ROME – Yesterday was a special day of universal prayer for healing from the coronavirus proposed by the “Higher Committee for Human Fraternity,” a body formed in the wake of Pope Francis’s 2019 trip to the United Arab Emirates, and the “Document on Human Fraternity” he signed there along with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyeb.
Francis embraced the call for a May 14 day of prayer by all religious traditions earlier in the month, and he began his livestreamed morning Mass yesterday by referring to it.
“We’re all brothers, as Saint Francis of Assisi said,” the pope said.
“For this reason, men and women of every religious confession today are uniting in prayer and penance, to ask the grace of healing from this pandemic,” Francis said.
(The irony that the “Higher Committee for Human Fraternity” is financed by the UAE, which is presently engaged in conflicts in both Libya and Yemen in violation of a UN arms embargo, and that its government has a decidedly mixed human rights record, obviously isn’t lost on Francis, but his approach seems to be to welcome positive initiatives wherever they originate.)
At least here in Italy, however, where the pope’s injunctions usually have the widest resonance because it’s his own backyard, the initiative came at a moment when many Italians aren’t in an especially fraternal mood.
Instead, the country has been lacerated by a controversy surrounding Silvia Romano, now 24, who was serving as a humanitarian volunteer in Kenya when she was kidnapped 18 months ago by militants linked to Somalia’s radical al-Shabab terrorist group.
News of her liberation late last week initially prompted national celebration, but things quickly took a vicious turn when it emerged that Romano had converted to Islam during her captivity and taken the name “Aisha.” In conversations with government officials, she’s reportedly insisted that her conversion was uncoerced, calling it the result of reading the Quran and discussing the faith with one of her captors.
The revelations about her conversion triggered a particularly nasty bout of commentary, both on social media and in political circles. One leading conservative politician, Vittorio Sgarbi, actually suggested Romano be prosecuted.
“If the mafia and terrorism are analogous, in that they both represent a war on the state, and if Silvia Romano is radically converted to Islam, she should be arrested for material cooperation with a terrorist association,” Sgarbi said. “Either she repents, or she’s an accomplice of the terrorists.”
Sgarbi is now one of several prominent figures reportedly under investigation by a Milan prosecutor under “hate speech” provisions in Italian law.
The editor of the prominent conservative newspaper Il Giornale, Alessandro Sallussti, compared watching Romano arrive at Rome’s Ciampino airport Sunday wearing traditional Islamic garb to “seeing a concentration camp prisoner proudly dressed up as a Nazi.”
At lower levels, vitriol in social media messages and comments posted at the end of news articles has been widespread. One poster to a major news site, identified as “Max,” wrote, “I’d have left her in Africa,” while another, called “Rocco,” suggested “sending her back and making her repay whatever this operation cost.”
Such reactions have deep roots in Italy, which have been turbo-charged over the last decade by the European migrant and refugee crisis and perceptions that the country is being “overrun,” mostly by Muslim immigrants seen by some as incompatible with Italy’s cultural identity. Even now, after more than two months in which he’s been largely invisible because he’s out of power, Matteo Salvini and his far-right Lega party poll ahead of every other political faction in the country, with a stable base of about 30 percent support.
In that context, Catholic leaders have struggled mightily to make the case for fraternity, not to mention patience.
On the eve of the fraternal day of prayer, the pope’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, carried a long editorial by Italian poet and writer Daniele Mencarelli denouncing what he called an “incredible sequence of filthy judgments.”
“Without compassion, man sets himself up as a judge, committing the clearest and most ignoble denial of the Christian message,” Mencarelli wrote.
“Our era is bulimic with judgment,” he wrote. “We know with perfection what others are doing wrong, and we’re ready to throw stones without mercy. Fortunately, there’s still a form of humanity that loves, and that offers itself to others.”
“Welcome back, Silvia,” Mencarelli concluded, “take all the time you need.”
The editorial built on earlier praise for Romano’s courage and desire to serve shown by Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, which called her an “ambassador of a better Italy,” and the widely read Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana, which termed her “an example for our young people.”
Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, president of the Italian bishops, said all Italians should feel that Romano is their daughter, terming her “a young woman with grit, and this inner strength is surely what saved her.”
It’s not clear if this campaign of compassion is cutting much ice. Il Giornale carried a piece in response titled “A Church enthusiastic for conversion,” lambasting official Catholic commentary as representing the sort of Church that appeals to “hypocritical Catholics as well as the innumerable atheists, agnostics, spiritualists, pantheists” and so on.
The newspaper reserved special derision for Father Enrico Parazzoli, the pastor of the small Milan parish attended by Romano’s family, who said her conversion merits “great respect” and that “only she can say if Islam is the right answer for her life.”
“Maybe he didn’t realize it,” Il Giornale wrote, “but in saying that, Father Enrico resigned as a priest. Priests are entrusted with the apostolic mission, and whoever stops evangelizing and starts to bless somebody’s ‘Quranization’ is no longer credible and should change jobs, maybe getting hired by one of those magnificent, Islamophile NGOs.”
The unplanned juxtaposition of the May 14 Day of Prayer and the Romano controversy here in Italy, therefore, perhaps illustrates two truths.
First, Pope Francis will miss no opportunity to embrace calls for human fraternity and interfaith solidarity, no matter where they come from. And second, the challenges to fraternity in a polarized age don’t seem to be receding anytime soon.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.