Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Learning from the wisdom of our literary heroes

By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published August 7, 2014

In our current cyberspace world, libraries are now located on laptops and tablets. Print books are still available, but electronic versions are rapidly finding a large audience. We can currently find books online instantaneously and read them almost as quickly as they are made available.

When I was a teenager attending the high school seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, I read the entire compendium of the Don Camillo short stories about the postwar Italian priest whose pastoral ministry was both hilarious and very interesting. The 347 short stories authored by Giovannino Guareschi were eventually arranged into eight manuscripts, and I couldn’t wait until a new English translation anthology was available. As a young man then preparing to become a priest, I found Don Camillo a real hero of some significance.

Now after more than 41 years as a priest, I still manage to find many things about that literary hero from my teenage years, Don Camillo, that remain pastorally helpful. Don Camillo served as the village priest in a northern Italian quasi-fictional town and worked there with—and more often against—Peppone, the communist mayor of the village. The conflicts between Camillo and the politician were frequent but almost never insurmountable. Peppone and Don Camillo rarely agreed upon situations, but they eventually found ways to collaborate. Always clearly implied in the stories was a respect—maybe even an affection—that these adversaries had for one another.

Don Camillo would regularly speak with the crucified Lord on the cross of his church, and even more importantly, he would listen to the wisdom that came from Christ on the crucifix. Don Camillo was a man of prayer—a hotheaded man of faith. Peppone was the elected communist mayor of the town, but in his own sly way, he never completely abandoned his Catholic faith, even as he professed his irreligious communist ideology. They were quite a pair of contradictory characters.

Church-State relations in postwar Italy were often at odds. Sometimes serious conflicts arose, but Don Camillo and Peppone managed to respect each other and find ways mutually to coexist even as they lobbed invectives at each other. One of the great blessings of the world of literature is that it can touch upon very serious matters in a tongue-in-cheek fashion.

Our cyberspace world poses many serious difficulties that the paperback world never experienced. Every event is instantaneous and provides few moments for reflection. Church and State in today’s environment are often at odds, without allowing us the ability to distance ourselves from the pressing issues and often lacking the mutual respect that Don Camillo and Peppone managed to maintain. Church and State each has its own arena of competence and responsibilities. One cannot, and should not, attempt to supplant or usurp the other’s roles.

The State cannot define or constrain the spiritual duties or the mission of the Church. But in recent times, this seems to have occurred more frequently. Catholics have an obligation to care for the poor, to provide charity to the marginalized members of society, to offer welcome to the stranger and immigrant. And our Church must be free to abide by our moral and ethical teachings in these pursuits. The Catholic Church in the United States has a long and proud heritage of educating, healing, welcoming the poor in our land and defending the human dignity of the most vulnerable, and we have done so with remarkable faithfulness and success.

Religious freedom allows us to pursue those goals according to the mandate of the Gospel and the traditions of our faith. We must be free not merely to worship privately, but publicly, to serve the common good of society.

The State must always defend and secure the rights of a highly complex society comprised of people of many different cultures and faiths and an increasing number with no professed religious faith.

The State functions best when it is not burdened with a specific religious denomination. Theocracy has never proven itself to be a very happy societal order. Whether the State is beholden to the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, or Islam or any other faith, the possibility of oppressive acts against those of other faiths is very real. It happened in 15th-century Spain against its Jewish and Muslim citizens, it happened in 19th-century Germany against its Catholic citizens, and increasingly it takes place today in nations under the influence of Islam where people can face a death sentence for choosing a faith other than Islam or be forced to convert or flee.

History provides too many examples where a State aligned with a single religion has persecuted those whose faith was different.

Don Camillo and Peppone in the quasi-fictional little world that they shared were able to negotiate most difficulties. As a young man, I was entertained by their antics; as a priest and bishop in today’s world, I wish they were both around now to guide us.