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Tiny Italian Town Thumbs Its Nose At Lenten Abstinence

By Christopher Livesay | NPR
Sunday, March 16, 2014

On the first Sunday of Lent in Poggio Mirteto, a priest in the town's cathedral recalls the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

He admonishes parishioners in this hilltop hamlet just outside Vatican City to resist earthly delights during the time of penance and self-denial leading up to Easter.

"We must remember we are weak before evil, because the devil is very tricky," he says.

Just outside the doors, the warning goes unheeded as a parade of revelers passes.

The Freedom Festival

Every year, Poggio Mirteto thumbs its nose at Lenten austerity and instead celebrates the Carnevalone Liberato, or Freedom Festival, commemorating the day it shed the yoke of papal authority in 1861.

It was the same year Italy unified and became a modern nation. Until then, the town was under direct rule of the mighty Papal States.

"The town has a proud history of liberation from papal authority, even if today most of the 6,000 people who live here remain religious," says Renato Romano Renzi, Poggio Mirteto's vice mayor. "Upwards of 15,000 people from all around Italy are expected to take part in the festival."

Just as this year's celebration got underway, the whole bacchanal was dealt a heavy blow: health inspectors shut down the food stands for not labeling the wine properly, and organizers called off the festival.

"Somebody denounces us for what we do every year," says Laura Consumati, the Carnevalone Liberato's chief organizer. "This is a very troubled question, because this party is loved by us but not by all people in this little town that is very religious."

Thousands of revelers — some dressed as the pope, others as the devil — wander the medieval town aimlessly. It's the first time the event has been cancelled since fascist dictator Benito Mussolini signed the Lateran Accords with the Holy See in 1929, which established the Vatican as a sovereign city state.

The parish priest refused to comment on the cancellation of the festival, but a group of local churchgoers said they would be happy to see the event and the visitors gone for good.

Interpreting The Pope's Tolerance

Vatican watchers say such attitudes are in stark contrast with the accommodating tone of Pope Francis, who more than any pope has made welcoming gestures to non-Catholics, gays and even atheists.

"One of the things that is very, very important for Pope Francis is this whole idea of mercy, extending mercy," says Robert Mickens, a Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly The Tablet. "Friendship, befriending people, I think it is really important for him, and I think it's really sincere. I don't think, as some people have suggested, that 'Oh, he's really clever with the media.' Not at all. I think that he's the real deal on this one."

In Poggio Mirteto, anti-clerical rancor appears immune to the "Francis effect." Fabrizio Bernardi is a musician from Rome who just learned his gig was called off.

"The pope in Italy is the big power, and it's very difficult here to live free," he says.

Then, as suddenly as it was imposed, the embargo is lifted, and the Carnevalone Liberato is back on. For at least one day, these carnival-goers can remain outside the embrace of the church. Lent, it appears, will have to wait.

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