In 1948 we left Spain, crossing the Bidassoa bridge on foot while dragging our luggage to catch the train to Paris. There were still, on certain streets, slabs of wood that had been installed at the turn of the century to damped the sounds of the large wheels of the horse drawn carriages. I remember the power outages, the sporadic heat, the ration tickets. Chicken was available once a week, so Sundays were a quite a feast. Paris was somber, cold, and paralyzed by strikes.
I was nine years old when we arrived in France. I disliked the grey, empty, and lugubrious churches of Paris, especially after the magnificent light and color of those in Spain. I found the gothic statues lifeless, I missed the Andalusian virgins with tearful glass eyes draped in colorful velvet.
The post war period was difficult for France, like it was for England, where severe destitution lasted for years.
On the other hand, the defeated, Germany and Italy, devastated from the bombing campaigns, whose cities had been reduced to ash, put themselves back together at a remarkable pace.
In the spring of 1949 we went on a short trip to Italy, so my mother could visit the ruins of her past. It was a much different world than in Paris. It was pleasant outside, people were in the street, the café terraces were filled. I didn’t see any poverty.
The Vatican was one of the great victors of the war. The Church had never forgiven the House of Savoy for pulling the rug out from under them, and uniting the country under its scepter while eliminating the papal states. Lateran accords brought an end to the latent dispute but the resentment of the Church still lingered. Soon after the war, the monarchy was thrown out following a referendum. A referendum that the Church may well have influenced. For the next forty or so years, behind the façade of the Christian Democrats, the Church satisfied its enduring ambition to govern the country.
During this visit to Rome, my mother brought me to see Pope Pius XII, who she had known as a friend when he was Cardinal Pacelli. We were received in the Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Pope. He sat me on a stool beside his desk and gave me a rosary. He invited us to the canonization ceremony of Catherine Labouré the following day. Thanks to him we had the best seats. I was only nine, but I will never forget this spectacle in Saint Peter’s Basilica and the entrance of Pius XII. Silver trumpets resonated from the rostrum. The pontiff, wearing a long brocade cape and a triple crown of glimmering jewels, slowly rocked back and forth on the sedia gestatoria. The valets, all dressed in red, carried the dais covered in gold cloth while two others fanned immense ostrich plumes, probably inherited from the pharaohs.
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In France, I was put into a Christian school where I fulfilled my religious duties: mass, confession, and communion. My mother died when I was fourteen. I immersed myself, plunged deeper into religious life. I followed the offices with great detail and attention; I was strapped to my prayer book. I confessed, I prayed with zeal and enthusiasm. Then, little by little, it all began to bore me. I began to resent confession; it became an indiscretion and an unnecessary intrusion into my private person. I was quickly sent to the superior. Once a week I met with Father Carré, a large bodied Dominican who preached at Notre Dame during Lent. Our meetings were impassioned, but I don’t think he convinced me. I was sent to a monastery for a retreat; I passed the time reading nineteenth century novels.
I was also influenced by my older cousins, who were exceptionally tolerant, open-minded, and free spirited. I didn’t lose my faith, I lost religion. I stopped practicing. I began to feel lighter, free.
Photographs by Justin Creedy Smith