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:
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.
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.”
Time is a strange phenomenon. We’ve all experienced that sensation in which the days seem long and weeks short; where the whole summer stretches out in front of us for sunlit miles…and then suddenly it’s Christmas. Marriage is like that, too. On a hot summer’s day on the South Dakota plains—August 17, 1996—in a little Spanish-style stucco church named for a German bishop, St. Liborius, two kids got hitched. The tall, slim, cleancut groom in white tails was me: book-smart and big-hearted, a little awkward and a lot emotional, with an insecure streak, a dose of self-righteousness, and a professed agnosticism that bore little resemblence to the faithfulness I was prepared to promise to this girl.
And what a girl! Jodi was, then as now, beautiful: dark wavy hair, eyes that went from brown to hazel to green and back, quick to laugh, solid and peaceful, steadfast in her Catholic faith, and willingly to pour herself out entirely for those she loved. She was a fountain flowing; I, a bottomless bucket.
One of us cried at our wedding—the one who saw too well that he was getting the better end of this deal. How could I ever love her enough?
Last weekend, Fr. Brian Park delivered a wonderful homily on the Transfiguration from the perspective of St. Peter. He began by reminding that less than a week before Jesus, Peter, James and John ascended Mount Tabor, Jesus told His disciples for the first time that He was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Peter wanted none of this news and pulled Jesus aside to correct Him. The future saint simply could not believe that this could be God’s plan.
Father closed his homily with a stark declaration: There is no glory without the cross.
Sometimes I find myself in Peter’s shoes, listening to the Lord as best I can and trying to understand—then finally crying out in exasperation, “God, what are you doing?!” I look at the plan unfolding around me and cannot see the sense in it, so I stand in the breach, athwart God’s will, to challenge the One who breathed me into being.
O foolish man! I am no Moses—and God’s will is never thwarted.