The Soul Man
(The Remnant, August 15, 2007)"One plunges in and then sees what happens."
(Napoleon, on battles -- and motu proprio implementation)
Santa Maria Maggiore and Craveggia are two splendid towns in the Valle Vigezzo, which lies on the northeastern Alpine edge of the Italian region of Piedmont. Merely getting to these rather hidden jewels is an unadulterated delight. One boards the little trenino which departs from the central station of the charming border city of Domodossola and begins a forty minute climb to Eden, each twist and turn of its tiny track offering new and unexpectedly spectacular mountain vistas.
After being deposited in Santa Maria, the lower location, the visitor needs only five minutes to wander down the road to find the Hotel Oscella. Here, splendid rooms, a large, lovely garden and grand nineteenth century aristocratic flair are all offered to him for the paltry sum of thirty five Euros a head. From this fine hotel he can then begin his promenade throughout Santa Maria, his climb to the neighboring, much higher town of Craveggia, and his inevitable questioning as to why the communities of the Valle Vigezzo are so different from other mountain places in close proximity to them.
What would give rise to such questioning? For one thing, the very old parish church of the Assumption in Santa Maria Maggiore, which was rebuilt almost entirely in the early eighteenth century. This structure seems much larger and richer in decoration than the population and local economy of such a site would ever have warranted. Then there is the fact that a number of the local villas, especially in Craveggia, remind one more of chateaux country in the Loire than of chalets in the Italian-speaking Alps.
Luckily, these architectural mysteries were soon clarified for me by my guide, a dear friend from Gallarate, an industrial and commercial center near Milan's Malpensa Airport, quite different from the Valle Vigezzo, at least in physical appearance. Maria Grazia has a second apartment in Craveggia. This flat, given the French atmosphere of parts of the town, has an appropriately Boheme-like character. From its windows a view opens out on both the mountains as well as the innumerable and quite unique chimneys of the entire area. It is the perfect spot in which to read and meditate upon the history of the valley, its present problems, and its potential future contribution to the revival of Catholic civilization, all of which my friend has done in great and discerning detail.
Maria Grazia explained to me how the inhabitants of the region, most of whom eked out a living from cow-herding, were forced to migrate for at least part of each year to try to supplement their meager incomes. Two men who left were Giovanni Paolo Feminis (1666-1736) and Giovanni Maria Farina (1685-1766), the inventors and popularizers of what is perhaps the world's most famous fragrance: eau de cologne. Having made a fortune out of this attractive scent, Feminis in particular decided to spend a good part of his noble gains in beautifying the Valle Vigezzo, with the parish church of Santa Maria Maggiore as a special beneficiary of his largesse---hence one reason for its unusual size and wealth of adornment.
Others who departed the valley did so as chimneysweeps, their favorite destination being the Kingdom of France. In 1612 a young assistant of one of these migrants is said to have climbed up a chimney in the royal palace and then down a second unexpected passageway into another hearth, where he overhead traitors plotting the assassination of the young Louis XIII. The boy told his employer, who passed on the information to the Queen Mother. A grateful Marie de Medici and her spared son offered the chimneysweep a well-deserved reward of his choice. His noble Catholic social spirit pushed him to ask for a favor which would help his impoverished neighbors back in the Valle Vigezzo as well as himself. Would it not be possible for all those forced to abandon his homeland for work in France to do so without legal obstacles and nuisance taxes on either their labor or any products they had to sell?
Indeed it was, and this was the making of the fortune of many of the clever, courageous lads from the region, some of whom were gifted artists rather than merchants or chimneysweeps. Since these new migrants seem to have shared the altruistic spirit of their benefactor, they, too, spent a good deal of their money decorating churches and helping out others back at home. Moreover, despite maintaining their main residences in France, they retained their personal ties with the valley, constructing the above-mentioned chateaux-like villas to house them on regular visits from Paris. Some of their descendents still come to their homeland for weddings today. Some even lie in local cemeteries to await the Resurrection of the Dead and the Final Judgment.
Santa Maria Maggiore and Craveggia had no special history as resort towns until after the Second World War. It was then that ex-partisans who had hidden out in this region between 1943-1945 began to bring their families here to escape the summer heat of the Lombard plain. The Valle Vigezzo grew popular in yet wider circles. With popularity came the call for modern Change. And, as the purveyors of modern liberty repeatedly instruct us, Change's wishes must receive a favorable response. When Change moves into town all free men are obliged to hustle to fulfill his every desire.
What Change brought to the valley was the disease of soullessness. Nothing unusual about that! For, as anyone with eyes to see can readily attest, the price of Change, as defined by the high priests of modernity, is the ever more comprehensive sacrifice of all that gives life serious, fulfilling, spiritual meaning. For Change and the modern conception of freedom and progress lying behind it require commitment to what the French writer Celine called "death on the installment plan"; the encouragement of a life-long yearning for euthanasia; a self-destruction that begins with the slow but steady murder of the soul of men and the communities in which they are meant to prosper and perfect themselves.
