The pastoral imagination of Pope Francis and the gospel according to Giovanni Guareshi

August 2, 2016

From the Pews

Many Catholics remain amazed, fascinated or frustrated by this new-style Pope who speaks in ways we simply do not expect to hear coming from the Chair of Peter. Biographies and analyses are selling like hot-cakes as people try to understand “Just where is this Pope coming from?” But, if one just listens closely, he does provide an abundance of clues.

For instance, last November, Pope Francis journeyed to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence to address the Fifth Convention of the Italian Church. In his address he provided both exhortation and admonition to the assembled bishops, priests and pastoral workers. Among his remarks the following especially catches one’s attention:

The Italian Church has great saints whose examples can help her to live the faith with humility, disinterest and gladness, from Francis of Assisi to Philip Neri. But let us also think of the simplicity of fictional characters such as Don Camillo who was paired with Peppone. It strikes me how in Guareschi’s stories the prayer of a good priest merges with the evident closeness to the people.

Who is this fictional character the Holy Father ranks with the likes of Francis of Assisi and Phillip Neri as a model for the Church’s pastors?

Turns out that Don Camillo was created by the Italian writer and journalist Giovannino Guareschi. The fictional character is loosely based on an actual Catholic priest, Don Camillo Valota, a World War II partisan and concentration camp detainee who, following the war, ministered primarily among displaced Italians in southern France.

Father David Haschka, S.J.

Father David Haschka, S.J.

The Don Camillo stories were first published in the Italian weekly magazine Candido during the years immediately following World War II. They eventually amounted to 347 in total and were put together and published in eight books, only three of which were published while Guareschi was still alive. Subsequently they were made into comic books and a television series that appeared throughout Europe including the United Kingdom. Most Europeans over a certain age are well familiar with the Don Camillo character.

By 1960, English translations of four of these books had been published in the USA and become a staple of American Catholic school libraries and hence influenced the imaginations of many a Catholic school boy who, perhaps, went on to become priests. One might expect that, in the same era, the Italian editions were a staple of schools in the immigrant Italian community in

Buenos Aires, perhaps exercising a similar influence on the imagination of a young Jorge Bergoglio.

Guareschi’s Don Camillo is physically imposing with size 12 shoes and hands like shovels. His physical immensity is also matched by his personality which is by turns playfully mischievous and furiously vengeful. Peppone, the village’s Communist mayor is Don Camillo’s equal in both size and temperament. He serves as Don Camillo’s bête noire but, paradoxically, also as his trusted friend.

Although he is a devout man of God, Don Camillo is not averse to committing little sins if it means thwarting Peppone’s political schemes. While Peppone, although he is a devout Marxist, is not averse to practicing the faith if it means retaining the affection and political support of the villagers. Despite their political differences, the pair have a deep respect for each other – one they unsuccessfully try to mask. In many of the stories, they have to declare a temporary cease- fire in order to look after the interests of the people.

Some of these stories could be read as archetypes for the sometimes stormy relationships between Archbishop Bergoglio and the Argentine Presidents Néstor and Cristina Kirchner during Bergoglio’s tenure as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

What is most attractive and fascinating about the character of Don Camillo — aside from his regular failures at impulse-control — is his regular conversations with Jesus who speaks to him from the crucifix over the altar of the village Church. Here, Don Camillo finds solace in his mo- ments of defeat but also and not infrequently scolding in his presumed moments of triumph. Here one finds the “gospel” according to Giovannino Guareschi.

In Florence, Pope Francis gestured to the image of Christ in the frescoed ceiling of the cathedral and posed the question: “What does Jesus tell us?” The image on the ceiling was of Christ the Universal Judge seated on the throne of judgment and the proposed words of Christ were those from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel.

But perhaps somewhere in the imagination of the Holy Father is a somewhat different image, the image of Christ on the Cross in a small Church in a small village near the river Poe in northern Italy during 1947. He speaks to a humble but very human pastor who had just vented his frustration with the materialistic tendencies of his people:

“Fret not, Don Camillo,” whispered Jesus. “I know that men wasting God’s grace looks to you like a mortal sin, because you know that I got down from a horse to pick up a breadcrumb. But you should forgive them because they do not mean to offend God. They search desperately for jus- tice on earth because they no longer have faith in divine justice, and just as desperately go after worldly goods because they have no faith in the recompense to come. They only believe in what they can touch and see. The flying machines, they are the angels of this infernal hell on earth which they are trying in vain to turn into a paradise. It is a body of ideas – a culture – that leads to ignorance, because when a culture is not supported by faith, there comes a point where man sees only the mathematics of things. And the harmony of this mathematics becomes his God, and he forgets that it is God who created this mathematics and this harmony.

“But your God is not made of numbers, Don Camillo, and good angels fly in the skies of your paradise. Progress makes man’s world ever smaller: one day, when cars run at 100 miles a mi- nute, the world will seem microscopic to men, and then mankind will find itself like a sparrow on the pommel of a flagpole and will present itself to the infinite, and in the infinite it will rediscover God and faith in the true life. And mankind will hate the machines which have reduced the world to a handful of numbers and it will destroy them with its own hands. But all this will take time, Don Camillo. So do not worry, your bicycle and your scooter are in no danger for now.”

Jesus smiled, and Don Camillo thanked him for putting him on earth.

(From the story “Rustic Philosophy” as it appears in The Complete Little World of Don Camillo published electroni- cally in 2013 by Pilot Productions, Piers Dudgeon – Editor, Adam Elgar – Translator)

Indeed, Pope Francis, if not physically large, is still a powerful and imposing personality. He sometimes finds himself in conflict with similarly powerful ideological adversaries but with whom he shares a deep concern for the welfare of God’s people. He must surely also experience occasional frustration with the increasingly pervasive secular materialism of today’s Catholics. One wonders, does Pope Francis not also, in the privacy of his chapel, receive words of both encouragement and admonition from his crucified Lord along with the occasional smile.

 Father David Haschka, S.J. grew up in Visitation Parish in south Minneapolis and entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1965. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1975. Among a variety of assignments over the years, he has served in this archdiocese as pastor of the Church of St. Luke in Saint Paul from 1994 – 1999 and as founding president of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in south Minneapolis from 2005 – 2011. He currently serves as senior associate pastor of St. Olaf Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis.

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About Maria Wiering

Maria Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit.

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