October 7th, 2010
During an early evening chat at a wine bar, the peculiar life of the stigmatist Padre Pio enters the conversation. A few months before he died, the sometimes severe priest was invited by the presiding archbishop to bless the thirteen year-olds who had just received the sacrament of Confirmation. According to the new ritual, the traditional tap on the cheek was left out, but Padre Pio believed that, for this group, it should have remained firmly in place. He gave each teenager a hearty slap across the cheek and then pronounced a condemnation: “I sense an evil spirit here!” It put fear into the group. Even fifty years later, I am told, the grown-ups in that fated Confirmation class wonder who the evil one could have been. The archbishop, of course, was not pleased with this blessing but it may have had a salutary effect: no criminals have emerged from those slapped and then lectured by one of Italy’s most popular saints.
October 23rd, 2010
The day is perfect for our parish trip to Pienza. After two hours on the highway, our bus enters enchanted Tuscany, preserved in amber thanks to many legal battles. Our guide tells us about one as we take in the panoramic view of Val d’Orcia behind the Duomo. “A millionare,” he says, spitting out the word, “wanted to build a town right in the middle of this valley. Can you imagine?” Yes, I can imagine, but Tuscany could not and the development was cancelled because it would scar the perfect lines of cypress trees and strategically placed olive groves. Now, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we will be able to see forever the way farms were laid out in the Renaissance. It will all work well so long as wine at 30 euros a bottle is still popular. In rebuilding his rather shabby birthplace (and re-naming it), Pope Pius II (1405-1464) brought in Renaissance sophistication. The Gothic cathedral was fitted out with a cool and balanced façade of arches and circles and a papal residence with inner courtyard and gardens built to face the bishop’s palace which was duly outfitted in the Renaissance style by its first resident, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia. Noon finds us awaiting the local specialty pici al ragù, a thick pasta if egg and durum wheat in a wild boar sauce. After lunch, our group descends to the restaurant’s musty cellar filled not just with wine, but with the finds of a few centuries of plowing, including ancient oil lamps and full suits of mail. In San Quirico d’Orcia, our guide praises Lombard style church but, inside, apologizes for the massive Baroque altarpiece that dwarfs the space. Pilgrims made their way through this region on the Via Francigena. At a nearby Roman spa town of Bagno Vignoni; its town square is a vast stone tank with the hot and bubbling water source in the center. Thanks to renewed interest in making the pilgrimage to Rome beginning in the 9th Century, such towns survived the Empire’s decline to provide a soothing rest for travelers from the North.