The March 2014 issue of New Oxford Review has a wonderful article entitled "Reading Francis through Manzoni." Author Francis Manion gives a plot summary of this thick Italian novel which the Pope calls his favorite. It's on his bedside. He's read it three times. He knows the opening lines by heart.
The piece is a compelling read, not least because the novel sounds absolutely intriguing, with a plot (and heft) worthy of a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. However, one really does sense that this novel has shaped our new Holy Father tremendously. Here's a snippet.
But perhaps even more relevant to the topic at hand is the character of Cardinal Borromeo and, in particular, his manner of dealing with two other characters, the Unnamed and the hapless Don Abbondio. Borromeo was, as archbishop of Milan, about as high in the ecclesiastical world as a man could be, short of being pope. Manzoni draws a picture of a cardinal (apparently faithful to the real Federigo Borromeo) who, despite his descent from a wealthy family, humbled himself to become the servant of the poorest of his flock. As a young priest, in addition to the ordinary tasks of his office, he took upon himself “two extra ones” — namely, “to teach the doctrine of Christianity to the roughest and most derelict of the people, and to visit, serve, console and succor the sick.”Read it all.
Borromeo tried to avoid high office in the Church because “he was persuaded in his heart of a truth which no professed Christian can deny with his lips — namely, that no man can rightly claim superiority over his fellows, except in their service.” When he became archbishop in spite of his initial refusal, he paid for all the expenses associated with the office out of his family’s money because “he did not think it right that, he with his great wealth, should live on the patrimony of the poor.” Once in office, he adopted a style of living that sounds familiar to anyone following the first year of Francis’s pontificate:
He was a most frugal and precise administrator of his own resources. For he never threw away a garment until it was really worn out;… To ensure that nothing should be lost of what was left over from his frugal table, he allotted the remnant to a hostel for the destitute, one of whose inmates came every day into his dining room, by his order, to collect what remained uneaten.And again, another Francis-like description:
The inexhaustible charity of Federigo Borromeo showed in everything else he did no less than in his giving. He was easily accessible to everybody, but it was toward those of so-called low degree that he felt he owed a special duty to show them a cheerful countenance and a friendly courtesy.Manzoni recounts an incident in which Borromeo was visiting a “rough mountain village” and giving instruction to some poor children. When he was rebuked by his companions for affectionately embracing the “disgustingly dirty” boys, the archbishop replied in anger, “They are souls in my care, who will probably never see my face again; and will you tell me not to embrace them?” Here, then, is a churchman who willingly takes on what Francis has called “the odor of the sheep.”
Project Gutenberg has an ebook of an 1834 English edition of the novel. An introduction to the novel at Bartleby's, from 1909. It's available at Amazon in paperback (518 pages) and Kindle.