In Medieval Europe, the “goliards” were a class of clergy who roamed from town to town singing ribald Latin verse, living a debaucherous lifestyle steeped in the pleasures of the flesh, and amusing themselves by staging blasphemous versions of the Church’s sacred rites.
Ostensibly there was a serious edge to the satires, as the goliards saw themselves lampooning the corruption and double standards of Medieval clergy. Often, however, one has the impression that shocking people’s sensibilities was an end in itself.
Many goliards were second or third sons of land-owning families who stood to inherit nothing under the Medieval system of primogeniture, in which everything went to the first-born son in order to hold estates together, and so they were shipped off to monasteries or seminaries, even though they had little interest in the faith.
They received exceptional educations by Medieval standards, but rarely found work – in part because they had no interest in serving as pastors or confessors, and in part because even if they did, there was a chronic surfeit of people running around with theology degrees.
In other words, they were the classic illustration in their day of a bunch of people with far too much time on their hands.
A story out of Italy in mid-April suggests that the goliards are back in business, because it turns out that one of the most beautiful Catholic churches in the Emilia-Romagna region, the Church of San Genesio, which stands in a field outside the hamlet of Vigoleno, has been repeatedly hijacked to stage grotesque parodies of the sacraments.
According to local reports, 64 people have been charged with a criminal offense under Italian law for “offenses to a religious confession through contempt.” Specifically, the accusation holds that between 2013 and 2015, they organized fake marriage ceremonies and baptisms at the church, which involved, among other things:
- Parodies of Catholic liturgical vestments
- Pieces of salami in place of the consecrated Eucharistic host
- A toilet brush in place of the aspergillum to dispense “holy water”
A commander in the Italian carabinieri, or military police, carried out the investigation, and all 64 people – reportedly between 20 and 35 years old – have been released pending arraignment.
Reportedly, the investigation got underway after a parishioner at San Genesio discovered images of the fake ceremonies on social media, including a fairly extensive collection of photos. Police were able to identify pretty much everyone involved on the basis of those posts.
It would seem there was precious little effort to hide what was going on, since invitations were distributed well in advance via text messages on mobile phones and closed groups on Facebook.
According to reports in the local media, the group would get together for a drink in a nearby bar, then head off to the church to stage their event. The “priest” who led the rite would arrive on the back of a pick-up truck, wearing a set of horns and dispensing “holy water” using the toilet brush.
Those images, too, were posted on Facebook.
(As a footnote, it’s interesting how similar social conditions in Italy today are to those that bred the original goliards. Then as now, il bel paese had a glut of over-educated, under-employed young people, with a youth unemployment rate hovering around 40 percent. Granted, their degrees for the most part aren’t in theology anymore, but other than that the situation is strikingly similar.)
Of course, most Catholics will be rightly appalled about the overt blasphemy involved in all this, especially the bit about the salami slices, since reverence for the Eucharist is one of the deepest strands of Catholic DNA.
Still, if hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue, perhaps blasphemy is the tribute unbelief gives to faith.
Maybe some enterprising Italian pastor skilled in youth ministry can reach out to these neo-goliards to suggest that however much fun they may have had with their pseudo-liturgies, if they actually understood what’s involved in the real deal, they might just find it infinitely more satisfying.