To the Editor


THE GREATEST NOVEL YOU'VE NEVER READ

"The Catholic nations," G.K. Chesterton once wrote, "are very national, but each has specialized in some spiritual truth." Chesterton's comment might be applied with equal truth to the variety of literatures among Catholic nations. Cervantes's Don Quixote, for example, expresses the ironic chivalry of the Spanish nation; Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz a distinctively Polish notion of valor; and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales a humor that is quintessential^ English. So too with the key work of literature in Italy. Everything distinctive about Italian Catholicism is found in Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed.

First published in 1827, Manzoni's novel is, in many ways, a typical product of the early Romantic era. Like Walter Scott's Waverly novels, The Betrothed possesses a strong sense of an historical period. Set in 17th-century Italy, it gives the reader a convincing account of what everyday life must have been like for ordinary Italians living centuries earlier, at a time of political and social chaos. But its most impressive achievement is its convincing portrait of a saint. Federigo Cardinal Borromeo is the dominating figure of the novel, and his holiness defines the novel's meaning. The cardinal embodies the mystery of divine mercy, and the theme of the novel is concerned with the way in which mercy is able to overcome evil. That is why the very reading of the book is itself a transforming spiritual experience. No wonder, then, that Pope Francis acknowledges with gratitude his own debt to the novel. He recalls that it was first read to him by his grandmother, and he adds quite simply, "Manzoni gave me so much."

The Holy Father's love for Manzoni's novel, which Francis J. Manion explores in his article "Reading Francis through Manzoni" (March), and ignorance about the novel among contemporary American students of literature, which Manion touches on, draws attention to one of the shortcomings of American Catholic education. Some 60 years ago, when Christopher Dawson was installed as the first professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard, he commented on what he regarded as the peculiar weakness in American Catholic higher education. In his view, Catholic colleges fail to put their students in touch with their European intellectual inheritance. He pointed out that, at a typical American Catholic college, the literature of the students' Catholic ancestors is seldom included in the college curriculum. Instead, students are asked to study an exclusively English literature, which, of course - as Newman once remarked - is a largely Protestant literature. Is it not time for this mistake to be corrected?

Fr. Ian Boyd, C.S.B.

Editor, The Chesterton Review

South Orange, New Jersey

Francis J. Manion's "Reading Francis through Manzoni" was a pleasure. Yes, to know who Pope Francis is, journalists should read what Francis loves best; and how much better all journalists would be if they spent more time with books with big, lofty truths, such as Manzoni's The Betrothed, than with whatever they are taught in journalism schools - which, by the way, Edward R. Murrow, Edgar Mowrer, and Charles Krauthammer never needed. As Francis has said to teachers, "The truth is a gift that remains large, and precisely for this reason it enlarges us, it amplifies us, it elevates us." And truths that awe you will make you careful to ascertain all the important small ones that render "current affairs" a long trial for us all, with no presiding judge to help us jury of citizens.

Manion's article stresses just the right things about The Betrothed and about our Pope, and for a reader who has never read the book, or even heard of it, he quotes choice passages and narrates very skillfully what is between, with deft touches. Tolle lege! Surely some readers will be encouraged to read the book. And to that end let me offer some ad- ditional encouragement.

Can you tell a man by what books he loves? …

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