To See Truly Integrated Catholic Life, Look to Gubbio’s Festa of St. Ubaldo

Integralism is a word that gets argued over a great deal among the American Catholic Twitterati. A lot of them are still having their old dispute over the limits of the Church with regard to the State, that never-ending problem of “who’s boss” between the American Constitution and the pope. But the word “integralism,” understood in its more general, less academic sense, is one that all Catholics of our time need to think about. The question of how integrated one’s Catholicism ought to be with one’s daily life is becoming more important — especially in the age of COVID-19 lockdowns.

On the OnePeterFive podcast the other day, Catholic writer Meg Greenfield talked about a key moment in her conversion to the Faith from atheism. She said a pivotal moment was when she came to the realization that in the lives of believers, religion is not just one discrete compartment in life, like a hobby, and that people who believed were living their lives completely infused with their faith in every area of life. She talked about her surprise when she learned that their decisions and ideas on all matters, even the most mundane, were saturated with the priorities of their belief.

This is an important difference between the believing world and the unbelieving world, including within the Church. For a great many Catholics, the priorities of the World are their priorities, and the concept of a life totally infused, integrated, with the Faith is outside their experience. This is understandable among Catholics who live in first-world, Anglo nations like the U.S., Canada, and Britain — heavily secularized, post-Protestant societies in which religious practice is a kind of hobby for oddballs, harmless for the most part, as long as it’s kept under controlled limits.

Greenfield’s insight reminded me of my own conversion 20-plus years ago. I was never an atheist, but I went a very long time with the same thoughts about religion — that it was just one compartment of life, separated and isolated from all the other equally separate and isolated pigeonholes. This is how modern, atomized secular people think of their lives, like one of those cubbyhole shelves with each little cube neatly labeled: “work,” “hobby,” “family,” “friends,” “religion,” “God.”

I remember what a revelation it was to realize that a believer is that first, and all other ideas about politics, philosophy, relationships, behavior, purpose, flowed from that belief. Meg Greenfield talked about what a total change it was for her, in every part of her thinking, to start integrating Christian belief into her life and behavior. The concept is difficult to describe to a person not already experiencing it, and especially for people in secularized, industrialized, compartmentalized Anglo nations.

Everyone who has had this experience has also found out what happens next. We discover that we are in a small club, and almost no one we knew before is in there with us. We find ourselves faced immediately with conflicts with the people closest to us, with a great uncrossable gulf between us and family, coworkers, classmates, and friends. It almost always results in grievous separations. We are now Believers, and as such, we can feel as though we live in a parallel universe — one in which we sometimes wonder if the people we grew up around can even hear or see us anymore. The transition from a hobby religion to an integral faith is often paradoxically shattering.

But what few of us Anglo-Sassone [1] post-Protestant converts have ever experienced is a world in which it is not the secular cubbyhole life, but a completely integrated Catholic belief and culture that forms the background norm of society. Today someone asked me on Twitter, “Why Italy?” I didn’t have the energy to condense the real answer into 280 characters, but if I were to try, I would have to talk about my growing need for a deep and total integration of life and faith, and about the Festa of St. Ubaldo in the ancient Umbrian town of Gubbio.

The Festa dei Ceri [2] of Gubbio — held May 15, the anniversary of the saint’s entry into Heaven — is hard to describe. Like many town saint festas in Italy, it involves teams of men carrying a “machina” [3] that bears the image of the saint, in a great procession through the winding medieval streets of the town to the sound of jubilantly rung bells [4]. Or in Gubbio’s case, three saints on three “machine” [5], three wooden constructions, made in the 15th century, called “Ceri” intended to resemble candles, with small statues of St. Anthony the Abbot, St. George, and St. Ubaldo topping each in place of a flame.

Unlike other towns, in Gubbio, the saints aren’t just carried; they’re raced. The three teams of men, representing the ancient trades guilds, run through the streets carrying the Ceri full tilt in relays up the steep mountain road to finish at the Monastery of St. Ubaldo, perched high above on a rocky outcropping.

