For a traditional Italian family, there may be no pride greater than to surrender a child to the service of God, whether as a priest or a nun.
This may seem to outsiders to be an unusual situation in a modern society where selfish human relations and money dominate, but when you walk inside the walls of an old city such as Vico nel Lazio, and are cast back towards its medieval history, you can grasp a little of the history of the Church and the call it has on its people.
A history where nobles and even families of lesser ‘blood’ would give their youngest to the church. Of course, for nobles, the ambition was steeped in power, to gain a cardinal or maybe even a Pope.
The absence of a son for the several years of study and prayer are rewarded if that ‘boy’ becomes a priest and returns to society to serve and assist. Of great joy to a family must be to welcome home as a priest your erstwhile son, now a son of God, especially as a priest in his home town inside the walls of Vico nel Lazio.
This celebration occurred on Sunday 14th May when Don Mattia led his first mass inside the walls of Vico nel Lazio on returning from Rome. It was only the previous Sunday that Don Mattia was ordained by Pope Francis in St Peter’s after training in the Pontifical Major Seminary in Rome.
Now view the scene in Vico nel Lazio through the eyes and ears of a stranger when the town opened its walls and welcomed their son home to celebrate his first mass. There are many churches spotted inside and outside the walls of Vico, each with a plaque near the front door telling its history. Santa Maria is a Romanesque Benedictine church from the 13th century and is dedicated to Madonna Del Rosario (Our Lady of the Holy Rosary), and it was here Don Mattia chose to begin his stewardship of the souls of this town.
The main entrance to the church from the square is on the left-hand side. Near the front of the church just past the door stands a fine statue behind glass of Madonna in a beautifully embroidered white cloak while the main statue of Our Lady is above the ornate altar.
Apparently, Don Mattia had been a member of the Brotherhood of Madonna del Rosario since childhood and was a particularly important member on festival days due to his strength for carrying the statue in procession. However, on this day the procession from his maternal home to the main entrance at the rear of the church was in his honour.
We had arrived early on a warm spring day to find a space among the already crowded pews. Outside the local band, mostly brass and drums led by a brace of clarinets, set the scene for the welcoming ceremony. By the time the bells rang, the church was overflowing.
As I sat waiting and watching it occurred that the attendance was a statistician’s treasure trove – it seemed that the percentage of the age decades of ladies of Vico nel Lazio attending was directly related to their age bracket. For example, there must have been 80% of the town’s population of ladies aged over 80 years, a gathering of more memories of Vico and its people over the last 100 years than would otherwise be conceivable.
My choice of a seat at the end of a pew did not protect my relative youth as octogenarian ladies arrived in greater need of such positions.
The church was filled with emotional expectation when Don Mattia entered accompanied by local area priests. The choir, standing to the left of the apse, was supplemented by members of the band having completed their pre-service performance, and combined in its numbers quite young children through to men of advanced years, fulfilling the bass and baritone roles.
In the front pews were the family and representatives of authorities, while along the sides stood the men of the town, mostly appropriately dressed for the importance of the celebration.
The celebrant, Don Mattia, performed his duties of the mass with emotive dignity and apparent joy. The signs of peace were given freely and widely, and the communicants arranged themselves in queues to receive the blessing from their new priest.
The ‘birthday party’ got into full swing after the conclusion of the service when gifts were announced and given, firstly by the parishes of Vico being an icon, then from the mayor- a set with all that was needed to celebrate Mass; and from the Brotherhood, a Marian casula.
And then came the festivities, fireworks in full sun – a long lunch and cake! Welcoming, celebrating and worshipping God with a happy Italian spirit.