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Chapter Fourteen - The Procession

      ONCE EVERY YEAR, for the blessing of the village, the crucifix from above the altar was carried in procession as far as the river bank, where the river also was blessed so that it would refrain from excesses and behave decently.
     This year, as Don Camillo was thinking over the final touches to be given to the celebrations, Smilzo stopped in at the rectory.
     "The secretary of our local section," said Smilzo, "sends me to inform you that the entire section will take part in the procession complete with all its banners."
     "Convey my thanks to Secretary Peppone," replied Don Camillo. "I am only too happy to have all the men of the section present. But they must be good enough to leave their banners at home. Political banners have no place in religious processions. Those are the orders that I have received."
     Smilzo retired and very soon Peppone arrived, red in the face and with his eyes popping out of his head. "We are just as much Christians as the rest of them!" he shouted, bursting in without even knocking on the door. "In what way are we different from other people?"
     "In not taking off your hats when you come into other people's houses," said Don Camillo quietly.
     Peppone snatched his hat from his head.
     "Now you are just like any other Christian," said Don Camillo.
     "Then why can't we join the procession with our flag?" shouted Peppone. "Is it the flag of thieves and murderers?'
     "No, Comrade Peppone," Don Camillo explained, lighting his cigar. "But the flag of a party cannot be admitted. This procession is concerned with religion and not with politics."
     "Then the flags of Catholic Action should also be excluded!"
     "And why? Catholic Action is not a political party, as proved by the fact that I am its local secretary. Indeed I strongly advise you and your comrades to join it."
     Peppone jeered. "If you want to save your black soul, you had better join our party!"
     Don Camillo raised his hands. "Supposing we leave it at that," he replied, smiling. "We all stay as we are and remain friends."
     "You and I have never been friends," Peppone asserted.
     "Not even when we were in the mountains together?"
     "No! That was merely a strategic alliance. For the triumph of our arms one can make an alliance even with priests."
     "Very well," said Don Camillo calmly. "Nevertheless, if you want to join in the procession, you must leave your flag at home."
     Peppone ground his teeth. "If you think you can play the dictator, reverendo, you're making a big mistake!" he exclaimed. "Either our flag marches or there won't be any procession!"
     Don Camillo was not impressed. "He'll get over it," he said to himself. And in fact, during the three days preceding the Sunday of the blessing nothing more was said about the flag. But on Sunday, an hour before Mass, scared people began to arrive at the rectory. Early that morning, Peppone's gang had called at every house in the village with the warning that anyone who took part in the procession would do so at the risk of life and limb.
     "No one has said anything of the kind to me," replied Don Camillo. "I am therefore not interested."
     The procession was to take place immediately after Mass, and while Don Camillo was vesting for it in the sacristy he was interrupted by a group of parishioners.
     "What are we going to do?" they asked him.
     "We are going in procession," replied Don Camillo quietly.
     "But those ruffians are quite capable of throwing bombs," they objected. "In our opinion you ought to postpone the procession, give notice to the public authorities of the city and have the procession as soon as there are enough police on the spot to protect the people."
     "I see," remarked Don Camillo. "And in the meantime we might explain to the martyrs of our Faith that they made a big mistake in behaving as they did and that instead of going off to spread Christianity when it was forbidden, they should have waited quietly until they had police to protect them."
     Then Don Camillo showed his visitors the way to the door and they went off, muttering and grumbling.
     Shortly afterward a number of aged men and women entered the church. "We are coming along, Don Camillo," they said.
     "You are going straight back to your houses!" replied Don Camillo. "God will take note of your pious intentions, but this is decidedly one of those occasions when old men, old women and children should remain at home."
     A number of people lingered in front of the church, but when the sound of firing was heard in the distance (Smilzo had let off a Tommy gun into the air as a demonstration), even the group of survivors melted away. Don Camillo found the square as bare as a billiard table.
     "Are we going now, Don Camillo?" asked Christ from above the altar. "The river must be beautiful in this sunshine. I'll enjoy seeing it."
     "We're going all right," replied Don Camillo. "But I am afraid that this time I shall be the entire procession. If You can put up with that . . ."
     "Where there is Don Camillo he is sufficient in himself," said Christ, smiling.
     Don Camillo hastily put on the leather harness with the support for the foot of the cross, lifted the enormous crucifix from the altar and adjusted it in the socket. Then he sighed: "All the same, they need not have made this Cross quite so heavy."
     "You're telling Me!" replied the Lord smiling. "And I never had shoulders such as yours."
     A few moments later Don Camillo, bearing his enormous crucifix, emerged solemnly from the door of the church. The village was completely deserted; people were cowering in their houses and watching through the cracks of the shutters.
     "I must look like one of those friars who used to carry a big black cross through villages smitten by the plague," said Don Camillo to himself. Then he began a psalm in his ringing baritone, which seemed to acquire volume in the silence.
     After crossing the Square he began to walk down the main street, and here again was emptiness and silence. A small dog came out of a side street and began quietly to follow Don Camillo.
     "Go away!" muttered Don Camillo.
     "Let it alone," whispered Christ from His Cross. "Then Peppone won't be able to say that not even a dog walked in the procession."
     The street curved and then came the lane that led to the river bank. Don Camillo had no sooner turned the bend when he found the way unexpectedly obstructed. Two hundred men had collected and stood silently across it with folded arms. In front of them stood Peppone, his hands on his hips.
     Don Camillo wished he were a tank. But since he could only be Don Camillo, he advanced until he was within a yard of Peppone and then halted. Then he lifted the enormous crucifix from its socket and raised it in his hands, brandishing it as though it were a club.
     "Lord," cried Don Camillo. "Hold on tight; I am going to strike!"
     But there was no need, because the men scattered before him and the way lay open. Only Peppone, his arms akimbo and his legs wide apart, remained in the middle of the road. Don Camillo put the crucifix back in its socket and marched straight at him and Peppone moved to one side.
     "I'm not shifting myself for your sake, but for His," said Peppone, pointing to the crucifix.
     "Then take that hat off your head!" replied Don Camillo without so much as looking at him.
     Peppone pulled off his hat, and Don Camillo marched solemnly through two rows of Peppone's men.
     When he reached the river bank he stopped. "Lord," said Don Camillo in a loud voice, "if the few decent people in this filthy village could build themselves a Noah's Ark and float safely upon the waters, I would ask You to send a flood that would break down this dike and submerge the whole countryside. But as these few decent folk live in brick houses exactly like those of their rotten neighbors, and as it would not be just that the good should suffer for the sins of scoundrels like Mayor Peppone and his gang of Godless brigands, I ask You to save this countryside from the river's waters and to give it every prosperity."
      "Amen," came Peppone's voice from just behind him.
     "Amen," came the response of all the men who had followed the crucifix.
     Don Camillo set out on the return journey and when he reached the doorway of the church and turned around so that Christ might bestow a final blessing upon the distant river, he found standing before him: the small dog, Peppone, Peppone's men and every inhabitant of the village, not excluding the druggist, who was an atheist, but who felt that never in his life had he dreamed of a priest like Don Camillo, who could make even the Eternal Father quite tolerable.
     Go on to chapter fifteen, The Meeting     on the meaning of life website.


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