The following is a Rorate translation from Il Foglio, written by Alessandro Gnocchi and Mario Palmaro
The television cameras came into the Vatican during the reign of John XXIII, then the telephoto lenses fixed on Paul VI, then the media papacy of John Paul II, and now, the quasi-consubstantiality between the mass media and Papa Francesco. But the beginning of all of this was the dear, old, and very respectable middle-class magazine,“Domenica del Corriere". It was actually there, on of one of its covers, that on the 4th of May, 1952, Pope Pius XII was shown, in a sketched drawing, in a beige bathrobe, standing before the sink with an electric razor in his right hand and a goldfinch perched on his left hand.
The newspapers and periodicals of that time did not report any reactions that showed indignation or even a bit troubled, as if it were absolutely normal to depict the Pope showing him as just a “normal Joe” in the act of shaving his beard. The magazine covers of Walter Molino are seen today as naively sentimental, but they served as an opening to what became the TV evening news. Among the few to be scandalized at the magazine cover featuring the Pope shaving in a bathrobe Giovannino Garueschi stands out. That instinctive understanding of people and of the Po plain that he carried in his blood from his birth on the 1st of May, 1908, led that rough-hewn “compaesano” of Giuseppe Verdi to cultivate a sense of shame with which the middle class never knew what to do. Guareschi wrote at that time in “Candido”:
Seeing on the cover page of the ‘Domenica’ the Pope shaving in his bathroom, wearing a bathrobe, I experienced a sense of acute embarrassment. I never thought that an angel shaved the Pope, and I never thought that there were no bathrooms in the Vatican. But something always prevented me from thinking about the Holy Father while he was shaving in the bathroom. Thereupon I showed the illustration to many people to observe their reaction. And because I became aware that most of the people found the matter quite normal, I concluded, yet one more time, that I was out-of-date. We are just not with it….and the cover page of “Domenica” with the Pope as a regular guy shaving in his bathroom, seemed to us indeed as something like a sacrilege. We are part of the past. Do not blame yourself. It is only bad luck. Or good fortune.
The triumphant era of the technological Big Brother going on to become almost an image of the Mystical Body was still to come. Marshall McLuhan had not yet explained that “the idea according to which what counts is the way in which a medium is used is the dull-witted position of a technological idiot”. But the great deception was already there, on the front cover of the inoffensive “Domenica del Corriere”, and the people of God, up to that point significantly lacking in antibodies against the spirit of the world, did not notice its stench, with some shining exceptions that, a decade later, the new conciliar ecclesiology would list as among “the prophets of doom”.
The caesura between the Church and the world, which does not divide one epoch from another but runs uncompromisingly through the ages, was always was there to see. But too many Catholics had begun to close their eyes half way myopically in the illusion that they were able to see things in the distance. They tried to get a glimpse of the future and an amiable encounter with the spirit of the world, and they did not pay attention to the present time. Although “delicate” as required by the manners of that time, that “regular guy Pope who is shaving” in the “Domenica del Corriere” was an astute attack by the world disguised as courteous kindness. This was a true and real act of war, launched in a way that was affectionate and familiar, that proceeded to despoil Peter of the signs that Christian centuries had worked out to make Peter the Vicar of Christ in the eyes of every man: of the Catholics of “Famiglia Cristiana” (The Christian Family, periodical), of the middle-class Catholics of the “Domenica della Corriere”, and of the Communists of “Vie Nuove” (New Ways, periodical). Vestment after vestment, concept after concept, prayer after prayer, first only at the hand of the world, and then with the complicity of Catholics, the person of the Pope would be despoiled of everything, until he was left with only the worn out uniform of the chaplain of a field hospital. But, stripped in this way, the Vicar of Christ, who even if he wanted to, could not be another St. Francis, becomes feeble even in his voice. As praiseworthy as they are, the Pope’s challenging appeals that he launches against the spirit of the world are destined to remain inoperative. Then Christian discourse, deprived of the adornments that belong to it, even when it involves denouncing, ends up by making itself dress up in the meanings and symbols woven in a warped way by the world itself. And in this way the discourse becomes mute.
