Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Don Camillo and Vatican II

Having just turned a friend on to the Don Camillo stories, I happen upon this excellent post on the author, Giovanni Guareschi, at Rorate Caeli (h/t Fr. Z): "I will not die even if they kill me."
One of the most significant Italian writers of the 20th Century - and certainly one of the most underrated - was Giovanni Guareschi, better known as "Giovannino" Guareschi, born on May 1, 1908, 100 years ago.

Few contemporary European writers had so much authentic Catholic sensibility embedded in their works as Guareschi, whose masterpiece was the series of works, the Mondo Piccolo (Little World), in which the great struggle of his and of our age - the war between Faith and Reason (Logos), on one side, and Socialist barbarianism and relativism, of either "left" or "right", on the other, with many indifferent or lukewarm spectators in the middle - played itself out in a small village in the Italian countryside.
They've put up an autobiographical note by Guareschi which appeared in the seventh edition of Mondo Piccolo.

I discovered Don Camillo quite by accident, buried in a corner in the dusty shelves of the Asiatic Society Library in Bombay, when I was in college. This was in my "read everything you can about Cathlicism" stage (well, I don't think that stage has ended ... :)). I devoured all six books, one after the other. I cannot recommend them highly enough. I realize more and more how much they were a part of my formation as I was coming into the Church. There is a certain solid common-sense that permeates Guareschi's "Little World," somewhat reminiscent of Chesterton, that "apostle of common sense."

Don Camillo Online
It's been ages since I've read these. They're available online, thanks to someone with the very Indian name of Vajrang. Lots of good resources. The stories are archived at this page.

There is a rather inactive Yahoo listserv dedicated to Don Camillo (listservs are so 90s!). Last fall, a link appeared to a blog that talked about Don Camillo and Vatican II. Do go to the original blog and read it all. I'm reproducing it here after the jump.

Of course, at the time I read this first, I was quite clueless as to their import. I automatically rooted for Don Camillo against Don Chichi (the "post-Vatican II" reformer priest). I think you'll find that Don Camillo and Hell's Angel's is surprisingly germane for our situation at beginning of the third millennium.

In Ways of Escape, Graham Greene offers a touching tribute to the recently deceased Evelyn Waugh. Unlike Greene, Waugh was a convinced believer, and had no doubts about his faith, but Greene explains that "the old expression 'a broken heart' comes near to the truth" when describing Waugh's reaction to Vatican II.

It strikes me that when Giovanni Guareschi's Christ, in Don Camillo Meets the Flower Children claims 'Don Camillo, please, I just went through the agonies of the Vatican Council,' the author himself might have felt something similar. Guareschi's sad epilogue to Comrade Don Camillo, among other things notes that his people "face a new generation of priests who are no brothers of Don Camillo." Five years later, in Don Camillo Meets the Flower Children, Guareschi presents mixed feelings towards Vatican II.

Don Camillo refuses to replace his altar with what he calls a 'buffet table,' and inside Don Camillo's church, nothing has changed. The Curia sends the priest Don Francesco (who arrives in a business suit, and is mistaken by Don Camillo for a salesman) to implement the changes that Don Camillo has not. Don Camillo complains to Christ who responds
Don Camillo, if a cassock does not make a monk, then most certainly it does not make the priest. Or do you maintain that you are more a minister of God than that young man simply because you wear a cassock and he wears a jacket and trousers? Don Camillo, do you maintain that your God is so ignorant that he understands only Latin? Don Camillo, this stucco, this painted wood, this marble, these ancient words are not true faith.
Don Francesco's motto, according to Don Camillo, is demysticize, that is, "clean out all that is mere tinsel and serves only to nourish superstition." The old fashioned alter [sic] with the crucified Christ on it (the one Don Camillo talks to) has to go. When Don Camillo tells Christ that he will not permit the Crucifix to be thrown aside as tinsel, Christ responds "you're not talking about Me. You're talking about a piece of painted wood," to which Don Camillo responds 'Lord, my country is not a piece of colored cloth called a flag. However, the flag of a country cannot be treated as if it were any old rag. And You are my flag, Sir.'