The Ceri are carried first in a mad sweeping circle of the crowd — all dressed in “team” colors — around the central piazza, always in the same order (the “race” is only symbolic) of St. Ubaldo in gold, St. George on his horse, and St. Anthony in his black abbot’s habit. The Ceri are carried to piazzas throughout town and often stop to allow people leaning out windows on the third floor of the town houses to touch them for a moment, bless themselves and ask the saints’ intercession (and to give the runners a breather).

Unlike many of these local festas, Gubbio’s is not a revival, but has been enacted every year from 1160 A.D. to 2019. So ancient and so integral to the culture and lives of Umbrians is the Festa dei Ceri that a stylized image of the three machine are depicted on the flag of the region. This is the deep, integrated Catholic life that most North American and British Catholics can experience only vicariously.

Can you imagine an entire town, about 30,000 people, celebrating a festival of their three most important saints? Huge crowds, tens of thousands, in the streets cheering, laughing, and singing? A Mass, followed by a two-hour procession in solemn array, with the rosary, joined by a thousand people? Parents holding children up to touch the statue and make the sign of the Cross, young men touching the saint’s robe to their foreheads and praying? People coming from around the country, and around the world, to return to their native town to honor the holiness, the heroic courage, of a man who lived over 800 years ago?

The crowd sighs, women weep, and men applaud as the statue of St. Ubaldo, dressed in episcopal vestments, stops a moment at the shrine of Our Lady and makes a chivalrous bow to the Queen of Heaven.

Then everyone takes a break and has lunch together. During the lunch break, the crowds filter into the restaurants — that all have a “menu di festa” for the day; everyone has the same thing for lunch — while the marching bands play for you and the Ceri are carried around so everyone can have a close look.

Then, new friends made and plenty of wine consumed, the “race” begins in earnest. The teams form up and dash insanely through the streets carrying their precious, 15 foot-tall medieval wooden candles [6] up the mountain while the crowd goes wild.


It’s worth remembering St. Ubaldo, and thinking about him, and dare I suggest praying to him, in our times, especially for our clergy and hierarchy. Sent by an elder relative for studies for the priesthood, the young Ubaldo Baldassini[7] fled his seminary over his horror at the corruption of the clergy — they kept concubines as a matter of course — and returned to his native city. He was ordained anyway, and his holiness was so obvious that the citizenry demanded he be made their bishop. He was especially known for his ability to make friends, for his kindliness and patience with everyone.

As a canon of the cathedral — where his incorrupt body is “buried” in a glass reliquary today — he refused to use his position to enrich his relatives and avoided much of the ceremony of his position. As bishop he negotiated a peace when the city was threatened with sacking and destruction in Italy’s never-ending “Guelph and Ghibelline” wars, including with the dreaded conqueror, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Upon his death in 1160, the town immediately hailed him as a saint, and he was canonized in 1192.

To this day, the town’s constitutions say, “May 15 and 16 must be characterized by a choral, solemn, and real homage to Sant’Ubaldo.” In 2020, the year of the coronavirus, the town set out its banners and strung its lights, hung its flowers and ran up the banners of its saints, and the people who live along the procession route were asked to light candles and sing the hymn of St. Ubaldo out their windows.

In the homes of the Ceri route, torches will be distributed by the Civil Protection … to be lit as a message of hope and tribute to the Patron. The delivery will be accompanied by indications for use and to make the choral gesture.”

“O light of the faith
of the Church splendor
support of every heart
Ubaldo Santo.”

[1] The Italian word — not very flattering — for anyone from an English-speaking country, with all manner of cultural connotations, most of which are accurate.

[2] “CHEh-ree”

[3] “MAH-kee-nah” — roughly, “a thing made by people.”

[4] In Gubbio, a team of men ring the bells of the Palazzo Ducale by riding them. Seriously.

[5] “MAH-kee-neh”

[6] Yes, sometimes they drop it. It gets caught by the crowd and righted again, and the “race” continues to wild applause and renewed cheers.

[7] c. 1085–1160

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