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THE UGLY MADONNA

THE UGLY MADONNA: DON CAMILLO’S DILEMMA

DEAR FRIENDS:

Giovanni (Giovannino) Guareschi (1908-1968), an Italian short-story writer, political and satirical journalist, and strong, passionate, sometimes hot-headed committed Catholic, left, among other works, a charming collection of stories, sadly unknown and lost-sight-of to modern audiences, about a fictitious, stalwart, often passionate and impulsive parish priest, Don Camillo, and his friend and rival, the Communist mayor of the town, Giuseppe Botazzi (Peppone). The stories take place in an anonymous village, lost among others in the valley of the river Po, the land well-known and much-loved by Guareschi in his youth.

As the editor of the satirical journal “Bertoldo,” he came into the unfriendly attention of Mussolini’s fascist regime – later, after Mussolini’s departure, as the Italian provisional government signed an armistice with the Allies in 1943, Guareschi was arrested by the Germans and spent almost two years in a prison camp.

After the war, Guareschi became the editor of another magazine devoted to political satire, “Candido.” In and through his editorials and articles in it, Guareschi became deeply involved in post-World War II Italian politics. These were the critical years of confrontation between the Italian Christian Democratic Party and the Communist Party, resulting in the victory of the Christian Democrats in the 1948 elections. It is against this background of political and social tensions that the immensely delightful stories of Don Camillo and his friendly (and serious) rivalry with Peppone, the Communist mayor, unfold.

The story of the “Ugly Madonna” has been a source of fascination and spiritual meditations for me ever since I first heard it in a Cuban TV Catholic program, anchored by a popular Spanish Capuchin priest, Fr. Jaime de Aldeaseca. It struck me as one of the most spiritually attractive story of the entire Don Camillo corpus. It goes something like this:

Don Camillo’s parish church was very ancient. It was built in the Middle Ages, and it housed a host of statues and relics hailing back to its origins.  Among these there were true works of art. One particular statue, however, became a source of endless pain and grief for Don Camillo. It was a statue of the Virgin Mary, ugly beyond comprehension, made of coarse clay, which had been partially crumbling through the centuries, and painted in garish colors. It had uneven eyes, with a diabolical look, evil eyes which haunted Don Camillo’s dreams. It was a thing of horror, compounded by the realization that the artist had made the statue unimaginably ugly on purpose; this was not the well-intentioned attempt of an incompetent medieval artisan, sincerely intending to honor the Mother of God. It was evident that willful purpose, not lack of skill, was invested in the making of this religious atrocity. The statue was known in the town as the “Ugly Madonna,” not as a case of collective blasphemy, but rather as an accurate description of this unthinkable ugliness.

Don Camillo tried to rid himself of it, but the town council told him this was an antique, and as such it belonged to the artistic patrimony of the village. The statue had to stay, over Don Camillo’s very emphatic objections. “Ugly, but ancient, Father,” they would tell the priest. “Ancient, but ugly,” Don Camillo would riposte. But his grievances came to naught. The city council prevailed, the statue stayed, an eye-sore in the venerable, ancient church. Don Camillo spent countless hours trying to come up with a solution, an idea to rid himself of the evileyes that stared at him from a corner of the church every day.

Finally, one day, Don Camillo felt a solution alighting in his mind. Every year, on the Feast of the Assumption, the Ugly Madonna was carried on the shoulders of parishioners to the river, there to pray, through Mary’s intercession that the village might be spared from the not-infrequent flooding that bedevil the villages strung along the valley of the Po. After the celebration ended, the statue was returned to the church.

Don Camillo told the villagers that, since the summer was a particularly hot one, it might be betters to spare them to brutal toil and pain of carrying this heavy image on their shoulders, all the way to the river. Why not use a truck? he said, secure the statue on it, and drive it to the river. What Don Camillo did not tell his flock was that he spent the night before the procession sabotaging the truck’s shock absorbers, and then proceeded to plot, not the usual smooth path leading to the river, but a longer course, strewn with rocks and boulders, which would make the drive extremely difficult – and, in the process, he thought, the coarse clay the Ugly Madonna was made of would not stand the combination of jolting bumps and shock absorbers, rendered ineffective by Don Camillo’s assiduous mechanical deviltry, and would crumble into oblivion.

And so it happened. Half-way to the river, the Ugly Madonna, to Don Camillo’s barely concealed joy, before the partially-horrified, partially-relieved eyes of the villagers, crumbled – and, as it did so, it revealed, concealed within it for over seven centuries, an unspeakably beautiful, gold-covered Madonna, gleaming in the warm sun of the Po valley. And then, in an instant, the whole event, the painful and almost unknown history of the Ugly Madonna became clear to Don Camillo:

Back in the turbulent days of the Italian Middle Ages, as towns and principalities warred endlessly against each other, an army of invaders gallops on the village, bent on plunder and destruction. The anonymous artisan which had crafted the Beautiful, Golden Madonna is certain that if these mercenaries conquer the village, the Madonna will be stolen, perhaps molten, perhaps sold and lost forever. So he devises this brilliant scheme: let us conceal her inside another Madonna, as ugly as the pit of hell, as unattractive as possible, so it would not draw the covetousness of the invaders.

