Most people feel a natural spark of compassion whenever they hear about tragedy or misery, wherever it strikes. How long that spark endures usually depends on how close the tragedy hits to home, and how well they know the people involved.
Thus it was that when a 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck central Italy on this date last year, leaving 299 people dead and essentially wiping out the small town of Amatrice, that one stayed with me and still does, because I’ve known and cherished the place for the better part of 20 years.
It’s not just that it was a picturesque Italian village, although it was and hopefully will be again, nor is it just that it’s the birthplace of my favorite dish on the face of the planet, pasta all’amatriciana, though it certainly is that too. Once in a while I’ve popped down to Amatrice over the years for its annual amatriciana festival, where free samples of various versions of the dish were served up, and found both the people and the food absolutely priceless.
The Vaticanologist in me also knows that Amatrice was once the supplier of chefs to the papal court, so it’s interwoven into the history of the Vatican and the papacy. From years of personal experience, I can testify that amatriciana is the heart and soul of the Roman kitchen, and when you walk into almost any Roman restaurant, it would be a safe bet that a third of the people there at any given time are eating it.
For Catholics, Rome is more than the bureaucratic HQ of the Church. It’s a site of spiritual pilgrimage, uniquely so, because it captures the whole past and present of the faith. St. John Paul II used to advise seminarians studying in the city to imparare Roma, to “learn Rome,” because it would give them an education in Catholicism all by itself.
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Learning Rome doesn’t just happen in basilicas and catacombs. It also happens on the streets and in neighborhoods, in the coffee shops and wine bars, and – given the centrality of food in Italian culture – perhaps as much as anyplace, in restaurants.
That brings us back to amatriciana and Amatrice.
It probably would take NASA to calculate how many important Vatican decisions over the centuries have been born over of a plate of the legendary pasta – how many documents launched, how many theological disputes resolved, how many bishops’ appointments sealed, perhaps even the outcome of a conclave or two hammered out. (Trust me, I’ve watched it happen a time or two … well, not the conclave part, but the rest.)
In other words, Amatrice is part of Catholic history and culture. It’s part of our DNA, part of our bloodstream, and the Church as we know it today wouldn’t be the same without it. For instance, I’ve long posited that a primary reason the papacy didn’t stick it out in Avignon but came back to Rome was because popes were craving amatriciana. (Yes, I know the timeline is a little off.)
In light of all that, I made the case last year that Catholics everywhere ought to stand up for the people of Amatrice in their hour of need, because, frankly, we owe them.
In many ways, Catholics have done that. At Crux, we co-sponsored a charity dinner for earthquake relief last year along with the Diocese of Orange in California, at the gracious suggestion of Bishop Kevin Vann. The evening featured a special greeting from Pope Francis, which Inés San Martín, our intrepid Vatican correspondent and co-editor, had filmed on her smartphone aboard the papal plane.
The evening raised roughly $250,000 to contribute to reconstruction, and it wasn’t the only such effort – though, because of the video greetings from four American cardinals and archbishops along with the pope, plus the fantastic amatriciana served by Chef Bruno Serato and his team at Anaheim’s White House restaurant, it may have been the most memorable.
By the way, Catholics aren’t the only ones. People from all over the world pitched in, including a Japanese architecture team with expertise in seismology that came over to see what could be done to build sturdier structures, concerned Germans are making plans to incentivize tourism in the area, and so on.
However, what’s important to realize on this anniversary is that the need to which we responded last year still exists, and the work isn’t done.
Reconstruction efforts in central Italy, including Amatrice, are lagging badly behind projected schedules, in part because of the general inertia that often plagues Italian bureaucracy, and in part because of the impact of new anti-corruption controls that slow down awarding contracts and making disbursements.
As of right now, less than 10 percent of the rubble in the area – comprising some 140 villages, towns and cities in all, though Amatrice was the single hardest-hit – has been cleared. Of the almost 4,000 temporary homes ordered for residents of the area, less than 500 have actually arrived, and there’s real fear the temporary housing won’t be ready in time for the winter, putting people at further risk of exposure and illness.
Part of the complication, too, is that new structures are supposed to be built according to strict seismic standards to resist future quakes – although, given Italy’s history of supposedly spending bucket-loads of money to retrofit buildings only to watch them crumble at the first sign of trouble, people are understandably skeptical about whether that’s actually going to happen.
There’s an ambitious plan for Amatrice, one that envisions making it once again a classic Italian village by limiting the height of buildings and giving the city the central piazza, or square, that was once denied by a papal edict. (Presumably, Pope Francis, who visited Amatrice and other damaged towns after the quake, is okay with that.)
Plenty of public money has been earmarked, but it’s an open question how quickly, and how thoroughly, those plans will be implemented.
Relatives of the victims in Amatrice met on the anniversary to pray for their loved ones, with a church bell ringing precisely 239 times, recalling each of the people who died. Today is a great chance to not only join those folks in prayer, but in concrete solidarity.
Information about how to contribute to the relief effort via Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas development arm of the U.S. bishops, can be found here.
After everything Amatrice has given the Church, it seems the least the rest of can do for it.