Life & Soul

The man who brought Italian piety to London

Fr Faber circa 1860

Catholic piety is far too wide a topic for me to say anything particularly useful about it in general. In any case, my experience of it in suburban America has been that, if anything, it is decorous and restrained. And so I was struck by a passage in Ronald Chapman’s biography of Fr Frederick William Faber, describing the attitudes of mid 19th-century London:

“To decorate a Lady altar with flowers or to burn lamps or votive candles before her picture was absolutely unheard of. This sort of thing might go on in backward countries and for the benefit of emotional Italian peasants – but in the middle of London it was a positive incentive to disbelief.”

I suspect these attitudes are not too different from our own. Perhaps the “backward countries” and “emotional Italian peasants” do not loom in our imaginations as something to be overcome and put aside, but the toning down or glossing over some of the more maudlin displays of devotion and piety so as not to appear excessively strange or superstitious persists.

Faber’s ideas of piety were, as it happens, influenced by a tour of Italy he made some time before his conversion to Catholicism in 1845, and his spiritual writings and hymns do betray a streak of sentimentality. His writing often lapses into a flowery and purple style, and that style and the emotion that it is intended to produce can overshadow the content. About some of his hymns, the less said the better. “O happy pyx! O happy pyx! / Where Jesus doth his dwelling fix.” is about as bad as English verse can get.

I do not mean to suggest that all of Faber’s output is not worth reading – some of it is in fact very good – but it shows that he might have overreacted a bit to the sterile piety of England.

That said, I find it hard to blame him for finding the sentimentality and the tenderness that characterises the Italian style of devotion attractive. He was, after all, formed by a place where something like lighting a lamp before a statue of the Virgin was never done. He also greatly admired the miraculous and heroic elements of hagiography, unlike many of his Catholic countrymen: his attempt at having the continental lives of Counter-Reformation saints translated into English met some opposition because it focused on those aspects of the saints’ lives.

Even if some of Faber’s ideas and devotions, such as having a chapel open all day so that people could visit the Blessed Sacrament, or lighting a candle before a picture of the Virgin, seem rather unremarkable to us now, some of them do not. Perhaps the starkest contrast to the rather impersonal style of devotion of his England was his practice of referring to the Virgin as “Mama”. He was once so overcome with joy at a Marian procession that he exclaimed: “Won’t Mama be pleased!” I am acquainted with some young Catholics who, familiar with this story, have adopted Faber’s practice. I have seen their adoption of that practice called “affected and weird”. Maybe it is, and maybe Faber was also affected and weird.

But if there were ever a religion that had no business condemning things that were affected and weird, it would be Catholicism. I would hate to have to throw out the paintings of El Greco or the veneration of saints with stigmata or the revival of chant in the Mass on the grounds that such things are weird.

But Faber’s piety and devotion has more to it than that. Calling Mary “Mama”, to take the most extreme example, is not affect for its own sake but is an attempt to create an intimate and personal relationship with the Virgin. It is of course possible to develop such a bond without calling Mary “Mama”, but after practising an affect for long enough it eventually becomes natural. And at a time when such a devotion is not the easiest or most natural thing to cultivate, it makes sense to rely on artifice to help create it.

But the greatest benefit is that, after enough time, calling the Virgin by such a tender name, one that shows our emotional attachment to her as our mother, will seem completely natural. The sort of piety often looked down on as excessively sentimental or maudlin has that benefit: it works. I think the time has come to rediscover it. Catholicism is not a silly religion, but it is just as much the religion of the emotional Italian nonnas as of the theologians.

We need not imitate Faber in every aspect, but I would suggest that imitating his simple and warm devotions – even if they seem odd at first – might help us recover some of the emotion of Catholicism that we have lost.

Steve Larkin is an editorial intern at the US edition of the Catholic Herald