For many years, one of my favorite Catholic authors has been Giovanni Guareschi, an Italian author who wrote throughout the 50s and 60s. His most well known stories center around Don Camillo, the two-fisted priest in a small town on the Po river valley, and his friend and adversary Peppone, the communist mayor. Guareschi wrote a number of other stories (both novels and comic pieces about his home life) as well as a great deal of political commentary which has never been translated.
Although his work was very popular in the 50s and 60s (and can still be found in used bookstores in old Catholic Book Club editions) he seems almost entirely forgotten these days, which is say, because beneith their humor his stories often have a real depth of sentiment and character not often found.
Surfing around the other day I found a Tripod site maintained by an Indian Guareschi fan who has made most of his work in English available online. He's even obtained the blessing of Guareschi's two children, a letter from whom appears on his site.
What follows is the first Don Camillo story.
Don Camillo had been born with a constitutional preference for calling a spade a spade. Upon a certain when there had been a local scandal involving landowners of ripe age and young girls of his parish, he had, in the course of his mass, embarked upon a seemly and suitably generalized address, when he had suddenly become aware of the fact that one of the chief offenders was present among the foremost ranks of his congregation. Flinging all restraint to the four winds and also flinging a hastily snatched cloth over the head of the Crucified Lord above the high altar in order that the divine ears might not be offended, he had set his arms firmly akimbo and had resumed his sermon. And so stentorian had been the voice that issued from the lips of the big man and so uncompromising had been his language that the very roof of the little church had seemed to tremble.
When the time of the elections drew near Don Camillo had naturally been explicit in his allusions to the local leftists. Thus came a fine evening when, as he was going home at dusk, an individual muffled in a cloak sprang out of a hedge as he passed by and, taking advantage of the fact that Don Camillo was handicapped by his bicycle and by a large parcel containing seventy eggs attached to its handlebars, belaboured him with a heavy stick and promptly vanished as though the earth had swallowed him.
Don Camillo had kept his own counsel. Having arrived at the presbytery and deposited the eggs in safety, he had gone into the church to discuss the matter with the Lord, as was his inevitable habit in moments of perplexity.
'What should I do?' Don Camillo had inquired.
'Anoint your back with a little oil beaten up in water and hold your tongue,' the Lord had replied from above the altar. 'We must forgive those who offend us. That is the rule.'
'Very true, Lord,' agreed Don Comillo, 'but on this occasion we are discussing blows, not offences.'
'And what do you mean by that? Surely you are not trying to tell me that injuries done to the body are more painful than those aimed at the spirit?'
'I see your point, Lord. But You should also bear in mind that in the beating of me, who am Your minister, an injury has been done to Yourself also. I am really more concerned on Your behalf than on my own.'
'And was I not a greater minister of God than you are? And did I not forgive those who nailed me to the Cross?'
'There is never any use in arguing with You!' Don Camillo had exclaimed. 'You are always in the right. Your will be done. We must forgive. All the same, don't forget that if these ruffians, encouraged by my silence, should crack my skull, the responsibility will lie with You. I could cite several passages from the Old Testament. . . .'
'Don Camillo, are you proposing to instruct me in the Old Testament? As for this business, I assume full responsibility. Moreover, strictly between Ourselves, the beating has done you no harm. It may teach you let politics alone in my house.'
Don Camillo had duly forgiven. But nevertheless one thing had stuck in his gullet like a fish bone: curiosity as to the identity of his assailant.
Time passed. Late one evening, while he sat in the confessional, Don Camillo discerned through the grille the countenance of the local leader of the extreme leftists, Peppone.
That Peppone should come to confession at all was a sensational event, and Don Camillo was proportionately gratified.
'God be with you, brother; with you who, more than any man, have need of His holy blessing. It is a long time since you last went to confession?'
'Not since 1918,' replied Peppone.
'You must have committed a great number of sins in the course of those twenty-eight years, with your head so crammed with crazy notions. . . .'
'A good few, undoubtedly,' sighed Peppone.
'For example, two months ago I gave you a hiding.'
'That was serious indeed,' replied Don Camillo, 'since in assaulting a minister of God, you have attacked God Himself.'
'But I have repented,' exclaimed Peppone. 'And moreover, it was not as God's minister that I beat you, but as my political adversary. In any case, I did it in a moment of weakness.'
'Apart from this and from your membership of your accursed Party, have you any other sins on your conscience?'
Peppone spilled all the beans.
Taken as a whole, his offences were not very serious, and Don Camillo let him off with a score of Paters and Aves. Then, while Peppone was kneeling at the altar rails performing his penance, Don Camillo went and knelt before the crucifix.
'Lord,' he said, 'You must forgive me, but I am going to beat him up for You.'
'You are going to do nothing of the kind,' replied the Lord. 'I have forgiven him and you must forgive him also. All things considered, he is not a bad soul.'
'Lord, you can never trust a Red! They live by lies. Only look at him; Barabbas incarnate!'
'It's as good a face as most, Don Camillo; it is your heart that is venomous!'
'Lord, if I have ever served You well, grant me just this one small grace: let me at least break this candle on his shoulders. Dear Lord, what, after all, is a candle?'
'No,' replied the Lord, 'Your hands were made for blessing, not for striking.'
Don Camillo sighed heavily.
He genuflected and left the sanctuary. As he turned to make a final sign of the cross he found himself exactly behind Peppone who, on his knees, was apparently absorbed in prayer.
'Lord,' groaned Don Camillo, clasping his hands and gazing at the crucifix. 'My hands were made for blessing, but not my feet!'
'There is something in that,' replied the Lord from above the altar, 'but all the same, Don Camillo, bear it in mind: only one!'
The kick landed like a thunderbolt and Peppone received it without so much as blinking an eye. Then he got to his feet and sighed with relief.
'I've been waiting for that for the last ten minutes,' he remarked. 'I feel better now.'
'So do I!' exclaimed Don Camillo, whose heart was now as light and serene as a May morning.
The Lord said nothing at all, but it was easy enough to see that He too was pleased.