Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, the saint from Tortona staged beautiful representations illustrating the sacred mystery of Christmas in the nineteen thirties. These displays of faith and art attracted thousands of people.
By Flavio Peloso fdp
“Should you go to Umbria, you might have the chance to go to Greccio, where I have been several times. When St. Francis returned from Palestine, still deeply impressed by all he had seen of the holy places, he wanted to bring the custom of living cribs to Italy, too. We need to go back to the days of old, the simplicity of the early crib, and good will come of it” (Scritti, V, 212).
These are the words of St. Luigi Orione (1872-1940), and it was he who, in modern times, revived the idea of the living crib which St. Francis had first staged in Greccio at Christmas time in 1223, with the help of the local population and of Giovanni Velita, the local baron. By this means the "Poor man of Assisi," and more recently the “Saint of Divine Providence,” intended to recreate the mystical atmosphere of Christmas at Bethlehem, to enable people to see with their own eyes the scene of Christ’s birth.
The resumption of the Christmas crib scenes was the fruit of Don Orione’s inventive and imaginative apostolic spirit. “We were the first to revive it, and at first it was perceived as something merely amusing, but good has come of it!” (Parola VII, 166), the saint from Tortona confided.
Some historical notes concerning the nativity scenes organized by Don Orione in the nineteen thirties help to give us an idea of those remarkable religious events, and above all, the spirit they engendered.
After the first nativity scene which was enacted at Bra (Cuneo) in 1925, and which, though successful, was designed only for local appeal, Don Orione decided to pursue the initiative in the town of Tortona, in December 1930, turning it into a great public event. Successively, many such "nativity scenes" were staged in various Italian towns.
In Tortona, posters announced that: "On 6th January there will be a procession headed by a choir of 150 Angels singing seasonal hymns, followed by Shepherds and the Three Kings. The Magi will have a great entourage of horsemen and pages in Eastern costume."
The news of this novel event was greeted enthusiastically by the citizens and spread around the whole region of Piedmont, Lombardy and Liguria. Don Orione played a personal part in the organization, displaying a mixture of strategic cunning and childlike ingenuousness. The picturesque religious performance was watched by hundreds and thousands of people who had gathered in Tortona from the surrounding area.
The Bethlehem stable was set in the courtyard behind the new shrine of Our Lady of Safe-Keeping, which was still under construction. Most of the actors in the nativity play were seminarians from the Congregation: “Very young seminarians-wrote the Corriere della Sera newspaper on 27th December 1930,- who, with great devotion, are daily engaged in carrying bricks and mortar up the scaffolding on the Shrine which Don Orione wished to have dedicated to Our Lady of Safe-Keeping.”
The nativity play was really solemn and moving. Flanked on both sides by the crowd, the procession, singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo, gathered around the crib where the act of adoration took place. Don Orione –who until then had remained unobserved among the crowd – kept for himself the act of offering the statue of the infant Jesus to be kissed by the crowd, this being the moment which crowned and embodied the whole purpose of this public event.
This religious performance was repeated four times during that Christmas season. It produced an enormous effect and enthusiastic articles in the Corriere della Sera, Gazzetta del Popolo, La Stampa, Italia and other local newspapers.
In the following year, 1931, the initiative was repeated at the request of the people. There was no end to Don Orione’s imagination and enterprise. He even submitted a request to the Royal Household "to get some camels for a few days, so as to enliven the nativity play, which is unique in Italy, and give it a truly Eastern touch" (Scritti 77, 122). Once again the performance was splendid and reverent, watched by a huge gathering of spectators. The fact that the railways offered a 50% reduction on tickets for “those coming from neighboring stations and from Turin, Milan, Genoa, Piacenza and Bologna, valid from January 5th to midnight of 8th” (Scritti 53, 129) gives an idea of the popularity of the event.
It should also be noted that: “With the offerings received we will offer a lunch for 200 poor people. (...) The meal will be served at the Dante School, and the diners will be waited on by the angels and the shepherds in the nativity play” (Scritti 89, 126). This shows Don Orione’s genius in always “combining the cultural and the charitable in his works” (Scritti 53, 39).
In 1932, the nativity play, which Don Orione presented as “a truly splendid manifestation of faith and art, unique in Italy” (Scritti 62, 36) was staged in Voghera.
The holy priest reminded those who worked on the production of the nativity play of its aim: “That by means of the Voghera nativity play, we may do some good, indeed a lot of good. That the crowds of people who come to Voghera may experience the breath of a new spirit touch their souls; something of that peace which the angels caused the shepherds to feel on that wonderful and mysterious first Christmas night. The nativity play is, and should be, the scene of a Gospel passage brought to life.” (Scritti Vb, 5-8).
The result exceeded all expectations, as was recorded in an article in the La Stampa newspaper, on 28th December 1932: “This splendid event was enormously successful, as is demonstrated by the huge crowds who journeyed from far and near, using any means available, to see the nativity play. It is estimated that more than 40,000 people watched all along the Via Emilia."
On 28th December, 1932, Il Corriere della Sera newspaper also mentioned that Don Orione, "This priest, whose name is so widely known, is a typical example of human goodness, tireless, humble, and modest (...) At the conclusion, Don Orione blessed the crowds, who were chanting songs and hymns, bestowing a sense of deep emotion and profound spirituality on the scene."
