Of Michael Novak, no less an authority than George Weigel wrote, “Novak’s voluminous and often translated writings touch on virtually every aspect of the American experiment,” while playing “a seminal role in shaping neoconservative thought and bringing it to a wider audience.” Novak (1933-2017) was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and, as Weigel attested, became an influential writer on current affairs. One of his most significant books was The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), arguing that capitalism has a moral basis and works well within the American system.

Novak’s first book, though, was a novel, The Tiber Was Silver, published in 1961. It resulted from Novak’s twelve years studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood as a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, and the novel’s protagonist, Richard McKay, is an American seminarian in Rome in the late 1950s. As he struggles with his vocation, McKay has recourse to Padre Benedetto, an ailing and elderly Benedictine priest, and their sessions of spiritual direction bear further examination.

Before McKay left the United States for Rome, he read novels by Albert Camus and Graham Greene, and poems and essays by Charles Péguy, and found their literary exploration of modern ethical and political issues intellectually stimulating. Moreover, McKay has a passion for art and architecture and expresses himself by painting. In Rome his superior reminds him that his task is to study theology, not read novels. Likewise, McKay’s religious superior takes a dim view of time spent painting pictures.

In Chapter 6 occurs McKay’s first recorded visit to Padre Benedetto. They converse in English, Padre Benedetto having stayed with Benedictines in England. He wants to convey to his charge a simple but profound message: “God is love. That He cannot do anything but love.”

In his academic classes, McKay learns only about logic and lists and rules. What his spiritual director imparts to him comes as a breath of fresh air. “You talk of love instead of law and discipline,” McKay tells him, “You make God seem so close. You make holiness seem so familiar.”

In Chapter 10, McKay expresses his irritation with his seminary’s required recreation. He sees it as idle talk, far removed from the things he finds important. When Padre Benedetto asks what things, McKay says:


The way—the sun turns the buildings to gold about four o’clock in the afternoon. The way the dust turns the color of the olive leaves. The patterns of gray and yellow on the roof tops in the rain. And people. There are so many touching people in this city! The poor. Honest suffering. The young people, so full of lustiness. The old chestnut vendors, with such long memories.


When a baffled Padre Benedetto asks why he cannot talk about those things, McKay explains, “It sounds—awful, padre. Snobby and pretentious. I’m not a painter yet. I’ve no right to pretend to art.”

Padre Benedetto is silent for a while, mulling over McKay’s overwrought worry. After all, the only person keeping McKay from talking about those things is himself. “I am your spiritual director,” he reminds him, “not your emotional director. My task is to talk to you of prayer, and charity.” Prayer and charity call for going deeper into oneself. “I want you to think a great deal about what you are really searching for from people,” Padre Benedetto tells him, “I want you to separate emotional needs from the needs of charity.” Invoking Saint Augustine of Hippo, Padre Benedetto says, “To know God. To know yourself. . . . It is a long, long task. It is a circle, a spiral,” one every committed Christian must climb.

In Chapter 19, Padre Benedetto is glad to hear from McKay about a frank conversation McKay had with his superior. Padre Benedetto has been regretting McKay’s timidity. “You’re twenty-five,” he underscores. “You should be master of any situation, talk back to anybody.” Referring to McKay’s superiors, he says, “They fill you too full with docility and meekness. I’d like to see some men, some argument and boldness among you.”

To which McKay replies, “You want me to get kicked out?”

With the exception of Padre Benedetto, McKay sees no one taking him under his wing to teach him about the spiritual life, how to grow as a Christian. On the contrary, he feels that he is being watched, as if from a guard tower, to see if he has broken enough rules and customs to merit being thrown out. Within those seminary walls, amidst faith, hope, and love, the greatest virtue is obedience. It is an unhealthy atmosphere, infantilizing and tense with fear. That dark spirit only adds to McKay’s prolonged immaturity and diffidence.

In Chapter 26, Padre Benedetto tells McKay, addressing him with the Italian form of his name, “I think you’re your own trouble, Riccardo,” and he expands on his point: “Not the conformity or the conservatism or anything else.” He tells McKay that he is hiding from himself, focusing on other people’s failings so as not to face his own.

“What earthly difference would it make to you what sins and negligences other men committed if you yourself were full of charity and lived in God?”

“It would still be wrong on their part, padre,” McKay insists. “It would still need opposition.”

“Catholicism is very hard, Riccardo,” Padre Benedetto assures him. “It doesn’t ask reforms in other places, but in oneself.” In the larger scheme and longer patterns of history, social programs and political plans are merely temporary. “Reforms come and go, sounding brass and tinkling cymbal,” the old priest says. “It is a very human, often very ugly Church. I know that. The question is, how much charity have you?”

After more than sixty years, Michael Novak’s debut novel holds up well. For historians, The Tiber Was Silver gives a contemporary view of Rome in the latter days of Pope Pius XII, with tensions below the surface, where seminarians chafe under a regimen their superiors believe worked just fine for them and thus has no need to alter course. Meanwhile, there remains Novak’s vivid prose illumined by his faith. In Chapter 14, during a surreptitious nighttime stroll around the city, McKay stops by a bridge. “Sycamores waved coolly along the Tiber,” the narrator recounts, adding, “The ancient river lay in the black pit of its banks like a silver thread.”


(Condensed from the 2022 issue of Conversatio.)