Book Break: The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

I recently finished an English audio version of the 1828 Italian novel The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni on Audible. I first learned of this book—apparently the most famous and widely read novel in the Italian language—from a post by Joseph Pearce on the Imaginative Conservative website with the provocative title, “The Betrothed: The Greatest Novel Ever Written?” That caught my eye, because, as a somewhat educated person, I had never heard of it.

I also share all this information to distinguish this book from a much more recent young adult romance novel and two-book series of the same name by Kiera Cass. This is NOT that.

Instead, this is a wonderful historical novel set in the 1600s in Lombardy, Italy (pictured above), telling the story of two young, relatively poor, and essentially good villagers preparing for their much-desired marriage, and a cowardly priest who refuses them the sacrament after a tyrannous local lord threatens his life if he should join them. The fearful parish priest is balanced by two heroic clergy, a Franciscan friar who serves as a father and spiritual director to the pair, and the real-life Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, the heroic and holy archbishop of Milan, whose pastoral efforts bring about novel’s conclusion.

What struck me most about this novel is how timeless great literature actually is. The book is about many things, each as relatable today as in the time it was set and the time it was written, including:

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Rising to the Occasion

This post ran in the Ascension Sunday edition of the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin, the weekend of May 28-29. Another note: My mother and my sister are both practicing Catholics these days…my bride sets a good example!

On this Ascension Sunday, I want to share with you a different sort of rising. Many of you know I didn’t grow up in the Catholic Church. I didn’t grow up in any church to speak of, aside from a brief period in the mid-1980s when my mother brought to St. Joseph the Worker in Beal City, Michigan, to be instructed in the catechism and receive our first Holy Communion from kindly old Father Hart.

Mom grew up in a Polish Catholic farm family. Dad was her next-door neighbor, of no particular faith; his grandmother shared Bible stories and values with him, but though he saw the sense in it, he has never claimed to be a believer. When I met my bride, I guess I was just Catholic enough—that brief period as a kid, plus a few dozen Catholic Masses and weddings, made enough of an impression that I could hold my own alongside her on Sunday mornings. And I was thoroughly smitten, so Jesus had His opening. He took full advantage.

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Holiday Movie Break: Fatman

It has come to my attention recently that many of the movies I take time to write about I hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend. Sometimes I see a new take on my favorite old stories and genres: westerns and martial arts; sci-fi and time travel; fantasy and fractured fairy tales. They may be thought-provoking, but somewhat strange; often they are objectionable in some way that makes me guard against a full endorsement.

Last fall I caught wind of an upcoming movie called Fatman, featuring Mel Gibson as a world-weary Santa with a price on his head. You may know that I am a big fan of the Man in Red in almost any interation, from the saintly Bishop of Myra to Father Christmas in Narnia to the Right Jolly Old Elf of my own childhood traditions. I imagined a foul-mouthed and violent “bad Santa” bent on revenge of some sort, and I was not a fan of the idea. The trailer suggested I wasn’t far from the truth:

But then somewhere along the way I read a review that suggested it might be a bit more than it appeared. I hemmed and hawed until almost Christmas, when my older kids suggested we watch it. So we did. After the initial viewing, I was concerned that I might actually like the movie. I spoke in hushed tones to the few others I knew who had seen it. Many of them kinda liked it too.

Still, I didn’t write about it. Give it a year, I thought, to see if the novelty wears off.

Well, it didn’t. So here goes.

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What Discernment Looks Like—for Us

Many of you reading know that Jodi and I have been discerning the possibility of me becoming a deacon. A deacon in the Catholic Church is an ordained member of the clergy, meaning that like priests and bishops, they receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. An ordained deacon is a deacon for life. If unmarried, he remains unmarried; if married, he does not remarry after the death of his wife. They generally serve the Church and assist priests at the altar during Mass, with certain pastoral and sacramental duties, and with teaching and preaching. Generally, they maintain their careers outside the Church, which uniquely positions them as clergy out in the world on a regular basis.

The Church recognizes two types of deacons. Transitional deacons are ordained deacons on their way to becoming ordained priests. Permanent deacons are ordained deacons who do not intend to become priests but have answered God’s call to serve the Church in this deeper way.

 In the Catholic Church, deacon is not a volunteer position or a job, but a vocational call—and for a married couple that has a vocational call as husband and wife, it ought to be a big decision. As the Institute for Diaconate Formation (IDF) here in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis often puts it, Wives need to be comfortable with their husbands marrying another woman, the Church.

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Blessed to Live in ‘God’s Country’

This post appeared in the September 12, 2021, issue of the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin.

One of the smaller blessings of the pandemic was that it forced me to find topics to write about for our parish newsletter beyond our typically active ministries. As a result, the May 2020 issue of DISCIPLE (online at stmcatholicchurch.org/disciple) provides an overview of our parish history. From the beginning, the faithfulness and self-reliance of this community was evident: German Catholic families literally carved their farms out of the wilderness along the Crow River; in the early days, the paths to get here were so poor that visiting priests came on foot rather than risking a ride on horseback.

Jodi and I moved here from Michigan in 2003. I took a job in Minneapolis and came out a month earlier than the rest of our family, shopping for a house and a parish on the weekends. The home we ultimately purchased was the first one I looked at, a mid-‘80s split-level near Four Seasons Park in Albertville. The church we chose was the first I visited too: the historic Catholic church in downtown St. Michael.

I think what drew me there first was the Old-World charm—I’m a sucker for old buildings, and old churches in particular. I arrived early that first Sunday and watched the narrow wooden pews fill and fill and fill. Old folks and young families, with toddlers tumbling into the aisles. Singing mixed with the squeals of infants. The church was overflowing with life. I checked out a couple other parishes in the area, then called Jodi and said, “We don’t have a house yet, but I think I found a church.”

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