Both in England and in Italy church attendance is dwindling, particularly among the young. In England, we think of the Italians as devout, but in the decade up to 2018 the number of weekly attendees dropped by four million to 14.3 million; in England and Wales only one million of our five million Catholics go to Mass every week.
And I am afraid I am not among them. I am Catholic and proud, but alas also lazy. Too often the pillow holds its allure; too often in recent times have I found myself unmoved and unprayerful in the pews.
Gloriously golden though the Cathedral is in the light of a setting sun, it was just outside Noto, in a hamlet called San Corrado di Fuori, that my soul caught fire.
Until a recent visit to Sicily where, thanks to one priest, I found my spirituality reignited and my faith revivified. I was staying with friends near the town of Noto in the south east of the island. Noto is famous for its Baroque architecture, its granita (particularly when served in an ice cold birra) and its food. But, gloriously golden though the Cathedral is in the light of a setting sun, it was just outside Noto, in a hamlet called San Corrado di Fuori, that my soul caught fire.
I was staying with a High Church Anglican (although by the time San Corrado has finished with him I think he’ll have come over to the One True Faith) who took me to mass. The Church of San Corrado di Fuori has a Baroque front which is literally built into the rock; when you enter the tiny church one wall is bare rock. And in the corner are two dents in the rock, dents left by the knees of the Saint who spent half his life living in the cave in the rocks around which the church was built.
San Corrado (Saint Conrad of Piacenza to us Brits) was a fourteenth century Italian nobleman who, after nearly allowing a peasant to be put to death for his own carelessness in causing a forest fire, had all his assets confiscated and took up a life of prayer. After various adventures he ended up in this hamlet where, among other miracles, he produced fresh warm bread for all comers during a plague. A true socialist saint, he tended to the poor (much to the rage of the ruling class) and died at prayer on the day he had predicted.
Forest fires were very much part of the holiday. We sat in our hilltop garden, horrified, watching airplanes dumping sea water on the fires that raged around us. The drive into Noto was through blackened rock, and we anxiously watched the plumes of smoke as they neared and then retreated from us. But the tiny San Corrado di Fuori was untouched. In a little dip in the valley the flowers grown on the path up to the church still bloomed and the stream ran clear and sparkling through the rock. It was the first time I had been to Mass since the Lockdown, so perhaps my soul was unwittingly thirsting for strength, but there was something almost unbearably moving in the masked congregation, the simplicity of a pared-down, non musical Mass and the faithful standing outside in the baking sun, unable to come in because of social distancing.
There was something almost unbearably moving in the masked congregation, the simplicity of a pared-down, non musical Mass and the faithful standing outside in the baking sun, unable to come in because of social distancing.
Both weeks that I attended, the priest’s sermon was as simple and moving as the rest of Mass, but it was when it came to prayers in thanks for the safety of the church my cup overflowed. He pointed out a man in the congregation who had spent a night placing a single hose around the church to keep the flames at bay. It was thanks to him, said Father Eugenio, that the church had been saved. And then he turned back to us and said, with tears in his eyes, “this man showed courage and faith, but we all know that it was San Corrado himself who saved the church” and the congregation roared its approbation and burst into a (presumably illegal) song “Viva San Corrado!”.
Even then it was not over. As we left Mass, a beautiful young Sicilian dressed as though for a cocktail bar approached the priest with her young man, and he nodded agreement to her request. We followed them out to find a very unusual ceremony taking place. The priest was blessing their new car, which was decked out in ribbons as though for a wedding. Once again the congregation cheered and this time the priest, with a twinkle in his eye, asked that the car respond, and the rocks echoed with the sound of honking horns and the cheering faithful.
I have brought San Corrado back with me from his sun-baked rocks to the wet green fields of Somerset; I don’t think he will leave me any time soon.
Sophia Waugh is a teacher, writer and journalist.
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