Move over, Oprah, there’s a new Book Club in town!
At his last Wednesday audience (May 27th), Pope Francis invited every engaged couple in the world to read Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Speaking of the book in an audience that reflected on the time of engagement, Francis exhorted:
It is necessary that young people should know it [The Betrothed], that they should read it. It is a masterpiece, which tells the story of an engaged couple that suffered so much pain; they travelled a path full of difficulties until they arrived in the end at marriage. Do not leave aside this masterpiece on engagement that Italian literature has in fact offered you. Go ahead, read it and you will see the beauty, the suffering, but also the fidelity of the engaged couple.”
“Necessary,” no less! That’s high praise. We might ask, why does this novel (perhaps the second best-known of all Italian literature) take pride of place for fiances? The answer is that the novel embodies Francis’ vision for marriage preparation in the Church: an extended time of hard work on love. Francis calls engagement “the time in which the two are called to work hard on love, a participated and shared work that goes in depth.”
But what would such “hard work on love” require? While his audience was no systematic treatise on marriage preparation, I see an overarching goal and two pegs in Francis’ plan for engaged couples. First to the goal. Francis sets for its goal the attainment of the conditions necessary for couples to fruitfully celebrate the marital sacrament, thereby receiving the grace of strengthened indissolubility. The work itself will be “hard work on love,” but as we said such a phrase needs content. Francis focuses in on one of the principle fonts of love: knowledge. Francis envisions a journey in two kinds of knowledge to pair with the flourishing of two kinds of love: (1) a “pedagogical journey” in the discovery of human knowledge of “man” or “woman” in and through coming to know intimately one’s fiance; and (2) a “spiritual journey,” of the couple coming to spiritual knowledge of God together into Scripture, into the sacramental life of the Church, and into the prayer characterizing the domestic church. Each journey in knowledge invites a further falling in love, a further appreciation of the true, good, and beautiful as more clearly visible in the beloved. At the same time, my own distortions of what is lovable become more apparent and beg for correction. Finally, such a journey will take time and conscious effort.
Each of these these points (human knowledge, spiritual knowledge, and conscious effort over time) deserves its own treatment, however brief. First, as to time and conscious effort, Pope Francis seems to mean for the betrothal period to be long enough to reasonably accomplish its pedagogical and spiritual goals at the level of knowing each other and knowing God. As to its duration, “The covenant of love between a man and woman, a covenant for life, is not improvised; it is not made from one from one day to another. There is no express marriage: on must work on love, on must journey. The alliance of love of man and woman is learned and refined.” God’s six days of creation, as a work of love, “Created the conditions of an irrevocable, solid alliance destined to last.” An engagement “is a course that goes slowly ahead, but it is a course of maturation. The stages of the course must not be burnt. Maturation is done like this, step by step.” These and other passages suggest the extended time couples should devote to marriage preparation–time enough at least to read Scripture and The Engaged together.
As to knowledge of each other, we must remember that the lover can only love what is known in truth. Love follows knowledge. Increased knowledge of the beloved augments love, which in turn inspires the lover toward yet deeper knowledge. Stunningly, Francis openly takes to task any who would claim cohabitation apart from marriage as a fruitful means to gain such an important knowledge of the promised spouse. “Yes, many couples are together for a long time, perhaps also in intimacy, sometimes living together, but they don’t really know one another. It seems strange, but experience shows that it is so” (emph. mine). What does it take to know someone? Kudos to Francis, who tells the engaged that it is a sharing of the most important questions of life reflectively, and the most important experiences of prayer, spiritual reading, and works of mercy together.
What is it that couples come to know at the human level during their engagement? Francis seems to think the engaged come to know “man” and “woman” in and through this man or this woman. An interesting claim. Francis seems to hope fiances will learn fundamental, universal truths about their complementarity–not so much the specific, unique idiosyncrasies of each partner. Again, a refreshing, though not novel approach. The resonances with St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body cannot but fill the mind here. Just as Adam discovers woman as gift to him and thereby discovers himself as gift for Eve, so too do fiances discover in steps what it will mean to give and accept irrevocably oneself and the other as total, fruitful, faithful, free gift of love. Francis mentions 1 Cor 6:15-20, one of Paul’s injunctions against fornication, and bemoans culture’s refusal to take Paul seriously: “The strong symbols of the body hold the keys of the soul: we cannot treat the bonds of the flesh with heedlessness, without opening some lasting wound in the spirit (1 Cor 6:15-20). Certainly today’s culture and society have become rather indifferent to the delicacy and the seriousness of this passage.”
In the realm of spiritual, or divine knowledge, Francis sees three elements: (1) “the Bible, to be rediscovered together, in a consious way”; (2) prayer, both liturgical and “domestic”; (3) and the Sacraments, especially confession. Francis mentions explicitly Jeremiah, Hosea as examples of God’s having betrothed himself to a faithless people, a people whose idolatry amounts to adultery, a people, however, whom God will journey with until they become his bride made spotless in the blood of Christ. , and 1 Cor 6:15-20. He calls this reading of the Scripture “essential.” How many marriage preparation programs require daily Scripture for the engaged? How many, furthermore, require confession? Francis doesn’t even mention Eucharist but rather confession. That emphasis is amazing in itself.
As Francis says, “Love itself demands this preparation, which makes possible a free, generous and sober decision to enter into a life-long covenant of love.” Couples who prepare will be able to “truly receive one another ‘with the grace of Christ'” through the “lovely celebration of Marriage in a different way, not in a worldly but in a Christian way!” Prepared couples are initiated into marriages of “surprise!–to the Surprise of spiritual gifts with which the Lord; through the Church, enriches the horizon of the new family.”
Let us return, now to where we began. Those who have read The Engaged will immediately see how this masterpiece weaves together the long-term, pedagogical, and spiritual journey into the graced knowledge and love envisioned by Francis in this audience. For those who have yet to read The Engaged, there’s no better time to join the Pope Francis Book Club!
I will leave you with a final thought-picture. For me, it is a great joy and encouragement that our Pope envisions a world where a priest could plausibly reply in the following way to couples seeking marriage in his parish: “God bless you, and congratulations! Go read The Engaged, by A. Manzoni, and we’ll meet in a month to talk about it.”
May God grant us this grace!