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Curious Things Catholics Do: Passion Play

Did you say Easter Parade?

Easter is the holiest moment of the year for Catholics. Nobody wants to admit that Christmas is probably more fun, definitely more commercial and undoubtedly more popular. But Easter is the holiest thing. Personally, I am more prone to celebrating a birth rather than a death, even if it implies resurrection. But that is just my humble and very secular opinion. Here in Canada we got a long weekend, and everybody enjoyed a small taste of Spring. So on Good Friday the parents of a classmate of my son found themselves in the middle of the procession representing the Passion Play.

They were told there was an Easter Parade, so they expected something like Santa’s Parade, but with bunnies and chocolate eggs. Instead, they got crosses, fake blood, litanies, centurions and… a lot of Italians.

Italian Carabiniere during procession
Italian Carabiniere during Good Friday procession

They told me they were really puzzled because they had no idea of what was going on. Then they remembered having seen something similar in “The Godfather Part 2”. Also, since they are Jews, they jokingly thought it would have been better to leave as their people don’t really have a good role in the play. This conversation made me think about two things: 1) “The Godfather” is still used to understand Italian traditions 2) There are people not knowing about Good Friday procession. And that, for someone born and raised in Italy, is a fascinating point of view.

Good Friday in Little Italy

We also found ourselves in the middle of the same procession. We were going back home after a morning at the park when we started noticing a surreal silence on Dundas Street (the traffic was diverted), and then people waiting on sidewalks and everyone speaking Italian. The procession was massive: hundreds of people, priests, nuns, a bishop, statues, ancient Romans, banners, authorities, all kinds of Italian militaries, veiled women, children, several Jesus and even a mini-performance of mean centurions:

It all looked familiar to me, it was just like home but 7.000 km from there. To my laically raised 4 years old son though, it must have been quite of a curious show. He kept asking me all kinds of questions: “mom, who is that guy carrying a big log? what is that statue? why are those people mistreating the guy? why is that lady crying?” and I tried to explain him that they were just pretending to do these things, like in a play. If you are born and raised in Italy, you are just used to these things. Watching it from far away makes you consider everything from a different perspective. If you haven’t been exposed to it all your life, it might look weird and honestly a little creepy.

Good Friday in Italy

Something that still gives me goosebumps is a part of Good Friday in my hometown, Tolentino, in Le Marche region. There the procession happens during the evening, generally around 9 pm (and yes, kids are allowed to stay up till late to watch it). Among the statues, cross-carrying Jesus, weeping Mary, veiled women etc. there is a confraternity called Sacconi. It’s a confraternity like many others: they meet to pray, do charity, participate to processions, do things confraternities do. The distinctive trait is that the members must not reveal their identity: for this reason they wear a white hood over their white tunic. During the Good Friday procession they carry the symbols of the passion: the cross, the crown of thorns, the nails, the hammer, the sign “INRI” and a skull. I’m not including any image because of copyright but please do take a look at the great work the photographer Roberto Dell’Orso had done in their official website. Now imagine me as a little girl: holding my grandmother’s hand, the dark streets, the smell of incense, the silent crowd. The procession halts and one of these hooded men stops just in front of me. He carries the skull. He turns to me and says “Ciao Elena”. I almost fainted. My mom says that man might have been my great-grandfather, but we never really knew.

Another interesting Good Friday ritual is held in Caldarola, a small and beautiful village not far from Tolentino. On Good Friday all the lights in the medieval village are replaced by torches, the procession climbs the windy little streets up to the top of the hill, incense smell surrounds everything,  echoing litanies and… Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond broadcasted from every house of the village. I’m serious. Pink Floyd is the soundtrack of the procession. We probably have to thank some illuminated priest who agreed to use “the music of the devil” but believe me when I say the result is gorgeous.

So when we found ourselves in the middle of the procession some 7.000 km from Italy, we couldn’t help but being curious about it. Because it is something so peculiar that even if you’re a very secular grown up, it still amazes you. Luckily, there were no Sacconi in Toronto.

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