Near La Sapienza in Rome – the modern campus of an old university – there is a church dedicated to an English philosopher, statesman and martyr: San Tommaso Moro.
Don Andrea Celli is the priest of the parish, and La Sapienza’s proximity has encouraged him to adopt university students from across the Eternal City, as part of a school of civic and political formation enlightened by Church teaching.
Fifty-two of these students came to London for a four-day visit centred on the life and example of one of England’s most famous martyr saints. Almost by accident, I was given the task of welcoming them to the Palace of Westminster and talking to them about British politics.
As you would imagine, our visitors were well-informed and politically aware, but thirsty to learn more. The ins and outs of the British constitution were of particular interest, and I did my best to explain (among other things) the nature of the House of Lords and its role as a mere revising chamber rather than a co-equal of the lower house, as Italy’s senate is intended to be.
The hot item though was Brexit – something difficult to grasp at the best of times. I made the point that Britons were always sold the European Union as a mere trading arrangement that would, as it has, bring convenient advantages for industry and consumer alike.
True, there are some voters in Britain (and in Italy) who are racists and xenophobes. But for the majority of Leave voters, rejection of EU membership was not a rejection of European values or of cosmopolitanism. Rather, it was an expression of discomfort at the current state and direction of travel of a centralising political union most Britons have never really been comfortable with.
Britain has much in common with its European counterparts. But unlike most countries on the Continent, the continued strength of the Commonwealth means the UK enjoys ties with many other nations who are large, economically successful, and politically stable. This has helped broaden the British mindset. While the EU has been highly successful at tearing down walls within Europe, it has also built large barriers around the continent. There are many reasons why this is a good and advantageous thing, but it is a reality that should be acknowledged regardless.
As an immigrant myself, I can see that the UK has had more success at integrating newcomers than some of our friends on the Continent. Here Muslims and Hindus have made it to the front bench of the major political parties. Sajid Javid is a frontrunner to be the next leader of the main centre-right party. Would he have achieved this as a Turk in Germany or an Algerian in France?
This shouldn’t be a toot-your-own-horn festival – there are innumerable things that France or Germany or Italy do infinitely better than the UK. But we should recognise that there are differences, and often differences are what contribute beauty to the rich tapestry of life’s existence.
One of the students thanked me for pointing out a positive case for Brexit as, he says, the Italian newspapers and journals never even explore the case for leaving the EU. Despite deep-seated scepticism about the EU’s effectiveness or its perceived interference in Italian affairs among the population, Italy’s ruling and influential classes are united in backing EU institutions.
“Italexit” is still a distinctly minority interest, though a potential return of the lira has broader support. With a ruling class acting in lockstep, scepticism about the European Union is left to populist politicians, who have been successful at wooing voters accordingly. The mercurial Five Star movement and populist-nationalist Lega now form the government.
Italy is a peninsula with almost 5,000 miles of coastline, sitting directly across from the lawless North African littoral. The massive influx of refugees and migrants – many smuggled by criminal traffickers – long ago reached crisis proportions the brunt of which has been borne by Italy.
The government has coordinated a wide ranging response but sympathy and understanding from fellow European governments has been thin on the ground. Lega leader Matteo Salvini as interior minister has taken stern measures to discourage the flow of migrants, refusing to allow them to land in Italian ports and urging other European countries to share the burden.
After an hour and 45 minutes of discussion, we moved to the great hall of the Palace of Westminster where St Thomas More stood trial. In an Italian translation, the students read aloud the transcript of More’s eloquent defence before his judges.
Having been to Rome several times and prayed in her churches honouring her martyrs, I found it odd yet beautiful that here were Romans on pilgrimage to London venerating the memory of an English martyr. Moments like this one bows to the reality of the Church being called “catholic”.
Andrew Cusack is a writer and web designer who blogs at andrewcusack.com
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