Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Eve

The blog will be going quiet for a couple days here, until the second or third day of Christmas. Church and family time intervenes.

However, for the holy day, I'd like to put up the following story, another of the Don Camillo Stories by Giovanni Guareschi.

Appointment at Midnight

It had all begun one day in July, when Peppone and his gang appeared in full force at the rectory.

"We want a Te Deum!" Peppone shouted. "A public thanksgiving. Someone has shot at our national Leader." Don Camillo was perplexed. "I understand," he said calmly, "but I don't see why we should hold a service of thanksgiving just because a poor devil has been shot. Say what you like, he's a human being."

Peppone clenched his fists. "We want to give thanks because he wasn't killed! And don't try to be funny, because we're in a state of national emergency. So here's the plan. You organize the Te Deum, complete with music, singing, flowers, curtains, lighting effects, and bells, and announce it by means of a poster with an angel on either side on the church door. Meanwhile we'll print leaflets and put them prominently on display. Then we'll see who shows up. Everyone that fails to show up is a filthy reactionary. We'll take down the names of the absent and then make a series of house-to-house visits."

"Well spoken, Chief," Smilzo said solemnly. "We must first identify and then punish all those guilty of incitement to public disorder. The people have had quite enough!"

Don Camillo looked over at him. "Are you going to list the names?" he asked.

"Of course," said Smilzo.

"Then put mine down at the head of the list, because I won't be at the thanksgiving service."

Peppone pushed his hat back on his head and put his hands on his hips. "So you refuse to publicly thank the Almighty for having saved an honest man from an attempted crime, is that it?"

"No. I won't let a religious service give you and your hot-heads an excuse to beat up innocent people. If you really want to thank the Almighty, come with your friends and I'll say a Mass, just as I did yesterday when Gigino Forcella fell off the roof without getting a single scratch on his body."

Peppone brought his fist down on the table. "The people want a solemn ceremony, a Te Deum, I tell you, not just an everyday Mass. This is a cause for national thanksgiving."

"The thanksgiving is a strictly private affair," Don Camillo insisted. "Every good Christian should rejoice when his neighbor is saved from danger, to be sure. But by your reasoning Gigino Forcella's family was entitled to a Te Deum too."

Peppone's face looked like an advertisement for apoplexy. "How can you mention Gigino Forcella in the same breath with our Leader? Gigino doesn't interest anyone outside his own family anyhow. And our Leader is known the world over."

Don Camillo was not impressed. "Gigino Forcella's family is a small one, while that of your Leader is made up of several million people. That's the only difference. It's a bigger family, if you like, but it doesn't include the whole nation. If the local members of your Leader's family want me to say a special Mass, I'll be glad to oblige them. But in view of the threats you made a few minutes ago it will have to be a purely family affair. I won't have anyone that doesn't belong to your Party in the church. Otherwise I should be abetting your blackmail. People must come to church of their own free will and not because of the fear of punishment. The church is no place for political propaganda."

Smilzo pulled the visor of his cap around to one side, put his hands on his hips and looked up at Don Camillo. "Look who's talking!" he said with a leer. "If there happened to be a God, He'd freeze you to the ground for such a shameless lie."

As for Peppone, he was bursting with things to say but didn't know where to begin. "You Judas!" he shouted. "You've sold Christ for thirty American dollars!"

"Don't pay him any attention, Chief," Smilzo begged him. "Certain people can't be treated any other way." He took a notebook out of his pocket, licked the point of his pencil and wrote something down. "Don Camillo!" he said. "Exclamation point! Now that you're on my blacklist not even the Almighty can save you."

And Peppone added: "Keep your Te Deums and your Masses as well. The Party has no use for your Madonna and saints. And here's what I'll do to the next Party member that sets foot in your church!" So saying, he picked up a chair and crushed the backboard of it in his fingers, looking straight into Don Camillo's eyes.

"Mind you get it mended now," Don Camillo said calmly.

Peppone made no answer, but turned on his heels, and walked out, followed by his gang, who slammed the door behind them. A moment later Smilzo came back, with a defiant look on his face, picked up the chair and bore it away. He held his head high and his chest stuck out, and he strutted as triumphantly as if he represented the inevitable onward march of the proletarian revolution.


Don Camillo got his chair back but Peppone and Peppone's followers and their families stayed away from church.