Having demysticized the church, Don Francesco (renamed Don Chichi by the parish) launches into a series of sermons that significantly depopulate the Church. His arrogance prevents him from permitting a man's daughter to marry in the Old Rite, and when the old man suggests that his daughter will be married civilly then, Don Camillo takes Don Chichi aside. Not giving an inch, Don Chichi states that the Church must renew itself, and asks Don Camillo if he even knows what occurred at the Council? Claiming ignorance (Don Camillo is anything but) he states:
I cannot go much beyond the words of Christ; spoken in a simply clear way. Christ was not an intellectual, he used no complicated words, but only the humble, easy words that everybody knows. If Christ had been present at the Council, his talks would have sent the erudite concilar delegates into gales of laughter.
Reference to the concilar delegates is again given later, when it is believed that the 'disposable' Crucifix might just date back to the fifteen century. The Christ's hand is broken at the wrist and the crossbar is stuck together by what is believed to be an old piece of iron. Don Camillo explains to the Bishop's secretary, and a member of the Ministry of Culture, that during the War a bomb exploded on the bell ringer's roof, and shrapnel dangerously entered the Church while Don Camillo was saying Mass. The shrapnel was blocked by the right arm of Christ. Don Camillo concedes that to the member of the Ministry of Culture this might seem ridiculous, and that the story "would have made the priests of the Council roar with laughter," but how here, in the Po Valley, young and old are told of the day Christ's arm saved his people.

For all of his arrogance, it's hard to picture Don Chichi roaring with laughter at the Council, should Christ begin to speak, or should the story of the shrapnel be told. I think here Don Camillo overstretches a little. Don Camillo has the habit of often speaking only to think later, and I think his assessment of the concilar delegates certainly follows in this pattern. And yet, Don Camillo understands Vatican II, more than he lets on.
Millions of people no longer have any religious faith at all. This is the only thing I understood out of everything that was said at the Council. And it is the most important thing of all.
Don Chichi sees things exactly the same way (even though their attempts to deal with the problem are radically different):
Don Camillo, the Church is a great ship which for many centuries has been tied to the dock. The time has come to weigh the anchor, and set sail for the high sees. And the time has come to renovate the ship's trimmings, too.
Don Chichi sees his role as a priest, as occurring not simply within the walls of the Church, but also outside those walls. "I want to bring Christ to those poor outcasts," he explains, arrogantly misdiagnosing one elderly parishioner who brings Don Camillo the mail. On another occasion, when he sees the 87-year old Giosue, up to his knees in mud dragging his cart along the road, Don Chichi gets out of his Fiat and gives the old man a hand. Don Chichi has a strong sense of justice and finds it appalling that this man is forced to work. (Giosue explains that he is not forced to work but rather 'lives to keep working'). Believing Giosue to be mad, Don Chichi again misdiagnoses the situation, and his well-intentioned actions result in Giosue's death. Haunted by Giosue's ghost, Don Chichi sells his Fiat, and puts the money towards having the man buried in the manner he desired to be buried in.

On another occasion Don Chichi sees a boy carrying a heavy sack, and he stops to help him (note that Don Chichi's actions are inspired by his desire to help). When he sees the miserable conditions that the boy and his large family live in, he storms off to speak to Piletti, the owner of the land, and gives him an earful. Don Chichi only leaves when Piletti inserts a pitchfork into the argument, but he proceeds to convince Don Camillo to make use of the boy as an altar boy (whereupon the boy demands his cut fro the collection plate).

Don Chichi is quite often wrong (like Don Camillo), but he is fearless (remember him without hesitation going to face the Hell's Angels, who proceed to beat the tar out of him?), which is also like Don Camillo, and his heart is in the right place (like Don Camillo, here too). One wonders where Don Chichi sits, if Italy really does "face a new generation of priests who are no brothers of Don Camillo." He is very differently from Don Camillo, but they do seem to be of the same family, however much either of them would like to deny it.


Kakistocrat said...

Thank you for the attention...

Soon as I can round up more Guareschi fans, I can continue talking about him at my blog.

It's not the only post that appears about him...

Nancy said...

I love Guareschi, and also what I know of Czeslaw Milosz, but I am not a catholic. I am a simple agnostic with atheist leanings.