Tag Archives: religion

The Papal Funeral Bash

I’m not going to say much about this; I wasn’t there, and ignored it as far as possible. The only footage I actually watched was on the Daily Show. But I do have a few items: Early last week, I was riding the bus down to Lecco, at my usual time when it’s full of Read More…

I’m not going to say much about this; I wasn’t there, and ignored it as far as possible. The only footage I actually watched was on the Daily Show. But I do have a few items:

Early last week, I was riding the bus down to Lecco, at my usual time when it’s full of schoolkids. One girl was on her cellphone. “She only goes to mass ogni morte di papa!” she exclaimed, completely without irony, –nd now she wants to go to the funeral!”

Indeed, many of the Italians who traveled to Rome for the funeral probably don’t go regularly to Mass. I won’t presume to comment on why they went to the Pope’s funeral, except that Ross told me that some of her peers came back with cellphone photos of themselves drinking Limoncello (a strong lemon liqueur) in Piazza San Pietro.

I do know a number of serious Catholics – those who truly believe and practice Christianity, e.g., doing volunteer work. Interestingly, none of them went to Rome, and all were nonplussed by the outpouring of whatever this was, and disconcerted by the yells of “Santo subito!” (“Make him a saint immediately!”) As far as I know, it’s not in the church canons to saint somebody just because he was popular.

Rome rose magnificently to the occasion, managing to keep things in order and take care of the crush of people. Every cellphone in Italy received messages from the Protezione Civile (“Civil Protection” – the government emergency-response organization). The first read: “If you go to Rome to pay homage to the Pope, use mass transit and be prepared for organized but very long lines. Hot by day and cool at night. For information, listen to Isoradio [public information radio, mostly used for traffic warnings] 103.3.”

The second message said: “Due to enormous turnout, from Wednesday at 10 pm access is closed to the lines to salute the Pope. Friday for the funeral traffic will be stopped in Rome. The area of San Pietro is full. Large screens will be in the piazzas and at Torvergata” (an area outside Rome where the final rush of pilgrims was told to stop when the city couldn’t take any more).

My friend Alice Twain then sent her own message: “Protezione Civile: Before leaving for Rome, remember to turn off the gas, close the shutters, and water the plants.”


photo above: April 1, 2005 – the Papal Deathwatch. A TV transmission truck (belonging to RAI, Italian state television) parked outside the headquarters of Avvenire, Italy’s Catholic daily newspaper. The vultures are circling…

The “Real” Italy

^ Of course, some people in Italy actually do sing opera for fun (and/or for a living). To bring people to my site, I hang out in online forums about traveling and living in Italy, answering questions where I usefully can. It’s been an education for me as well, in American attitudes towards Italy. One Read More…

^ Of course, some people in Italy actually do sing opera for fun (and/or for a living).

To bring people to my site, I hang out in online forums about traveling and living in Italy, answering questions where I usefully can. It’s been an education for me as well, in American attitudes towards Italy.

One young woman bemoaned the fact that in her travels in Italy, and especially in Rome, she had not found the “real” Italy that she expected. Her vision of the real Italy apparently included (only) beautiful people beautifully dressed, spotless streets, and women who make pasta from scratch every day while singing along to Verdi and Puccini. She was sadly bewildered to find Rome full of immigrants (“Bulgarians and Chinamen,” as she phrased it), rude people, and young people kissing on park benches (she was of the opinion that this sort of behavior should be heavily fined – really, what planet was she from?).

Come to any country looking for a stereotype, and you’re bound to be disappointed, especially when your picture is based on the rose-colored memories of emigrant grandparents, or the more recent “live the good life in Italy” stereotype created by well-heeled foreigners who move to Tuscany, renovate a villa, and then write a book about it.

A recent post on Zoomata.com bewailed the removal of crucifixes from Italian classrooms (due to a court challenge by the Finnish mother of an Italian child); another on Fodors.com was upset over a bit of news reported in the US, that in Treviso a school’s nativity play was replaced with “Little Red Riding Hood.” Said the Fodor’s poster: “I love Italy. I thought I knew Italians, being American Italian myself.”

These two people, a Canadian and an American, both mourn Italy’s “becoming” secular rather than remaining Catholic. As second- or third-generation emigrants, they have skipped over several generations of Italian history, and apparently don’t realize that the separation of church and state in Italy was established in the Constitution (strongly modeled on the American one) in the early 1950s.

The Catholic Church still has influence in Italian life and politics, but that influence is waning (though not going down without a fight, I admit). The Church’s presence in daily life is nearly non-existent. Most Italians are still baptized etc. and would claim to be Catholic if you asked, but only about 10% (I’m guessing) are practicing Catholics.

There are still devout Catholics of course, but even they are puzzled by the attitudes of their non-practicing compatriots. One of my colleagues who is very active in his diocese told me: “These people show up wanting to marry in the church or baptize their kids. We’ve never seen them before and it means nothing to them, so we have to wonder why they bother.” If forced to think about it, these people might answer that it’s traditional, and/or that they want to please an older relative.

