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Story of a Humble Christian by Ignazio Silone

September 20, 2018

This dramatises the (forced?) abdication of a humble hermit who was acclaimed, briefly, as Pope Celestine V, Ignazio Silone, pseudonym of Secondo Tranquilli, (born May 1, 1900, Pescina dei Marsi, Italy—died Aug. 22, 1978, Geneva), Italian novelist, short-story writer, and political leader, world famous during World War II for his powerful anti-Fascist novels.

“The Story of a Humble Christian,” a play about the moral testing — call it heroism, call it failure — of Fra Pietro Angelerio who, in the Italy of 1294, was called by the cardinals to leave his moun tain retreat, where he had shepherded a community of ascetic monks, and to become Pope Celestine V. De scribed by a contemporary as “tall of stature, robust of body, merry and lively in appearance, sweet and appealing in speech,” Fra Pietro held office for about three months. He showed himself entirely unable to deal with the worldy complexities of the church, which had become a state like any other state; yet spontane ously, as if there could be no other choice, he affirmed a need to remain faithful to the way of life he had perfected in the caves.

Convinced that power was not for him, he abdicated his office and fled to the mountains, in order to escape the harassment of his successor Boni face VIII, whom Silone portrays as a precursor of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. At the end Fra Pietro was captured, imprisoned and apparently murdered by agents of Boniface — though on this last point historians remain uncertain.

This segment of the past Silone has dramatized in a play that seems closer to a moral fable than a con ventional stage action. But apart from the problem of its adaptability to the American stage, “The Story of a Humble Christian” is an im mensely appealing and touching work. All of Silone’s best traits as a writer come through: his ear for peasant speech, his fondness for men as they learn through suffering, his ability to show human beings in the act of thinking, his sly and sardonic humor. There is a great deal of talk in this play, but it is the talk of men who use their minds and aspire to significant ends—not the chatter of those fashionably perverse creatures who today fill our stage.

What gives the play its bite and momentum are a series of rapid touches, fragments of anecdote, re vealing Silone’s characteristic voice:

A Royal Messenger comes to Fra Pietro’s cave and is told to wait, since the Heavenly Father may at this very moment be talking to the priest. The Messenger expresses surprise that God should venture to such unseemly places, to which a monk inquires tartly, “Do you think He has a fixed residence in the sky?”; and the Mes senger answers, “I don’t know, I’m not an expert in religion, you can’t know everything.”

Called to the Papacy, Fra Pietro wonders whether it is really the devil’s temptation. One of his monks replies, “God tempts no one beyond his strength,” and besides: “I heard with my own ears a peasant weeping with joy and repeating, ‘Finally, we’ll have a pope who believes in God.’”

Celestine V, tricked by a secre tary into signing a decree for a surtax on brothels (“a very ancient institution and, it seems, irre placeable,” says the secretary), is re duced to witnessing the measure of his moral helplessness, “My God, my God,” he bursts out, “what filth, what abjection, what wickedness… Why didn’t You leave me in the mountains?”

Once Fra Pietro has abdicated as Pope, popular legends arise as to the reason: “They must have treated him badly. Maybe they didn’t give him enough to eat, or else they cut his wages…. One thing is cer tain: nowadays even the job of Pope has its drawbacks.”

Hunted and weary, Fra Pietro un derstands his mission: “My sons, don’t forget: there is only good, pure and simple. There are no ‘good ends.’ … Make use of power? What a per nicious illusion. It’s power that makes use of us…. The ambition to com mand, the obsession with power is, on all levels, a form of madness. It devours the soul…. There will always be some Christians who will take Christ seriously, some absurd Christian, as Boniface likes to say.”

Silone’s preface and his afterwords document his circumstances that led to an affinity for Fra Pietro Angelario, who in 1294 found himself elected pope, only to resist the bureaucracy and the conformity to running the Church as a business or to compromise to carry out temporal power. He soon resigned, but was hunted down, and even if a key episode that could have concluded this play is omitted from the final draft, it explains the predicament a good man finds himself in as commitment to a cause clashes with realpolitik. (Silone’s biographer Stanislao Pugliese reports in his study “Bitter Spring,” that Silone claimed he found evidence that the monk was discovered with his skull crushed.)

. One may think of the abdication of another troubled pope, Benedict, recently. Silone in a preface welcomes the Vatican II reform, but that does not mean he returns to the institution the Papacy and the Vatican represent. He remains his own thinker and his own activist. As he notes near the end of his introduction (p. 32): Ingenuousness, once lost, is naturally hard to recover, and it cannot even be decently regretted. Can it be simulated? After having lived through the loss of innocence, to go back and pretend to accept a system of dogmata whose validity is no longer recognized as absolute would be to suppress reason, to violate one’s conscience, to lie to oneself and to others, to insult God. No one can ask that of us; no flattery or violence, no well-intentioned pressure, can impose that on us. Fortunately, Christ is greater than the Church.

I had to look up ‘allocution’ =  a formal speech; especially : an authoritative or hortatory address.