"The procession was headed by two trumpeters on horseback” – an account of the time tells us-“followed by an angel who pointed the way to the grotto, and another angel carrying the star; then came a long and colorful group of some two hundred angels. They were wearing long robes with huge wings, and singing the sweetest melodies very beautifully. Then came the shepherds, dressed accordingly; some were playing bagpipes, while others carried gifts for the Christ Child, such as cheese, doves, mushrooms, birds, lambs, sheep, and fruit, while others were driving two numerous flocks of sheep. After these simple, faithful shepherds came the Magi, who together with their entourages had followed the star from the East, in their search for the Child Jesus. A richly caparisoned group of horses and riders then passed, arousing the admiration of the public on their way to the cathedral square, where a symbolic offering of gifts took place. There was then a stop at the Town Hall, which represented Herod’s palace. Here, the procession fanned out to form a splendid and impressive sight, framed by a human river of maybe 40,000 spectators. Then, the procession set off again for the Grotto, which was at the S.Bovo Oratorio. There, Don Orione said a few words, and then blessed the crowd with the statue of the Christ Child.”
In 1933, the religious production was staged in Novi Ligure, on December 26th and January 6th. Don Orione explained to his confreres: “The Nativity play we perform is intended to rekindle religious feeling in the people, because what we see with our eyes remains more vividly etched on our minds, especially of the little ones and the people. Materially speaking, the Nativity play is like a “liability”, but an “asset” in the balance of good. It is a homily given to 30 - 50 thousand people” (Parola VI, 8).
The two events were filmed and made into a documentary by the “Luce” Film Institute.
Giuseppe Zambarbieri, then a student of San Giorgio School in Novi Ligure and later to become the Superior General, attended the performance enacted on 6th January, and he made the comment: “What an extraordinary producer of nativity plays Don Orione is!”
A similar remark was also made by Meano Caesar, the writer and playwright. “What an amazing director Don Orione is! That Piedmontese priest is a born producer. From the angel leading the procession, who held up the star to the shepherds, to Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior, I, as a humble man of the theater, had the certain impression that that extraordinary man had shared a part of his very soul with each and every one of us there. I never took my eyes off him! Even though he tried to melt into the accompanying crowd, he was easily recognizable in his shabby old coat and muddy shoes, and with that terrible old hat... but such a good fellow, so very good. And then his eyes! Just at the right moment, each one of all those taking part would catch their glint shining on them. But then, at the very end, he himself took center stage, when the enchanting procession had reached the stable, and just after the gifts had been offered. Then, although not very tall, he seemed to tower over everything, both physically and in every sense, and raising his arms, he pronounced a few words: Now, I bless you with the Baby Jesus! Then Don Orione raised the statue of the Christ Child above the bowed heads of the crowd, blessing them over and over again.” (Meano Folder, ADO).
What were the secrets and advice of Don Orione as a producer of nativity plays? Above all, he knew how to communicate the underlying idea and message of the entire performance: “The nativity play should be a sermon without words.” This aim succeeded in inspiring and producing an inner harmony among the actors, who were so diverse and unrehearsed.
"Firstly: pray, do your very utmost, without conceit or pride, to make a page of the Gospel come alive, in order to bring about some good. Secondly, whoever takes the part of an angel, a page or a shepherd, must forget that he is a seminarian, and really turn into an angel, page or shepherd; in short, he has to act his role to the very best of his ability. The Angels should keep their eyes lowered; their expressions composed, and refrain from giggling.” (Parola Vb, 5-8).
The saint firmly believed that the “modest, polite and solemn” behavior of the actors, expressed in their "fervor, great ardor and enthusiasm" (Parola Vb, 212), would communicate something holy, something of God, to the many spectators. “The procession will be formed in this order: the angels will lead, creating the first impression. The success of the nativity play largely depends on a good first impression. Then, the shepherds will follow with their flocks, and the pipers. Lastly, the cavalcade of the Magi with their entourage. There will be 200 angels.” (Parola Vb, 7-8).
Don Orione’s assessment of the event’s success, which was also shared by his faithful disciples, was based on the same criteria. “The nativity play involves a considerable expenditure of time and energy, and days of worry when we have to sacrifice our other work and duties. However, if our highest aim is its great spiritual benefit and moral value, then surely it is well worth doing that and more, over and over again. It is like preaching to 30-50 thousand people. What a wonderful effect it had on St. Stephen’s Day in Novi Ligure! How many men, who had not kissed the Child Jesus for 30 or 40 years, came to kiss it. There were more men than women. It was absolutely amazing." (Parola, 8-9).
The last great nativity play organized by Don Orione personally was at Novi Ligure in 1933. That year he left for Latin America and returned to Italy in 1937. When he got back to Italy, he was no longer able to undertake the production, although he greatly wished to do so.
On Christmas Eve 1937, he encouraged his spiritual sons to continue this public manifestation of faith, and advised them; “The Nativity play should become an institution in our Congregation, and we need to spread the practice around the world. If God grants us life, we will produce one in Milan. If I should not be here in the coming years, you will see that I will produce one in America. It would be so wonderful to process past the Cathedral of Buenos Aires! The government there is very favorable to the nativity play.” (Parola VII, 166).
The Orionine congregation have retained the tradition of nativity plays and continued organizing them everywhere. Among the more recent there have been those in Fumo (Pavia), Pescara, Bergamo, Pietra Ligure, Seregno and Messina in Italy; as well as those in Claypole (Buenos Aires) and Santiago of Chile. As Don Orione used to affirm: “A nativity play does a lot of good; it leaves an indelible mark on people’s souls” (Parola VII, 166).
You can watch a video of the nativity play performed at Novi Ligure in January 1934, please visit: http://www.suoredonorione.org/don_orione/download.php