(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

As Ignazio Silone’s novel Bread and Wine opens, Don Benedetto, a Catholic priest, is sitting outside his modest home. It is his seventy-fifth birthday, and he is awaiting the arrival of some former students to celebrate the occasion. Don Benedetto is a socialist in the Fascist Italy of the early 1930’s, and he refuses to seek any accommodation with the regime. Talk of a new war of imperial expansion in Africa is in the air.

Three former students arrive. Each has found a place in the new social order, and the priest reflects sadly on the moral compromises people make to survive. Then talk turns to a former pupil and classmate, Pietro Spina, who has not compromised. As a student he was idealistic, compassionate, and fiercely committed to justice. He became a socialist and was later exiled to various places in Europe, where he lived and labored under wretched conditions. He is rumored to have returned recently to Italy, to work on behalf of the communists.

The scene shifts to Spina’s home village, to which, in fact, he has returned. He is seriously ill and is being hidden by a former comrade. When he is able to move, Spina leaves the village disguised as a priest with the name Don Paulo Spada. As Don Paulo, Spina sets off for the mountain village of Pietrosecca in the Abruzzi area. On the way, he comes across Bianchina, a young, unmarried woman apparently dying of complications from an abortion and in mental agony from fear of eternal damnation. Moved by compassion, “Don Paulo” tells her that all is forgiven.

The next day Don Paulo travels to an inn in Pietrosecca, where he hopes the mountain air will contribute to his recovery. Life in Pietrosecca is extremely hard; the peasants are poor, intensely superstitious, and politically naïve, and they are without hope of any change in their condition. There is only one family of any material substance, the Colamartini family. The miraculously revived Bianchina arrives in Pietrosecca, seeking the compassionate priest who saved her life, believing him to be a saint or perhaps Jesus. While they talk, Cristina Colamartini arrives, and the two young women recognize each other as former classmates. A complex relationship develops between Don Paolo and the two women. Bianchina is...

(The entire section is 927 words.)