Italy still maintains many of the outward forms of Catholicism, but even those are being challenged, as in the above-mentioned cases of the classroom crucifixes and nativity play. Like most modern nations, Italy is wrestling with large-scale immigration and how to integrate new people, religions, and cultures into the existing culture and society. These are not easy issues, and the best answers differ even from community to community within a country. Some parts of Italy have found effective and interesting ways to bring their newly-multicultural communities together, others are still working on it. In most cases, the result will not look like the Italy that many Americans think they know.

Religion in Italian Schools

An agreement was made in 1884 between the Italian Republic and the Vatican, modified by the Lateran Concorde of 1929, and ratified in a new law in 1985, which reads: The Italian Republic, recognizing the value of religious culture, and keeping in mind that the principles of Catholicism are part of the historic patrimony of Read More…

An agreement was made in 1884 between the Italian Republic and the Vatican, modified by the Lateran Concorde of 1929, and ratified in a new law in 1985, which reads:

The Italian Republic, recognizing the value of religious culture, and keeping in mind that the principles of Catholicism are part of the historic patrimony of the Italian people, will continue to assure, among the broader goals of education, the teaching of the Catholic religion in all public schools below university level.

Respecting the freedom of conscience and educational responsibility of parents, everyone is guaranteed the right to choose whether or not to take advantage of such teaching.

When enrolling, students or their parents can exercise this right, upon request of the school authorities, and their choice may not give rise to any form of discrimination.

In accordance with the law, our daughter Rossella could have started religious education as early as pre-school. I was nervous about this, not wanting her to be catechized at such a young age, but also not wanting her to be the odd kid out. During the enrollment period, parents were invited to group meetings with the principal so that he could explain the school’s philosophy. To my surprise, one father’s biggest concern was to keep his child out of religious instruction – this man looked and sounded 100% Italian, but clearly was not very Catholic. The principal explained that, because he did not want any of his staff to teach religion, he had exercised his option to have a teacher provided by the local diocese. And, in accordance with the law, it was any parent’s right to opt out of this; a supervised alternate activity would be provided. That father and I were both much relieved.

A family friend faced a dilemma with her small child: she needed daycare, but the only place available near home was a private institution run by nuns. With some misgivings, she enrolled her son, and things went on well enough for several months. Until one day the boy came home and said to his mother: “Blessed art thou among women!” She withdrew him immediately.

Rossella’s lack of religious instruction was displayed to the public one day at a museum in Milan. After seeing many paintings of the crucifixion, she said loudly (in Italian): “What does this guy think he’s doing? A balancing act?” All heads snapped around to get a look at the pagan three-year-old.

In elementary school, Ross again did the alternativa, reading myths and legends from around the world and drawing illustrations for them. They also studied a simplified version of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. There were three or four other kids in alternativa with Ross (at least one of whom was Muslim), but most of the class were doing catechism in preparation for their confirmation (cresima – chrism) at age 9 or so. In some parts of Italian society, confirmation is a very big deal, with a fancy dress for the girls, a restaurant lunch hosted by the family, and presents – a sort of mini-wedding.

Although many prefer less fanfare and expense, most families do choose for their children to go through la cresima; it’s a tradition, though it seems to have lost most of its meaning. One little girl told me firmly: “I’m only going through this so that I can have a church wedding later on. After that, they’ll never see me again.”

The school Ross attended for 6th and 7th grade was very religious. Ross agreed that she should take religion class, to learn about this part of her Italian cultural heritage. The textbook was definitely Catholic, but no mere catechism, and the teaching was not heavy-handed. When she changed schools in 8th grade, she again took religion, and did well in the class, which even discussed some other religions.

In smaller towns, many kids who are not particularly religious or Catholic opt to participate in religion classes, simply because everyone else does – no kid wants to be the weirdo. One American friend’s son even asked if he could do the cresima, so as not to be the only kid in the class who didn’t (he hadn’t been baptized Catholic, so I’m not sure if that was possible).

In Lecco, Ross decided to take religion, like everyone else. It’s taught by a priest, Don Maurizio, but I like his attitude. The first day of class he told them: “I’m not here to convert anybody.” His main aim is to provoke the kids to think and talk about moral and ethical issues. Ross is thoughtful and articulate in his class, so he likes her, and is her champion with the other teachers (who seem to be having trouble understanding her).

