It's Easter time in Rome, and there is a general election campaign in full swing: two events that sit uneasily together in a city where the Catholic church has always taken an uncomfortably strong interest in local and national politics. In fact, celebrations for Palm Sunday almost ground to a halt last week because of an unfortunate overlap between the interests of church and state.
In Italy, priests traditionally give their parishioners olive branches, rather than palms, to commemorate Christ's entry into Jerusalem - a simple question of availability since palm trees are only found on the Riviera coast and in the deep south. The problem this year is that the olive branch has also been chosen by the country's main centre-left coalition as its election symbol. At first, the coincidence was treated as a good excuse for an April Fool's joke, and indeed a clutch of parishes around Lake Como in the north received a bogus letter from the Vicar-General of Milan urging them not to become unwitting instruments of electoral propaganda.
But then clerics started taking the problem seriously. One priest from the Regina Pacis church in Forli, in central Italy, Don Michele Fusconi, hurriedly ordered some palm fronds up from the south, although he only found enough to distribute to the children. "The olive tree has become too political," he complained. Questions were even asked in the corridors of the dissolved Chamber of Deputies. "One of the most important Christian festivals is being hijacked for electoral purposes," fumed one conservative MP, Ottavio Lavaggi.
The row was eventually defused by the Vatican, which pointed out the absurdity of the whole affair. After all, priests were not exactly planning to distribute hammers and sickles. But one suspects conservative households will not be parading their olive branches in the next few weeks, much less keeping them until Lent next year, when the branches would normally be burnt to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday.
Is the Pope turning pink?
Times have changed radically, however, since the first big left-right showdown in Italy between Communists and Christian Democrats in 1948. That was the beginning of the Cold War, and Italy was perceived as a crucial geopolitical domino. President Truman invoked the struggle of "Stalinism against God" and threatened to cut off Marshall Plan aid if the Communists won. Parish priests told congregations they would go to hell if they voted the wrong way, and escorted their many illiterate parishioners into polling stations to help them put their crosses in the right place.
Now, of course, the Cold War is over, and neither the Communist Party nor the Christian Democrats exist in their original form. Indeed, there are as many Catholics on the left as there are on the right these days. Just last week, the Italian bishops' conference took a historic step by announcing that, for the first time, they weren't taking sides. Well, not officially anyway.
The church fathers have been hinting more and more strongly recently that they disapprove of Silvio Berlusconi (right), the conservative leader, whom they see as too bound up in his own media interests and not concerned enough for the welfare of the whole community. The Vatican seems to have turned pink at the edges. Now that's what I call a historic turnaround.
One way to gauge the political mood in Rome is to see where the parties have set up their headquarters in relation to the city's churches. In the past, the ever-equivocal Christian Democrats were bang next to the main Jesuit church, Il Gesu', while the Communists, who always liked to think of themselves being a world away but in fact relied on their rivals more than they cared to admit, were just around the corner in Via delle Botteghe Oscure.
Now the centre-left has set up a temporary headquarters next to the church of the Santi Apostoli, an ancient structure first built by Emperor Justinian's favourite eunuch (the centre-left being forever afraid of political castration). Lamberto Dini, the outgoing prime minister, who has set up a centrist party of his own, is working out of two separate offices (an indication he could swing either way?); one of them is just around the corner from San Lorenzo in Lucina, parish church of a one-time mentor Mr Dini would probably prefer to forget - the disgraced former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, who is now standing trial on Mafia charges.
The only party that betrays no obvious symbolism is Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia movement, which is housed in Via dell'Umilta', the street of humility - one character trait even Mr Berlusconi's worst enemies would never accuse him of.
No taste for British lamb
For most Romans, Easter is mainly about eating oneself silly. Families will have stuffed themselves with fresh spring lamb and special Easter cakes all day yesterday, and will be at it all over again today for the festival known as Pasquetta, or "little Easter". Italy is not, as a rule, a big lamb-eating country, but Easter is something else. Of the 12 million sheep eaten in Italy around the year, one quarter are consumed over the Easter weekend alone. With the local market unable to cope with demand, that means imports from Britain and New Zealand. This has caused some concern this year. All week the papers have been filled with wild rumours that mad cow disease might be spreading to sheep. The rumours don't seem to have any foundation, but, just to make sure, a few enterprising Romans have been driving out to the country to have their hand-picked Easter Sunday lunch slaughtered before their eyes. "We picked the friskiest one we could find," reported one couple, all the while clutching the mortal remains of little lambkins in four bulging plastic bags.Reuse content