From the time that the Church decided to embrace the world, she started to speak to the world in what she thought was the proper way. In the 1950s it was middle-class and the Right. Today it is middle-class and the Left, but in either case with an air of radical chic. For this reason, the intellectuals who were genuinely popular with the people, like Guareschi, were put off to one side. They were the ones who hurled into the face of the world its sin of pride with a fierceness that is a model even today. No Madame Verdurin (the imperious salon hostess in Proust) would want in her salon a yokel who is scandalized by the depiction of the Pope in his bathrobe. He is a block-head impervious to the magnificent future as planned by the progressives, and in this way a bit provincial. “Men do not make history”. That rustic peasant had dared to write:
Men put up with history as they put up with geography. And history, moreover, is operative in geography. Men try to correct geography by making tunnels through mountains and changing the courses of rivers, and, in doing this, they have the illusion of changing the course of history, but they change nothing at all, because, one fine day, everything will collapse. The rivers will swallow the bridges and will break the dikes, and will refill the mines. Houses, palaces, and hovels will collapse, and grass will grow over the rubble, and all will return to earth. And those who are left will have to fight beasts with blows struck from rocks, and history will begin again. The only history.
If every age, in order to come to its senses, has a need for saints that contradict the spirit of the age in the name of Christ, the world of today, peopled with too many Madames Verdurin, extra muros and inter muros, begs for unpleasant words such as these. These words have nothing worldly about them and therefore make every man remember the smallness of his power over time and over his life. Where the frenetic pride of making history rules, a bit in the salon, a bit in revolution, one can counterpose only the humble acceptance that in time and space there is something that does not depend on current fashion and that cannot be changed. Whoever wants to provide succor to an age in which revolution shows forth its blasphemous results must offer as alms coinage that is clean and resonates with tradition. To restore the true sense of liberty to a man oppressed by the tyranny of a history that records what “merely happened”, it is necessary to lead him to think about the nobility of the tradition that stands for the possible and therefore the universal. But today Christians find it more comfortable to submit to the final meaning of some sort of philosophy of history that always ends up by explaining that what happened should have happened, taking away from the tradition the realm of meaning and leaving it in the realm of daydreams.
Whoever wants to heal men from original pride and to lead them to real poverty, that poverty of every creature before the eternity and infinity of God, as Guareschi does in his outrageous reflections, he would have to rebel against a culture that transforms simple facts into intolerant truths. He would have to show that history is the narrow courtyard of what has happened and will never return again, while tradition is the manifestation of the eternal in time and will never perish. One is a celebration, without color and without perspective, of the fortunes of the powerful. The other is a world of thousands of dimensions that delivers one’s own destiny even to the least of the least. But the Church of today, issuing mea culpas for her Constantinian past and her quasi-spousal relationship with a power that she at least knew how to keep at bay, ends up by fornicating with a power that wants to know nothing about spiritual and moral constraints. In this way Giorgio Napolitano is given an award, without shame, at the behest of the Pontifical Lateran University, in virtue of his “generous and sacrificial commitment to the promotion of the rights of the person and the safeguarding of the dignity of every woman and every man….for his passion for education towards the new generation…the notable magisterium and coherent witness to life.” It is not in this way that one evokes at least a sense of missing God, that the latest Barabbas slips himself a thread of hope to lead him to sigh with yearning, “How wonderful if the world were like this.”
The most profound meaning of Guareschi’s narrative, which comes forth from the holy irruption of the tradition into the profane barren lands of the world, lies in the courage that today the Church no longer manages to allow herself to have. Thundering against riches on both sides of the Tiber that ends up sweeping away the splendor owed to God is not the business of courageous leaders but of crafty public relations men. But it does not produce marvelous things, because even the most skillful of PR men will never be able to make desirable a world dedicated to poverty and slovenliness. It will never lead a man to look up, but will constrain him to search for things down low. The marvel that for centuries the Church produced in her liturgy, her prayer, her preaching, her theology, her doctrine, her catechism, and that today survives in every turn of the pages in works like those of Guareschi and makes one sigh with the “How wonderful if the world were like this”, is the fruit of a miracle capable of showing how the world would be if man did not oppose Grace. This is not the perfect world invented by ideologies. On the contrary, it is a world still plagued by pain, by evil and by death, but in which, in the end, everything makes sense. It is a world already transfigured here and now by the presence of Christ crucified and by the Church that distributes the Grace of that presence through the sacraments by the hands of her priests.
And it is here that the tradition, on the inner side of the threshold of even the poorest chapel in the countryside, becomes liturgy, and, on the other side of the frontispiece of the most popular literary work, becomes poetry. Fed by the sense of tradition, the language of poetry and the language of the liturgy, which have nothing of sentimentality, take on the task of restoring the true sense of Being to what the chatter of the world had given the illusion of existing otherwise and elsewhere.
It is the moment of the great homecoming, a coming back to the Creator that Guareschi describes with language reminiscent of a medieval preacher:
Men are poor creatures condemned to progress, a progress that brings about an irreparable substitution for the old Eternal Father with the newest chemical formulas. And in this way, in the end, the old Eternal Father gets annoyed, he moves the little bone in the last finger of his left hand, and the whole world vanishes into thin air.
