To understand Catholicism, you need to know Italy


ROME – If you were an American Catholic who dug a space Friday at noon to watch Pope Francis conduct the traditional Christmas Eve Mass, you may have stumbled upon part of his homily in which, apparently came out of a clear blue sky, he spoke of his workplace safety and launched the cry: “On the day of Life, let us repeat: no more deaths at work!

You may have wondered, “Where does this come from?” “

In Italy, however, no one was disoriented. As of Friday evening, the nation was still mourning the deaths of three workers who died the previous week in a crane collapse in the northern industrial city of Turin. The funeral of the youngest of the victims, Filippo Falotico, 20, took place on Thursday, Christmas Eve. The Turin incident was the latest in a series of fatal work accidents in Italy.

Likewise, if you happened to get up early on Sunday to watch Pope Francis deliver his traditional midday Angelus speech, you would have heard him deplore Italy’s “demographic winter”, characterized by the birth rates and family size, which the Pope says was caused in part by watching a TV program called A Sua imagine (” As his look “).

Americans wouldn’t understand the cry, but Italians know that A Sua imagine is a Sunday morning fixture on national broadcaster RAI, a program devoted to Catholic issues that takes place on either side of the Pope’s appearance to the Angelus at noon.

These intra-Italian references illustrate, among other things, the ecclesiological style of Pope Francis. When elected in 2013, he embraced the traditional papal title “Bishop of Rome” while downplaying all others, suggesting he wanted to return to the tradition that his authority as the universal head of the Church. Catholic is based on being the bishop of a particular place, that is, the Eternal City.

From the start he embraced his role as head of the church in Rome and Italy, assuming a practical role in administration and pastoral outreach. In a sense, this is a very Aristotelian approach – the “form” of the Petrine desk is to be instantiated into the “matter” of the physical church in the city of Rome.

Yet these Italian footnotes to the pope’s holiday verbiage also illustrate a larger point, not only about Francis but about Catholicism at large: as all the local churches in the universal communion of faith may be equal, some, clearly, are more equal than others, and Italy is arguably the most equal of all.

At the leadership level, Catholicism is virtually incomprehensible without a basic knowledge of Italian realities. On the one hand, the Vatican itself is a quintessentially Italian environment, despite decades of so-called “internationalization” beginning with Saint Paul VI in the 1960s.

Italian remains the working language of the place, Vatican civil law is largely based on Italian jurisprudence, and even the Vatican’s work program reflects Italian customs. More deeply, the culture and psychology of the place are entirely Italian – as convincingly shown in the current ‘case of the century’, which revolves around a $ 400 million real estate deal in London negotiated by a cabal of Italian financiers. .

A wide range of Catholic bishops around the world have either studied in Italy or worked here, and, for better or for worse, the experience tends to leave a deep impression on their expectations, style of governance and their sense of priorities. If your bishop is an elder in Rome and you are wondering why he operates the way he does, just spend six months here and the clouds will almost certainly clear.

Basically, Italy is also the cradle of Catholic culture. This is not where faith was born, of course – the Christmas season reminds us that Christ was born at a specific time and place in the Holy Land under Roman occupation.

Yet Italy is where the culture to which faith gave birth was most deeply forged over the centuries, and where the imprint of this process is still unmistakably evident. Even the most secularized Italians, for example, would have known that yesterday was the feast of the Holy Family, because the celebration of the family is considered here as a determining national virtue.

Simply meet at the most bitterly anticlerical and atheist Italian you can find for the traditional Sunday family lunch, and over the next three or four hours you will have an experience that is actually more deeply Catholic than many novenas that you could participate in in other parts of the world.

Of course, Catholicism is a universal faith that transcends both space and time. A Catholic who lives and dies in Cameroon, or Cambodia, or Cleveland, without ever setting foot in Italy or elsewhere, is just as much a member of the Communion of Saints as someone who has seen the four corners of the Catholic world. However, we are not talking about holiness here but about understanding, which is indeed a very different virtue.

Over the years, American Catholics have at times been suspicious of sending seminarians to Rome to study, fearing that they will “become Romans” and come back unfit to be pastors in the typically egalitarian American parish and collaborative.

Without a doubt, it probably happened here and there, although it probably speaks more of the training they had in Rome than of the city or the country.

What is much more common, however, is that spending some time in Italy gives future priests – or religious and lay leaders – not only a deeper knowledge of how the church works, but a deeper appreciation of the values. humanists on which a Catholic culture should be based. be based.

In other words, perhaps we should not be afraid to offer our future pastors an Italian vacation, we should rejoice in it – because, if the experience is well done, they will come back smarter, healthier and more. wider.

And, at the very least, they can at least explain the Pope’s homilies without having to google the answers.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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