3 March 2024

Glad you passed this way.....

On life and death and such.....

Written in January 1989, in Trevignano Romano, Italy



Not being much of a churchgoer, I find living so close to the Vatican a bit puzzling, sometimes.  You cannot really understand Italy without knowing something about the papacy and Catholicism: they contribute much to the fascination of this country.  They add, particularly, I think, to the political interest.  For example, just now there is the Cologne Revolution in the news: one hundred and sixty-three middle-European theologians have got together to tell his holiness that he should not meddle with birth control or abortion.  The Vatican, so far, has chosen to ignore it, even though the Italian press is saying it is the most serious threat to John Paul in his reign; more important therefore than the Sandinistas, Ali Ağca or Archbishop Lefebrve.....  We shall see.....


I am currently reading The Politics of the Vatican, partly because Peter Nichols (who had lived nearby in Bracciano) died last week and I have had his book on my shelf for years, but also because these questions are important.  The catholic nature of Italy is perplexing, and I wonder how much is ‘religion’ and how much is ‘national character’ and how much is ‘power politics?’


Two events occur to me that may have a bearing on this.  One was the brief reign and sudden death of Papa Luciani, Pope John Paul I.  I remember the bells ringing out on the morning of his death (September 28th, 1978) and the shock and alarm that spread amongst the people, including us, atheists and aliens.  Poor chap, only a month in office, such a nice fellow, and already gone..... buzz, buzz, buzz.....


At that time, I used to spend quite a lot of time in the Stampa Estera – the foreign journalists club, where budding international hacks (like Matt Frei) and boozy past masters rubbed shoulders.  There was an exceptional amount of rumour flying about and a far greater number of correspondents than usual were waiting at the bar for something to happen.  The body was lying in state; no-one was doing anything.


Then, suddenly, one evening the public was ushered out of the camera ardente and the doors were banged shut.  The press club emptied as the journos raced across town.  “Autopsy!”  The word was on every tongue.  But, no.  In the medieval corridors of the Vatican City a dead pope tells no tales.  No autopsy.  The jaw had flopped open and a little cosmetic bandaging was all that was needed.


But, even if it was only gossip and speculation, the pressmen were convinced that John Paul I had been ‘done in.’  Someone was wheeling and dealing behind the scenes and Papa Luciani had served his purpose.


Another event in recent Italian history that struck me was the funeral of Enrico Berlinguer (June 14th, 1984) following his death from a brain haemorrhage.  Well over a million people (perhaps a million and a half) thronged to the ceremony which was held in the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome. It was the largest ever funeral in Italian history and the biggest mass gathering there since the second world war. 

Almost a third of the population of the city of Rome attended.


Enrico Berlinguer was the Secretary of the Italian Communist party.


Antonio and his Topolino

I am also made to think by the sad condition of a friend of ours.  Yesterday we went to visit her in hospital and it wasn’t great.  She is sinking fast, worn out by a struggle against Hodgkin lymphoma (and against chemotherapy) and she is now struggling with bronchial pneumonia.  Her eyes are cloudy and her breathing shallow and rapid.  She doesn’t recognise us – at least, I don’t think she does.  She stirs from time to time and her eyes half open, but she has almost gone.  Her husband stands awkwardly by the bedside, and after a while takes the opportunity provided by our presence to go out for a cigarette.


I am not fond of hospitals at the best of times (when is that?) Visiting Amanda in St Mary’s private hospital in Bristol last Christmas was not unlike wandering about an expensive hotel, but it was still a hospital – nobody is there for fun.  This one, in Palestrina, a busy little place at the foot of the Monti Prenestini (famous still for the sixteenth century composer who bears the name of his home town), is actually quite pleasant.  It is light, and clean; the staff are friendly and efficient.


When we visited last, just before Christmas, Isabella was very weak, but she could still talk.  She sat up to eat a little and she was able to make it to the bathroom on her own.  From her bed she could see an unkempt garden, with tall pines and sunlight on the straggling grass.


This time, an old woman has been moved into the second bed in the room, propped up, unconscious.  She breathes noisily through a respirator and drains slowly into a plastic bag that protrudes from under the bed-clothes.  Her daughter hangs around.