Only the sense of tradition, which is made up of formal precision, doctrinal and ritual, can reconstruct the order desired by the Creator once and for all. “Introibo ad altare Dei. Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam”, and at that moment the whole company of heaven is made present: the seraphim, the cherubim, the thrones, the dominations, the powers, the principalities, the archangels, the angels, the saints, the blessed and all of the dead, and, in the heart of the one who kneels in devotion, all the living whom he loves. Amidst the Kyrie eleison, the Dominus vobiscum and the Oremus, time resumes its flow towards Heaven with incense, the light of candles and prayers, these also all for the greater glory of God. And, faithful to his promise, Our Lord comes yet one more time to sacrifice Himself for us. You see Him, you become a child and you ask Him for everything you have in your heart, and you almost want to protect Him, even if He is immensely strong. But it is precisely this that makes it so wonderful to be a Catholic: to feel tenderness towards the most powerful Being in the universe.
One understands all this truly only by entering a church. There is no worldly language that can convey this, not even to the most willing person. As pious as it sounds, to urge pastors to take on the smell of their flock to make them understand them and to guide them is only an illusion. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his novel, “The Marble Faun”, writes:
The friends came out of the church and looked up, from the outside, at the window that they had admired while inside. They saw nothing other than the simple outline of a gloomy shadow. Nothing could be made out, not a single depiction of a saint, of an angel, or of the Savior, nor even less the complex plan and the meaning of the design. ‘All this,’ thought the sculptor, ‘is the most unsettling symbol of how different the appearance of a religious truth or a sacred story when it is seen from the warm interior of faith or from its cold and dark exterior. The Christian faith is a great cathedral, with windows divinely painted. Standing outside, you see none of the glory, nor do you get any hint of it. Standing inside, every ray of light reveals a harmony of ineffable splendor’.
The attempt to explain the Church to the world using the language of the world is destined to show to men the “simple outline of a dark shadow”. It is a way of speaking, excited by the phrase, “field hospital”, dominated by pathos, that ends up by making mercy fashionable in the worldly sense and docile to whatever the world thinks is mercy. It was in an accommodating field hospital that Simone Weill halted on the threshold of her conversion, without ever entering the Church. Cristina Campo writes in this regard:
‘I could give you baptism even in your situation,’ said Father Perrin to Simone Weill. And inevitably Simone took a step back. A more profound and rigorous theologian would have denied her baptism tout court without trying appeasement or pathos. And Simone Weil, in all probability, would have bent her knee. The revelation of a Church pure because awe-ful, merciful because inflexible, in total contradiction to the world, firm and on fire, was certainly not to terrify Simone Weil, but only that part of herself that she wanted to die-- the mediocre part of her soul.
Whoever offers less, even for a good purpose, brings about a state of confusion. Whoever accepts less loses everything. And this happens because, almost always in the Church today, places and roles are mistaken one for the other. Mercy is given where rigor is needed, and rigor is used where mercy is needed. Because of this a priest like Don Camillo, inflexible in the pulpit and merciful in the confessional, is out of fashion. When he celebrates Mass and preaches thundering against wickedness of the modern world, Communism included, he is hated by the bourgeoisie of the Left. But, when he absolves Peppone with fifteen thousand “Our Fathers” for his penitence, he angers the bourgeoisie of the Right. But in the end Peppone, who in his heart is not a real Communist, and Don Camillo knows this, comes into the church and not only at night when he does not want to lose face in front of his comrades. Thanks to that priest, who from a Catholic point of view is rough-hewn and “Tridentine", Peppone has conquered the sin of pride that disfigures modern and post-modern man and that is expressed in the demand to receive the Sacraments from a Church that does not recognize her own power to deny them. But we need a Don Camillo to heal the little sheep from such a sickness. On the bank of the river to give a ritual blessing he prays:
Jesus, if in this dirty town the houses of the few honest men could float like Noah’s ark, I would pray to you to make a great flood come to destroy the embankment and submerge the whole town. But since the honest men live in the same brick houses as do the scoundrels, and it would not be just that the good should suffer for the sins of the rogues like the mayor, Peppone, and his whole gang of brigands without God, I ask you to save the town from the waters and to give it prosperity.
And the ritual Amens do not rise up from the throats of the respectable conformists holed up in their houses for fear of some bullet. Behind the shoulders of Don Camillo it was the voice of Peppone that said “Amen”. “Amen” responded as in a chorus, behind the shoulders of Don Camillo, Peppone’s men who had followed the Crucifix.
Translated by Rorate's Fr. Richard G. Cipolla