Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Handshake

handshakeYou may not know it but, when you shake someone’s hand, you are connecting with that person in a close and particular way and you are, as it were, touching with your own hand the embodiment and tangible representation of that person’s past.

Now I realize that the word “particular” in this opening sentence may sound, to an English speaker, vague. “Particular,” someone might say, “how so?” The response to that statement is, in many cases, something you can learn only over many years. I did a few days ago in Italy, in Farfa to be specific.

Farfa abbey courtyard
Courtyard of the Abbazia Benedittina di Santa Maria di Farfa

Farfa is not your typical tourist destination. It’s most enduring claim to fame is a monastery founded by a hermit known as Lawrence of Syria. That structure served for   years, as monasteries often do, as the principal school for the surrounding towns of Montefalcone, Salisone, and Castel San Pietro. Young children would walk over the hillsides from tFarfa streethese hamlets for miles to go to school there at the Abbazia Benedittina, to learn and, if they were lucky, to graduate from the fifth or sixth grade with what is, by modern standards, perhaps the level of eighth grade learning in the current (often too tepid) American educational system.

Fabio’s grandmother had been one of those schoolchildren, and he told me of her studying there in the very courtyard in which we were standing. The abbey chapel, still his family’s church, was also that of her family, a family which had to walk miles to church every Sunday from their countryside village as she did for her schooling. His grandfather came from another village not far away, and that selfsame grandfather was baptized as a baby near the turn of the century (nineteenth to twentieth) by Beato Placido Riccardi, O.S.B., then rector of Farfa, whose remains are on display in a glass-case reliquary in the church. He was eventually succeeded by the also beatified Ildefonso Schuster, an Italian with a Germanic name who welcomed, at first, the dawn of fascism in Italy[1] and was even

Beato
Beato Placido Riccardi O.S.B.

enthusiastic about the decision of the Italian state to invade Ethiopia, likening Mussolini to Caesar Augustus and seeing the invasion itself as an opportunity to bring the gospel to that nation.[2] (Perhaps he was unaware that Ethiopia, thanks to St. Phiip’s teaching in a chariot, is uniquely the oldest primarily Christian nation). Yet this dubiously beatified figure nonetheless did do the world the favor of writing a 447-page history of the Farfa abbey published in 1921.

Fabio’s grandfather was the personal adjutant of Rev. Schuster’s successor, working side by side with him during some of the most difficult years of the Second World War. While Schuster only eventually realized that Mussolini was not going to be a great leader and that fascism provided no real antidote to the world’s ills—the location of a concentration camp nearby the abbey may have been all the evidence he needed—his successor at the abbey proved a gentler man and, though he was never beatified, by Fabio’s account he even resisted the Nazis and Italian fascists.

Fabbio and family
Fabio and his family

Indeed, some of those held in the concentration camp escaped, in part through the agency of local folks like Fabio’s grandfather, who would give them food at night when those refugees slept in the fields. The food the Jews received and the access to the peasants’ land helped them for a time as they hid from the Nazis who were seeking to incarcerate them—particularly Jews of Serbian or Croatian descent, as Fabio recalled it—in the nearby concentration camp that marred the rolling Sabine hills, which lovingly encompass, like the great arms of God, the hamlet and abbey of Farfa.

Sabine hills
Sabine Hills

All this history, all this pain, struggle, sadness and finally joy at the destruction of the camp by the allies, with the help of those very locals, began with a mere handshake in 1979 when I met a very young version of Fabio on a bus in Rome. Now, all these years later, I visited his family homestead, his meager “fabbrica” on which is situated a modest but grand, in terms of its view, manor. I felt I had come upon the Corycian gardiner, though upgraded to modern times. There his lovely wife prepared a spectacular Italian luncheon—the primo of homemade pasta, secondo of both veal and chicken, a tasty insalata, an Italian tort for dessert, and then the treat of meeting his younger daughter, the great-granddaughter of his mother’s father, who had helped the fleeing Jews during the great war.

The next time I shake Fabio’s hand, I shall think of all this: his grandmother’s education and the courage of his grandfather, who had been baptized by Beato Placido; the slow learning curve of Father Schuster; the untold stories of the Jews who escaped; the tragic tale of those who did not. And the next time I shake your hand, I shall try to be ready to hear your story, for I learned from Fabio some 40 years ago, it all can so easily begin with a mere, but quite particular, handshake.Farfa church view 2

Farfa church

 

 

 

 

[1] Cf. e.g. http://es.catholic.net/op/articulos/61702/alfredo-ildefonso-schuster-beato.html.

[2] http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/article/25th-january-1997/14/doubts-about-schuster.

 

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