principally in a small town on the shores of Lake Como and in Milan), the story begins with two charming young people, very much in love, who are betrothed and desire to be married. It follows their fidelity through many twists and turns and obstacles which would prevent them from their goal, including the tyranny of local rulers, political upheaval, war, famine, imprisonment, and even a plague. But what makes this story different from others where “love conquers all” is that Renzo and Lucia (our protagonists) have constant recourse to prayer and to trust in God’s providence—God sustains their love and supplies their needs along their difficult journey.
I would argue that it is the working of God’s providence, turning seeming disasters into occasions of remarkable grace, which makes the story truly great. Again and again the characters find themselves in desperate straits, but also again and again God sustains them and through their sufferings is able not only to draw them closer to himself, but also to touch the hearts of many who are in need of his healing presence. Even the most wicked characters serve a purpose in God’s plan and in the most distressing times.
Again, this book has realistic heroes and villains and recognizes that both can be found among the members of the Church. Nevertheless, it shows that even in the midst of the messiness, confusion, and sufferings of our lives, God is at work to draw us, and others through us, to himself. All we must do is trust. As Father Cristoforo, one of the chief allies of our young lovebirds, tells them at the outset of their troubles, “It is a trial, children, support it without murmuring; and be assured, there will come a day, in which you will see the wisdom of all that now befalls you.” May God give us the grace to trust in him and the love which he sends to us in the midst of and even through our own trials.
As a brief postscript, I’ve tried not to say too much about what actually happens to the couple; you should really read the book for yourself! It appears to be available for reasonable prices online, but before purchasing a copy know that an early 19th century English translation is available for free in different digital formats through Project Gutenberg. While it pleases me that Father Cristoforo and I share the same name, this is far from the most significant reason why Pope Francis and I both count this book as one of our favorites! Pick it up for your leisure reading this summer. I’m confident that it will become one of your favorites too!