This is a delicious piece of Italian cinema of the Seventies, an excerpt of the episode of a famous comedy (“The New Monsters”, the remake of the extremely fortunate “The Monsters”), called “Tantum Ergo”. This episode is the more savoury, because it shows how the times have changed and how this sketch is, today, read in a completely different way that it was at the time. The lead actor is the great, late Vittorio Gassman.
The facts: a Cardinal has a car breakdown in the middle of a “borgata”, one of those heavily working-class neighbourhoods in Rome. He finds a nearby parish church. This parish is a “modern” parish, led by a “modern” priest.
The priest is holding a meeting of the “collective” (oh, those years!) of the parish, regarding the use of certain public spaces now in danger of being taken away from them to build a supermarket. In the very church, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, unbelievable things happen: loud screaming, very strong profanities, almost a row. The modern priest clearly doesn’t give a straw, so obsessed with “social justice” he is.
The Cardinal enters and when the priest, “Don Paolo Arnoldi”, introduces himself (“what is your name, my son?” asks the cardinal in a suavely threatening tone; the delicious non-verbal communication can be understood without understanding the language!) the Cardinal tells him : “I have already heard of you, my friend Paolo”, and the message is clear enough. He then sits, and listens.
Slowly, the dynamic begins to change: the Cardinal observes the mess, the screaming mob, the priest also screaming and obsessed with “votations” and “democracy”, the most unruly elements calling for violence. Annamo e menamo, says the most colourful and worst of them; this is Roman dialect for “let’s go and let’s thrash (them)”.
The Cardinal then has the word. He targets the very colourful hothead; repeats his words; then slaps him heavily in the face, pointing out that his violence hasn’t really achieved anything, and has only increased his rancor… (this episode became an extremely fortunate one and it is fair to say that still today there’s probably no Italian who doesn’t know it… )
Now fully in control, he goes on the pulpit, and things soon become rather explicit. He openly blames the obsessive search for earthly justice; the justice “of a priest who doesn’t feel the duty of carrying the sacred habit with dignity”, and points out to the necessity to focus first on heavenly rewards.
The mob is slowly persuaded. They listen in reverent silence now, as the Cardinal points out that “a church is not a place for strife and rows”, then restores some Catholic sacredness and reverence by lighting the place and having the bells sing, and the organist play.
He is now triumphing, the mob kneels, they cross themselves, even the violent boor is in tears of redemption. “Make yourselves heard up to St. Peter!”, says the Cardinal. He fully ignores the now openly angry “worker priest”, blesses the mob and goes away, the car being repaired in the meantime. The watcher clearly understands that this is a man of action, and there will be consequences for the priest.
Apart from the delightful sketch of the Italy of the Seventies, an element must be noted: in the intentions of the director, the Cardinal is the villain, and the priest the hero. This is clear from several ironic remarks (the young priest of dubious virility but unquestioning loyalty; the fake quotation from the Gospel; the in those times negatively charged authority of the Cardinal; his use of simple effect to impress the mob; his rhetoric, “manipulative” skills). In the director’s intentions the priest is the future, and the Cardinal the past still in power but destined to fade; the priest wants social justice, the Cardinal the preservation of the status quo, and so on.
The times have changed. As one Italian commenter points out,
the “working priest” has [….] in the end failed both in his aim of being a priest and in the one of being a paladin of the poor.
We see this short piece today and we understand that the “villain” was absolutely right, and the “hero” a complete ass, and a sacrilegious one to boot.
How the times have changed!
The feast of Corpus Domini (officially in English Speaking countries the “Solemnity of the Most Holy Body And Blood Of The Lord”) is a traditional Catholic solemnity instituted to celebrate the Real Presence consecrated in the Eucharist and celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, that is: tomorrow. Corpus Domini is simply the Latin for “Lord’s Body”.
The origin of the feast lies in the vision of an Augustinian Nun, Juliana of Liege. This nun had always had a special veneration for the Blessed Sacrament, desiring to be in His presence for as long as possible. According to Wikipedia:
This desire is said to have been increased by a vision of the Church under the appearance of the full moon having one dark spot, which signified the absence of such a solemnity. In 1208 she reported her first vision of Christ in which she was instructed to plead for the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi. The vision was repeated for the next 20 years but she kept it a secret. When she eventually relayed it to her confessor, he relayed it to the bishop. Juliana also petitioned the learned Dominican Hugh of St-Cher, Jacques Pantaléon (Archdeacon of Liège who later became Pope Urban IV) and Robert de Thorete, Bishop of Liège. At that time bishops could order feasts in their dioceses, so in 1246 Bishop Robert convened a synod and ordered a celebration of Corpus Christi to be held each year thereafter.
It is interesting to note that when the Church made of this a universal feast, St. Thomas Aquinas composed an ad hoc hymn, the Pange Lingua, which became one of the most famous hymns of the Church. The last two verses of the hymn gave origin to another famous hymn, the Tantum Ergo.
There is no doubt that this feast reached a high degree of popular participation in the centuries before the Heresies of Luther & Co., as proved by the lengthy controversy in Florence about whether the Corpus Domini procession should start from the newly erected Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, or rather from its traditional location of the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella. We also know that when the heresy of Calvin started to spread, particular caution had to be exercised to ensure adequate protection for the Precious Body, traditionally led in procession in a monstrance and now at risk of desecration through the heretical mob.
I also read several years ago in Germany – and have no ground to doubt – that this feast received additional impulse during the Counter-reformation, as the fact that the feast so obviously stresses the Real Presence and the miracle of Consecration made it very apt to be used as a vehicle of sound Catholic doctrine amidst the heretical impulses of those times.
The feast is not a holy day of obligation in the United Kingdom and has been moved to the following Sunday. Still, it would be good to try to go to Mass tomorrow if you can, or at least to find some time to stay in the presence of the Corpus Domini on the day of this beautiful, so intrinsically Catholic feast.