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Fire and Brimstone!

I wasn’t expecting much from the Christmas period in Vico. And although I loved the Neapolitan family Christmas, December in Naples had always been something of a disappointment. Although, on the one hand, I was grateful that Christmas didn’t start in late September, as it did in the UK, a bit of festive spirit in December itself would have been nice; but after seven years, I had given up hope. So it was a pleasant surprise when I descended from the train one evening in early December, tired and weary and looking forward to a plate of steaming pasta, to find that Vico had disappeared under a blanket of lights, and that a huge Christmas tree was being erected in Piazza Umberto I. That was more like it. Nice and Christmassy, and just warm enough to enjoy a beer in the piazza to boot. What else could a chap want? I called Giovanna down from the flat and we watched the decorations being put up.

Over the next few days, Vico Equense and the whole of the Sorrento Peninsula was transformed into a sort of living crib. It was quite surreal travelling to Naples every morning, where the only signs of Christmas were the saxophone-playing Santas sold by the market stall holders, and then arriving back in Vico every evening to a festive display that would have done Oxford Street proud.

The people of Vico were evidently big fans of Christmas, and Don Flavio, the local priest, was, perhaps, the biggest fan of all. I was still attending the evening Mass every Sunday, whenever I could, and I had recently become aware of a transformation in my attitude towards church-going. Whereas I had, in the past, regarded it as a duty, something that, really, I would prefer to have avoided, I now looked forward to it, and would return home afterwards feeling like a new man. Don Flavio was a spell-binding preacher.
“That day is coming,” he would shout from his pulpit, as he got worked up and dabbed at his brow with a paper handkerchief. “And then whose side are you gong to be on? You who come swanning along here every Christmas, or when there’s nothing interesting on telly. Because when you’re sitting with ten kilos of explosives under your arse, then you’re going to have to make that choice!”

And yet no one came swanning along because there was nothing interesting on the telly. They were there every week, in 40 degrees heat or slicing, bitter rain. You might put it down to Don Flavio’s formidable preaching style, as volcanic as the mighty Vesuvius that bears down upon us from the east. But you’d be wrong. For it was the same at morning Mass, with the more ethereal but equally incisive Don Silvio, who would never dream of using words like “arse” during mass.
Don Silvio and Don Flavio knew what they believed. They knew what was right and what was wrong. And they sang from the same song sheet, not giving a stuff about who they might offend in the process. But if you were not there at least 15 minutes before Mass started, then it was restricted view only for you, on your feet behind the pillar. There was Stefania with her little baby Federica, who was bawling her heart out, but nobody tut-tutted, because that was what babies were supposed to do. And there was granny and granddad, too, next to Auntie Erminia and Uncle Antonio, and their teenage children, all of them hanging onto Don Flavio’s every word. I was hanging on too. As usual, Don Flavio seemed to be talking only to me.

Switch to another Sunday – a parish church somewhere in Leicester, England. I am a university student. An apologetic-looking vicar is “preaching” at me, a handful of older people, some of whom are not even pretending to listen, and an assortment of sparrows and spiders. The sermon takes the same direction that it took last week. What can be done to boost attendance? They’ve tried it all. They’ve had people in boiler suits jumping around and putting on some angry political theatre in front of the altar. They’ve had a band of young men performing religious covers of Iron Maiden songs. They’ve had picnics, cross-legged at the front. But the congregation just keeps on dwindling. How can church be more fun? How can we put bums on pews? They are coming at it from the wrong angle. Church is not fun. And church is not supposed to be fun. Deeply satisfying, yes. Fun, no. Fun is what you have when you are at parties, or at the stadium. Church gives a sense of community; not just the local community, but a feeling of communion with Christians throughout history and all over the world. Don Flavio’s sermons were as much a part of the Vico Equense Christmas as the tree in the piazza, the pandoro and the panettone in the local bakery and the Christmas cribs.

Don Flavio’s sermons marked the changing of the seasons and the passing of time in the same way that the food on your plate does. They brought people together in common belief in a way that those churches, in which everyone is free to believe whatever they want to believe, as long as they don’t denigrate anyone else’s point of view, are incapable of doing. They put their followers on a level with those who worship statues of tentacled elephants or believe that life came from Venus. And if the Church cannot provide anything more concrete than that, then it is hardly surprising that people prefer to be at home with a six-pack, watching “World’s Funniest Animals”.
Nobody, in Don Flavio’s congregation, questioned the Virgin Birth, or even the existence of God, as I have heard them do in other churches (although I did have one deliciously ironical discussion on whether atheists actually exist). These things are taken as read. They are the cornerstones of our religion. And unless the Church starts preaching like Don Flavio again, and providing some sense of direction, instead of indulging in bleeding-heart hand-wringing, then the decline will be inexorable.


10 pensieri riguardo “Fire and Brimstone!

  1. You hit the nail on the head… church do give a sense of community! And no, it’s definitely not always fun (though, sometimes I do have a slight smile about something), but I’m too often reminded of my shortcomings as a Christian! But when I walk out of there, I’ve got a warmth and satisfaction in me that is difficult to describe.

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  2. Great post Giacomo. No matter what one thinks about church and organized religion, the sense of community and hope for the future is palpable during Christmas sermons/masses. Hope, rather than fire and brimstone fear is what the people need and want, even if there seems to be no hope. Happy Friday. Allan

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    1. Beautiful photos of Christmas in Naples. And Don Flavio was spot on. The other day I was at a website that had the full text of Gaudet Mater Ecclesia which was Pope John XXIII’s opening address opening Vatican II. I had never read it before. So I read it. I have to say it was overloaded with a blathering drivel and a banal stupidity to it that has only been surpassed by the speeches of Pope Francis.

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  3. I don’t have a lot to offer here, having grown up with religion being something other people did, as far as our family was concerned. A bit like playing polo or collecting coins – things that other people did that we knew little about. So all I’ll say is, listen to a track called Happy In The Lord by a band called Stackridge, and listen right to the very end. Enjoy.

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