Saturday, 9 June 2007

Father Angelo's Last First Communion

One of the strangest buildings on earth is St Mary's Church in Sharjah. It's a marvellous, miraculous little place, even for those of us that don't really buy into the whole miracle thing. Built by donations from its (mostly unmoneyed) congregation, St Mary's has long been dominated by the figure of its priest, Father Angelo: a huge figure of a man who makes Giovanni Guareschi's Don Camillo look like a rank amateur.

We went today for friends' daughter Lily's First Communion, an event that would, coincidentally and ironically, be Father Angelo's Last Communion. And, to be honest, that's why I went. I've seen him in action before and it's wonderful. Now he's in his 80s, although you'd be hard put to guess that, he's about to slip away to a home for retired gentlepriests somewhere in Italy.

St Mary's is unique. A Catholic church with a touch of the Eastern tarbrush, it plays host to a strange, globalised religious eclecticism. It feels somehow a little Orthodox, its got a tiny touch of Eastern, Greek lasciviousness. And yet the choir's gospel-tinged American bible-belt singing praise-the-lord Philippino and many of the regulars are pre-Vatican Indian Christians who dress the statues, kiss the hems of their robes and stand touching the picture of Padre Pio or the robed Child of Prague, festooned in Hawaiian style flower garlands, in silent supplication. The Lebanese St. Charbel rubs shoulders with St. George, the dragon-slaying Syrian adopted by the Levant-unfriendly Brits. It's like the United Nations of Christianity in there and, just like they did when they were wearing blue helmets in Lebanon, the Irish stand around looking at the way the other fools are carrying on in wide-eyed wonderment.

And then there's Angelo himself. He's huge, bigger than his physical presence. His accent is impenetrably Italian. The last time we were in this church together was the wedding of our friends Terry and Orla. Fr. Angelo managed to marry 'Elvis' and 'Olga' in an accent so thick that I've been dining off the impersonation ever since. "Jaysuus," Father Angelo would tell us, "Jaysuus he lovva you. Jaysuus he lovva you all. He lovva me anna he lovva you. He looka downatus from heffin and he sayaa I lovva everone!"

This is the stuff.

And yet, at the same time, there's something marvellous about the man; something that makes even the most agnostic of us admire the sheer weight of belief that has shaped this church of two millenia. He believes it; the miracles, the wonder, the eucharist and the sacrament. He lives it, breathes it and is it. His passing will, somehow, make this little church in the heart of Arabia a smaller place: another last note in a sad, small threnody.

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