Antonio, his mother (Anna), Hannah and Amanda in March 1992 (Sarah on the way)


We are close to Isabella’s family.  Her brother, Antonio, is one of my best friends.  I knew their father, and both Amanda and I have a warm relationship with their mother, a Sicilian who met and married an English serviceman at the end of the war.  Isabella is my age, and I have known her for a dozen years.  Her eldest son, Thomas, is eleven and shares my birthday.  His twin brothers, Edward and Richard, were three last October.


What can you do?  Does faith, or medical knowledge, prove useful in these circumstances?  She does not appear to be suffering, and I think she is just slipping away, slowly.  The family are suffering more than her, now, keeping watch, day and night, taking her agony on themselves.  She has been ill for over a year, and last summer, in an isolation unit in Rome, was possibly the worst of it for her.


But how do we account for, or cope with, such a going out at such a comparatively young age?There is so much living left to do.  If there is a God, then what is He playing at?


Or is this the kind of emotional request that religion tries to respond to?  We don’t know or understand and therefore we blame God?  



Two days have passed. Yesterday we saw the last of Isabella, her coffin manhandled and roped down into the cold gloom of her husband’s family tomb. My mind is crowded with images and ideas: the aunt waving addio into the gaping cavern, held back by Antonio as if she might be drawn in.


What can be the compensations?  That we learn how precious life is?  How important the family can be?  The Santuario della Madonna del Campo at Cave was full and while all the support couldn’t keep Isabella alive, it will allow her to live on.


Do we treasure each sunrise more because we lose a loved one?  Do we live more intensely?  I would like to think so, but in this cold morning when I see the bright face of Isabella photographed in her garden a few years back, full of who-knows-what hopes, I cannot help but feel that Fate has a cruel hand, and that there is nothing waiting for us but a hole in the overcrowded earth.


The priest who officiated at the funeral service wore fine clothes, and waddled about, his old body full of archaic well-being.  He conducted the Mass as it were any other (which, to him, it was) taking his time, wiping the chalice, raising the wafer to catch the sun, with the practised air of an old pro’.  And he flicked his ‘holy’ water this way and that, and preached as if, almost as if, he meant it.  


The mother was not there; she stayed at home with the twins.  Thomas wasn’t there; he was with his cousin.  Gianfranco, Isabella’s husband, and Antonio, stood at the back of the church, the chills of the damp foundations affecting them more than the priest.  They were not impressed; they did not participate in the Mass.


A rich cousin, in his shearling, came and went, slightly impatiently, at the door.  A nun, and some children, sang a few responses obligingly.


The apse above the altar, by the way, had a curious fresco on it.  I was quite far from it, but it might have been from the mid twentieth century: workers in their realism, even though it may have portrayed a miracle.  Labourers toiled in the fields at the edges, but in the centre some bare-backed men were lifting a stone, and a little boy was pointing.  Angels flooded toward the scene and light poured down from heaven. Under the stone was a black patch, an inkblot, a stain.


What had these people discovered?  That ecstasy lies under a stone?  That there is no point in searching?  That if you believe then even an oil slick under a rock can become the truth?


Isabella is under that slab now, and there is nothing I nor anyone can do about it.  One day our times will come, faith or no faith; rites, liturgy, scripture, or not.


When we came out of the church, however, I have just remembered there was a bird singing; a robin, clearly whistling in the evening as the lowering sun glanced off the bare limestone hillside above the road where the cars whirred by oblivious.  The birdsong was beautiful, and, despite its territorial and warning usage, it was strikingly, movingly, right.  That’s the most religious thing I have heard all day, remarked Antonio.  



By coincidence, I recently acquired a record which includes a tribute to an Irish singer, Luke Kelly, who I met many years ago in Dublin.  He was someone I admired enormously; a strong, heavy, working-class Dubliner, and his death at 43, from a brain tumour, shocked me.  The tribute, written by Mick O’Keeffe but sung by Christy Moore, is very fine, and the last lines, which today I find most fitting (and which I like to apply to my loved ones) are:

Fond memories are all we have

When we think of you today

Your name we’ll always honour – (Luke)

We’re glad you passed this way.....


That was then.....

No comments:

Post a Comment