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THE RITE STUFF - RELIGION IN ITALY
. . . saints for all seasons, places and occupations

There are saints for all seasons, places and occupations. Each town has its own, which is normally celebrated with a local public holiday. Most have at least a small portion of their Saint preserved for viewing by the faithful, some such as Cortona are blessed with the full un-embalmed body. Artisans, not to be left out have a saint for each trade. Our local blacksmiths also observe the feast of Santa Lucia giving yet another day for pious inactivity.

The canonisation process has not slowed up, quite the opposite. It used to take centuries before a holy person could move up the ladder from veneration to, beatification to final Sainthood. Now it looks like Pope John Paul and Mother Teresa might go through a much shorter route. Southern Italy however has a saint to beat them both, canonised a mere thirty-four years after his death. During his lifetime Padre Pio was credited with various miracles not least managing to have built a large hospital next to his monastery, San Giovanni Rotondo, now a serious rival to Lourdes. His local appeal has reached almost cult status, his image and statue as omnipresent as Stalin's ever was at the height of his power. At a guess at least half the trucks in southern Italy have a picture of him somewhere on them.

With many religions ritual plays an important part. In Catholicism especially so, all those bells and smells and costumes. On Christmas eve people who never see the inside of a church for the rest of the year will eat no meat and dutifully turn up for midnight mass. This period is not without it controversy however, as every year the Vatican tells us all that we should not be putting up a tree, a pagan symbol. The correct decoration is a “Presepi”, a model crib scene complete with three kings, shepherds, etc. International consumerism is not to be thwarted however and during the festive season the towns are crowded with trees and flashing bulbs. With many houses sporting an inflated Santa clinging perilously from their balconies, perhaps with suicide in mind.

The traditional Presepi is making a come back though in the form of the Live Presepi. As village rivalry has inflamed an already competitive spirit, these are no longer simply a group of people dressed to represent those present at the Nativity, in some suitably stable like setting. Now it can be a huge area with a large cast of extras doing holy land sorts of things . . . making bread, pots, and so on. There are usually a few Romans, some mounted, shivering away in their tunics during the December drizzle. Cows and donkeys are also favoured. But beasts of the barn have less patience for this sort of thing and effective ways of expressing boredom. Some of which have been known to put even angels to flight.

Next on the calendar is Easter, the most important date in the Catholic year with the various processions, often in Ku Klux Klan garb. In the run up to Easter it is usual to see the local priest, in full regalia, with a couple of choir boys in tow, going from house to house blessing family and home. This can lead to problems. Central and northern Italy have long been areas of support for the Communist party and while its members, to keep on the safe side, will still be baptised, married and buried by the church, this Easter blessing can be a step too far. It is not unlikely that part of the reason could be that after the brief ceremony one is supposed to present an envelope to the priest, one with money in it. As the various householders religiosity and perhaps available funds change over the years it is hard for the poor padre to know where and whether he is welcome or not. A recent innovation has been for him to leave a blank postal payment form to avoid embarrassment.

Of course every single day has some religious significance and at least one saint to honour. But the next big one is November 1st, All Saints Day, the day of the dead. This is when everyone goes to visit their departed in the local churchyard having made sure the graves and tombs had been spruced up in the previous week. Even here, though Hollywood has promulgated its profanity, All Hallows is of course preceded by All Hallows Eve, or Halloween as it is more widely known. Celebrating this with its pagan roots is most unchristian we are firmly told every year and until recently it passed unobserved. In the last ten years though, from the occasional kids party held by foreigners it has grown into the full Anglo Saxon style party. The super markets full of grizzly rubber masks and plastic illuminated pumpkins. The children too find trick or treat much more fun than visiting their decaying ancestors.

Along with ritual, mystery is the mainstay of the ecclesiastical world. Mass itself was celebrated in Latin till the mid 60s, a language unknown to most of the faithful and many of the officiants. One of the most famous thrice-yearly miracles is the liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro in Naples. Southern Italy tends to have a more fervent religiosity, with Naples itself having over 50 patron saints. San Gennaro is the most important. Three times a year the archbishop holds up the phials believed to contain the dried blood of the saint, which then turns to a liquid in front of a congregation of thousands and to the accompaniment of a twenty-one gun salute. Some mysterious phenomena are more ad-hoc. Each year someone will discern a face, quite often of the Virgin Mary, in a damp patch on the wall or even in a pizza, every now and then a statue will cry blood (though temporal intervention is often suspected here). These events often attract large crowds of the faithful, the media and sandwich sellers.

Italy is particularly favoured of course in having the headquarters and CEO of the Church. The Vatican covers 110 acres of prime Rome real estate, also various basilicas and palaces, which though geographically separated from it, are part of this tiny land, locked state. It prints its own passports, postage stamps and money. It attracts millions of visitors every year who spend their own cash. But be warned. Though the Vatican shops accept most major credit cards, American Express has, for some reason been excommunicated from its electronic payment system and at least one of the ATMs needs a working knowledge of Latin to operate.

The temporal rule of the Pope once covered a much larger part of the Italian peninsular, from Rome across to the Adriatic and all the way up to the Republic of Venice. These Papal States were born out of the remnants of the Roman Empire. It was originally know as the “pornocracy” by its detractors, with the Papal mistresses said to be the effective rulers. In the late 1800's these states became part of Italy, however the church still receives rents on many properties there.

The church though still very strong is having a big problem with sex. This is a fairly tough one as most people seem to like the idea of indulging, whereas the Catholic Religion seems to think it shouldn't really be a pleasure at all, at least not as portrayed today. The clergy of course are not supposed to indulge at all. And while Mafia bosses are not excommunicated for murder, people trafficking or supplying drugs (they probably love their mother and that's the important thing), homosexuality, birth control, or anything outside marriage gets the Cardinals very hot under the collar. The flock pretend to listen, rather as an eighteen year old listens to their parents in these matters.

I have no doubt the Catholic church will still be central to Italian life for years to come, like an elderly unmarried aunt, respected and revered. Turning up in the same austere dress to all important family events where her advice is attentively listened to and ignored.

Article written by Chef Jonathan Arthur
www.italywithrelish.it

 
 
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