Corpus Domini: Italians and the Church

Church attendance is dropping across the western world. The difference is that in Italy you cannot really imagine it dying out completely

The Church remains an important institution, even among Italian non-believers
Tim Hedges
On 7 June 2013 08:48

Father Peter trudged on. His stay in Rome had gone a long way towards relieving his mind of its doubts, fundamental doubts about the presence of Christ in the mass, the doctrine of transubstantiation. He spent the night in Bolsena, a town on a small lake to the north of Rome, and that night his doubts returned.

But when Peter said mass in Bolsena the following morning a miracle happened: the bread for the Eucharist dripped blood on to the cloth it was placed on. Peter’s doubts were banished forever and he went to see Pope Urban IV, who was at Orvieto. Urban believed him and sent the local bishop to bring back the cloth. He ordered the building of a new cathedral to house the sacred item, Orvieto cathedral, of which a later pope was to say that if God descended to earth it was the only thing we had worthy for him to take back to Heaven.

Thus ran the story of the Miracle of Bolsena, which gave rise to the Feast of Corpus Domini (Corpus Christi), which was celebrated last Sunday. And the night before, seven hundred and fifty years after Father Peter’s miracle, around a hundred people assembled at the Church of Santa Cristina in Bolsena. Leaving at midnight, they followed Peter’s walk to Orvieto, around eleven miles, arriving at the golden façade of the great cathedral at dawn. There a mass was said and the blood soaked cloth, or corporal, was paraded round the town.

The Italians do these things well, and around the country there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of local stories and mysteries. Indeed the church where Father Peter’s miracle took place was already famous for being the place of martyrdom of Saint Christina, killed for her faith in the 4th century.

From the tomb of St Anthony in Padua to the many martyrs in Rome, the country can seem like a vast religious tourist park. You can see the bones of St Benedict, or the gridiron on which St Lawrence was martyred.

It would be wrong to say that this leaves the inhabitants cold, as the locals near Longleat might be indifferent to wild animals. In each church, and there are nearly a thousand just in Rome, you will often see someone silently offering a prayer to a favoured saint, lighting a candle in memory of a loved one or in the hope of release from an illness.

Around 30 percent of Italians say they are regular churchgoers, more than double the number in France or Britain, but half that of Poland. But perhaps the more significant figure is that only around 10 percent say they never go to church, compared with more than 50 percent in Britain and France.

The church is an all-pervading institution, and except for the very few who have turned their heads away from it, it represents a part of the fabric of Italian society. Whilst also in England and France the churches conduct weddings and funerals, here its presence seems more basic, more inherent. I recently watched a First Communion, which brought out in their Sunday best four generations of a family. It was a rite of passage which you felt had persisted for centuries and which would persist for centuries into the future. These children will drift away from the Church, return for weddings and funerals and those times when they need help or are confused.

The people at the First Communion were not devout, indeed often outside a church you can see worshippers who have popped out for a cigarette, and fallen into an urgent discussion about the football. The Church is strengthened institutionally in part because Italians use it as a municipal service.

And Italians are proud that the centre of the Catholic Church is here in Rome. It is theirs: a responsibility, a privilege, a badge of honour. My friend Riccardo once told me that of course he was not a believer but he did feel that the office of Pope should be an Italian thing. At the time of the papal elections earlier this year there were commentators saying that after a Pole and a German it really was only fair that the papacy should return to Italy.

Though they all say now that Bergoglio was the best candidate, there is perhaps a little wistfulness at what seems like a trend. The number of worshippers, as in other modern countries, is declining, whether through cynicism after the scandals, commercialism or the increased movement of labour which takes people, especially the young, away from their communities and their traditions. Often it is only old women that can be seen emerging from the mass. And as the number of worshippers declines the Church turns its face to places where there is increase. The difference is that in Italy you cannot really imagine it dying out completely.

The Vatican has its radio station Radio Maria, its newspaper l’Osservatore Romano, and its websites including ZENIT ‘The World seen from Rome’. It has its charities. News of the Vatican is reported faithfully in most newspapers and when the Pope speaks, as he has recently on food waste, it seems as if he is talking to Italy and Italians, their (Argentinean) pope and their (international) church. It is how it has always been. Anyway, his family came from Asti, and he speaks Italian, as a pope should.

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