The Little World of Don Camillo
Back in the early Seventies I began to purchase and read paperbacks that had been published in the Fifties. These were accounts of the amusing fictional adventures of an Italian priest Don Camillo Tarocci, in a small Italian village in post-war Italy. Don Camillo is devout, he likes to have conversations with Christ on the Cross. He is also tough. He doesn’t mind using his fists to help his prayers right a wrong if necessary. His arch enemy in the village is the Communist mayor of the village, Peppone. Peppone and Don Camillo fought together with the partisans during the war, and even though they are adversaries, they have a wry respect for each other, with Don Camillo realizing that Peppone, Communist blather aside, usually is trying to do good for the village, and Peppone respecting Don Camillo as a man, and still being enough of a Catholic to appreciate Don Camillo’s role as the voice of the Church in the village. The village in which they live is populated by unforgettable characters, and the stories are filled with the Catholic Faith and sharp satires on modern times and unchanging human nature.
The author of the Don Camillo stories is the late Giovanni Guareschi who has given all Catholics a gift for the ages in the charming Don Camillo stories. Here is a list of the Don Camillo books which have been translated into English. I heartily recommend them all.
“THE PARTY delegate was one of those gloomy tight-lipped persons who seem to have been just made for wearing a red scarf round the neck and a tommy-gun slung from one shoulder. The reason for his visit to the village was to galvanize and activate the local section of the Party. He made endless speeches to the cell leaders, for when these gloomy, tight-lipped fellows start talking politics they are very long-winded. He stayed three whole days, and on the morning of the third day, when he had finished laying down the latest Party line, he said to Peppone:
“On Saturday you’re to call a meeting of the village Council and announce that you’re resigning from the post of Mayor.
“Have I done so badly?” stammered Peppone.
“No, Comrade; you’ve done so well that you’re to be promoted. You’re to run for Parliament on the People’s Front program.”
“Me run for Parliament?”
“Yes, that’s what I said.”
“But I haven’t any education . . .”
“You know how to obey, Comrade, don’t you? All a deputy to Parliament needs to know is how to obey Party orders. And you’re sure to attract votes. You’re known all over the province for the way you hustle round and get things done.”
Peppone threw out his arms.
“But what about my own village?”
“Do you care more for the community than for Communism?”
Peppone bowed his head.
“Of course you’ll have to make some campaign speeches. But we’ll send you those, don’t worry. You can just learn them by heart.”
While the delegate was giving him further instructions as to how to conduct his campaign, Smilzo burst breathlessly into the room.
“The stuff from America is here!” he shouted. “I mean the foodstuff. There are posters up to announce that the needy can call at the presbytery for relief parcels. Spaghetti, tinned milk, preserves, butter and sugar. The posters have created quite a sensation.”
“What’s the exact wording of the announcement?” the delegate asked him.
“The fatherly heart of His Holiness . . . etc. . . . etc. „ . . parcels which all the needy are entitled to receive upon application to the parish priest, Don Camillo . . . etc. . . . etc. . . .”
“All the needy, did you say.”
“Yes, all of them, without distinction.”
Peppone clenched his fists.
“I knew that devil was cooking up something,” he said. “They speculate in human misery, the filthy cowards. We’ll have to deal with it somehow.”
“Yes, Comrade, deal with it!” the delegate ordered. “Call a meeting of the cell leaders.”
When the cell leaders had hastened to answer the call, Peppone told them of the latest reactionary maneuver.
“Within half an hour the comrades must hear that if one of them accepts so much as a safety-pin, I’ll strangle him for it. Smilzo, you stand guard in front of the presbytery. Keep your eyes peeled every minute and take down the names of all those who go to pick up parcels.”
“Well spoken,” the delegate said approvingly. “A case like this requires decisive action.”
All day long there was a line in front of the presbytery. The priest was jubilant, because the parcels were plentiful and well filled and people were happy to get them.
“Tell me if the so-called People’s Party gives you anything better,” he said laughing.
“They give nothing but tall talk,” everyone answered.
Some of the Reds were needy enough, but they didn’t come. This was the only fly in the priest’s ointment, because he had prepared a special homily for their benefit. “You haven’t any right to this, since you have Stalin to look after you. But take a parcel just the same, Comrade, and here’s luck to you!” When none of the Reds put in an appearance and the priest was told that Smilzo was standing behind a bush, taking down the name of everyone that went away with a parcel, he realized that he would have to keep his homily to himself. By six o’clock in the evening all the “regular” needy had been taken care of and there were left only the parcels meant for “special cases.” Don Camillo went into the church to talk to the Lord.
“See here, Lord, what do You think of that?”
“I see, Don Camillo, and I must admit I find it touching. Those people are just as poor as the rest, but they’re putting Party loyalty above their hunger. And so Don Camillo has lost a chance to deliver some sarcastic remarks at their expense.”
Don Camillo lowered his head.
