Ever since I was small, people have always imagined me a Catholic. And why not? Have you ever met an Italian, let alone a Valentino, who wasn’t? Because of my name, and my background, I’ve faced countless questions about going to Mass, or getting confirmed, or my thoughts on the new pope. I even remember once – I must have been about twelve – how the man who came to my school with copies of some modish Anglican Bible wondered if I really wanted one.
In truth, I’m not a Catholic.
Like my father before me, I’m a stodgy and noncommittal agnostic. Like his father before him, I keep a spot in my heart for Luther, and in darker moments hope that they’ll sing “A Mighty Fortress” at my funeral, as they did for my nonno. Yet again and again, I find myself tugged back to the Church of Rome. In part, I know that’s down to my interests in music and art. It’s impossible for me to listen to the Victoria or Palestrina motets, or stare at Christ and Caravaggio calling to St Matthew, without straining against unbelief like a fish on the line.
Like my father before me, I’m a stodgy and noncommittal agnostic.
More than my hobbies, though, I suspect those strangers who took my Catholic background for granted might have had a point. Though both my father and grandfather were, to borrow from Chesterton, men who found Catholicism difficult and left it untried, they were ultimately baptised, confirmed and married in the eyes of God. And whatever doubts they may have carried, Italy has always swayed to the rhythms of the church.
Think of her great architecture, and how the lanes of every provincial town all meander towards some looming, impossible cathedral. Or the way Italians eat baccalà on Christmas Eve, or how they wail that they “didn’t even pee in church!” when defending themselves from calumny. Reflect, too, on the fact that All Saints’ Day, the Immaculate Conception and the Feast of the Assumption are all national holidays, and how bestemmiare – to blaspheme – is still a common and special type of swearing.
It’s impossible for me to listen to the Victoria or Palestrina motets, or stare at Christ and Caravaggio calling to St Matthew, without straining against unbelief like a fish on the line.
At the same time, this is a culture that drenches me, personally, every time I visit. I’m reminded of it when I forget to go to the shops before they close for Sunday, or, more rarely, when I stumble across some saint’s festival, where a brass band plays and old men parade a silver icon on a rickety wooden box. Across everything, I am forced, dragged, towards an understanding that this all belongs somehow to me, even if I’m never sure how.
Nor am I alone.
Even fiercely anticlerical Italians, including nationalist heroes like Giuseppe Mazzini, have a proud tradition of appreciating the faithful. Another wonderful example here is Enrico Berlinguer, the aristocratic leader of the Italian Communist Party until his death in 1984. Though an atheist, his wife went to Mass every day, and Berlinguer wove religion deep into his politics. As he put it in 1972, what his country needed was “collaboration among the great populist currents: Socialist, Communist, Catholic.”
Berlinguer’s inclusivity feels familiar on those rare days that I face Catholicism directly.
Soon before I moved out of London, I went to Sunday morning Mass at Farm Street. I may not have really understood the Latin liturgy, but I kept thinking back to those other Valentinos, those Valentinos from before even my grandfather, who went through these same devotions and saw them as central to their whole lives. I get similar feelings today at the church near my New York apartment, watching Hispanic ladies play with their rosaries and imagining them my own.
I keep a spot in my heart for Luther, and in darker moments hope that they’ll sing “A Mighty Fortress” at my funeral, as they did for my nonno.
And as the days get shorter, and Advent approaches, I find this mood crowds me even more. There is a whole other part of my identity – Protestant, English – that comes out in December too. But this year, I’ve been thinking mostly about how my Christmas routine is shaped by Catholic Italy. In the weeks before, I set up my decorations, especially the stable scene so beloved by my compatriots. I cook my big meal on the 24th, then stay up late to see in the birth of Christ. In the new year, I’ll find an old sock, and fill it with chocolate for my wife, honouring the good witch who visits every year on Epiphany.
Through it all, I will listen to Victoria’s Christmas motets, in awe and wonder.
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