March 31, 2007

Catholic culture

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday and I haven’t yet talked about the biggest Italian cultural mystery – the Catholic Church. Not the Catholic Church in itself, but the fact that Catholic culture is everywhere, like occult advertising, often invisible or in places you would never imagine (like public schools and the parliament). If you look closely enough, you can find traces of Catholic culture at the root of all aspects of everything Italian.

Holidays. Although a surprisingly large number of Italians do not know why, they gladly celebrate both December 8 and August 15 (respectively the Immaculate Conception and the assumption of the Virgin Mary). The only three non-religious holidays are April 25 (“liberation” day), May 1 (the day of the workers*) plus June 2, a recently dictated day to celebrate the birth of the Italian Republic.

Rites of Passage are Catholic: baptism, first communion, la cresima, marriage. Even non-practicing Catholics often participate in the above not only for the family, but also in recognition that these are sociological rites-of-passage. The only non-catholic rite of passage is the 18th birthday party (coming up soon for our family).

Hierarchy: You can’t get to God without going through an intermediary – a priest or saint or the Virgin Mary herself – this translates into a natural use of intermediaries also in daily life. To reach any public figure in power, from the school principal to the mayor or government minister you have to find the appropriate route.

Tolerance of ambiguity: You can consider yourself a Catholic, even a practicing and believing catholic, yet still use birth control, get divorced, live together outside of marriage, steal enormous amounts of money from stockholders (Parmalat scandal), or bribe public officials with suitcases of cash (tangentopoli). You learn to accept and quietly live ambiguity at church and then practice it, religiously, in every other aspect of life. The difference being that you can always confess and start all over again.

I grew up in a Protestant church, one with Puritan roots on the East coast and while I managed to skirt the whole issue for a few years, I finally hit the “cultural wall” when it came time to herd my sons along with all their school buddies to catechism classes. My husband is a non-practicing Catholic and I certainly didn’t feel comfortable picking up the ball on this one, so I let month by month by year pass until the question quietly slipped away…. I feel guilty, because they live in a Catholic country and should have some Catholic background at least, but they will just have to figure it out for themselves as adults as a consequence of their multicultural background. In the meantime, Catholic culture is at work – the crucifix on the wall of their classrooms, sports at the local oratorio with padre Pedro, l’ora di religione , Madonnas on street corners (picture from around the corner), scouts distributing palms (other picture at the local church) and magnificent churches and religious artwork everywhere.

A domani,

* Not to be confused with our day to celebrate work (Labor Day)

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