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Finding Community in the Religious Traditions of Cagli

by Sophie Harbert

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Fr. Nazzareno and another priest say prayers after mass

All of Cagli participates in Corpus Domini, a major church festival observing the 12th century miracle in which blood sprang from a piece of bread broken during the Eucharist.  Each house collects the flowers and herbs to make an infiorate, or floral arrangement.  Red and yellow flowers, herbs, and sawdust are cast over the streets of the town. People dressed as angels escort a priest carrying a chalice containing the “host” (the body of Christ).  The procession winds its way through this small Italian town, moving atop the carpet of flowers.   Father Nazzareno Bartolucci, one of the priests serving this community of 15,000, describes in detail the sea of color.  He inhales deeply as he recalls the sweet scent of flowers mingling with the pungent aroma of herbs, as if he can still smell their perfume.

The faithful of Cagli have been celebrating as a community since at least the  5th century, when St. Geronzio was murdered by bandits just two kilometers from where the town of Cagli now sits.  Ever since, people have been commemorating the event by gathering at the duomo, the town’s old cathedral, and walking together to the site where Geronzio was slain.

The duomo sits in the center of Cagli, a reminder that religion was once the center of this community.  For centuries, religion brought the people of this town together in times of birth and death, happiness and sorrow.  Religion is woven throughout the town’s history, traditions, and celebrations.  Church festivals like Corpus Domini originated in part to satisfy people’s need to mark pivotal events as a community.

Evening mass has ended.  Only a few parishioners remain inside the town’s old cathedral.  Silence echoes from the walls of the nearly empty church.  Father Nazzareno enters the first row of pews and bows his head in prayer.

Father Nazzareno, 68, is one of two priests serving the people of Cagli.  Fifty years ago, there used to be 25 priests here.   Church attendance, as well as the number of men entering the priesthood, is declining.  It is challenging for only two priests to minister to the spiritual needs of the entire town.  During a casual conversation, Father Nazzareno offers thanks for mothers who send their sons and daughters to serve the church.  His tone is lighthearted but sincere.

Father Nazzareno remarks the young people of today seem more interested in rave parties and other modern forms of entertainment than the old traditions; and jokingly adds this subject “gets his Irish up.”  But his mood quickly shifts from animated to pensive as he reflects on the loss of faith.   It is not just the younger generation staying away from the church.  Some of the older people are resentful of having been forced to go to church as children and have also stopped coming.

There is optimism amidst this shift in values. Congregations are smaller, but the people are more active, more engaged.  Father Nazzareno is beginning to see more men return to the church.  Families are attending church together.  At Easter, the two priests visit every home in Cagli to offer a blessing.  No one turns them away—no matter their faith.  The prevailing attitude is that everyone can use a blessing.

Even today, the church continues to bring the community together in times of birth and death, joy and sorrow.   Everyone comes back to church for baptisms and funerals.  Everyone comes back to church for festivals.  “Eventually,” says Father Nazzareno, “they all come back.”


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