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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

By Morris West
Loyola Press, 430 pages, $12.95
A tale of redemption set in Italy


When Loyola Press recently released a new edition of Morris West’s The Devil’s Advocate, it gave modern readers of Catholic fiction the chance to encounter the classic tensions of theological inquiry: faith and reason, belief and doubt, grace and sin, hope and despair. Set in rural, impoverished Italy during World War II, Mr. West’s sprawling story explores such struggles through Msgr. Meredith Blaise, “the devil’s advocate,” hired by the Vatican to investigate the cause of sainthood for Giacomo Nerone, a local martyr in a town that has seemingly lost hope of ever achieving financial or spiritual success.

While all of the characters suffer from chronic dissatisfaction, Mr. West’s portrayal of the monsignor is most moving. On the brink of death, Blaise finds spiritual renewal while interviewing those who knew Nerone -- Anne de Sanctis, Aldo Meyer, Nina and Paolo Sanduzzi, and Fr. Anselmo -- all of whom manage to find beauty in the midst of brokenness. Though early in the novel the monsignor imagined that “he would die empty” and that “no poor would bless him for their bread, no sick for their courage, no sinners for their salvation,” he is surrounded by friends during his last moments and comes to believe that his life’s work did, indeed, have cosmic significance. Mr. West does not reveal if the mysterious Nerone is beatified, but the reader will not care. As Kenneth Woodward writes in an introduction: “This novel, then, is not … really about the canonization process, though it is about ways of redemption and the forms that holiness can take.” In this story, and according to doctrine, grace is accessible to all, even the depressed rich countess, the cynical and doubting doctor, the parish priest who has betrayed his vows.

Mr. West weaves ecclesiological statements throughout his novel, including the tendency of the hierarchy to lose sight of the true meaning of their mission. When preparing Blaise for the task at hand, Cardinal Eugenio Marotta explains: “We have lost touch with the people who keep us in touch with God. We have reduced the faith to an intellectual conception. ... We are the guardians of mysteries, but we have lost the awe of them.” Fortunately, for us, Mr. West has not lost sight of wonder and awe. Through his descriptions of the Calabrian countryside and the landscape of the soul, Mr. West exhibits a flair for the sacramental imagination, knowing that there exists a deeper reality beyond what is seen and that God, not the devil, is in the details.

Arlene Helderman Montevecchio is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. She writes from Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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