Monday, May 10, 2010

Encounters of the Religious Kind in Italy

None of you will be surprised by my observation that there are churches everywhere in Venice and Rome. It may be going too far to say that there are churches on every corner, but it is fair to say that one need not walk more than a few blocks to get from one church to another. Some churches are small and easily overlooked. Others are fair-to-middling sized, and others can only be missed if one is blind. Rome is also littered with the remains of its pre-Christian, pagan past. There's simply no escaping religion and its symbols in Italy.

In addition to these inevitable physical encounters with religions, Dave and I had some interesting personal interactions and observations during our (far too) brief Italian sojourn. Three of these had to do with the way our tour guides discussed the sites we saw.

Two of the guides, the one who showed us around Piazza San Marco and the Doge's Palace in Venice, and the one who showed us the Roman Forum, spoke of religious legends in rather neutral tones. They repeatedly referred to the "traditions" associated with the sites we toured. The lady in Venice, especially, often looked a bit sheepish as she told a tale, then finished by grinning and saying, "that's the tradition."

St. Mark's Basilica - detail

Temple of Vestal Virgins - Forum

In contrast, the lady who guided us through the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, the tombs of the popes and St. Peter's Basilica, spoke like a true believer. She didn't come right out and say, "I believe this." But, she gave her spiels with a slant that implied that she held the things she was saying as precious truths. The most striking example was when she discussed scientific tests that had been performed on what many believe are the remains of St. Peter. She concluded her presentation by saying, "Are these really the bones of St. Peter?" Then, she answered her question by smiling broadly and enthusiastically nodding her head, yes.

St. Peter's Basilica - view from Vatican City

The final encounter I want to discuss is not about Italian attitudes toward religion, but about the religion that dominates the Italian landscape: Roman Catholicism. One of the tours that Dave and I took in Rome was a Rome By Night bus tour. The tour began at about 8:00 p.m. and concluded with dinner in a little off-the-beaten-path restaurant. Dinner began at about 10:15 p.m. and concluded around 12:00 a.m., give or take a few minutes. (Italians take their time eating; meals are social events, not mere means of physical sustenance for them. That's an attitude I like and am determined to adopt more regularly). On this occasion, Dave and I shared a table with a fellow we'd never met before and probably never will see again. Since a stop by St. Peter's Basilica - to see the exterior in its evening illumination - was one of the last stops before dinner, I shouldn't have been surprised (although I was, a little bit)  when Carlo began talking about religion.

St. Peter's Basilica at Night

Carlo, having been born and raised in Puerto Rico, had grown up in the Catholic Church. When he was about 16, Carlo got a job and began spending less time at his local church. The local priest was concerned and visited Carlo's home to encourage him to make sure that he didn't get too busy to save room in his life for God. Since priests had always visited his home, Carlo didn't think too much about the priest's interest in him at that point. What spooked him was the night that he left work and found the priest waiting for him outside. Apparently, the priest had called someone (not Carlo himself) to find out where Carlo worked and what time he'd be finished. Carlo thought this was more than a bit creepy, so, from that time forward, he minimized his contacts with the priest. And, he found out later that his antenna had been in good working order. It came out, not too long after these events, that the priest had molested some boys in the parish. That was when Carlo realized just how close he had come to being another victim. Needless to say, Carlo has little use for Mother Church these days.

Not surprisingly, the artifacts of religious traditions and history are obvious in Italy. What's less obvious is whether many Italians, while proudly acknowledging their history, continue to take those traditions seriously. That's an interesting question for further investigation.
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Dotti said...


All the photos are good but the photo of St. Peter's at night is stunning!

許柏信 said...


Catharine said...

All I can eep saying is some day...