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November 2, 2018



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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