ROME – Externally, at least, there’s little particularly Catholic about the fervor that’s swept Italy in anticipation of tonight’s final of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament against England in London’s Wembley Stadium – although one of Italy’s best players is named Chiesa, meaning “Church,” and the country’s biggest sports paper ran the headline “God is Italian!” after the team beat Spain in a shootout in the semifinals.
In a poll, most Italians said they’re passionate about this team because its success represents redemption after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, or after the hardships of the coronavirus pandemic. There was nothing about playing for the honor of God, or for Catholic pride, or under the patronage of the Madonna.
(Remarkably, 7.3 percent of Italians said they’re not following the tournament at all – which implies, of course, that almost 93 percent are.)
Nonetheless, the Italian church is certainly doing its best to try to convert it into what experts might call an “evangelical moment,” capitalizing on vast public interest to lure people to ecclesiastical venues – maybe if they show up to watch the game, or so the theory seems to go, they’ll also show up for worship.
Weekly Mass attendance here took a severe dip during the closures and suspensions of the coronavirus, and, for some Italians, this may be their first physical contact with the church since the pandemic began.
Jesi, located in the center of the country near the Adriatic coast, is the hometown of Italian national coach Roberto Mancini. There, the parish of St. Sebastian the Martyr is hosting a watch party Sunday on a big-screen TV set up on a soccer field next to the church – the same field, apparently, where Mancini first played the game on his way to a long career as player and coach. People are invited to show up at 7:30 p.m. for an open-air Mass, then watch the game starting at 9:00 p.m. here in Italy.
Associate Pastor Fr. Federico Rango said that especially because of the association with Mancini, “people are coming from other neighborhoods, even from out of town.”
In Milan, the Diocesan Museum is hosting a watch party under the stars in the courtyard of the former cloister that hosts the collection. For 12 Euro, people can come at 7:00 p.m. to see the exhibits, which, at the moment, feature a special collection of the works of French photographer and painter Jacques Henri Lartigue titled “The Invention of Happiness” – certainly an apt phrase should the Azzurri, or “Blues,” the nickname for the Italian team, beat England to claim the championship.
Afterwards, visitors can grab a light meal in the museum’s bistro – which, for the occasion, is featuring a special pizza in red, white and green, the colors of the Italian national flag.
In Spinea, located in northern Italy on the outskirts of Venice, the local parish of Santa Maria Bertilla is using its brand-new parish hall, a large modern structured financed by a wealthy parishioner, to host a large viewing party Sunday night. It’s the same drill – people are invited to show up for Mass first, and then stick around for the game.
So important is the gathering that when the city council of Spinea announced its own plans to erect a jumbo screen in a nearby park, they took pains to emphasize that it’s not intended to compete with the parish’s event, merely to provide access for overflow crowds.
Such activities are happening up and down the entire Italian peninsula.
In the small town of Sommacampagna in northern Italy near Verona, the local parish is hosting a watch party in the courtyard of its youth center, with a $6 meal ticket offering access to as many hot dogs and hamburgers as you can eat, and a bar service throughout the night. Though there’s no requirement of attending Mass, the Sunday night liturgy has been moved from 6:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. so people who want to can pray before they play.
Nationally, Italian security services have reached out through the bishops’ conference to encourage parishes and Catholic associations to organize post-game activities for youth in safe spaces, in a bid to try to keep as many young people as possible from flooding streets and squares.
(Honestly, they’re more worried about how those youth may react if Italy loses, especially if it comes on a disputed penalty such as occurred in England’s semifinal with Denmark, and angry ragazzi are looking to vent their frustrations.)
Believe me, it’s not just parishes where there will be overt expressions of Catholic religiosity. Backyards, terraces and living rooms all across the country are suddenly sprouting rosaries, icons and holy cards, as makeshifts shrines take shape organically around TV screens to implore the favor of God and the Madonna for the Italian team.
It was sociologist Gracie Davie who coined the phrase “believing without belonging,” and Sunday night will be a massive empirical demonstration of her thesis, as Italians who haven’t darkened the doors of a church in years except for weddings, funerals and baptisms will, nevertheless, fall back on the prayers and imagery they learned as children.
Perhaps most fundamentally, it’s striking how the two questions every Italian instinctively ask right now are: 1) What do you think about the game? and 2) Who are you watching it with? The assumption is that it’s an occasion of stress, of fear, potentially of great agony or immense joy, and thus it’s something that needs to be done in the company of other people.
For the final, in other words, Italians instinctively want to be part of a Communion of Saints – and really, what’s more Catholic than that?
It’s impossible to say whether any of this will translate into higher turnout at church when a championship isn’t on the line. Savvy pastors, however, might want to be thinking now about the World Cup qualifiers to be played in September, and the semifinal of the Nations League tournament in October featuring a rematch of Italy/Spain from the Euro semifinals, a rollicking game that ended in a penalty kick shootout.
Catholicism at its best over the centuries always has had a genius for coopting popular devotions, and precious little inspires more devotion here right now.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr