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Pope Francis, the coronavirus, and a famous 200-year-old Italian novel

“In times of pandemic,” Pope Francis said this past Sunday, “[priests] mustn’t be the don Abbondio of the situation.” What was he referring to?

Standing in the window of the library of the Apostolic Palace overlooking an empty St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis blesses the city of Rome March 15, 2020, still under lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (CNS photo/Vatican Media via Reuters)

With Italy on lockdown in efforts to slow the spread of the deadly, novel coronavirus, Alessandro Manzoni’s historical novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), which is a favorite of Pope Francis’, comes to mind.

“In times of pandemic,” Pope Francis said this past Sunday, just before reciting the Angelus, “[priests] mustn’t be the don Abbondio of the situation.” It was a reference to a major antagonist in Manzoni’s story, which describes the pestilence of 1630, which coincidentally was centered in Northern Italy. This plague decimated Manzoni’s birthplace, Milan, which until then had been one of the most densely populated cities of Italy. Manzoni describes the immense human suffering because of famine: “at every step one met with pale and emaciated beggars, either grown old in the business, or reduced by the necessity of the times to ask alms” and war, which had happened exactly two years (1628-1629) before the deadly epidemic struck Milan.

The epidemic spread in Lombardy by the passage of the German troops en route to lay siege to the city of Mantua—the effects were devastating. By 1630, the epidemic was spreading in Milan and making victims in every corner of Milan. The sick were gathered in lazzaretto (hospital where the sick were segregated in Milan’s periphery), which until then had been merely used as a repository for goods suspected of conveying infection, as Manzoni explains. The number of the sick in the lazzaretto grew exponentially from 2,000 to more than 12,000 when the plague reached its peak in the hot months of July and August of 1630. The Capuchin fathers who took care of the people in the lazzaretto were Bergoglio’s heroes.

The Church in Manzoni’s historical novel, besides being a divine institution because She was founded by Jesus Christ, is also human, failing and falling in the time of pestilence. The Church is made up of sinners, including consecrated men and women, who, as every member of the Mystical Body of Christ, are called to conversion. The clergy in the pen of Manzoni are lacking in virtue.

Some, like the aforementioned Don Abbondio, who has a hard time going against the whims of rich and the powerful, were made priests not because of genuine vocation but because of convenience and their desire for a comfortable life. The Capuchin friars, serious in their religious vocation, are on the battlefront, helping the people of Milan who are suffering pestilence. Friars like Fr. Felice Casati, who was in charge of the people in the lazzaretto, are Pope Francis’ heroes. The “admirable friar,” as Manzoni calls him in the novel, is in the forefront of the battleground, elevating the morale of the people in the margins who were fighting a deadly disease and were abandoned by their family and friends for fear of infection. Fr. Felice was with them, ministering and elevating their spirits in the literal periphery of the lazzaretto:

Father Felice now came up, barefoot, with the rope round his neck, and that tall and heavy cross elevated before him; his face was pale and haggard, inspiring both sorrow and encouragement; he walked with slow, but resolute steps, like one who would spare the weakness of others; and in everything was like a man to whom these super ­numerary labours and troubles imparted strength to sustain those which were necessary, and inseparable from his charge.

The Church was an octagonal in the middle of the lazaretto and was serving non-stop to the suffering. Fr. Felice’s homily is spectacularly uplifting for “the pavement of heads” of the sick following him:

Blessed be the Lord! Blessed be He in His justice, blessed in His mercy! blessed in death, and blessed in life! blessed in the choice He has been pleased to make of us! Oh! why has He so pleased, my brethren, if not to preserve to Himself a little remnant, corrected by affliction, and warmed with gratitude? if not in order that, feeling more vividly than ever how life is His gift, we may esteem it as a gift from His hands deserves, and employ it in such works as we may dare to offer Him? if not in order that the remembrance of our own sufferings may make us compassionate towards others, and ever ready to relieve them?

And here is the definition of the priest in the battleground, here is the priest that is to Bergoglio’s liking:

For me, continued he [Fr. Felice], and the rest of my companions who, without any merit of our own, have been chosen out for the high privilege of serving Christ in you, I humbly implore your forgiveness, if we have not worthily fulfilled so great a ministry. If slothfulness, if the ungovernableness of the flesh, has rendered us less attentive to your necessities, less ready to answer your calls; if unjust impatience, or blameworthy weariness, has sometimes made us show you a severe and dispirited countenance; if the miserable thought that we were necessary to you, has sometimes induced us to fail in treating you with that humility which became us; if our frailty has led us hastily to commit any action which has been a cause of offence to you; forgive us! And so may God forgive you all your trespasses, and bless you.’ Then, making the sign of a large cross over the assembly, he rose.

Fr. Felice, the priest of the lazzaretto, is one of Francis’s curas villeros; Fr. Felice is probably one of the reasons why The Betrothed is Francis’ favorite novel. Earlier this week, in walking the streets of Rome and then praying at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and St Marcello Church, “where he prayed in front of a crucifix that was used in a procession when the plague hit Rome in 1522,” Francis was being and acting as Francis—unpredictable and with his priorities set on those suffering, especially those on peripheries; in this case, the quarantined people of Rome. “I asked the Lord,” he said, in an interview about his short pilgrimage, “to stop the epidemic: ‘Lord, stop it with your hand.’ That’s what I prayed for…”


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About Ines Angeli Murzaku 18 Articles
Ines Angeli Murzaku (http://academic.shu.edu/orientalia/) is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Director of Catholic Studies Program and the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University. She earned a doctorate of research from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome part of the Pontifical Gregorian University Consortium and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. She is a regular commentator to media outlets on religious matters. She has worked for or collaborated with the Associated Press, CNN, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, The Record, The Stream, Vatican Radio (Vatican City), and EWTN (Rome). Dr. Murzaku is currently writing a book on St. Mother Teresa entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries who Became Catholicism’s Center Piece to be published by Paulist Press in 2020.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you very much for this beautiful and informative article, which helps us understand why The Bethrothed is Pope Francis’ favorite novel. As you know, Manzoni not only holds up the the priestly example of Fr. Felice, but also the episcopal example of Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), the cousin of St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584). Thank you again for your article.

    • Thank you Fr. Fastiggi. We need inspiring examples in this grim time we have been through. Manzoni is inspiring to students, after all Milan 9in this case) has been here before!!! Forza.

      • Ines it’s Dr. Robert Fastiggi, Professor of Systematic Theology. Although he would have made a fine priest. Thanks for a well written article why I Promessi Sposi is a classic.

          • Dear Ines,

            There’s no need to apologize. I once received a letter from the papal nuncio addressing me as “Fr. Fastiggi.” He was asking for my opinion on a confidential matter. When I sent in my reply, I needed to correct the nuncio. Pax Christi.

  2. Alleluia’ finally Manzonie’s great novel gained respect and adulation. As a youngster
    studying in the North of Ireland we were introduced to this wonderful novel as part of our literary appreciation.
    His description of ‘great human suffering” will become part of our lives in the 2020s. We haven’t seen anything yet the great sweep is to come and God is making His presence felt. It had to come to this, we have become way too hedonistic and distant from our Creator. It is a time for spiritual change.
    God be with us all and His Blessed Mother.

    ODONOVAN

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