At the end of Guareschi’s story, Don Camillo muses upon this extraordinary event. Against the background of the Christian Democrat – vs. –  Communist strife in Italy, and the wider tensions between the post-Stalinist Soviet Union and the West, his reflection appeals to the threats that atheism, sin and infidelity pose to the City of God. Perhaps, lurking inside modern-day disasters and menaces, there is a hidden, hitherto unseen Golden, Beautiful Madonna, waiting to be discerned and discovered through –and only through – our sharing in the sufferings of the Christ.

The story of the Ugly Madonna is unmistakably germane to us today As we face new threats of destruction, the new rhetoric of hatred, racism and xenophobia, the callous oblivion of the poor, the hungry, the unborn, the discarded, the excluded, we seem to be struck, convulsed and anguished by the horrors of the Ugly Madonna. For some, love, justice, compassion, mercy, seem to be hopelessly buried inside the coarse clay of our Ugly Madonnas.

But Guareschi’s Don Camillo is a true prophet for our times. Our passionate, risky, vulnerable, painful, joyful and liberating commitment to the Crucified and Risen Lord requires all of us, each one of us, each one of our Christian communities, to “sabotage the shock absorbers” that sustain our arrogant, often racist, obsessions with power and wealth, and to allow the coarse clay of the Ugly Madonnas that burden and prostitute our Christian lives to crumble into dust, and experience the paschal joy revealed to us by the Beautiful, Golden Madonna begging to be unconcealed within us by the Holy Spirit.

Oremus pro invicem

 

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IGNATIAN SOLIDARITY NETWORK: IN A TIME OF PROFOUND IMPASSE

In a Time of Profound Impasse
By Alex Mikulich

We live in a time of profound impasse. By impasse, I mean that we do not see a way out of the personal, national, and global crises that are wreaking death and destruction upon the most vulnerable among us and the planet. We may easily succumb to feelings of helplessness, loss, confusion, and guilt in the midst of these seemingly insurmountable crises.

I find hope in Mark’s story of the blind beggar Bartimaeus. I relate to Bartimaeus because I too want to scream out for Jesus’ healing in a brutal world. Yet the desire to call for help is not easy. Not unlike the crowd that tells Bartimaeus to be quiet, so our society attempts to silence people who are seeking healing for the wounds they suffer through war, gun violence, drug addiction, poverty, sexism, and racism.

Moving beyond impasse is painful because it demands openness in the midst of our vulnerability.  Bartimaeus lays out his garment to receive offerings—he is wholly open to transformation in his vulnerability. By laying out his garment Bartimaeus lets go of the old way of being and embraces the Way of Jesus. In the context of our world, I believe, if we are to open ourselves to God’s healing and transformation, individually and collectively we too need to be freed from old ways that are destroying all forms of life.

However, if we are going to be healed of our blindness, we need to be open to each other in our vulnerability, and to be totally challenged by the earth, the poor, refugees, by the oppressive situation women face in a patriarchal society and church, and by all those who are tortured, murdered, and imprisoned in the name of “national security.” May we, like Bartimaeus, remove our old garments and turn to one another to open ourselves to be drawn into the healing transformation God intends for the whole of creation.

IGNATIAN SOLIDARITY NETWORK: RISE UP: WE ARE ALL SERVANTS OF ONE ANOTHER

Circles & Cruces
By Devi Zinzuvadia

I am less unsettled as I sit down to write this than I was a day or two, or even a week or two, ago, but I’m unsettled still. Unimaginably horrific clergy abuse accusations are coming to light. The newest associate justice of the Supreme Court has been sworn in, after a confirmation process that was exhausting, infuriating, and traumatic for many. So it’s true I’ve been hoping for a win. As the old Stevie Wonder song goes, Love’s in need of love today.

As is so often the case, hope answers hope. My faith community, St. Ignatius Parish in San Francisco, has been accompanying a refugee family of six for more than a year. At a special liturgy on September 30, our family and their immigration lawyer gave thanks in English y en Español to parishioners for their generous support. We were excited to introduce our familia and church community to one another; one of our many goals was to offer a direct link to the migrant experience, at a moment fraught with passion that’s often absent the understanding that connection brings.

I’ll confess that I was distracted throughout Mass. I was not really listening to the readings, carefully chosen on the special theme of welcoming the stranger. I was instead paying attention to our familia’s sweet youngest boy and his giggly, nervous energy (the children and I were bringing up the gifts). Together we calmed ourselves by reading the church bulletin cover to cover (and not quietly; apologies again, everyone behind us in the third pew!), counting all the images we found, namely the cruces. He then reminded me that our church has crosses everywhere, and got to work counting those laid in over the sanctuary: circle, cruz, circle, cruz. Eternal and infinite, and all around us.

So that’s how you settle down and refocus: you allow family and community to love, guide, and support you; and then you switch places and do it for them; and then you repeat. From Mark 10 we see Jesus saying it plain for us. He reminded his disciples, “Rather, whomever wishes to be great among you, will be your servant; whomever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”

He who wishes to be great will be of service. We are all servants to one another.Love’s in need of love today.

