As the faithful emerged from Mass last Sunday, they found billboards opposite their churches plastered with posters that read: 'Don't go to Mass on Sunday; come to us instead.' Closer inspection exonerated the usual suspects - the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Communists. One corner of the poster proclaimed: 'Ricci Casa (motto: A passion for furnishing)'. It was an attempt by a superstore owner, Enzo Ricci, to improve dismal Sunday sales figures. Mr Ricci, from nearby Bologna (motto: Bologna the rich), has certainly succeeded in raising his profile. 'This is a fine example of mindless advertising. People are furious; we have received thousands of phone calls,' thundered Monsignor Ernesto Vecchi, aide to the Bishop of Bologna.
The two cities lie in Italy's traditional Communist heartland, the region of Emilia Romagna. Now the market has rushed in where even Marxism-Leninism had feared to tread. The irony is that Mr Ricci's big competitor for the hearts and minds of Sunday shoppers is is not really the Church at all - Italians are abandoning it in droves. It is just that a leisurely morning, a family lunch and watching sport on television in the afternoon appeals far more than Sunday in the superstore. Mr Ricci insists he had nothing to do with the decision to target parish churches, and now wants to publish an advertisement in a local paper that reads: 'Go to Mass in the morning and come to us in the afternoon.' The paper refuses to get embroiled.
The businessman says he is convinced next Sunday will be a sell-out. If not, he will console himself with the knowledge that he is only the latest in a line of controversial Italian advertisers. There is, of course, Benetton, but Mr Ricci feels closest, spiritually, to a fashion success story from the Sixties. They are little known outside the country, but have become collectors' items here: Jesus Jeans (motto: Thou shalt have no other jeans than me).