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Sunday, 2 June, 2002, 13:35 GMT 14:35 UK
Magician priest wants patron saint of magic
Magicians' mass is held once a year in Colle Don Bosco

A priest who uses magic tricks to entertain his congregation has asked the Pope to name a patron saint of conjurers, magicians, and wizards.

Don Silvio Mantelli
Don Silvio performs magic tricks for his congregation
Don Silvio Mantelli, a Salesian priest from Turin, presented a magic wand to the Pope earlier this year and asked for the title to be given to a 19th Century Italian priest - Saint Giovanni Bosco.

Don Silvio says that the Pope replied: "You'll need a lot of magic wands to change our world; but lets make a start with this one!"

He expects a favourable answer from Rome within the year.

Magic shrine

Saint Giovanni Bosco's birthplace, Colle Don Bosco lies about 40 minutes drive from the industrial city of Turin.

It was here in 1815, three months after Napoleon's army was finally defeated at Waterloo, that Giovanni Bosco - the future saint and founder of the Salesian Roman Catholic teaching and missionary order - was born.

I'm just a conjurer, I don't perform miracles

Don Silvio Mantelli
His modest family home - a two-storey farm building - still stands. It has become a place of pilgrimage. Today it's dwarfed by two nearby churches and a school.

When I arrived early on a summer Sunday, hundreds of young people dressed as clowns or magicians were performing in the forecourt of the domed church.

Some were juggling, others were performing sleight of hand tricks to an eager audience of children, still others strutted two metres tall on stilts.

The connection with Saint Giovanni Bosco is simple.

Magic with a message

As a boy Giovanni learned to walk the tightrope and do magic tricks to amuse his friends.

While he was training to become a priest he use to baffle his fellow students by making a plate of steaming pasta disappear in one house and reappear in another.

He made red or white wine flow from the same bottle at will, or produced two dozen eggs from somebody's pocket.

A Juggler performs in the church
Jugglers and magicians entertain the congregation
He quickly became a crowd puller and learned to use his magic to get his religious message across.

Following his founder's example, Don Silvio has travelled all over the world giving performances billed as the "Wizard Sales".

Once a year Don Silvio - whose professional qualities have even been recognised by the international Magicians' club called the Magic Circle in London - invites wizards, professional and amateur to a special magician's mass.

Vatican visit

They are invited to entertain the congregation with their tricks.

"In Italian the word for a wizard - 'Mago' - is ambiguous," Don Silvio told me. "You can have good wizards and bad ones, just as you have white and black magic. We are on the side of 'white' magic, you understand."

frieze of Christ with a wand
Ancient artists often portrayed Jesus with a miracle-working wand

It's not unusual to find early Christian artists of the third and fourth centuries AD depicting Jesus Christ as a magician with a wand in his hand about to perform a miracle.

Don Silvio told me his own personal favourite trick involves a magic wand. "You give a wand to a child and it breaks into pieces or turns into several wands.

"So he's amazed he can perform this sort of magic for himself. But I'm just a conjurer, I don't perform miracles."

Magicians' mass

"Another of my favourites is setting a hat on fire.

"Though you have to be careful - the other day I almost burned down a theatre!"

At midday everybody gathered in the packed church for the magicians' mass.

It's the first time during the Catholic liturgy I've seen a succession of entertainers, including a ventiloquist preacher, a trick cyclist, a juggler and a fire eater, performing in front of the altar.

Don Silvio wore ordinary priestly vestments.

Later in a nearby field, under a circus big top he had rented for the day, the priest was dressed in a black T-shirt and a conjurer's hat.

Black magic links

On stage he did conjuring tricks for 15 minutes. Then his other guests took their turn. One was Gaetane Bloom who does magic shows at the Crazy Horse nightclub in Paris.

Harry Potter books
Harry Potter has been attacked by some theologians
Some Catholic theologians have attacked the Harry Potter books for encouraging children to dabble in black magic.

One person in five in Western Europe and the United States, they say, consults "professionals of the occult" each year.

Basically the Catholic Church does not discourage families from what theologians describe as a "playful" interest in magic. As one Catholic priest put it "providing the kids don't start practicing Satanic rites in the local cemetery".

When he celebrates his annual magicians' mass next year Don Silvio hopes to announce that the Vatican has formally accepted Saint John Bosco as patron saint of the world's wizards.

So watch this space, aspiring Harry Potters.

See also:

23 May 02 | Entertainment
23 Nov 01 | South Asia
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