di Luca Fumagalli
Nicholas Wiseman, the first archbishop of Westminster after the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England, is remembered not only for his tireless pastoral activity, but also for being the author of the historical-apologetic novel Fabiola: A Tale of the Catacombs, published for the first time in 1854. The prelate was among the first authors in England, along with J. H. Newman, to use the novel as a means of defending the claims of Catholicism. Thus was born the “Catholic Novel”, destined to have great fortune throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Fabiola enjoyed an astonishing public success that lasted well beyond the author’s death. Often used for the catechesis of children, the novel was translated into several languages and reprinted at regular intervals. Two homonymous films were made from the book, one from 1918, directed by Enrico Guazzoni, and one from 1949, directed by Alessandro Blasetti. In 1960 Nunzio Malasomma shot a version of it called Revolt Of The Slaves with Rhonda Fleming.
The story, which takes place in Rome in 302, is rather linear, despite being full of digressions and secondary characters. A ferocious persecution is about to hit the small Christian community that lives between the catacombs and the dark alleys of the imperial capital. Between blood and violence, in a worn and corrupt Empire, Fabiola, a young pagan patrician lover of philosophy, decides to convert, spurred on by the virtuous example of the martyrs, willing to die in order not to betray their Faith. But, as the protagonist will discover at her expense, the way of Christ is anything but simple and is studded with constant difficulties that will put her intentions to the test.
Beyond the historical inaccuracies and the anything but excellent quality, Fabiola managed to establish itself as a classic of Catholic literature for the brilliant insights it contains.
By presenting a religion that, far from being an abstract philosophy, is made up of example and testimony, Wiseman captures the heart of the Christian message with rare effectiveness. The long and dull theological treatises give way to the martyrs’ tales which, like a mosaic, complete the picture of the main plot. The events of Saint Sebastian, Sant’Agnes, Saint Cecilia and Saint Tarcisius offer an immediate portrait of men and women transfigured by the Faith, capable of welcoming death with a smile because they are certain of Christ’s love. The high value of their gesture does not need further, unnecessary embellishments.
This narrative solution proved surprisingly effective: just think that the figure of Saint Tarcisius – the boy who died at the hands of a pagan in an attempt to bring the Eucharist to imprisoned Christians – pleased his English readers so much that his cult was very soon in vogue again.
Fabiola’s encounter with Christianity is then described with simplicity and freshness. When the girl sees in her companions a happiness, a sense of fullness that is foreign to her, she cannot help but wonder why she too cannot be as happy as they are. Her cousin Agnes and the slave Sira will accompany her step by step towards the Church, debunking the clichés of which Christians are victims. When Fabiola observes the world around her for the first time with the eyes of Faith, she discovers an inhuman paganism, destined to succumb and to drag the whole Empire with it into oblivion.
In Fabiola, Christianity is presented above all as a revolution of hearts, in a continuous clash with the decadent Roman society of the fourth century. The Empire, in fact, is ruled by vulgar sovereigns, who came to power thanks to conspiracies and betrayals, surrounded by unscrupulous men and greedy for money.
In the general chaos, the small Christian community stands as witnesses to a different, generous and loyal humanity. Not without a hint of controversy against historiographical theories then in vogue, Wiseman presents the “new religion from the East” as the only one capable of preserving the traditional values of loyalty and honor that made Latinity great. The dignity of Christians is expressed both in the absolute fidelity of which they are capable – whether they are soldiers or slaves – and in the extraordinary care they put into their every action, investing daily life with a completely new sacredness.
Ancient Rome offers a learned apologist like Wiseman the ideal scenario to propose to the reader an implicit confrontation with the tribulations suffered by the English Catholic Church since the time of the Reformation, since it too was forced to lead a catacombic existence for a long time with numerous martyrs.
In the novel, the clash between the Emperor and the Pontiff proposes for the first time a theme that will become typical of the Catholic novel with a historical background. In these figures we can once again see a parallel with Henry VIII and his successors, adversaries of the Pope and eager, like the Roman sovereigns, to be venerated as divinities.
Wiseman leads the reader towards a happy ending with a high moral value: just as the persecutions of Diocletian preceded the reign of Constantine by a few years (the latter bringing about the election of Christianity as the official religion of the state), in the same way the modern world should not be surrender to that desperation to which circumstances seem to inevitably lead. Despite the darkness, the light of the Church will never stop shining.