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.