Sunday, March 30, 2014

La Festa di San Giuseppe – Fathers’ Day, Italy

I was walking past the castle this morning and admiring the sea, still as glass, when church bells struck the air. It can be hard to tell the difference between joyful and sorrowful church bells in Milazzo, as the tone of the campane can be quite sombre. Wondering if there was a wedding or a funeral, I looked in the direction of the ringing, and saw the church, perched on a hill, festooned with streamers. Then I remembered: it was Saint Joseph’s feast day, which is Fathers’ Day in Italy. I decided to go and see what was going on. The parish priest was outside meeting and greeting in the sunshine. A couple of youths were selling raffle tickets at a table. Churchgoers arrived and stayed outside chatting, enjoying the beautiful morning. Inside was no less sociable. Most people approached a statue of Saint Joseph with his son to touch the statue and say a few prayers before taking a seat. Both the statue and the altar to the left were bedecked in yellow roses and white lilies, brightening the sixteenth century church with its gloomy frescoes. It wasn’t big, just ten pews left and right, but this gave a cosy feel to the atmosphere as the faithful came in. Some, regulars, had their favourite pew, like one glamorous elderly lady who stepped out of her pew on the right because it was occupied. She and her less glamorous friend chose a pew a few rows back on the left, but kept their eye on the old favourite pew, and moved across as soon as it became free. I was thus able to admire her camel coat, stockinged feet and elegant black high heels, her black designer glasses, freshly dyed and groomed dark hair and pearl earrings. She stood out among the more humble beige top coats, tracksuits and grey heads of the rest of the congregation. Not all of them were there for the mass and, once they’d said their prayers and saluted the statue, they made their way down the aisle, greeting friends along the way. One old man came back for the beanie hat he’d left on the pew in front of mine, and told the old fellow sitting there, “Gianni PatanĂ© is on his way!” Great excitement. A grandfather came in carrying his grandchild, who was brought up to meet the saint for a blessing. A pleasant murmur from the priest greeting his flock came in from outside. Enzo, an old hunchback who never misses a feast day, appeared at the front, by the sacristy door, ready to tug on the bell cord to announce the beginning of mass. “Not yet,” whispered the priest, seeing how eager Enzo was to get going. The organ struck a few tentative chords. Enzo pulled his jumper down over his pot belly, tense with importance. The two church bells, an unsettling semi-tone apart, struck the air with increasing ferocity. The best moment: as I left I glanced up at the campanile. To my surprise, there was a man in each bell-tower, striking the bell for all he was worth! It wasn’t very high, so I could clearly see the concentration on each man’s face, and the swift movement of their arms. How much elbow-grease did that take?