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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. This week, Jorge Mario Bergoglio marked a year in office as the first Pope from Latin America. He took the name Francis, and focused on a common touch that's helped change the image of the Catholic Church. But Pope Francis's charm offensive hasn't convinced everyone. In one small town just outside Vatican City, a proud history of anti-clericalism is celebrated around this time every year. Christopher Livesay reports on the Festival of Freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: It's the first Sunday of Lent in the hilltop hamlet of Poggio Mirteto.

CONGREGATION: (Singing in foreign language)

LIVESAY: Inside the town cathedral, the priest recalls the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and admonishes parishioners to resist earthly delights during the time of penance and self-denial leading up to Easter.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Italian spoken)

LIVESAY: We must remember we are weak before evil because the devil is very tricky, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECITING MASS)

LIVESAY: Just outside these doors, the warning goes unheeded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIVESAY: Every year, Poggio Mirteto thumbs its nose at Lenten austerity and celebrates the Carnevalone Liberato, or Freedom Festival, commemorating the day it shed the yoke of papal authority in 1861. It was the same year Italy unified and became a modern nation. Until then, the town was under direct rule of the mighty Papal States. Renato Romano Renzi is Poggio Mirteto's vice mayor.

RENATO ROMANO RENZI: (Through Translator) The town has a proud history of liberation from papal authority, even if today most of the 6,000 people who live here remain religious. Upwards of 15,000 people from all around Italy are expected to take part in the festival.

LIVESAY: But just as it gets underway, the bacchanal is dealt a heavy blow: health inspectors have shut down the food stands for not labeling the wine properly, and organizers have called off the event. Laura Consumati is the chief organizer.

LAURA CONSUMATI: Somebody denounced us for what we do every year. This is a very troubled question because this party is loved by us but not by all people in this little town that is very religious.

LIVESAY: Thousands of revelers - some dressed as the pope, others as the devil - wander the medieval town aimlessly, including this group, which traveled hundreds of miles.

GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

LIVESAY: It's the first time the event has been cancelled since Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini signed the Lateran Accords with the Holy See in 1929, which established the Vatican as a sovereign city-state.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIVESAY: The parish priest refused to comment on the cancellation. But these local churchgoers said they would be happy to see the event and the visitors gone for good.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIVESAY: Vatican watchers say such attitudes are in stark contrast with the accommodating tone of Pope Francis, who more than any pope has made welcoming gestures to non-Catholics, gays and even atheists. Robert Mickens is a Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly The Tablet.

ROBERT MICKENS: One of the things that is very, very important, I think, for Pope Francis is this whole idea of mercy - extending mercy, friendship, you know, befriending people. And I think it is really important for him, and I think it's really sincere. I don't think, as some people have suggested that, oh, he's really clever with the media. Not at all. I think that he's the real deal on this one.

LIVESAY: But in Poggio Mirteto, anti-clerical rancor appears immune to the Francis effect. Fabrizio Bernardi is a musician from Rome who just learned his gig was called off.

FABRIZIO BERNARDI: The pope in Italy is the big power and it's very difficult here to live free.

LIVESAY: Then, as suddenly as it was imposed, the embargo is lifted, and the Freedom Festival is back on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIVESAY: For at least one day, these carnival-goers choose to remain outside the embrace of the church. And Lent, it appears, will have to wait. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay.

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