Continuing my Italian Story theme … I heard this tale from my sister when I once visited her in Italy back in the seventies. She told me she had not long been in the village when one day whilst sweeping by her back door, an older woman hurried past. My sister said “hello” in politeness, but the lady did not stop, she just quickly said that she was in a hurry to get to her mother’s as she was looking after her children … ”I have their clothes,” she motioned to a bundle under her arm and on she went. A few moments later an older man came and asked if my sister had seen his wife come past with a bundle of clothes under her arm. My sister related the quick meeting with the lady and told him that she had gone to her mothers’ to pick up the children.
“Ah,” he said sadly.“Her mother has been dead these many years and so have all the children … I will go and find her.” And on he went.
I tell the story of the events as my sister told them to me all those years ago. The priest in the story is, of course, a metaphor.
It went like this:
The Conversion of Father Carravalo
My name is Pietro Carravalo, of the diocese of San Angelo di Povero. It is the ninth day of February nineteen hundred and fifty one.
Yet, just three days ago I was known throughout the district as Father Carravalo. I was the parish priest of the aforementioned diocese. Three days ago I was proud to be known as such! Three days, three days I have groveled in this dirty cave out of sight for that period, out of sight for fear of meeting another human whilst I pondered on the sad misfortune of Signora Marzetti.
You notice I use the past tense when referring to my status as parish priest. This is no accident, nor the result of official dismissal from my post. It is self absolution I henceforth rescind that title, as do I likewise any association with the institution known as ”The Church”. I pace the dirt floor of this cave as I reflect on my decision, as I have done so for the last three days! But there is no other way, I cannot in all honesty claim the privilege of spiritual healer or guider or whatever when I no longer have faith in the basic tenets of The Church.
Three days ago Stefania Marzetti lost her last child. He fell down the stairs at his home and broke his neck. It was the fifth child she had lost in three years … I’ll repeat that; five children … all her children … dead within three years! Madonna Mio I tremble to think of it … one after the other; polio … typhus … scarlet fever … then little Paulo from something as clumsy as a fall … well … she is mad now, I saw it in her eyes before I fled to this refuge, maybe I too am mad! But no! … I can talk as such to you because I am sane, shocked but sane. Maybe it was this shock that jolted me out of my fantasy of high priest of absurdity!
Complacent … self satisfied I was in my privileged position as priest to those simple people. Their lives were ordered, quaint, predictable, as were my duties concerning their spiritual guidance. How many years have I poured Latin and lassitude into their souls? Too many to contemplate. How I reveled in my obligations, how I enjoyed those sanctified moments, those pauses of silence when intoning the mass; “Nome il Padre e Figlio e Spirito Santo.” Ahh …flows like a piece of poetry, eh?
Then came the polio. How many children did we lose? How many of those little ones that I myself baptised, did I place in the ground? How many shoulders did I embrace as they heaved and wept, while whispering “couragio, couragio” into their ears? How much sadness can you record onto a death certificate? How many broken families onto a tombstone.
When Stephania Marzetti lost her first child from the polio, she was not alone. At least a dozen children in the diocese went down with him, so it seemed her suffering was not a lonely vigil. I took her aside after mass one day and helped her light a little candle for the child and to place it at the feet of the Virgin in memorium, then joined her at the altar rail for prayers of help and forgiveness. I did the same for all the distressed parents. Then in that same year came the typhus and she lost the youngest … a girl. Again, there were others too that lost a loved one, though not all the same families, so that we thought it rather unfortunate Stephania should again be afflicted with such sadness for the second time. Again I consoled her with the blessing of God and a candle at the feet of the blessed virgin. Another name was chiselled onto the tomb! Masses were dedicated to the protection of the innocents and the plea that the typhus would pass without more sadness. Then she lost another child to the disease, the eldest. In the name of God, what more could I say to comfort her? What platitudes this time?
“God is merciful” ( what mercy?)
“We will rely upon Him to guide us through this valley of darkness?”
“They have gone to eternal life?” (while she suffers a living death?)
Words, words, diversions from emotions, yet still I found glib passages to placate her despair. Quotations from this or that book in the bible, words of “wisdom” to salve her wounds and all the time feeling like a salesman endorsing his product!: “Here, take a little of this, it’ll do you wonders!” or; “Much more than Islam or Buddhism our product is guaranteed to ease the pain in your heart!” Mind you I wasn’t so cynical in my heart, I wept for Stephania, but all those..those weak sounding platitudes! I mean … the woman had lost a whole substance of her life and I was trying to fill it back up with Quasi intellectual gobbledygook, such are the incantations of religious doctrine … I no longer am spellbound by its “mystery”.
