ROME – It’s difficult to have any conversation in Rome right now, even on the happy subject of the looming canonization of Mother Teresa on Sunday, which sooner or later doesn’t turn to the devastating earthquake that recently struck northeast of the capital city, essentially wiping out the small town of Amatrice and damaging others severely.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced on Sunday that the death toll now stands at 290, and a Mass in the area for victims was held Sunday utilizing a cross fashioned from the ladders and helmets of rescue workers.

Italians are a loquacious people, so the primary way they handle emotion is by talking it out. There’s been a torrent of commentary, some of it unfolding in the pages of newspapers and on national talk shows, but much of it around the water cooler – in cabs and bars, in restaurants, in grocery stores and at the barber shop, the horror that befell Amatrice last Tuesday is simply unavoidable.

Amid that torrent of talk, one of the more perceptive takes came Monday from an Italian journalist named Stefano Bartezzaghi, who writes for La Repubblica, the country’s most widely read daily newspaper.

Bartezzaghi has an interesting background, having earned a degree in semiotics from the University of Bologna under famed novelist Umberto Eco. Among his various activities, Batezzaghi was in charge of the Italian translation of the Harry Potter series.

As a semiotician, Bartezzaghi is keenly attentive to the varying uses of language to signify one thing or another, and in a recent piece for Repubblica, he suggests that for Italians, perhaps the primary linguistic effect of the quake will be to invert a customary use of the term “amatriciana.”

For those who may not be aware (and my sympathies if this is indeed your situation, because I’m tempted to ask what you’ve been doing all your life), amatriciana is the classic dish of the Roman kitchen. It’s a sauce made with bacon-like bits of cured pork jowl, pecorino cheese and tomato, and can be served with rigatoni, ravioli, buccatini, spaghetti, or basically any sort of pasta you prefer.

Legend has it that the sauce was born in the town of Amatrice, hence the name. I’ve made the argument that to the extent there is such a thing as Catholic cuisine, amatriciana deserves a pride of place on the menu, given that countless numbers of priests, nuns, and bishops relied on it for their primary sustenance during periods of study or service in Rome.

Precisely because it’s so ubiquitous, amatriciana over the years has taken on a slightly pejorative connotation for many Italians, used more or less to mean “plebeian,” “low-brow,” and “banal.” As Bartezzaghi notes, Italian pundits often refer to, say, “TV all’amatriciana” to dismiss stuff such as “Big Brother” or “The Bachelor.”

Now, however, Bartezzaghi suggests, all that is changing, because today for Italians amatriciana stands for “solidarity, globally shared suffering, and Euros directed to the emergency also through a hungry ordination in restaurants.”

That last bit is a reference to the fact that many Roman restaurants are offering two Euros to relief efforts for every plate of amatriciana they sell, with one Euro coming from the restaurant and the other from the client.

In other words, the outpouring of support and relief triggered by the quake is overhauling the mental associations Italians make when they think of amatriciana. It’s no longer about their equivalent of a chicken fried steak, or a Big Mac – it’s about pride in the way people here can respond when the chips are truly down.

Here’s one small example, among too many to count: a group of 18 African refugees in Italy headed to Amatrice as soon as they heard about the situation to help with relief efforts, saying they want to give back some of what they’ve received from il bel paese.

I’d like to suggest that what Bartezzaghi says about Italian usage ought to apply to Catholics generally – that amatriciana can, and should, become a term signifying more than a delicious plate of pasta (though, let’s be clear, it definitely is that – I arrived in Italy on this trip basically 48 hours ago, and I’ve already had three plates of it.)

Given how familiar the Catholic leadership class is with amatriciana anyway, it could also become a new bit of ecclesiastical vocabulary, signifying a response to human suffering based on solidarity and direct action.

The next time a disaster strikes, the Catholic rallying cry could be, “We need a response all’amatriciana.” In talking about the importance of mobilizing Catholic resources to serve the poor, to welcome the immigrant, to protect the environment or the unborn, or any other worthy cause rooted in Catholic social teaching, we could say, “Let’s cook this all’amatriciana.”

Frankly, given how often Catholic leaders from around the world find themselves in Rome for one bit of business or another, the idea of summoning images of concrete outreach to suffering people every time they sit down for a meal would almost certainly be a healthy thing.

Perhaps that bit of linguistic fine-tuning just might carry Catholicism a step or two closer to truly being a Church all’amatriciana.