Daily Archives: December 30, 2012

Catholicism In England And Italy: Some Observations

Splendor Of Catholicism: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.

Splendor Of Catholicism: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.

I thought I would confide to the blog some of the differences I noticed between English and Italian Catholicism over Christmas.

1. More people in church, even considering there are many more churches. Still, I think Catholic Church attendance in Italy is even lower than in England. I draw the conclusion that in the last decades the number of masses has been reduced, or the number of churches, or both. Perhaps the Christmas season favoured higher Mass attendance, though I think this only works for Christmas day, or perhaps the churches in central Rome are particularly busy during the Christmas period. I went to Mass on several occasions, and visited more churches where Mass was ongoing (some of them threw visitors out; most didn’t), stopping for the homily whenever I could. Packed everywhere. This was, I think, surprising, and even the contrast with last year was visible. Again, perhaps it’s just me, or it is only in the historic centre.

2. Compared to England, Confession in Italy seemed a mass sport. Wherever I went confessionals were open for business, three or more at a time, and rather busy. This went on basically every day. I do not have comparisons with England because I never spend the Christmas holidays there, but it seems to me the use of the Sacrament was massive compared to what I am used to see. Suspicious that this was purely Christmas-related, I started to check the confession times on the billboards, and it seems to me the situation is much better than in England even outside of the Christmas time. At least in the centre of Rome, I’d say Confession is taken pretty seriously. It might change in more “progressive” parishes in the suburbs, though…

3. Confession in Italy is often lacking in privacy. You have those beautiful, old, carved wood confessionals basically wasted by having the penitent approaching the priest from the front and kneeling in front of him. The others who are waiting are just three-to-four metres away. There’s a continuous buzz in the air, and the constant danger of having your confession made public if one is a bit old and accustomed by declining sense of hearing to speak somewhat louder, whilst the church acoustics certainly does not help privacy. There was, in fact, no privacy at all. I know difficult situations can always happen (from one of the “closed” confessionals came the thundering voice of a Jesuit confessor certainly advanced in years, and in need of a good hearing device…; pretty much a nightmare scenario for the timid penitent…), but it seems to me the system of approaching the priest from the front with no other privacy than a handful of metres of thin air in a resounding old church isn’t the done thing.

4. I have assisted – adding the Masses I have attended to, and those where I stopped to listen to the homily whilst visiting – to at least a half-dozen homilies. All of them were of very high quality, with no trace of the “social smartass” attitude I remember of my younger years, and sound Catholicism wherever you turn. Again, I might have been lucky, or perhaps the central parishes tend to be more conservative. It angers me these obviously smart priests – those I have seen were generally fairly young – are either unwilling or not allowed to wage open war against the secular thinking. They are doing a good job nevertheless, though, and I never had the impression I could have heard the same homily in an Anglican or other Protestant church, as it happened to me in the UK on several occasions.

5. The santino (holy picture) was back in force. Many church had them printed and stored in front of several altars, for the faithful to take them away. Whilst I have seen them very occasionally in England, this was massive and the clear result of some concerted action or directive from the higher echelons. It wasn’t standard fare, either, but rather the santino of the saint to whom the relevant altar is dedicated. They were eagerly taken away by the Italian visitors and clearly ignored by most tourists, which I think is a clear sign they were taken up by those really interested in using them. A beautiful revival of just another Catholic tradition, which I hope will soon find its way to Northern European shores.

In general, my (highly subjective) impression is the Church is more robustly followed by her followers compared to two-three years ago, though as I have already written she is clearly slowly losing the battle of demographics in the country at large. A country where for decades a diffused Catholicism was often only a hand of varnish – but where Catholicism was deeply ingrained in the collective way of thinking – is probably polarising and dividing itself between those clearly taking their distances from Church teaching and those getting closer to her.

As I have already written, Italy is at the vigil of historic elections, whose effects might be felt for decades to come. Let’s hope the dam holds for as long as it can, and that it gives a more assertive, but still rather soft church the time to reorganise and prepare for an unavoidable war for the country’s soul. 


Reblog: The Seven Sorrows Of Mary

Michelangelo: “Pieta'”

I am not a mother (neither a woman, come to that), so I can’t really tell.

Still, I can imagine. I can imagine that I am a mother in the bliss of newly found maternity, a joy without equals.

But then I imagine that when the child is just a few days old, I am informed by a very reliable person that this child is going to undergo great suffering and a painful death. How would it feel? A short time later, I must leave my home in the middle of the night, precipitously fleeing those who want to murder the child. Some years of relative tranquillity go by (during which, though, I have never forgotten the fateful words of Simeon) and one day, I discover that through a misunderstanding my twelve years old child is missing, somewhere in a great city far away from me. Then I return to where I last have seen him, every hour a nightmare and slow death; looking for him without success, for days.

Further years go by, until the now ancient words of the old man in the temple take meaning and form. My own and only child is – after being whipped almost to unconsciousness –  made to carry the instrument of his own torture and stumble under his weight. Enough? No, not enough. I see my child savagely nailed to the cross, undergoing a slow and painful death in front of my very eyes. I see him dying, then have to endure the excruciating pain of having the cold dead body of my own child in my arms and to suffer his deposition on a tomb.

I am not a mother and I can’t really know how it would feel. But I can certainly try, and it takes my breath away. Most mothers would prefer to die and call themselves happy, rather than to have to endure all this.

At the same time I think of the challenges and problems of my life, problems I sometime tend to, well, rather make worse than they really are and when I compare my problems with those of Mary, I am helped to understand that perhaps my sufferings are not so unbearable after all, and that She who has suffered so much sees my problems and sorrows – even if infinitely less burdensome than hers – with great love and compassion anyway.

At the same time, I know that She is, in virtue of Her Son and in virtue of Her Sorrows, my (and our) Mother too. A mother to whom I can always open my heart in love and confidence, certain of being heard and loved; and a mother whose sorrows naturally sadden me. It is therefore fitting, every now and then, to dedicate ourselves to another Catholic devotion of the past  unlikely to ever be mentioned by the friendly, smiling, joke-cracking  and oh so nice progressive priest near you.

The Seven Sorrow of Mary is a traditional Catholic devotion by which the faithful briefly meditate (whilst praying or with a short introductory reflection, as in the Rosary) on those fateful seven moments in Mary’s life.

As already explained on a different occasion, the aim (and a main tenet of Catholicism at the same time ) is to unite ourselves to Mary’s and Jesus’ sufferance and at the same time to draw strenght and inspiration to bear the trials that we ourselves have to endure.

It isn’t really realistic to think that grave tests will be taken away from us. We are never going to be given tests we can’t endure, but most of us are going to be tested in some way or other, so don’t bet your pint. The best think to do is to try to grow our spiritual life by lovingly uniting ourselves to Mary’s and Jesus’ sufferance in order to be spared them if this is God’s will, and to be able to endure them and make them bear fruits if, alas, things have been appointed otherwise.

If you follow this link you’ll find a beautiful rendition of the first sorrow this devotion, with prayers and big images to help you stay focused. From there, you’ll be able to click your way to the following ones.

When you have followed the devotions to the end, please stop a moment and bask in the knowledge that once again, in the privacy of your home, a little part of the extremely rich and at times almost forgotten world of Catholic devotions has come back.


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