TALK ABOUT GOD

WITH GRATITUDE TO FRANK O’LOUGHLIN

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IGNATIAN SOLIDARITY NETWORK: RISE UP: IT IS IN GIVING THAT WE RECEIVE

It Is In Giving That We Receive
By Alyssa Perez

When I first joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps I didn’t really understand the simple living pillar and thought it simply meant that I needed to give up my technology for the sake of giving it up or just to prove I could do it. Turns out that wasn’t the point at all. Throughout my time as a Jesuit Volunteer, I came to understand that in order to be meaningful, sacrifice cannot just be for the sake of sacrifice; it needs a greater “why.”

We didn’t choose to give up so much just to say we sacrificed something, but rather we gave up many things—our time, many of our material possessions, our comforts at home, holidays with friends and families—in order to open ourselves and our hearts to receiving so much more—new relationships, new experiences, a simple way of living, community, new found peace, and a renewed sense of trust and faith in God and in other people. Any of us who have sacrificed anything meaningful in our lives for the sake of others knows this to be true. This is what Jesus is trying to remind us of in this week’s Gospel reading.

A young rich man asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies that the first step is to follow the commandments, but it does not end there. The commandments are all about love—loving God and loving others—and we are called in this week’s readings to go a step further. We are invited to step away from the comforts and security that our possessions afford us. Jesus reminds us that will be rewarded in heaven for the things we sacrifice now, but anyone who has sacrificed anything important in their life knows that these rewards are here on earth too. It is in giving that we receive and once you’ve experienced this mutual exchange of love, there is no going back to any other way of being.

I don’t think Jesus wants us, or the rich man in the Gospel, to give up our things for the sake of giving up our things, but rather for our own sake and the sake of others. Simple living, intentional living, and a life of giving in service to others—all of these things bring us closer to God and to other people and those rewards are more fulfilling than any material wealth or status. This message is not just for the wealthy, either—we all have something that we can give up and let go of for the sake of drawing closer to God.

Let us now reflect: What a perfect time to reflect on this in our own lives, as autumn has officially begun and leaves are beginning to fall around us. Trees are shedding their old leaves to make room for new ones later on. What are the things that we are willing to shed and give up during this autumn season in order to bring ourselves closer to God? It might mean leaving our homes and committing to doing a few years of service, or it might mean letting go of and shedding our pride, greed, or grudges in order to shift our focus to what truly matters in life—relationship with God and with those around us.

One of my Jesuit friends put it best, “The call to love God and love our neighbor, if really followed, leads to a glimpse of what heaven holds—a place where the ego burns away and we literally carry nothing. By giving to others now, we practice for that. Or as Pope Francis says: ‘Shrouds have no pockets.’”

ROMERO ON JUSTICE AND UNITY

ROMERO ON JUSTICE AND UNITY

On May 7, 1979, Archbishop Oscar Romero met with pope John Paul II. The pope apparently had received reports from some Salvadorean bishops denouncing the “divisive” nature of Romero’s prophetic utterances against the oppression and injustice practiced by Salvadorean official institutions, supported by the oligarchic wealthy families of the country. In Romero’s own words:

“He (the pope) reminded of the situation in Poland, where he was faced with a government that was not Catholic and where he had to develop the Church in spite of the difficulties. He said the unity of the bishops is very important. Again recalling his time as a pastor in Poland, he said that keeping the bishops unified was the main problem. Again I clarified, telling him that this is also something that I want very much, but that I was aware that unity cannot be pretended. Rather, it must be based on the gospel and on the truth” – From “Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Shepherd’s Diary,” trans. By Irene B. Hodgson, St. Anthony Messenger Press.

Oscar Romero’s prophetic words, flowing like a river from its wellsprings from the very heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is the best answer to the insidious racism practiced in many parishes and dioceses here in South Florida, and in many other places,  where, under the pretext of unity racist exclusions are justified, a false cultural homogeneity is created, denying Hispanics and other ethnic and cultural groups the right to express their own traditions and to participate in the ministries and commitments of their community – “We don’t want a Spanish – or Brazilian, or Mayan, or Vietnamese – Mass, let’s keep our parish one big, happy family – under the dominant culture, that is” – this has become the rallying cry to the banners of xenophobia and exclusion,

Romero knew and felt, deep within his prophetic heart, that unity cannot be purchased at the expense of the justice, compassion and mercy of the Gospel – Ultimately, this was the main reason he suffered martyrdom – He would not abandon the poor, the humiliated, the hungry, for the sake of embracing a prostituted unity – The Gospel of Jesus Christ – the Gospel that IS Jesus Christ – was the overriding and guiding passion of his life.

ST. OSCAR ROMERO

A Gospel that doesn’t take into account the rights of human beings, a Christianity that doesn’t make a positive contribution to the history of the world, is not the authentic doctrine of Christ, but rather simply an instrument of power. We . . . don’t want to be a plaything of the worldly powers, rather we want to be a the Church that carries the authentic, courageous Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, even when it might become necessary to die like he did, on a cross.

ST. OSCAR ROMERO