‘A saint is just a sinner who fell down and got back up again!’, yelled the gospel choir master, an American with a voice like an oak tree and a smile like a grand piano. ‘Pick yourselves up, brush yourselves off and just keep on going. Oh yeah!’. I had a mini religious conversion at that gospel concert in Villa Strozzi two weekends ago. I could see the Italians around me having a hard time getting into such a fun, enthusiastic kind of spirituality, after all, they’re used to a darker, rumbling, fire and brimstone kind of God. Original sin is like the religious equivalent of ... wearing lead boots whereas this gospel singing made me feel like someone had attached a helium balloon to my heart. Still, everyone was clapping and stamping their feet by the end.
It’s turned out to be a spiritual couple of weeks since then. After the concert came an Anglican church service on Remembrance day in Milan (no whooping and yelling there, just lots of austere English ladies singing ‘All things bright and beautiful’ led by the rather camp Father Nigel). Then on the same day was my Italian nephew’s baptism. We went from Church of England to Roman Catholic as quickly as you can say ‘Holy Ghost’.
It was a mass baptism with about eight babies all done at once. They don’t actually all get dipped in the font at the same time (can you imagine the unholy racket they’d make together?) it’s more of a production line approach with the priest wandering between the pews anointing one little scrunched up forehead after another. I was looking forward to this, my first experience of a Catholic baptism and settled in next to my mother-in-law to watch from a safe distance where no-one would notice that I don’t know all the set responses to the priest’s incomprehensible mutterings.
I’ve been in total awe of the Catholic church ever since I went to G’s great uncle’s memorial service and found myself in the middle of a sea of people all droning ‘mea culpa mea culpa’ (‘I’m to blame, I’m to blame’) and beating themselves on the chest. I feared the geriatric priest was faking near-senility and was actually hypnotising everyone. I immediately snuck to the back, sweating. It was like a scene from a zombie movie. Anyway, I always feel much more prone to thunderbolts in Catholic churches, even the church mice nod disapprovingly when you’re the only one not to bow and scrape and make the sign of the cross when you go in.
Imagine my delight then when my sister-in-law scuttled up to me two minutes before the baptism ceremony and asked me to fill in for the godmother who couldn’t make it in person.
I’ve been a godmother before, but for my great-cousin whose family are all Methodist. Methodists, unlike Catholics, are more likely to offer you a nice milky tea and some ginger biscuits rather than a sip of the blood of Christ or hell and eternal damnation. So I was a little edgy, but you don’t say no when you’re asked a favour like that.
In the end it went well. The godfather was my sister-in-law’s colleague who was there with his boyfriend, so let’s just say that if anyone was going to get a thunderbolt it wasn’t going to be me. I made the sign of the cross on the baby’s head with my thumb (after the parents and godfather so I could see how to do it exactly) and held the baby with my right hand as they dipped his head in the font. It was all pretty jolly in the end. There was an apprentice priest on the microphone assisting the production line baby dunking who bravely tried to get the congregation to join in with the hallelujahs by saying things like, ‘this hymn has some rather complex lyrics… it goes “hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah”’ and ‘well, that’s about 5% of you singing, how about the rest? Come on!’.
So all in all I’m feeling quite pleased with myself. I’ve accumulated enough religious credit to last years and I crossed my fingers during the baptism when we all had to solemnly swear to help bring the child up in the Catholic faith. There weren’t any scary ‘mea culpa’ moments and despite nearly tripping up as I walked to the font in front of the smart Milanese congregation, I was safe in the knowledge that if I fell, I could just dust myself off and keep going.