“Christian charity doesn’t mean giving the crumbs from your table to the poor; it means dividing with them something that you need yourself. When Saint Martin divided his cloak with a beggar, that was Christian charity. And even when you share your last crust of bread with a beggar, you mustn’t behave as if you were throwing a bone to a dog. You must give humbly, and thank him for allowing you to have a part in his hunger. To-day you simply aped the part of an altruist and the crumbs you distributed were from someone else’s table. You had no merit. And instead of being humble, you had poison in your heart.”
Don Camillo shook his head. “Lord,” he whispered, “just send some of those poor Reds to me. I won’t say a thing. I don’t think I’d really have said anything before, either. You’d have shown me the light before I could say it.”
Then he went back to the presbytery and waited. After an hour had gone by, he closed the door and the front window. But after another hour he heard a knock at the door. The priest ran to open it, and there was Straziami, one of Peppone’s most loyal followers, looking just as frowning and glum as ever. He stood silently at the entrance for a moment and then said:
“I don’t think any better of you and your friends, and I intend to vote as I please. So don’t pretend I misled you.” The priest barely nodded. Then he took one of the remaining parcels out of the cupboard and handed it to him. Straziami took it and tucked it away under his coat.
“Tell me the truth, Father,” he said ironically. “You might very well make a good joke out of the sight of Comrade Straziami sneaking in for a relief parcel from America.”
“Go out through the garden,” was all the priest said in reply, and he lit the butt of his cigar.
Peppone and the Party delegate were having supper when Smilzo came to report.
“It’s quarter past eight, and the priest has gone to bed.”
“Is everything in good order?” asked Peppone.
“On the whole, yes,” Smilzo said with some hesitation.
“Speak up, Comrade,” said the delegate harshly. “Tell us the entire story.”
“Well, all day long there was just the usual crowd, and I got all the names. Then just a quarter of an hour ago, a latecomer went into the rectory and it was too dark for me to see who he was.”
Peppone clenched his fists.
“Out with it, Smilzo! Who was he?”
“It looked like one of our people to me . . .”
“It looked like Straziami. But I can’t swear to it.”
They finished their supper in silence, and then the delegate stood up. “Let’s investigate,” he said. “Such things need prompt attention.”
Straziami’s little boy was pale and thin, with big eyes and hair that tumbled over his forehead. Small for his age, he looked a lot and said little. Now he sat at the kitchen table and stared with wide-open eyes at his father, who was glumly opening a jar of fruit.
“That’s for dessert,” said his mother. “First have your spaghetti and tinned milk.”
She brought the bowl to the table and stirred its steaming contents, while Straziami went to sit down by the wall, between the fireplace and the cupboard. From this vantage-point he gazed with a kind of wonder at his son, whose eyes roved in bewilderment from his mother’s hands to the jar of fruit and then to the tin of milk on the table.
“Aren’t you coming to supper?” the woman said to Straziami.
“I don’t want anything to eat,” he mumbled.
She sat down opposite the boy and was just about to fill his plate with spaghetti when Peppone and the Party delegate threw open the door. The delegate looked at the spaghetti and examined the label on the milk and the jar of fruit.
“Where did you get this stuff?” he said harshly to Straziami, who had risen hesitatingly to his feet.
He waited in vain for an answer. Then he calmly gathered the four corners of the table cloth into his hand, picked it up and threw it out of the window. The little boy trembled, holding both hands in front of his mouth and staring at the delegate with terror. The woman had taken refuge against the wall and Straziami stood in the middle of the room with his arms hanging at his sides, as if he had been turned into stone. The delegate closed the window, walked over to Straziami and struck him across the face. A thread of blood trickled out of one corner of Straziami’s mouth, but he did not move. The delegate went to the door and then turned round to say:
“That’s Communism for you, Comrade. And if you don’t like it, you can leave it.”
His voice aroused Peppone, who had been gaping from one corner of the room as if the whole thing were a dream. They walked away in silence through the dark countryside and Peppone could hardly wait to get home. In front of the inn the delegate held out his hand.
“I’m leaving at five o’clock tomorrow morning,” he said. “You’ve got everything straight, haven’t you? On Saturday you resign and put Brusco in your place. You’re to make your first speech at Castellino, and tomorrow you’ll receive the main body of the text. You can insert references to local conditions in the blank spaces. Good night, Comrade.”
Peppone went straight to Smilzo’s.
“I’ll beat him up,” he said to himself, but when he reached the door he hesitated and retraced his steps. He found himself in front of the presbytery, but there he did not linger either.
“That’s Communism for you, Comrade. And if you don’t like it, you can leave it.” The delegate’s words were imprinted on his mind. At home he found his own son still awake in his crib, smiling and holding out his arms.
“Go to sleep,” Peppone said brusquely. He spoke in so harsh and threatening a voice that no one, not even he himself, could have suspected that he was thinking of the wide-open eyes of Straziami’s son.
In the room at the inn the Party delegate’s mind was quite empty. He was fast asleep, satisfied with both himself and his Communism. But there was still a frown on his face, because Communists are on duty even when they are sleeping.”