May 2007


church door

Saturday, April 21 we all stood on the worn flagstones in front of the Soffratta church. The deep brown door was ajar, having just released the congregation to stream out into the warm night where we stood in small family groups, chatting of babies, cars, recent news, the weather. Luciano’s cousin Enrico pulled the pacifier out of his son’s mouth. One year old Michele, with his bottomless dark eyes, had sat sagely through the ceremony. Now with a sudden pop, the pacifier left his mouth…and he broke into a wide silent grin, as if we were the funniest things he had ever seen.

Monsignor Gabriele joined us, his face relaxed after the tension of the service. It had been the third and last Mass given in honor of la Nonna, one each month after her death, and this time he had thankfully remembered to intone her name. The previous month he had not and later Anna Maria gave him a piece of her mind. Now, with the enormous skeleton keys to the church doors in one hand and relief washed over his face, he stretched out his other hand to wish us a happy anniversary.

“It is one year, no?”

“Yes, it is true. What a good memory you have!”

“It is my job.”

One year before on the same smooth stones before the church of Soffratta, Luciano and I had stood in our silk, wool and crinoline, hot in the April sun, under a rain of tiny bits of dry pasta and bliss. Monsignor Gabriele hovered on the edge of the well wishers, supervising my brothers who, equipped with large brooms, were sweeping up the pasta as soon as it hit the ground. The entire village of Soffratta had turned out for the event. For being a village of 700 souls living in tidy houses clustered around the 16th century church it is, with the weddings funerals, christenings, or for that matter any celebration drummed up by the Catholic Church, the hottest ticket in town.

We have all been hoping for rain after one of the driest springs on record. Monsignor Gabriele held a special Rain Mass a few weeks ago, although Luciano's mother grumbled that he had organized it on a week during which rain was already predicted. In fact, God waited a bit before getting back to us, but made up for it in volume with torrential rain. Now we may need to have a Stop the Rain Mass.

The month of May is the celebration of the Madonna. The whole month is dedicated to that mysterious figure whose statue stands in the middle of cornfields, at intersections and on the sides of mountains. Monsignor Gabriele made the one mile journey to celebrate Mass in the small tent set up next to our neighborhood Madonna who is particularly lovely, surrounded by vineyards and a gurgling aqueduct. Flowers are left and candles lovingly lit at her feet as she gazes placidly out into infinity. Many yeas ago she did not answer Luciano’s teenage prayer for the cute girl down the street to give him a call. For this long ago decision, I now make a special detour on my run in order to salute her. Had she responded differently, I may not be here today.


Monsignor Gabriele, with his quavering voice, black thick rimmed glasses and tendency to reiterate, is the town rock star. He has lived with his perpetua, Antonietta in the small stone house, la canonica, next to the church for twenty three years. La perpetua, a term which comes from the classic Italian novel I Promessi Sposi, is a priest’s housekeeper and Antonietta, a kind but rather odd woman, lights the church candles, cooks his soup, makes sure he has a fresh supply of white priest collars, gets a little snippy sometimes and operates, for all intents and purposes, like a wife. In a religion in which the priests are not allowed to marry, I wonder why no one else has noticed the “perpetual” elephant in the room.

Indeed The Church’s very foundation of belief is firmly built on the importance of traditional marriage and the making of babies, a message carried to the people by an army of priests who have experience in neither. Strangely, the Church, which also touts tolerance, is recently going through a crusade (read witch hunt) in support of “family values” in which alternative lifestyles, albeit benign, are seen as an attack on the family, and ergo, not tolerated. A recent rally in Rome attended by one million people was in fact a thinly veiled assault on anything not resembling the traditional family. Luciano points out that, if you keep in mind that there are 60 million Italians, one mil is a pretty small turnout.


Last summer Monsignor Gabriele at the age of eighty, rolled his car in a nearby ditch and although he miraculously survived, he does not travel far anymore. His recovery in fact, surprised everyone. The hospital priest administered the last rites twice, and he kept waking up and asking what was for dinner. As he mended, he made brief appearances at the Soffratta church, just to give the congregation a kick in the pants as they suffered through the uncertainty of the church’s future. Being spitting distance from the bigger Mareno church, everyone is concerned that there is a plan afoot for making the church redundant. One can even see the spire of San Paul and Peter looming over the trees a half a mile away when standing in front of the chocolate brown doors of our church. Even with him back on the job we now we ask what if the Vatican, a normally efficient well-oiled machine, decides to downsize when Monsignor Gabriele retires? Where do retired priests go? And la
perpetua? Of course these kinds of decisions have been going on for centuries here in this little village. Yet, after being in Italy for only four years (and not even Catholic!) even I am feeling a little discombobulated by this imminent upheaval.

Last week the news was passed, word of mouth, that indeed Monsignor Gabriele was leaving. In hushed tones before Mass, at the local supermarket and leaning over bicycles met on the street, the future of Soffratta was discussed. Finally, we learned that the Bishop of Vittorio Veneto, the biggest Vatican honcho around, was coming to make an announcement. Luciano went to hear from the man himself what was going on the upper echelons. Would this current negative campaign against gay, women, and family rights bubble up in the ancient church during the meeting?

The man was forty five minutes late to the Wednesday night meeting and the congregation, which filled the church, killed time by reciting a few standard prayers and singing.
Everyone was asking Luciano’s cousin Walter why he was there. His house is 300 meters away from the church, but he is still from Mareno, enemy territory as far as everyone was concerned.

Finally the Bishop hustled in and the singing ceased.

All business in his late 60’s, wearing a purple skull cap and his everyday black travel robes, he apologized for being late. He is being reassigned to Verona he explained and had gotten caught up in meetings. Obviously accustomed to speaking to large groups, he launched immediately into his speech of pastoral unity, combining parishes, and sharing priests. But Soffratta will remain its own parish, he assured the crowd. The anxious crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief. Monsignor Gabriele’s hands stopped fluttering for a moment; then he asked if it would be possible to know who the new priest might be.

The Bishop went on. Temporarily there will be a young fellow who became a priest
last Sunday. This still-wet-behind-the ears padre will be filling the post until September when the new Bishop can then deal with the problem. Not surprisingly, what with the strict limitations on lifestyles, there is a priest shortage.

Monsignor Gabriele will be sent to a larger parish in the town of Miane, where he will be assigned light duties and hopefully live out the rest of his days in a calm, peaceful environment. The parish is almost an hour away, an unimaginable distance for folks around here. He might as well be transferred to Detroit. And a quieter place than Soffratta I cannot imagine. It seems an insensitive decision for an 81 year old priest who has born witness to the lives of his parish for twenty-three years. And no one knows the fate of his
perpetua, whose very title suggests eternity. As the Bishop mysteriously said, “Not everything can be said.”

I think, with things so up in the air in our little corner of Italy, the Pope, who is now in Brazil chastising that over populated country for allowing abortion, had better leave them alone and skedaddle back here to do some hands-on problem solving.

Our Madonna can’t take care of everything.