CATANIA, Italy – The mother had everything prepared for baptism. She dressed her baby Antonio in a handmade satin costume with tails and a matching cream-colored top hat glittering with rhinestones. She hired the photographers and bought the baby a golden cross. She booked a big buffet lunch for the whole clan at the Copacabana.
But as the parish priest of the Sicilian city of Catania performed the usual liturgy, calling on the family to renounce Satan and pouring holy water over the squirming baby’s head, an important part of the ritual disappeared.
There was no godfather.
“It’s not good,” said Agata Peri, 68, the great-grandmother of little Antonio. “I certainly didn’t make that decision.”
The church did. This October weekend, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Catania enacted a three-year ban on the ancient tradition of naming godparents at baptisms and baptisms. Church officials argue that the once essential figure in a child’s Catholic education has lost all spiritual significance. Instead, they say, it has become a networking opportunity for families looking to improve their fortunes, secure endowments of gold necklaces and make beneficial connections, sometimes with local power brokers who have dozens of referrals.
Divine parenthood, according to church officials, had fallen to earth as a secular custom between relatives or neighbors – many lack faith or lived in sin, and was now just a simple method of bonding family.
And sometimes links with the crowd too.
Italian prosecutors have followed the baptisms to determine how underworld bosses spread their influence, and the widows in the crowd in court have kept their most venomous spite for “the real Judas” who betray the baptismal bond. It’s a transgression most associated with, well, “The Godfather,” particularly the baptism scene when Michael Corleone renounces Satan in church as his henchmen strike down all his enemies.
But church officials warn that secularization has more than anything led them to expel godparents, a Sicilian thing that has lasted for 2000 years, or at least from the risky early days of the church, when sponsors known to the bishops vouched for converts to prevent pagan infiltration.
âIt’s an experience,â said Mgr. Salvatore Genchi, the Vicar General of Catania, as he held a copy of the ban in his office behind the city’s basilica. A godfather of at least 15 godchildren, the Bishop said he was well qualified for the role, but he estimated that 99% of the godparents in the diocese were not.
The break would give the church some time to send Catania back to Catholic school, but Bishop Genchi was not optimistic about its continuation. âIt seems very difficult to me,â he said, âthat we can turn around.
In 2014, Archbishop Giuseppe Fiorini Morosini of Reggio Calabria, where the Ndrangheta crowd is rooted, proposed a 10-year stop on the godfathers, arguing in a letter to Pope Francis that a secular society had spiritually emptied the figure. This, he said, also made him ripe for exploitation by mobsters.
Archbishop Morosini said a senior Vatican official Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, who is currently on trial at the Vatican for money laundering, responded that all bishops in Calabria must agree before going forward. They do not have.
But Archbishop Morosini said he kept raising the issue with Francis, who “was very attentive” to this, and, at a meeting in May, told him: “Every once I see you, I remember the godfather problem. “
Reverend Angelo Alfio Mangano, of the Church of Saint Mary of Ognina in Catania, welcomed the ban, especially because it allowed him to rest from spiritually dubious figures using “threats against the parish priest “to pressure him and others to name them godfather.
Sometimes, he said, the position has been used for social blackmail and usury, but most of the time it has become a method of upholding the well-established ritual kinship culture in Sicily.
“It creates a stronger bond between families,” said Nino Sicali, 68, as he was cutting a swordfish with a machete at the Catania fish market. When he became a godfather, he said, he returned the favor by making his godson’s father a “comparator” – or co-father – with his own children. Over the years, Mr Sicali has said he is obligated to help his struggles compare financially. “He died in me in front of 12,000 euros,” he said.
Some families were looking for sponsors who opened doors.
Salvatore Cuffaro, a former president of Sicily, said he did not have many baptismal godchildren, “about 20”, accepting only about 5% of requests. He was wanted, he said, for his âChristian principles,â demonstrated over decades of political life.
“Despite what some priests think, I took care of all my baptismal godchildren” and asked them to go to Catholic school, he said.
Mr. Cuffaro, nicknamed “Kiss Kiss” for his tendency to kiss everyone, served nearly five years in prison for helping alert a Mafia boss that he was being wiretapped. He denied these accusations and denied that a mobster ever served as a godfather to anyone on the island.
“At least in Sicily, where I lived, it doesn’t exist,” he said. âIt’s just a religious bond; there are no links of illegality.
He feared that by getting rid of the tradition, the church would “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
Parents baptizing their children in churches in Catania on the ban’s first Sunday were also dismayed at the loss of a beloved tradition.
“It’s shocking,” said Jalissa Testa, 21, who celebrated her son’s baptism at the Basilica in Catania by dancing as her husband serenaded a crowd of women waving white towels. âIn our hearts we know, and they will know, that he has a godfather. “
Marco Calderone carried his 6-month-old son, Giuseppe, past a newspaper clipping on the wall of the Church of St. Mary in Ognina, which read âBaptisms and Baptisms: Stop for Godfathers and Godmothersâ.
“For them it could be done away with,” Calderone said. “Not for us.”
Then the family posed on the steps of the church and the family photographer (âSee the necklace on that baby?â The photographer said) called for the godfather to join us.
âSalvo,â Mr. Calderone shouted, motioning for the unofficial godfather to join them.
Even the family who received a special dispensation to have a godfather because a death in the family delayed their previously scheduled baptism were upset by the rule.
“I don’t understand why the church is doing this,” said Ivan Arena, 29, who may be Catania’s last godfather, after the baptism of his nephew, who was dressed in a powder blue three-piece suit and a white coppola. cap. âI am for the old traditions.
After this ceremony, the priest turned to the family on the other side of the central nave. The women sparkled with sequins, and the men wore monastic mules – short in front, long behind, shaved around the ears. They did not receive such an allowance.
“What a difference it makes,” said proud father Nicola Sparti, 24, who described his job as “a little of this, a little of that”. (âRuns away from the riflemen on a motorbike,â a recent newspaper article read about him.) âOne day the godfather is there and the next day he’s gone. But a father is forever.
Mr Sparti and his wife then traveled to the nearby town of Aci Trezza for a photoshoot in front of the three majestic sea rocks that, according to legend, the Cyclops raised against fleeing Odysseus. They put Antonio in a remote controlled miniature white Mercedes and cheered as he cruised the harbor.
Above them, the Reverend Giovanni Mammino, Vicar General of the city, came out of the Church of Saint John the Baptist after having celebrated a baptism. His diocese required forms from sponsors swearing they were believers and not members of the Mafia. Unlike Catania, he said, his diocese had taken a middle path, authorizing godparents, but without requiring them.
Now people cross the border of Catania for baptisms.
âThey keep coming here to get sponsors,â he said.
The Sparti family, however, had played by the rules and had only come for lunch. They made their way to nearby Copacabana where they celebrated with plates full of pistachio pasta, cakes, gifts and generations of parents and godparents.
Alfio Motta, 22, Antonio’s uncle, watched everything from the DJ’s console, thinking about what could have been.
âI feel like the godfather,â he said. “Even though I don’t have the title.”