ROME – Italy may no longer be the biggest Catholic nation in the world, which is Brazil, or the most practicing, which is probably someplace such as Poland or the Philippines, but it’s nevertheless the pope’s backyard and a place where symbols of the faith still pack considerable punch.

Rarely was that clearer than Tuesday, when the rosary improbably emerged as a bone of contention in the country’s latest political free-for-all.

The current crisis was triggered several days ago, when Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini announced his right-wing populist League party would abandon its coalition with the left-wing populist Five Star movement, which means the current government no longer has a majority in parliament.

On Tuesday, the Italian Senate met to discuss where that leaves things. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who had been the compromise choice of the two coalition partners, announced he would resign, thus leaving it up to Italian President Sergio Mattarella to determine whether there’s some other constellation of parties that could sustain a government, or if the only alternative is to call new elections.

Salvini definitely favors the latter course, since right now polls show him with a wide lead over his rivals.

More than anything else, Salvini is known both in Italy and abroad for his hardline position on immigration, using his power as Interior Minister to deny permission for boats carrying migrants and refugees rescued from the Mediterranean to dock in Italian ports – even, in a handful of cases, if those boats belonged to the Italian Coast Guard.

Salvini has also had success positioning himself as a defender of Italy’s traditional Catholic identity and values, in part by making public use of Catholic symbolism both in his political rallies and on the floor of parliament. He’s known for giving fiery speeches while brandishing a Bible, and also for fingering a rosary during press conferences and parliamentary hearings.

Such displays have never set well with Salvini’s Catholic critics. A widely read Catholic magazine published by a religious order here, for instance, ran a cover story last year about Salvini and his manipulation of religious symbolism under the headline Vade Retro – a Latin phrase from the ritual of exorcism, “Get behind me, Satan!”

On Tuesday, Conte added his voice to the chorus urging Salvini to keep his rosary in his pocket.

“Allow me a final observation, which I admit I’ve never brought up with you before,” the resigning Prime Minister said, addressing Salvini directly. “Someone with responsibility for government should avoid juxtaposing political slogans with religious symbols during their rallies.”

“Dear Matteo, such behavior, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the principle of religious liberty or freedom of conscience,” Conte said. “It’s religious recklessness, which risks offending the sentiments of believers and, at the same time, obscuring the principle of secularism, a fundamental trait of the modern state.”

As Conte spoke, Salvini was seen shrugging his shoulders and extending his arms in a gesture of frustration. He then was captured on a live broadcast taking his rosary out of his pocket and kissing it as Conte spoke.

Afterwards, Salvini offered a vigorous defense of his religiosity.

“Can’t I go into the hall [of parliament] with the rosary of the Madonna of Medjugorje without someone getting offended, or regarding it as a threat to democracy?” he asked, seemingly exasperated.

Salvini also pointed out that last year, Conte agreed to give an hour-long interview to Italy’s most famous living journalist on the 100th anniversary of Padre Pio’s stigmata, meaning the five wounds of Christ, and Salvini said he didn’t complain at the time.

“Italians don’t vote on the basis of a rosary, but with their heads and hearts,” Salvini said. “I’ll ask for the protection of Mary for Italy for the rest of my life … I’m not ashamed of it.”

“Indeed,” Salvini added, “I’m the least and most humble” person to invoke Mary’s help.

Salvini may have been referring to the fact he has two children from different women, one of whom he later divorced and the other to whom he was never married. In a recent interview, Salvini also acknowledged that he’s not a regular Mass-goer, attending mostly for weddings, baptisms and funerals.

As Salvini was defending himself in parliament, two senators from his League party also took rosaries out of their pockets in an evident show of solidarity. At that point, Senate President Senato Casellati reminded members of the body that exhibiting religious symbols on the floor is prohibited on the grounds of church/state separation.

Unfazed, Salvini proceeded to use his speech to entrust Italy to Mary, at which point a left-wing opponent could be heard yelling: “Show us your stigmata!”

Even St. John Paul II eventually was dragged into the fray, when Salvini cited the Polish pope to the effect that trust “must be earned with deeds and concrete facts.” That, too, brought protest from the left-wing Democratic Party, whose members howled as soon as Salvini pronounced the late pope’s name.

Mattarella now has several days to determine if a new government can be formed. If not, most observers believe elections probably would be held in October – which, perhaps not coincidentally, is also the month of the rosary.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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