Three years ago, my family and I relocated from London to Genoa. This summer, as our adventure comes to an end and we prepare to return to life in the UK, I find myself thinking of all the things I will miss about life in Italy – not least the fact of being a Catholic living in a Catholic country.
Admittedly, the majority of Italians are not practising Catholics, but it is also true that to be religious here means to be Christian, and Christian means Catholic. While many Italians would complain about this automatic Catholicism, for me it is a novelty to blend into the background of the mass of churchgoers, as an Anglican living in a small town might in the UK.
There are more than 200 Catholic churches in Genoa, a city with a population of 600,000, and four of those are right on my doorstep. This has many practical advantages: I am spoilt for choice when it comes to services, and I have got to know many more priests than I would have in London. It has been easy to strike up a friendship and receive spiritual guidance when there’s such an abundance of Catholic communities to be a part of.
It is unusual here for priests to stand outside the church after Mass on a Sunday greeting parishioners. I thought this was sad at first, until I realised it’s because they don’t need to make a concerted effort to make themselves known to the community: they are already central and active members of it. If I want a chat and coffee I can go into the sacristy: whatever the time, whoever is there will pull up a seat for me, happy to catch up or to answer my most recent faith-related questions.
Most charity work is organised by the Church – if anyone has spare clothes to donate, they will leave them on the advertised day of the week outside the local church, and volunteers will gather them and hand them out to those in need. There are no charity shops.
I live opposite a primary school run by nuns, and during lockdown they would wave at me on the balcony as they watered the plants on their terrace. Seeing nuns and priests in the city riding the bus, shopping in the supermarket and talking on their phone has helped me develop a closer friendship with religious, no longer seeing them as cloistered groups that I have little in common with.
Living in a country where everyday life has a distinctive Catholic flavour to it has enabled me to live out my faith as part of the quotidian. It is less compartmentalised than in the UK, and deeply faithful people don’t gather in exclusively Catholic friendship groups, in part because there’s no need to seek one another out – we meet organically – but also because it would be impossible to do so. Catholic life in a Catholic country must co-exist with all secular aspects of life, and while many Italians will complain about the increase of poor catechesis and lukewarm Catholicism, these problems exist in other countries too, and I think the Italian Church is better for being actively involved in secular life.
One example of this occurred during the pandemic emergency. When the country went into lockdown, the bishops were slow to point out that religious worship was a constitutionally protected right, and as such could not be subject to state intervention. Mass was interrupted for several weeks, provoking much criticism from clergy and laypeople alike. And yet I couldn’t help but notice that at no point were churches shut. They remained open for solitary worship every day of lockdown, and worship was legally protected as an essential need, just like buying newspapers or groceries.
There were two weeks when going out for a walk was prohibited, but going to kneel before the Eucharist was not. What’s more, the sacraments were always available – priests had to be approached to hear Confession and administer the Eucharist (complying with the new hygiene standards), but they were never legally prohibited from doing so, and they never rejected my requests when I asked.
When it looked as if cinemas would open before Mass was reinstated, the bishops finally spoke up in resistance, and the government responded by amending their decree, announcing the return of Mass (with limits on numbers of attendees) as restaurants and cafes opened up their doors.
I couldn’t help but think this was a direct result of living in a Catholic country, where even the secular government has an understanding of the importance of the sacraments to many of its people, however loose this understanding may be.
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