Now, admittedly, casual day-trippers would probably not sense the growth of the tumor of soullessness in the region. Neither would unrestrained free market economists. After all, would it not seem to them that everything there is in absolutely pristine physical condition? Maria Grazia, who began summering in this zone in the 1950's, would certainly not deny that truth. Money has recently poured in as never before. Houses have been solidly restored; gardens embellished; restaurants established with finer foods and wines; events and entertainments organized on a much grander scale. Yes, the outward signs of the valley's entrepreneurial achievement are totally undeniable.
Still, its soul is dying and the real life of its communities along with it. The locals are moving to condominia outside of town; the cow herds seem to have shrink down to one symbolic beast grazing near the community center; the old Italian-Parisian families are seeking buyers for their chateaux; houses and businesses are being bought up and restored by strangers, who come here only a short time each year and who bring with them the tinsel vision which already dominates their own cities rather than the substantive seventeenth century French cultural vigor of previous part-time residents. What is being created is a place which is "all for show"; a Disneyland version of the Valle Vigezzo. The tourists to whom this caters can buy tickets to visit its outward splendor, which is untouched and even improved somewhat. What they cannot do is form the "soul" and spirit that would enable them to participate in what remains of the normal life of the valley and maintain its vitality into the future.
Surely most of us have witnessed the progress of this spiritual tumor in an otherwise healthy-looking body under other circumstances. Avila, in Spain, always came to my mind when I thought of the phenomenon in years past. The first time I saw the city of St. Theresa it was rather shabby, but throbbing nonetheless with the life of ordinary people working, praying and enjoying themselves until all hours of the night. A second trip, decades later, introduced me to an Avila which had been magnificently restored by wealthy investors from Madrid, whose rare visits left the center a residential ghost town. Trendy shops sold useless modern trinkets instead of baby clothes and curtain rods. Offices housed weird organizations playing on the city's mystical traditions, now turned into something new age like and spooky. My disappointment lessened when I heard a band playing and singing traditional Spanish music with great technical skill. It shot up when my wife pointed out to me that all the players were Chinese. The locals, as in Santa Maria Maggiore, had moved, lock, stock and barrel outside the city walls. Inside those walls lay the false promise of five star hotels and the reality of creeping spiritual decay.
Change that demands this kind of commitment to "death on the installment plan" has nothing to do with any rational acceptance of the economic realities of a new millennium. Rather, it reflects a conscious choice of a way of life based on an incomplete and therefore inhuman vision of existence; an understanding of man and society founded upon that fundamental, hideous contradiction which has taken root in the West since the time of Luther: the idea that we are building a glorious new world of freedom while we simultaneously and slavishly submit to every command of our supposedly irresistible, grasping, depraved, material nature. It is the conscious choice of this anti-spiritual weltanschauung which emboldens its proponents to depict perfectly viable societies and economies serving men and women whose healthy bodies and souls work together as though they were doomed remnants of a nostalgic romanticism; to crush them; and to replace them with their soulless alternatives. Moreover, it is the endless propaganda that has accompanied this fatalistic philosophical and political vision of "liberating" materialist Change that has broken the resistance of people who would love to preserve the souls of their cities and countries and their children, but who have nevertheless lost all sense of how to do so.
The Change Gang has behind it a five hundred year history of successfully browbeating individuals and societies into following its guidelines. Still, no one in the Valle Vigezzo or anywhere else around the globe is unalterably obliged to commit himself to the death on the installment plan that it peddles. People here and elsewhere must be taught to fight for their right to a full, human, physical and spiritual life once again. This is where the Soul Man comes onto the scene, and it was chiefly to meet him and to see what he has done that my friend Maria Grazia wanted me to come to visit the region.
I hope that forty four year old Don Alberto Secci, a native of the Valle Vigezzo, a former curate in Craveggia and now pastor of the town of Santa Maria Maggiore, forgives me for using this term from my tacky rock-n-roll past to identify him. Nevertheless, I believe that the words "Soul Man" accurately fit him. For what this energetic priest of the Archdiocese of Torino is doing is to show his parishioners the way back to the life of the spirit, both for themselves as individuals as well as for their magnificent mountain communities. Moreover, I am convinced that what he is doing is pregnant with incalculable consequences, and a model for Catholics in the United States as well as in Italy.
Don Secci has local help in his spiritual labors, and from two important sources, The closest at hand is one of the greatest pastors of the Catholic Reformation era, a man whose influence is still felt all over northern Italy: St. Charles Borromeo. A relic of this saint was given to the parish church of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Valle Vigezzo by his relative, Cardinal Federico Borromeo, on the 8th of April, 1627. Secondly, Don Secci can count on the assistance that comes from a famous sanctuary in the nearby village of Re. This is often referred to by people as the Sanctuary of the Lady of the Blood, due to the twenty day bleeding of an image of the Madonna struck by a stone hurled at this painting by a disgruntled, losing gambler in 1494. The Madonna's sanctuary is a heavily visited one. People pray at the altar where St. Charles's relic lies. Both are therefore natural weapons in the pastor's efforts to reunite his people and his community with the souls that they are losing.
