Saturday, June 19, 2010

Church life in a small Italian town

We attended a funeral for my sister-in-law's father on the 27th of June. This was not in Cervinara, but in his home town of Aversa. Aversa is a bigger city, but many of the traditions are not so different from those here in the hills. It was an interesting cultural experience.
Vincenzo Palmieri died on the 26th of June, at home. There was no preparation of the body besides the daughters washing and dressing his body.
Family and friends called at the house all day, then at 3:00 pm, the funeral people brought the casket upstairs and placed the body in it. They brought it down the stairs and we all formed a procession where we followed the hearse to the church. The procession was led by the priest and we blocked traffic for the several hundred yards we walked to the church. As the procession passed, everyone on the sidewalk stopped, made the sign of the cross...some old men saluted the casket, and then we went on to the church, where the door was draped in purple. There was a mass, then the body was taken to the cemetery. During the mass, a neighborhood dog wandered in and came down the aisle, sniffed around for a bit, went up on the altar, then left. So helped ease some of the tension. The next day the family went back to the cemetery and the body was placed in its niche in the family chapel. This was the first funeral I have attended in Italy and it was interesting to see how the people approach this step in life.

Religious processions are an integral part of church life here. In the month that we have been in Cervinara, I have participated in two such events; the first for Corpus Domini and the second for the feast of Sant'Antonio da Padova.
For the feast of Corpus Domini, the church bells started ringing at 6 pm. That was the signal for all interested parties to gather at the church. As I walked down the street, I noticed that all the houses that faced the street had beautiful linens hanging from the front of the houses. Tablecloths, bed spreads, sheets....anything that was embroidered or with lace or cut work was on display. Also, many people had prepared an altar in front of their homes, in preparation for the procession that would pass by.
The procession started with a group of children with baskets of flower petals. The petals were strewn in front of the statue of Christ that was on a cart pulled by some of the young parish men. Then came the priest, under an embroidered canopy that was carried by six other men. One fellow had an elaborate umbrella that would serve as shade for the priest when he stopped by to pray in front of the various altars. The priest who led this procession was Father Antonio Raviele. He had baptized our daughter Marta back in 1982, when he was still a "student priest". He was such a handsome young man then and he hasn't changed much, except for his full head of gray hair.
There was a cantor with a microphone, and speakers were pulled along the route as well. She would sing various hymns and the people participating in the procession all sang along. Then we would stop at each altar, the priest would say special prayers, we would all give the appropriate responses, and then we would move on. At various times, women from the houses along the route would come out and scatter rose petals in front of the procession.
We wended our way up the hill to the Castello section, then turned around and started back down. This whole time, the streets were blocked and no one was able to get by in car or motorcycle. When we got back to the church, there was a service during which more hymns were sung and prayers recited. It was a lovely event, very moving and inspirational.
The following Sunday was the feast of Sant'Antonio da Padova. Once again the church bells called us to gather at 6 pm. This time however, there were also fireworks that went off in the vacant lot across the street. Children in red and white robes led the procession, and the statue of the saint was pushed along by women. These women had made a promise to Sant'Antonio that they would carry his image in every procession, in response to a prayer being answered. Only on the steepest parts of the route did they accept help with their task.
As the procession went along, songs and prayers were sung, and people came out of their homes to make an offering to the saint. As the money was accepted by one of the church members, prayer cards were given in return. The procession stopped at every home along the way, where the donations and offerings were accepted.
My favorite part of this event had no religious significance, but it was a special and funny moment. As the group arrived at the top of the hill, the children were all hot and tired and were offered paper cups of water with which to refresh themselves. A couple of the kids threw their empty cups on the ground. The cantor, a young woman of about 30, grabbed the cross from the oldest boy who was leading the group, cuffed him upside the head and told him in no uncertain terms that he should be ashamed of himself for littering and that he would go and pick up what he had thrown away, if he knew what was good for him. He obeyed, immediately, as did all the other miscreants who had littered!
This was a much longer procession and took over an hour to complete. Upon arriving at the church again, another set of fireworks went off, and then another brief service inside the church. All in all, it was another lovely event.
The 6 pm mass is an important time of day here. There are usually about 30 women who attend on a daily basis, starting with the rosary and then the mass. Don Giorgio, our regular priest, is quite elderly now and can't handle the processions, but he does preside over every mass. He has been the priest here for the 37 years that I have been coming to Italy and I can't imagine this church without him. He and his sister live right across the street from us.
One funny thing about the daily evening mass....there are three or four men who also attend and, regardless of where they are sitting in the congregation, they always are first in line for communion. It's almost like the dinner table, where the men are always served's just assumed that they will get the communion first and all the women wait for them to do so. Feminism hasn't really worked its way this far up into the hills yet!
I am starting to learn some of the prayers in Italian, but it will be awhile before I can actually actively participate in the services. It is quite a pleasant ritual, that break in the evening for some spiritual contemplation and quiet time. Even if one isn't particularly religious, taking time during the course of a busy day is important, and the church bell ringing is a reminder for us to take that time.

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