Evolution: How It is Taught in Italian Schools

“A new Great Awakening is sweeping the country, with Americans increasingly telling pollsters that they believe in prayer and miracles, while only 28 percent say they believe in evolution.” Nicholas Kristof, NYT, Jan 7, 2003 This shouldn’t be surprising, given that, in some parts of America, public schools are required to teach evolution with disclaimers that it Read More…

“A new Great Awakening is sweeping the country, with Americans increasingly telling pollsters that they believe in prayer and miracles, while only 28 percent say they believe in evolution.” Nicholas Kristof, NYT, Jan 7, 2003

This shouldn’t be surprising, given that, in some parts of America, public schools are required to teach evolution with disclaimers that it is “only a theory,” some giving equal time to creationism. Thankfully, the national curricula for Italy’s public schools are not so wilfully blind, and Italians believe more firmly in the separation of church and state than some Americans do. Rossella’s current history text covers it thus:

“Until the end of the 18th century, it was generally accepted that all existing species had been created by a divine mind, according to a plan which had conceived them already perfectly adapted to their environments. This idea, inspired by the Bible, was known as creationism. … [A] new theory, called evolution, [held that] living species in the course of time undergo very slow but continuous change to adapt to their environments… based on a mechanism of natural selection… Darwinism is a fundamental component of our culture [today]…”

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would suspect that the American public school system is being made or allowed to become dumber and dumber, so that a nation of sheep will spend their lives on the sofa, happily absorbing entertainment and “news,” with an occasional foray to the mall to spend more money than they should on things the advertisers tell them they need. All this perpetrated, no doubt, by some shadowy elite who can afford to educate their own children at America’s fine private schools and colleges.

Evolution in Italian Schools

May 3, 2004

The recent, much-disputed Moratti Reform of the Italian school system included, among other things, some vague wording that seemed to imply the removal of teaching evolution from the middle-school curriculum. After other issues had been thoroughly dissected and protested, this one excited some heated discussion, and has resulted in a press release clarifying that: “It is absolutely not true that the Ministry has removed the teaching of evolutionary theory from primary and middle schools. The discussion of Darwinian theory, a foundation of modern biological science, is assured for students from 6 to 18 years, according to gradual didactic theories. I wish in this regard to restate that the main objective of the school Reform is to create free consciences, developing a critical sense in students from the first years of their schooling. We wish to assure our children, under the guidance of teachers, a plurality of sources and opinions, so that they can compare and form their own critical consciences. We wish to stimulate all students to think, from the smallest to the oldest, so that they can form a responsible personality based on principles, values, lifestyles, and behaviors [which are] conscious, founded on respect for others, and open to comparison.”

Minister Moratti goes on to say that, given the debate in recent days, a commission has been formed to study the question of evolution and give precise pointers to create a basis for all curricula. This commission is headed by Rita Levi Montalcini (senator for life and Nobel prize winner in medicine), and includes Carlo Rubbia, Nobel for physics, Roberto Colombo, professor of neurobiology and genetics at the Università Cattolica Sacro Cuore di Milano, and Vittorio Sgaramella, professor of molecular biology at the University of Calabria.

Hmm. Minister Moratti is reputed to be of the religious right, though that is a far less heavy affiliation than it would be in the US. Her statement leaves some wiggle room for the introduction of “competing” theories on how life came about, but hopefully a panel of Nobel winners, no matter what their personal theology, will not embarrass themselves and the country by imitating, say, the US state of Georgia.

The press release

Bible Stories

When Rossella was still in preschool and I was travelling to the US a lot for work, I brought her with me several times on extended trips, usually while Enrico was also travelling for mathematical research. So Ross experienced daycare in several different places in America, which was good for her English, and gave her Read More…

When Rossella was still in preschool and I was travelling to the US a lot for work, I brought her with me several times on extended trips, usually while Enrico was also travelling for mathematical research. So Ross experienced daycare in several different places in America, which was good for her English, and gave her exposure to American culture.

The year she was four, she was slated to spent some time with me in California. Before she arrived (accompanied by Enrico), I went to look at daycare centers with the wife of one of my Italian colleagues, who also had a young child. At one center the owner said, in a very aggressive tone: “I have all the kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.”

I had my own run-in with the Pledge when I was a kid, so you can imagine how I felt about this. “But these kids aren’t even American,” I protested.

“All the more reason for them to realize how lucky they are to be here!” she snapped. We decided against that place.

The only other option was an avowedly Christian daycare center. I was worried about what kind of indoctrination we might come up against, but the place was bright, cheerful, and clean, and I liked the staff, so I decided to risk it. I gave Ross a talk about how these people might tell her a lot of stuff about God, and she wasn’t to feel bad or strange if she didn’t agree with it; she was always free to make up her own mind.

She came home one evening and told me excitedly about the Bible stories she had heard that day: the adventures of Jonah and the whale, and Noah.

“Do you think that stuff is true?” I asked worriedly.

“Oh, no!” she said brightly. “They said they were stories!”

Nov 18, 2003

My friend Ivo wrote: “When I was in the US on my first day of high school [9th grade, in Georgia] I got the teacher yelling at me because I didn’t stand and recite the pledge! He said: “Are you Russian!? Would you prefer to be in Russia!?”

When I explained that I was Italian and had no idea of what that funny thing was, we found an agreement, and for the remaining 2 and a half years I was expected to stand up, but could avoid speaking or keeping my hand over my heart!”