But there came a relief of two years in which she was spared further trauma. Sometimes we look back on such peaceful times wishing we could imprison these moments for eternity in a frame to hang on the wall, and gazing on that tranquillity say; “Ahh! Such peace, I remember it well!”
Ah! Such a day it was when I was returning from Fragneto. The priest there had fallen ill with a flu so I stood in for him those two weeks. I would shift their Sunday service back a half hour and ours forward the same so as to accommodate both congregations with minimal disruption. It was a clear, cold spring day, early in the season with still quite large patches of snow capping the hill tops. The village was not far away so I walked the distance.
Yes! A clear spring day, the wind crisp and fresh over the thawing earth. My breath frosted in the air as I exhaled and my eyes stung a little as I gazed from the crest of the hill down the crevassed valley to the rising blue hills of Campangolo in the south. I could see for miles and miles! And wasn’t it a lovely sight … bello!
Just as I reached the high point at the top of the village, the bells of my church started ringing. ”Ah! good”, I thought,”Young Tomaso can be relied upon at least.” And I was in very good spirits as I descended the slope to the presbytery. I had not been back but five minutes when Stefania’s husband; Bertolo, rushes in all flustered and dropped his bombshell!
“Oh Padre, you must come quickly, our daughter, Elvira, she is dying with the scarlet fever, you must come quickly.” He stood there like most of these poor peasants, with his floppy cap crushed in his club-like hands.
“But wait there, Bertolo, two days ago you said all she had was a cold, a small cough.” I was indeed doubtful.
“Ahh, we thought too padre we thought too! Oh sacred heart of Jesus! If only that was so but then the vomiting, the fever so we call in the dottore this morning and he confirms it … Oh blessed saints what wrath have we awoke in our poor family! Please, padre, come quickly.”
I don’t think I need go into the details of the child’s death. I do not like to dwell on it myself, another round of futile incantations, incense, holy water and prayers to a deity as distant as Zeus! Oh we laugh at the pagan worshippers of old and their ridiculous offerings to those impotent gods of theirs! We laugh! But, here in the twentieth century, I have to ask: Are our gods greater? or are we moderns merely slaves to the same illusive desires and frustrations? I, at least, have leaned the answer!
Back then, however, I was still in awe of the “power” of the church. As though the theatre of my “sacred performances” would make all diseases and tragedy vaporise with the swirling incense! I supplicated their tears, but could not stay my own. I re-birthed their belief in the faith, but my own doubts grew! Indeed, Stephania’s wide-eyed helplessness made my speech falter till at the sight of her my set pieces of religious diatribe came jumbled or completely stuck in my throat and I had to go away from her lest I fall completely there and then! You see, though I was seriously beginning to doubt, I still retained the security of those years of indoctrination that bolstered my flagging faith! Her courage stood where mine (in the face of tragic reality) failed.
Still she would come to the church and place a candle at the foot of the Virgin Mother. Still she would ask me for forgiveness from some sin of the past. A sin … a sin! My heart wept at her wretched pleas to god for forgiveness from what? For what? How, how, how? I began to realise there was nothing I could say nor do that would have the slightest effect on her or anyone else’s fates in that village … still she would come pattering down the aisle of an evening and catch me unawares as I was about my duties and make me jump! Then I would guiltily light a candle for her and bustle about her, helping with a cushion to kneel on, holding her elbow to assist etc. in short just fumbling about when all the while I wished to throw my arms up in surrender to futility.
So it came to be that I could pick her footsteps out subconsciously and not be caught unawares, this way at least I had a moment to prepare myself to face her again. You see now? … She was the nemesis of my faith! Then came the accident with little Paulo. It finished her! It finished me! It has finished two thousand years of demagoguery!
I was standing at the church doors when I heard the news of Paulo’s death. I nearly fainted on the spot! I started trembling all over as if in a fever. I put my hands over my entire face and turned and ran inside the church as a desperate man would to his executioner to throw himself on his knees to beg mercy! I ran, yes, ran down that isle toward the altar, toward the holy tabernacle and at the altar rail fell to my knees in despair! …
“Dio … Dio”, I cried. Then a soft whisper; “Dio .. ” The only words I could get out. What could I say? What could I ask? … “I’m only a parish priest, I’m only human. I can’t give anymore strength to that woman, I have none to give! Oh, God, why oh why, what is the need of such torture? Madonna … blessed Madonna Mother of Christ!” I beseeched, yet speechless for more words … what could I ask …. only a parish priest .. only human! I wept … I wept … that poor woman … that poor woman! My head bowed touching the altar rail as I pleaded to … to … to whom?
