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02 May 2014

by Jonathan Boardman


Shared observance

EVEN after 15 Passiontides spent in Italy, it still shocks me how casually Good Friday is observed locally. First, it is not a public holiday, and trading continues unrestrained along Via del Babuino and adjoining streets until dark. Then, if there is to be any spiritual observance at all, it generally focuses on a theatrical Via Crucis, such as that traditionally led by the Pope at the Colosseum.

There is no sign of a three-hour observance, either from the canonical noon to 3 p.m. or between any other hours - save, it seems, at our own All Saints', which runs from 3 till 6 p.m., culminating in a last hour given over to the Liturgy of Good Friday.

This year, we shared Holy Week with our sister Episcopal church, St Paul's within the Walls, and benefited enormously from the more-than-doubled numbers attending, and the charismatic presence of its Rector, Fr Austin Rios.

With the looks of a 1930s film-star, and a kindly openness of address and attention, Austin has been a big hit in the ecumenical life of the Eternal City since his arrival just over two years ago. His wife, Jill,has also played a big part in revitalising much of the already excellent outreach programmes at St Paul's, particularly the Joel Nafuma Refugee Centre, based in the undercroft.

A joint Lenten fund-raising project, supported by the English-speaking churches in Rome, has been partly directed to this organisation to permit short-term housing for some of the centre's users, who were previously only offered day-centre facilities.

The invitation for us all to "own" this truly worthy project has had spin-offs into the vitality of our shared liturgical life: this year, we seem to have passed a tipping-point, Holy Week successfully offering occasions to gather together in numbers large enough to attract still larger numbers.

Some of this may also reflect the "Francis effect" noted globally by church commentators of all nationalities.

Solemnity half-hidden or not, this Good Friday was a good one in Rome.

Hotel rendezvous

THERE has not been a Cardinal presiding over the see of Perugia since Gioacchino Pecci vacated it to ascend the papal throne as Leo XIII. February's consistory - Pope Francis's first - changed that.

Gualtiero Bassetti received a red hat, and Umbria finally, after more than 160 years (when Pecci, as Bishop of Perugia, was made Cardinal), received what it had always thought it deserved.

Cardinal Bassetti has been in Perugia only a few years, previously holding the united sees of Arezzo, Cortona, and Borgo Sansepolcro, across the border in Tuscany. In that position, he was encountered by chance by Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, our former diocesan, while he was being transferred from our annual 2009 archdeaconry synod in Assisi to Venice for confirmations.

The Chaplain of Venice's car broke down on Highway E45, and the ecclesiastical passengers looked for a good lunch at Hotel La Balestra, Sansepolcro, only to find themselves at the neighbouring table to Bishop Bassetti's. O felix culpa, O happy fault, not to have taken the car to have its MOT: never was a happier chance meeting, or a greater ecumenical flourishing.

Rustic retreat

I ENCOUNTERED Cardinal Bassetti for the first time on Easter Tuesday, at Preggio's solemnity of the Holy Thorn. My parents bought a rural villa in the Upper Tiber Valley nearly 20 years ago, and, if possible, it is thither that I withdraw in Easter Week.

This year's Pasqua coming so late has meant that the villa's garden was already a joy - the hawthorn was in full bloom, urging one and all to "cast a clout". And even if Tuesday brought light rain across lunchtime, by the time I had driven up to Preggio (27km by road, 8km as the wood-bird flies), there was the most welcome late-afternoon sunshine illuminating the piazza in front of the collegiata.

Preggio is a tiny town on a mountainous spur in the folded hills behind Perugia, and in the shadow of Mount Acuto. From the ruined fortress at its highest point, the glimmer of light reflected from Lake Trasimene is just visible across the wooded ridges. The entire village (200 souls) was gathered either within or without the church, and when the Cardinal arrived at this, the most northern parish of his archdiocese, he was received rapturously.

The parish priest, Don Giuseppe, is also a professor of music at the conservatoire in Perugia, and so the singing was unusually elaborate for such a remote celebration, and the spirit was decidedly religious. Other neighbouring towns (such as the larger, but still small Montone) celebrate similar Easter Week solemnities, but in a manner that might easily be dismissed as focloristico (an Italian word derived from the English "folklore"). Preggio certainly thinks so.

I delighted in the casual but chic dress of the lads who carried the canopy in the procession that, post missam, wound its way around the village streets. To view these festivities, visit the village website: a remote-control airborne webcam followed the whole thing with a startling 21st-century buzz.

Lavish, but effective

WHICH is better, Preggio's or Montone's Santa Spina, Holy Thorn? It is claimed for both that they were once part of Christ's crown, borne on the cross. Festivities in Montone certainly have a more polished finish, as befits a pristine Umbrian hill-town chosen as the site of an annual summer film-festival, organised by Terry Gillingham.

Together with the Bishop of Città di Castello, Mgr Domenico Cancian, there are sumptuous medieval costumes, silver trumpets, and Piero della Francesca profiles. Bishop Cancian's sermon is usually a hypothetical inquisition about the value of this touristic spirituality - he is not all that popular.

The Preggio festa seems more natural and more wholesome: it is somehow like "walking day" was in Lancashire villages when I was a lad. But which actually communicates the faith? Shouldn't we bite the bullet and admit that, for all its virtues, Preggio's celebration has seen its day?

It is like the difference between the HBO remake of House of Cards and the original books and British TV adaptation - however much I long for the understatement of Ian Richardson and the BBC, I have to admit that Kevin Spacey is masterful and global in his ability to communicate.

Long live the difference. It is Pope Francis's moment.

The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints', Rome.

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