ROME – Although nobody really has paper filing cabinets anymore, we all carry around their virtual equivalents in our heads. Mine contains a gigantic folder, literally groaning with material, which I call my “only in Italy” file.
Over the course of twenty-plus years of visiting and living here, I’m often amused by the foibles and idiosyncrasies of Italian life that reflect its utterly unique cultural matrix. More often than not, these “only in Italy” curiosities involve the Catholic Church, with which the country always has had a striking love/hate bond.
Case in point? Every day in Rome at noon a canon is fired from the city’s Janiculum hill, near a gigantic statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the father of Italian unification. The tradition began in 1847 under Pope Pius IX, who was frustrated that different churches in the city would ring their bells for the noontime Angelus prayer at different times, creating an unruly cacophony, and he wanted to impose a standard.
In 1904, however, the canon was moved to the Janiculum to become not a call to prayer, but a commemoration of the capture of Rome in 1870 by Italian forces and the subsequent collapse of the Papal States and erection of the new Italian Republic.
In the capital city of Catholicism, in other words, where the economy is utterly dependent on the attractions of the Vatican and the papacy, nevertheless every day a canon goes off to recall a great papal defeat.
This week has witnessed another “only in Italy” classic, in the form of a political kerfuffle over midnight Mass.
In short, the Italian government recently announced new anti-COVID measures for the period Dec. 20-Jan. 6, meaning the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. As part of the package, a strict curfew will be imposed from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. (Curiously enough, the curfew will be extended to 7:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day itself – perhaps because no self-respecting Italian would be out of bed by 6:00 a.m. on New Year’s anyway, so an adjustment was deemed appropriate.)
One implication is that the traditional Midnight Mass on Christmas eve this year will have to be moved up, with most churches planning on holding their services at 8:00 p.m.
For the record, the Italian bishops’ conference is perfectly fine with the adjustment, saying it’s a reasonable measure to protect public health. There’s been no objection from the Vatican either, in part because for years its own “Midnight Mass” actually has begun at 10:00 p.m.
(After all, with octogenarian pontiffs you don’t really want them staying up until 2:00 a.m. when they have to get out of bed just a few hours later to celebrate the Christmas Day Mass.)
Yet as Crux reported yesterday, there is nonetheless pushback to the government-ordered adjustments to Midnight Mass, but it’s not coming from Catholic officialdom.
One voice of resistance has been Matteo Salvini, the feisty leader of the far-right populist Lega party, who complained that the “cancellation” of midnight Mass means “Christmas is being stolen from our children” and compared “moving up” the hour of Christ’s birth to a farcical film by a legendary Italian movie character.
Another critic has been Giole Magaldi, leader of one of a Masonic movement in Italy, who blasted what he called the bishops’ “silence” on the government’s Midnight Mass decree as “scandalous.”
(Just to be clear, as several ecclesiastical types have pointed out this week, midnight on Christmas eve is not the hour of Christ’s birth. Not only do we not know the precise time he was born, we don’t even know the date or the year, and the Church has never officially defined it. As Patriarch Francesco Moraglia of Venice said, therefore, to suggest the government is “moving up” the hour of Christ’s birth is “enough to make you laugh.”)
Here’s what makes an “only in Italy” moment.
Today’s Lega party is a descendent of the Lega Nord, or “Northern League,” founded by legendary Italian politician Umberto Bossi. Its origins are derived from the Padanian nationalist movement, which aspired to the succession of northern Italy and the rejection of Roman rule. At times, some of its leading intellectuals also flirted with the rejection of Catholicism in favor of a revival of Celtic mythology and ritual, with the idea being that northern Italians are ethnically related to the ancient warrior Celts.
In other words, the Lega’s roots are in a worldview that sees the pope and the Church as the problem, not the solution. That’s in addition to the fact that Salvini, the party’s current leader, has done battle with Pope Francis and the Italian church on issues ranging from immigration to European integration and beyond.
As for the Masons, their historical battles with the papacy and the Catholic Church are abundantly well-documented. When Magaldi unfavorably compared today’s crop of prelates to the “lions” of the past, he neglected to mention that several of those lions demonstrated their tenacity in part by aggressively implementing the Vatican’s 1738 ban on membership in Masonic organizations.
In other words, both groups have a history of being explicitly anti-clerical and hostile to the papacy, yet both are now cheerfully rebranding themselves as spokespersons for the “more Catholic than the pope” crowd.
Why? Because despite everything, ultra-Catholic populists do better here than anti-Catholic ones.
Italy’s Radical Party was for decades the bastion of anti-clerical resentments in the country, yet the highest share of the vote it ever obtained was 3.45 percent and it never formed part of a national government. Italy’s Lega, however, is doing just fine, routinely polling around 30 percent, and Salvini has served as the country’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister.
That’s the love/hate relationship in miniature – Italians may grouse endlessly about the church, but they’re still far more likely to respond to someone who postures as its savior than its annihilator.
The irony, of course, is that the Church already has a savior, and the feast of his birth is drawing near – no matter what time it’s celebrated.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.