The epic 1842 Italian novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni was a childhood favorite of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s. His Italian grandmother read it to him when he was growing up in Buenos Aires, and he could recite by heart its opening sentence, which begins: “One arm of Lake Como turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains…” (I’m quoting from the 1983 Penguin edition, translated by Bruce Penman.) Francis has a copy of The Betrothed on his desk, and it has been on his mind of late. How could it fail to be? Essential to the mise-en-scène of the novel—which takes place against the backdrop of the Spanish-Austrian rule of northern Italy in the early seventeenth century—is the plague that struck Milan around 1630, eventually killing a quarter of its citizens.
“I want to pray for all of the priests, the creativity of priests,” the pope said in his March 15 Angelus address, “who think of a thousand ways to be with the people so that the people don’t feel alone.” These are “priests with apostolic zeal who understand that in times of pandemic, you shouldn’t be Don Abbondio,” he added. Everyone who knew Manzoni’s novel—as almost everyone in Italy does—got the reference at once. Don Abbondio, the cowardly curé who refuses to marry Renzo and Lucia after being threatened by the thugs of a strongman, is easily suborned, will do anything for a quiet life, and reacts to the plague by shutting himself away in his house. He is the foil to the saintly and heroic pastors of the novel: the cardinal archbishop of Milan and the Capuchin friars who run the field hospital where the plague-wracked are brought (possibly) to get better or (probably) to die.
Manzoni’s powerful, carefully documented description of the plague comes in the form of a historical excursus midway through The Betrothed. He describes how it struck, at first in strange attacks of spasm and delirium accompanied by telltale bubonic swellings, or led to swift death without previous symptoms. Initially, the doctors and authorities denied that it was spread by human contact; it was blamed on black magic worked by foreigners, who were accused of being “anointers”—intentionally spreading poisoned “ointments” along city walls—and lynched. But gradually the city organized, and under its saintly archbishop, Federigo Borromeo, the church was key to its response.
Cardinal Borromeo resisted all pressure to seek refuge from the plague, urging his priests to be more ready to die than to abandon their people. “Go out with love towards the pestilence, as if towards your reward, towards a new life, when there is a chance of gaining a soul for Christ,” he wrote to his clergy. According to Manzoni, around sixty priests—eight out of every nine of the Milan diocesan priesthood—died of the infection.
The lazzaretto, the vast field hospital cum tent city (named for Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead), was where the infected of the city were taken and quarantined. It is almost certainly the inspiration for Francis’s famous metaphor of the church as a field hospital. Manzoni describes it vividly, at one point with 16,000 people stricken with the plague crammed into sheds and tents, its two “endless colonnades on either side overflowing with the desperately sick and the dead, lying together without distinction on palliasses or the bare straw.” Amid these pitiful scenes—including babies of dead mothers being suckled by she-goats—the Capuchin friars who run the lazzaretto rush around feeding and comforting the sick, consoling the dying and burying the dead—and of course becoming infected themselves.
The lazzaretto is a hell hole made heavenly by the witness of the friars and the grace that abounds there. It is where the novel’s various plot lines converge, and scenes of reconciliation and repentance take place: where the wicked, wealthy Don Rodrigo dies painfully as a powerless pauper but is forgiven by Renzo, who is reunited and reconciled with Lucia by the saintly Capuchin Fra Cristoforo.
In one scene Renzo, searching in the lazzaretto for Lucia, stumbles on a sermon being given by the Capuchin superior, Fr. Felice, to a group of recovered plague sufferers who are being led back to the city. The Capuchin asks them to ponder the thousands in the cemetery and to consider why they have been saved. “And why did he make that choice, my children?” the friar asks them. “Was it not to keep for himself a small nation chastened by affliction and fired by gratitude?… Was it not so that the memory of our own sufferings might make us compassionate and helpful to our neighbors?” He urges them to begin “a new life which shall be all charity. Let those of us who have got back all their strength give a brotherly arm to the weak.”
That we will not be the same after this has been on the pope’s mind.
“People are going to take from this crisis lessons to rethink their lives,” Francis told Jordi Évole. “We are going to come out better, although there will be fewer of us. Many will be lost on the way and it’s hard. But I have faith: we are going to come out of this better.”
In the midst of our trials, Francis said in his urbi et orbi, the Lord “challenges us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support, and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering.” It is a time of testing, he said, in the sense of a time for making choices, “a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.” In our choosing and expressing that choice in action, we are saved. The elderly are treated, the lonely are visited, our roots are restored: we have built immunity.
In this time of choosing, Francis has praised the policies of governments that have taken what he calls “exemplary measures with clearly marked priorities to defend the population.” In a March 29 letter to a judge in Argentina he acknowledged that the economic crash and its associated ills were no small thing—it would cause hunger, unemployment, violence, and usury, all of which would have to be dealt with—but their policy showed the government’s priorities: “people first.” The contrary, he warned, would be to create a viral genocide for the sake of the economy.