Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Italians and Religion

There was a great scene at the end of Godfather I where the director cut back and forth between Michael Corleone standing up as Godfather for his sister's child in Baptism in the sanctuary of a Catholic Church, while the soldiers in his Mafia family systematically and ruthlessly executed his father's enemies. The scene was a kind of metaphor for the ambivalent relationship between Italians and their religion. Historically, Italians have always had a strong connection to Catholicism, after all, their CEO is headquartered in Rome. Even today, approximately 90% of the population of Italy identifies itself as Catholic, although of that number, only about 1/3 are actually practicing Catholics.

When I grew up, being Italian was synonymous with being Catholic. My parents were Catholic and sent me to Catholic grammar school. The chances of me turning to any other religion were about the same as Elton John going out for the Rugby team. Every Sunday, rain or shine, I was at the 9:00 o'clock Mass with the rest of my class. At Our Lady of Lourdes, there were pews set aside for the school children, and you had better be in your appointed place or face an inquisition on Monday morning. I notice in many Catholic parishes today that kids are permitted to go to any weekend Mass and simply drop an attendance card in a box to prove they were there. The Franciscans weren't nearly that trusting.


Unlike my devout mother, my father Tony came to God late in life. He worked hard at two jobs supporting the family, and Sunday morning was his day to sleep. I never asked him why he made me go to church but never went himself. I thought it was his way of saying: "It's too late for me...save yourself". Imagine my surprise when later in his life Tony Boots got religion. He not only started going to Mass regularly, but became an usher and a member of the parish Holy Name Society, a group of men whose main pastimes, as near as I could tell, were drinking beer and playing cards. As a betting man, Tony probably looked at going to church in his sunset years as the religious equivalent of putting two bucks on the long shot's nose to Show after betting twenty on the favorite to Win.

My church was pretty straight-laced, with a mixture of Italian and Slavic families, and the Irish and German families who looked down on them by virtue of having arrived in America few years earlier, in the great waves of immigrants that washed over America in the late 1800's and early 1900's. A short distance away, however, on Sackman Street, stood Our Lady of Loreto Church, built by and peopled with parishioners almost exclusively of Italian descent. Going to Mass there was never boring. Sunburned men who did backbreaking manual labor during the week sat there looking uncomfortable in their ill-fitting Sunday suits under the eyes of their tight-lipped, dark-eyed wives who knew that church was their province. As families entered the church, the Italian ladies, already seated with their families, stared them down lest they take a pew closer to the altar. The few who dared may have heard the word "Putana" in a muttered stage whisper.


Religion is supposed to be about charity and forgiveness, two qualities that old-time Italians were not so big on. Usually in Our Lady of Loreto, despite pastor Monsignor Baretta's request for a "silent" collection (paper money only) the passing of the basket was usually accompanied by the loud jingle of coins. These people worked hard for their money and parted with it reluctantly. If they were to deposit paper money, they needed the full attention of the congregation. On such rare occasions, the donor would stand up and loudly call out to the usher while conspicuously waving the bill in the air for all to see. When the usher reached them, they made a great fuss about dropping the money into the basket with a flourish.

As for forgiveness, Italians may forget, but they do not forgive. In Italy, especially around Sicily where vengeance has been raised to an art form, there are at least 50,000 vendettas playing out on any given day. Vendetta in Italian refers to a feud between families or clans that arises out of a slaying and is perpetuated by retaliatory acts of revenge; a blood feud. What does this have to do with religion and church you may wonder. Well the old-time Italians were not beneath praying for misfortune to befall a rival. They rarely prayed for someone's death, after all that would be un-Christian. Maybe just a case of excruciatingly painful boils, thank you Lord.


I am an Italian-American and I accept that with all it entails. As a people we are complex and certainly not perfect, but looking back on my childhood, growing up in my Italian family, I really wouldn't have it any other way.


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3 comments:

The Whiner said...

I love that scene in the Godfather as it really is a perfect statement for Italians and religions. Grandpa being an usher reminds me of that episode of Raymond where the men, including Frank, had their coveted usher assignments so they could chat in the back of the church during Mass.

Jim Pantaleno said...

That was Grandpa back there probably starting a World Series pool!

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Ah, I remember Our Lady of Loretto, it was my grandmothers playpen, she was constantly organizing bus rides and plane trips to Italy for the parish! Zia Francesca's phone would ring off the wall on Fulton Street, and an endless parade of visitors before Sunday dinners. What a great woman she was!