Three months later Bigio had a baby, but as he was a Party member the question of a baptism never came up. When Bigio saw the priest coming he dodged out of the way, but one evening Don Camillo managed to stop him. "If it's in obedience to Party orders that you're not coming to church, transeat, I can let that go by. Your sins are on your own conscience. But you let your son come at least once in his life, to be baptized. Or have you already enrolled him in the Party?"

Bigio, who was the most reasonable of the gang, threw out his arms. "The order goes for the whole family," he said. "If the Chief were to know that I'd had my baby baptized he'd take my hide off."

"Peppone doesn't have to know," Don Camillo suggested.

That night they brought the baby to him for a clandestine baptism. That was all Don Camillo managed to achieve, but he was not discouraged.

"Lord," he said to Christ, at the altar, "I'm waiting for Christmas. In all the years that I've been here they've never missed the midnight Mass. A few years ago, when Giubai was wanted by the police, he came on Christmas Eve and I saw him in the far corner, with his coat collar turned up all around his face. Lord, just have confidence in me!"

"I've always had confidence in you," Christ said to him with a smile, "but can you have confidence in yourself?"

"Well ... to a certain extent. I have more faith in You." As Christmas approached Don Camillo tried to find out which way the wind was blowing, and word came back to him that husbands and wives were arguing over the question, with the wives maintaining that on Christmas Eve they really must break the rule. As the time grew shorter and shorter, the arguments became more and more heated, until finally the women flatly declared: "We and the children are going to church; you can do what you please."

Peppone, whose wife had given him an unforgettable kick in the shins, was well aware of what was brewing and finally decided to leave the women and children free while the men kept up the boycott. They had said they wouldn't set foot in the church, and they would stick to their word. In order to prevent any last-minute weakening Peppone summoned the men to an appointment in the People's Palace. There they would answer the challenge of the Midnight Mass with a democratic "midnight cell meeting," whose ceremonial would consist of readings from the classics of the religion of Marx and Lenin and selected passages from such great democrats as Stalin and his ilk.

When Christmas Eve came the church was filled with candlelight and singing, while on the hard benches of the bare People's Palace the men listened to Peppone reading things none of them understood. Every now and then the wind blew a few notes from the church organ against the closed windows.

The Mass was over early, because something was tormenting Don Camillo's mind. When he was left alone in the church he took off his vestments and padlocked the church door. He walked up and down for several minutes and then stopped before Christ on the Cross.

"Lord," he said, "Did You see?"

"Yes, I saw," Christ answered. "You were over-confident. You relied too much on your own powers."

"No, that isn't it," said Don Camillo. "I pinned all my faith on You."

"And so now you've lost your faith, is that it then?"

"Never!" said Don Camillo indignantly. "If a starving man sees a crust of bread on the table before him, he can't just sit tight and say: 'I knew God wouldn't let me die of hunger.' God isn't going to put it in his mouth; he must stretch out his hand. To have faith that God will provide doesn't dispense a fellow from using his head. If the bread doesn't jump into his mouth, he has to go get it. The Scriptures tell us that if the mountain doesn't go to Christ, then Christ will go to the mountain."

Christ smiled. "Only it's not me, it's Mohammed," he objected.

"Forgive me," said the chagrined Don Camillo. "I only meant--"

"There's nothing to forgive, Don Camillo. It's not words that count, it's intentions."

Don Camillo ran his big hand over his forehead and looked up at Christ. But he was thinking of Mohammed, and Christ knew it and smiled.


"Comrades," Peppone was saying, "as a fitting close to this meeting at which we have borne witness to our democratic faith, I shall read you a masterly profile of Mao Tse Tung. Just then the door opened and in came a powerfully built man in a heavy coat, who made his way like a tank through the benches on which the men were sitting, went up onto the platform where Peppone was holding forth and set a gray-green box on the speaker's table. All the men in the front rows recognized the box immediately. They bad seen it during the war, when Don Camillo risked German bullets in order to visit them up in the mountains. And automatically they rose to their feet. Don Camillo lifted the lid off the box, and there was his field altar. Peppone stepped quickly down from the platform, and a moment later, when Don Camillo turned around and grunted, Smilzo proudly leapt up beside him. As he had done so many times in the old days, he helped the priest don his vestments, lit the candles and knelt down at one side of the altar to serve him.

It was a simple Mass, military style, and of an almost clandestine character. But they had put out the lights in the hall, so that the candles on the little altar stood out in the dark. The organ notes that had blown against the closed windows were still vibrating and from the towers of church and town hall the chimes echoed through the valley while the golden wings of the great angel seemed to spread over the Little World.

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