Then in the hollow emptiness of the church I became aware of her soft footsteps approaching down the aisle. I knew it was her, I dreaded that sound, so now it magnified in my mind a thousand fold! Echoing about the walls up to the vaulted ceiling. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up so. The footfalls stopped but I could not turn … in horror of the pity I felt, I could not face that woman, that mother, so I just knelt there trembling.
“Father?” … she croaked breathlessly. “A candle for the Madonna … please, Father one small candle for my Paulo? A candle, Father?” her voice faltering, yet firm.
I turned slowly … holy Mother of Christ … holy mother of all children! … have mercy, have pity on me as much as her have pity … what comfort for such a wretched soul could I give? Only a priest, only a man … five children, Mother of Christ five children! I grasped the altar rail lest I fell and she held out her hand with a few pitiful coppers in it … appealing;
“A candle, Father, I must put a candle at the feet of the blessed virgin for my Paulo”, and she moved mesmerised over to the statue of the Madonna.
I stood speechless. She placed a bundle of rags she was carrying on the floor and took a small candle from the box, this she lit and placed in the rack provided. She then knelt and kissed the feet of the Madonna, genuflected as she rose then turned to go. I picked up the bundle of rags she had left at the feet of the statue and touched her arm gently.
“Signora Marzetti,” I crooned “These are yours”. She turned, looked at the bundle, then gently took it from my arms and once more turned to go.
“Where are you going, Stephania?” I asked gently.
She looked deep into my eyes, yet hers were vague, unseeing, blank!
“I am going to my mother’s,” she softly spoke.
“But … but, Signora … your mother is dead … these ten years.” She looked a little fazed, hesitated, then smiled beautifully at me.
“Oh no, Father, I am going to my mother’s. She is looking after the children, I will go and bring them home.” She turned, paused, then stroked the bundle of rags, “I have their clothes.“ She spoke softly, I held out my arms to her as if to help. How?… How? … She had lost her mind now.
Her husband, Bertolo, was suddenly there supporting her, with his hands all dirty and hard from the fields and his cap crushed into his top pocket his craggy cheeks furrowed with tears.
“It’s alright, Father … I’ll take her home, it’s alright.” And he half bowed half nodded as he steered her down the aisle to the group of friends clustered at the nave door. They parted as he approached then swallowed them into their midst. I was left alone in the church still with arms outstretched, gaping in mute despair, the echo of the closing door boomed drum like in accompaniment to my heart. I came around and turned to the statue of the Madonna, the one little candle burning at her feet. I felt hopeless, useless!
I giggled, “A candle, Madonna.” I smiled weakly, “A candle for a child, a trade off from a poor mother to the mother of a poorer Christ but, there were five children, my Lady … here, take five candles! Forgive us humans our feeble gestures of worship …” I laughed at the silliness … “No … wait! Here, take a dozen more, a dozen candles for a dozen children … ha! Wait a minute, why skimp … take a hundred … all our life blood for you; Mother of Christ a sacrifice to God from us pitiful people! A hundred children … a hundred candles!” And as I tippled the candles over the sand tray, I laughed at the absurdity of it all. Then I grew angry, I looked down at my garments, the surplice with that smell of incense permeated through it, once so comforting to me with its spice-like aroma, I now found disgusting, so I flung it off to the floor, likewise my cassock, then darting to the presbytery, I changed into street clothes and ran desperately away, away from the hopeless shame, the tawdry sham of my life I ran, I ran, I ran …
Till here I am in this cave, and now all the hate and disgust has abated, I shall abandon all the pretexts of my holy office and accept my place as a man amongst my people …
Listen! The bells of San Georgio ringing out across the valley, crisp and clear in the rising air. I wish for a modicum of their confidence. Indeed their peals shout of glory, of happiness in the new day! Just as a bird sings after the storm ,even from the remnants of it’s destroyed nest … I have little of such religious feelings left, I was a hypocrite, a liar to have ever stood before my people and purported to “guide” them. Yet … though I would disown my religion, I would never abandon my humanity … on the contrary, I embrace it! Ah! and it is as such that I will serve, no more casting out demons and other hocus pocus, I will redress my wrongs before my fellow men, I will go back now, I will go home.