The author: Born into a rural family, Silone was educated in the town of his birth until he was 15, when an earthquake killed his mother and left the family in great poverty. (Only one of Silone’s five siblings survived the earthquake and childhood illness.) After drifting for a time, Silone managed to finish secondary school and in 1917 began to work with Socialist groups, becoming a leader of the antiwar movement and editor of the Roman Socialist organ Avanguardia. In 1921 he helped found the Italian Communist Party and in 1922 became the editor of the party’s paper in Trieste, Il Lavoratore (“The Worker”). He devoted all his time to foreign missions and underground organization for the party until the Fascists drove him into exile. In 1929–30 he was involved in internal debates over changes within the Communist Party, namely Stalin’s efforts to push the party toward the extreme left. Though Silone’s role in these factional disputes was ambiguous, he was suspended from the Central Committee in 1930 and expelled from the party in 1931. Silone retired from political life and, after a period of psychoanalysis, began to write.

Writing under his pseudonym to protect his family from Fascist persecution, Silone produced his first novel, Fontamara, which was published in Zürich (1930; Eng. trans., 1934). It is a realistic and compassionate story of the exploitation of peasants in a southern Italian village, brutally suppressed as they attempt to obtain their rights. Fontamara became an international sensation and was translated into 14 languages. Later novels, Pane e vino (Bread and Wine, both 1937; revised as Vino e pane, 1955) and Il seme sotto la neve (1940; The Seed Beneath the Snow, 1942), portray socialist heroes who try to help the peasants by sharing their sufferings in a Christian spirit. Pane e vino was dramatized in 1944 as Ed egli si nascose (London, And He Did Hide Himself, New York, And He Hid Himself, both 1946). Silone also wrote a powerful anti-Fascist satire, La scuola dei dittatori (1938; The School for Dictators, 1939).

After World War II Silone returned to Italy, becoming active in Italian political life as a leader of the Democratic Socialist Party. In 1950 he retired to devote himself to writing. Una manciata di more (1952; A Handful of Blackberries, 1954) and Il segreto di Luca (1956; The Secret of Luca, 1958) show Silone’s continued concern with the needs of southern Italy and the complexities of social reform. In Uscita di sicurezza (1965; Emergency Exit, 1968), Silone describes his shifts from Socialism to Communism to Christianity. A play, L’avventura d’un povero cristiano (published 1968; The Story of a Humble Christian, 1970), depicts the life of the 13th-century pope Celestine V, focussing on the conflict between the demands of the institutional church and his own spirituality.

In the 1990s, documents emerged from state archives that proved Silone had been an informant for the Italian police throughout the 1920s. These revelations led to a reappraisal of the tormented figure of Silone and of his relationship with the fascist regime, as well as to scholarly debate and several new biographies. Observers theorized that the pneumonia-related death of his younger brother Romolo in a fascist prison, where he was tortured, had led Silone to ultimately break with the police.In a number of his works Shone deliberately creates extreme situations in which a good man finds himself torn be tween the demands of action and the constraints of morality. He offers no solution, and knows that the actuality of experience is more shaded than this counterposition of absolutes might suggest. What in terests him is a fictional test case, the experience of the man who sub mits himself to this terrible problem — “the fate of a certain type of man, how a certain type of Christian fits into the machinery of the world.”

We have a friar who does conjuring tricks. Is this a rule? I knew one when I was a teenager.

Quotations:

More than elsewhere, by atavistic tradition they are refractory and distrustful, conceiving of public life as nothing but fraud, theft, and intrigue, no matter who is in power. And they are therefore profoundly sceptical of the possibility of effective democracy and laws applied equally to all. The only advantage of a democracy based on popular vote is that the vote, conscientiously used, permits the poor also to share in the intrigue.

in fundamental questions there exists, at different levels, a peasant ecumenical spirit which is more substantial and pro­found than the superficial cosmopolitanism of the guests in grand hotels.

We were, in fact, between seventeen and twenty, at an age which, despite conventional, rhetorical opinion, is the most unhappy in a man’s life, and we had to fend for ourselves, one way or another. In that period of maximum confusion, of poverty and social disorder, of betrayal unpunished crimes and every sort of illegality, the violence, bishops’ pastoral letters to the faithful went on discussing, pre­ferably, such themes use of men’s immodest dress, promiscuous bathing on the beach, new dances of exotic origin, and traditional bad language

What remains then is a Christianity without myths, reduced to its moral essence, and a great respect but very little nostalgia for what has been lost along the way. What else? After careful consideration, and in order-to omit nothing, I might also say: there remains the Pater Noster. In the Christian sense of fraternity and an instinctive devotion to the poor, there also survives, as I have said, the loyalty to socialism. I am well aware that this term is now used to mean the most odd and contradictory things; so I am forced to add that I use it in the most traditional sense: an economy in the service of man, not of the State or of any policy of power.

You priests make us homesick for the days of Nero and Diocletian. To be persecuted by those declared enemies of Christ must have been less painful.

In all his humility and simplicity, the Poor Man of Assisi seemed Christ returned to the earth. Indeed, many believed he was Christ reincarnate. What’s left now of all that immense fervour, of that teaching, so clear and so unmistakable? His relics are preserved, even some hair of his donkey’s mane, but his words . . .

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