But Don Secci has certainly added his own special contribution to the reinvigoration of the Valle Vigezzo's spirit. He has done so by running what is probably the only full, traditional, diocesan parish in Italy. For long before anyone began dreaming of the publication of a motu proprio, he had offered his parishioners all their Sunday and weekday masses according to the 1962 missal. And his work has borne serious and continuing fruit.
I saw this with my own eyes, on Monday, July 23rd, placing myself towards the back of the church so that I could get an idea of the response of the worshippers who were present at the morning Mass. The weekday crowd was large, mostly women, as would be normal in Italy. Everyone took an active part in the liturgy and knew the Latin responses thoroughly. A couple, obviously outsiders, came in after I did and sat in the pew behind me. "If only all masses were like this", the man commented to his wife, "then the other churches wouldn't be as empty as they are". Mass ended and a line of parishioners formed outside the sacristy to consult with the pastor. "It's like this every day", Maria Grazia informed me as we joined it.
Our turn finally came and I quickly realized that Don Secci was one of those men whom I felt as though I had known and fought alongside of all my life. Aside from his personal warmth and welcome, this was obviously due to the fact that we were clearly both on exactly the same wavelength. Here was a priest who fully understood the spirit of the traditional liturgy, who had studied the whole nefarious tale of the historical assault upon it, who was familiar with the work done by men like Michael Davies to defend and restore it, and who grasped the need to labor together with a myriad of different groups to take full advantage of the blessing given to our cause by Pope Benedict XVI's document. Here, also, was a priest who saw that the motu proprio is a new and happy "Pandora's Box", destined to awaken the Catholic population more and more to the full riches of the whole of the Tradition and the transformation of all things in Christ that that Tradition promises to men and nations who accept it. Both of us agreed that there is no way that exposure to the graces, the beauty and the historical depth of the Traditional Mass will not cause ever larger numbers of Catholics to ask questions about the entire, long-term crisis of Faith and Christendom; whence this crisis emerged; who is historically responsible for starting and then aggravating it. Both of us agreed that freedom for the Traditional Mass is but the first step towards making Catholics aware that the answers to their problems lie with the fullness of life promised by the Mystical Body--- not with that death on the installment plan hawked by the con men of modernity from Martin Luther through John Locke to the materialists of the soulless Disneyland culture robbing the Valle Vigezzo and the rest of the Christian West of their birthright.
Don Secci is a humble man, and he gave me permission to write this article about him only if I thought it would be useful to prod people to follow his example. That example is twofold. On the one hand it is an example of how to begin the task of putting men and societies back in touch with their souls: by taking Napoleon's comment about battle strategy and applying it to our own situation. For this diocesan priest and pastor of Santa Maria Maggiore just "plunged in and waited to see what would happen" when he decided to turn his parish Tridentine. He is still around to relate the tale. On the other hand, Don Secci's example is also that of a marriage of his courageous plunge with an enormously charitable spirit. He does not snarl at people for their mistakes with the liturgy, He does not drive the neophytes and the simply curious away from his church with the suspect and derisive spirit that I have all too often seen many Traditionalists display towards newcomers. Don Secci welcomes men and women whom he knows will need his guidance and may even turn away from the Truth a few times before grasping the whole of the picture that he has begun to paint for them.
The men and the products of the Valle Vigezzo have always tramped along the highway to the outside world. I want the courageous and charitable example of the Soul Man of Santa Maria Maggiore to migrate as the chimneysweeps and the artists and the inventors of the fragrances of the past centuries migrated away from this mountain hideaway. Wherever it does so spread, people will forget about prudence, plunge into the work of Tradition and simply "see what happens" in consequence. Priests will walk out to their altars one morning and just open up the pages of the 1962 missal and go. Mothers will approach their local pastors, as my wife did the other day, and inform them that their sons know how to serve the Traditional Mass whenever they are ready to take the plunge themselves. The missals will open, and without petitions to unfriendly bishops and meetings with their Buddhist-minded Worship Committees. Graces will flow. Unexpected questions about the fullness of the Faith will be asked anew. Unfounded modern dogmas will begin to be exposed for the lies that they are. Fatalistic changes will be seen to be paper tigers and pompous hoo-ha. For the spirit of the Soul Man is one that recognizes that the motu proprio has created a new starting point for the West as a whole. It is a spirit that points the way back beyond "just" the Mass to a new courage, a new charity, a new evangelization and a New Christendom in which death on the installment plan has no future role to play whatsoever.
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