Enthusiasm in St Peter’s Square, Indifference in Church – (from Corriere della Sera)

Let’s put it this way. Why are a million peopleswarming over St Peter’s Square while Italy’s churches are often semi-deserted?

Let’s put it this way. Why are a million people swarming over St Peter’s Square while Italy’s churches are often semi-deserted? Of course, the square will empty, and many churches will be full at Easter and Christmas, but there is no doubt thatthe touching, awesome devotion of believers for John Paul II is in stark contrast to the difficulties faced by many parishes, which every Sunday look like gatherings of the Grey Hair Guild. The youngest worshippers will be pushing forty, and will probably have accompanied a daughter to the children’s mass.

Enthusiasm for the elderly pontiff who held up his suffering like some heroic, edifying banner is a long way from the lukewarm habits of many Italian Catholics. It makes you want to shout,“Hoy!Where are you on Sundays, all you people now quivering like emotional young deacons and talking like ageing theologians? Where are you when the kids take communion, when the youngsters are being confirmed, or when the Scouts are celebrating mass? Why don’t you send your child to the parish recreation centre you used to go to? Are you the same people who spend afternoons drooling in front of a TV set where the girls provide titillation and improbable presenters hold forth on morality?”

Those concerned might choose not to respond,adding that you can love the pope without going to church. I object. John Paul II had rock star quality, as the Americans say, but he refused to give an inch on some things. Sunday mass wasn’t an option for him. It was a duty. Rightwing political chancers laud the pontiff who defended life, and at the same time laud war. Their leftwing equivalents approve a pope who was hard on capitalism but they also approve abortion. Still, the people who are now flooding into Rome are a bit more serious than that.We can and should expect the crowds to be more rational. If they don’t go to church, there has to be a reason.

Many outside Italy have an explanation to hand: Italians are likeable hypocrites. Frenchman Jean-Noël Schifano, translator of Umberto Eco, lover of Naples and author of Désir d’Italie, once told me,“Religion is just froth. “Useful froth,because it gives you rules to break. Transgression for you is gratification. I understand you.That’s fine. Carry on like that”. I wish it were that simple. It is true that the Church-imposed categorical imperative – to be observed, ignored, or circumvented – has been replaced by à la carte morality,but religion still means something. Catholics today are no worse than they were yesterday. Many have consciously chosen a faith that was once handed down mechanically from generation to generation. That choice does them credit. Some have formed groups, and some if not all of those groups have turned into lobbies. This does them less credit, but it is easy to explain. Lots of people in Italy look for a protector, someone who can relieve the frustration of doubt. Religious lobbies are like insurance policies or heavy-duty tranquillisers,and we Italians are neither provident or particularly cautious in our use of pharmaceuticals.

So why the split personality? Why the enthusiasm in St Peter’s Square, and the indifference in church? Perhaps it is because Italians are better at making spectacular gestures than behaving well. Certainly it is because the death of John Paul II, the pope who left his mark on our adult lives, unleashed a storm of emotion. More than other western nations, Italy feigns cynicism, but is getting increasingly sentimental. We saw this in the reactions to 11 September (2001), the Nassiriya massacre (2003) and the tsunami (2004/5). In the case of John Paul II, other factors also come into play, such asmystery, long-established habit, great affection, a wealth of associations and a little noble emulation.

Few Sunday masses manage to strike these chords. They are the ones that prompted the early Christians to descend joyously into the catacombs, and now inspire African Americans to sing gospel music with gusto. Contrast Italy, where few worshippers sing or say the responses to the priest. Perhaps they don’t want to be a nuisance. It has to be admitted, though, that it is not all the congregation’s fault. More than a few priests contribute to the decline with listless services and boring sermons that are read, recited or recycled. When the collection plate goes round, the offering should be proportionate to the giver’s appreciation. This kind of rough and ready parish poll might encourage corrective action.

Actually, it’s not such a bad idea. The father-figure pope to whom we are currently paying such emotional tribute would have endorsed it. John Paul II the Great would have collected more than anyone,raking in a fortune every time he spoke.

Beppe Severgnini
English translation by Giles Watson

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