I had to smile – though not always – at reading Father Blake's experiences with, shall we say, Italian administration. As a proud son of the Country, I think I should say a word or two; my short reflections will also, I hope, ground my argument about why Italians are good for the Church, and we need more of them.
Italy is a Country of contrasts. For reasons which have a lot to do with our historic past, we are a rather surprising mixture of an extremely dynamic, efficient, intelligent and productive mentality on one side and a stunning carelessness, inefficiency, stupidity or outright corruption on the other. Which is why foreigners wonder how the Country avoids sinking in the Mediterranean Sea, and Italians wonders where they would be if the various toxic influences polluting a good part of the population (which have their own more or less colourful names: furbismo, menefreghismo, favoritismo, leccaculismo among others) were expunged with a massive exercise in punishment of bad behaviour that the Country – even those who have none of these shortcomings – are ultimately too kind and gentle, too soft-hearted to implement.
But notice this: Italians aren't a mixture of Northern European virtues and Northern African shortcomings. In matters concerning work ethic, efficiency, and honesty they tend to be either 100% of one kind, or 100% of the other. In a country where many cut corners, the honest ones are truly honest; because they are honest out of deeply felt conviction, not out of fear of punishment like, say, pretty many are in Germany.
This polarity is why Italy has peaks or efficiency coupled with pits of inefficiency. This is why Italy as a Country has vastly outperformed England and France since the end of WWII. This is also why so many Italians are – also thanks to an excellent education system – in a position to escape from a country partially suffocated by nepotism and party card politics and can go abroad, and do rather well for themselves.
The matter is therefore, in my eyes, not whether to pick Italians – there is no doubt in my mind we are among the very best intellects on the planet – but rather in the picking of the right ones. Then Italy has many Pacellis, and at least an equal number of, shall we say, aspiring Bergoglios. Though I am sure even Bergoglio would not have been as bad had he been brought up in Italy, see below.
Italy also has traits eminently suited to the Church: the Anglo-Saxon oscillation between Puritanism and utter licence is foreign to them. Countless generation of dominant Catholicism have left them happily immune to the extremes. Never have I seen a bible-bashing street preacher in Italy, but the sense of sin is much more developed than in feminist England. Feminism, Vegetarianism, Environmentalism, animal rights activism, all these extreme “isms” are blessedly absent from Italy compared to most other Western Countries. These is the kind of people you want. Serene, solid-minded, lovers of (cough) God, Country and Family. Pick an Argentinian instead, and you might discover the man is a rotten fruit of Liberation Theology, an Italian in name only. And no, Italians aren't Puritans. But you don't need long to understand the Blessed Virgin looks at them with all their shortcomings and cannot but smile.
There is more. Italy is a country of people smart in ways foreigners not always see. Father Blake notices the small commercial premises where all the family is more or less – more often less – usefully employed; what he has not noticed is that this is the way the wise Italian parents keeps their children busy, teach them duty and responsibility, keep them away from the street and bad company, and keep an eye on them all the time; it may seem inefficient, but it isn't; particularly in places where there would be no other realistic opportunity of employment. Then, these parents will try to help the cousin, the future son-in-law, or the oldish uncle who has lost his job in the foundry. It's the way it works, at least in the healthy way. It can be worse than this, and it often is. But we must consider the constraints of the economic environment if we want to understand how it works.
More Italians, say I. And let them be very patriotic and a tad nationalist as a people (we are), and utterly persuaded of their own awesomeness as individuals (we are that, too: mamma has persuaded us of this from the cradle). You only have to pick the right Italians, and you can do no better.
As the (cough, again…) Duce said: a people of poets, saints, navigators and transvolators. Sure.
But a people of great saints, too, and great warriors who built huge empires, the Church not excluded. And a people with a great common sense, allergic to fanaticism, and with a great sensus catholicus.
But please choose them wisely.
I herewith declare very openly that I wish the next Pope to be Italian. Like most Italians, I regard an Italian Pope as something natural, and fitting. Italy has given the papacy a great number of excellent Popes, and one can legitimately say the Country has served the Church well. Besides, I can’t escape the impression Italians are more likely to have that common-sense approach, the so typical attitude you see in the population, traditionally hard on the defence of the rules, and soft with human weakness. I might go as far as to say that Italians have been so frequently in charge in the last centuries, because the traditional character traits make them so eminently suited for the job.
In short, what the Duce called “un popolo di poeti, di artisti, di eroi, di santi, di navigatori, di trasmigratori” is also, and blessedly so, a people of great Popes.
It is difficult to explain this to a foreigner living abroad, but I am absolutely confident this subtle difference, this “Italian approach” is very evident to every foreigner who has lived in Italy for some years. Italians have a no-nonsense approach given to them in the cradle, nurtured from the earliest years and underpinned by a remarkable similarity in the way they see life and in the values they share; all of this, make no mistake, shaped by a Catholicism utterly without religious rivals worthy of mentioning from time immemorial. It is the kind of mentality that mocks, say, even (for an Anglo-Saxon; Italians wouldn’t say “even”) vegetarians as funnily pathetic nutcases, but has a kind and soft approach even to the people it mocks. It is also, put in a different way, a sure-footed instinct for what is relevant, and for leaving aside inflexibility and exaggerations.
Just to make an example – I do not say it to criticise anyone; merely to point out differences in mentality and culture – on a well-known religious blog run by a priest I have read this question:
Do insect products count as meat products, and therefore prohibited on Fridays and other days of abstinence. I have heard of some instances where it may be used in artificial color products. Any help on this matter would be greatly appreciated.
I needed a couple of seconds to digest the question, and to even understand what was meant by it, so much is the question away from our thinking. Mind, I am sure the person who posed the question is a sincere Catholic; but in a circle of Italians this would have caused a burst of hilarity, and would have been remembered for years afterwards. Even the most orthodox Popes of the past (like Pius X or Pius XII) have probably spent an entire life without the question ever coming to their consciousness, and would have been rather worried for anyone having such problems.
This is exactly what I mean for sure-footed instinct: an orthodoxy that is, naturally, never Puritan, or lost in little details, or over-preoccupied, or over-complicated. Not so, alas, in countries where Protestantism plays or has played a role; so much so, that the question above,which sounds disturbingly ridiculous in Italy, would probably appear rather natural, if a bit on the picky side, in countries more influenced by a rigid Protestant culture.
Obviously, in the strange and disturbing times we live in even an Italian Pope could get it completely wrong, and you only need to search on this blog “Archbishop Paglia” to become fully aware of what kind of people are at present walking down the extremely beautiful corridors of the Vatican. Still, ceteris paribus I’d say the Italian would be the safer bet.
And now that I have finished to anger the vast majority of my seventeen readers, the only thing that remains to do is to look for a good trench and bury myself within .. 😉