A love story highlighting Christianity’s influence on society

by Father Kyle Metzger

“Quo Vadis” by Henryk Sienkiewicz, originally printed in 1897.

I avoid wading into the debate whether America can be considered a Christian nation. I do believe, however, it is founded on Christian principles, which is not exactly the same thing.

For example, we educate every child, even those requiring the most costly and demanding accommodations, because we believe every person has dignity. That is not the case in every country. We also exalt due process under the law, not allowing the powerful to subvert the weak. This too flows from our robust view of the dignity of the human person. The whole legal theory of equality traces its origin to the principle that one person does not have less dignity than another.

Too often we take this reality for granted. We assume that any people would form their society with this principle—and others like it—in view. That’s not the case. Other cultures, particularly ancient ones, looked very different. It is not due to advances in technology or science that have made us a better people. It’s Christianity.

The transformative influence of Christianity is seen more transparently by looking at pagan cultures prior to their adoption of Christianity. After painstaking research into the pagan Roman Empire, Henryk Sienkiewicz penned the fascinating novel Quo Vadis, which has been translated into more than 50 languages and earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. He crafts a love story between a young Christian woman, Lygia, and Vinicius, a pagan patrician. The romance between the couple, however, serves a deeper, far more pressing concern: the religious conversion of Vinicius.

Vinicius is all Roman, through and through. He loves the uncontested might of Rome, its aqueducts and poetry, its orgies and banquets. As a patrician, he lives with unhindered access to all of Rome’s delights.

Then he spies Lygia, a woman of unparalleled beauty who is shockingly uninterested in all of Rome’s fleeting pleasures. What will fascinate readers most is the internal turmoil of Vinicius. He struggles to reconcile his pagan upbringing to the beauty, grandeur, and nobility of the emergent Christian doctrine, which his beloved lives out vibrantly without compromise.

Their relationship develops as Lygia nurses Vinicius back to health from an attack that would surely have resulted in his murder had she not stopped it herself. Lygia’s faith honors forgiveness and reconciliation, not Rome’s rampant murder and violence. Lygia teaches Vinicius about the Jewish carpenter who rose from the dead. She relates the miracles he performed and the new way of living he offers. And, she introduces Vinicius to his closest followers, Peter and Paul, who are both in hiding in Rome. Surely, his physical attraction to Lygia provides the initial motive to listen, but once planted, the Christian message takes deep root. The Christian doctrine resounds within him.

The new world Lygia envisions breaks all assumptions he has known. Rome is ruled by fiat decree, while Christ offers the invitation of grace. Rome executes its criminals, while Jesus offers his sinners forgiveness. Rome divides the world into slave and citizen, while Jesus offers salvation to all who believe.

He finds Lygia’s faith makes her more attractive, not less. He’s confounded that she’s uninterested in the excesses of Rome yet happier than himself. Vinicius muses on what the empire would look like should all of Rome believe as Lygia. He concludes that the world would look entirely different than the one he currently knew. We know he’s correct.

These are the earliest days of evangelization, a topic repeatedly discussed in the pages of this magazine the past months. Whether it is the “New Evangelization” of St. Pope John Paul II or the “old evangelization” of ancient Rome, the faith has always been transferred best person-to-person.

What would have become of Vinicius had Lygia kept her faith to herself so as to not offend? What would have become of him had she hid herself away in only comfortable, Christian circles? What would have become of him had she expected only Peter, not herself, to talk to him about Jesus? What would have become of him and their relationship had she not held firm to her Christian moral convictions? Vinicius would have remained a pagan.

Quo Vadis would not have become a love story.

Sure, it is becoming harder to live one’s Catholic faith as our world slowly slinks back into pagan Rome. Perhaps now we have to recapture our ancient apostolic instincts. The New Evangelization may bear most fruit by acting a lot more like the Old Evangelization. That means all Catholic faithful live the faith vibrantly and transparently, particularly around those who are furthest from the gospel. Your own Vinicius is likely sitting in the cubicle next to you.

Father Kyle Metzger is the Vocations Director for the Diocese of Fargo.