On Sunday, October 5, as the long-awaited Synod on the Family was about to open, Italy witnessed a spate of physical intimidation reminiscent of what had been seen in the decade after the student riots of 1968. This time the violence was directed at the “Standing Sentinels” (“Sentinelle in Piedi”), a pro-family movement that had organized a demonstration so peaceful it was nearly motionless.
These Standing Sentinels of Italy’s are an offshoot of the French “Veilleurs Debout” (“Standing Vigil”), now renamed “Sentinelles” in uniformity with the groups they have spawned, as if overnight, all over Europe. Standing in front of a town hall or court of justice or other authority, silently absorbed in reading books, the Sentinels’ refusal to speak is meant to be a warning of the encroaching threats to freedom of speech and diversity of thinking.
On October 5, 100 different cities across Italy saw organized Sentinelle in Piedi protests. In many places, their attempts to raise awareness about the intimidating nature of a proposed law that would punish activities coming under the vague heading of “homophobia” were ambushed by organized groups of screaming, shoving, and spitting hecklers, who succeeded in grabbing the headlines and distorting the message. Today’s routinely compliant and intimidated press did the rest, eliminating the moral distance between the victims and their aggressors.
Whether north or south of the Alps, the Sentinels draw inspiration from the words spoken by John Paul II at his Mass on the Washington Mall, during his first visit to the United States, October 7, 1979:
And so, we will stand up every time that human life is threatened.
— When the sacredness of life before birth is attacked, we will stand up and proclaim that no one ever has the authority to destroy unborn life.
— When a child is described as a burden or looked upon only as means to satisfy an emotional need, we will stand up and insist that every child is a unique and unrepeatable gift of God, with the right to a loving and united family.
— When the institution of marriage is abandoned to human selfishness or reduced to a temporary, conditional arrangement that can be easily terminated, we will stand up and affirm the indissolubility of the marriage bond.
— When the value of the family is threatened because of social and economic pressures, we will stand up and reaffirm that the family is “necessary not only for the private good of every person, but also for the common good of every society, nation and state.”
— When freedom is used to dominate the weak, to squander natural resources and energy, and to deny basic necessities to people, we will stand up and reaffirm the demands of justice and social love.
— When the sick, the aged, or the dying are abandoned in loneliness, we will stand up and proclaim that they are worthy of love, care and respect.
The Sentinels movement began with the massive demonstrations organized in Paris, at the beginning of 2013, to protest against the law that would legalize gay marriage and adoption. For months, wave upon wave of citizens of all stripes and ages marched down the Champs Elysées, or along the secondary streets to which they were subsequently detoured. Under the banner Manif Pour Tous (“demonstration for all,” a play on the name given to the gay marriage law, Mariage Pour Tous, “marriage for all”) these rallies, according to the New York Times, “drew Roman Catholics from France’s rural regions and received the backing of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders, as well as the conservative political opposition.”
Despite the impressive turnouts to these marches, French Prime Minister Hollande went ahead with the legislation and the National Assembly’s lower house, where the left holds a strong majority, approved the law by a vote of 331 to 225.
Undaunted, the demonstrations continued, and the authorities clamped down on them without being too picky about the legal basis for doing do, and leaving it up to the gendarmes to find suitable detainees among the masses of ordinary citizens. The poster child of this phase was Franck Talleu, fined in April 2013 at a family picnic for wearing a wordless sweatshirt bearing the stylized likeness of a mother and father hand-in-hand with their children.
In June 2013, the Manif demobilized into the Sentinels, developing the now-easily recognized model of imperturbable standing readers who, in the allotted time and space of the protest, will only manifest their dissent, if they really must, by waving a hand in the air.
Fifteen months later, on the Sunday when the Italian Sentinels, defended by the police, were being heckled and spat upon, the French once again took to the streets, not in motionless defiance but moving under the original name Manif Pour Tous. There were reportedly 100,000 of them in Paris alone, hoping to pressure the Hollande administration into abrogating the Mariage Pour Tous law or at least not extending to it the laws on artificial insemination and proxy pregnancies. According to a recent survey by Ifop (Institut francais d’opinion publique), three out of five practicing Catholics in France sympathize with the Manif, and are joined by Orthodox Christians, Reformed Protestants, Jews, Muslims, dissident Socialists, non-believers, and even some homosexuals, who disagree with the gay lobby’s demand for marriage rights.
The renewed pro-traditional family demonstration received open encouragement by the bishops of Bayonne, Nanteere, and Sèez, while the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Vingt-Trois, recently admonished the politicians to put a stop to the progressive undoing of the family. Cardinal Barbarin, archbishop of Lyons, went to great lengths to make his approval explicit, even beyond the legislative goal: “These demonstrations are useful,” he remarked, “because they pronounce their ideas loud and clear enough for the government to hear.” Barbarin continued, “By changing the nature of marriage, the rules for adoption will also have to change. The rules regulating proxy pregnancies and artificial insemination will entail an authorization to fabricate a human being. How can we permit laws like this? The consequences would be inevitable.”
Favorable comments rang out from beyond the boundaries of France, voiced, for example, by Cardinals Angelo Scola of Milan and Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, who were quoted in a joint statement to Le Figaro: “The Manif Pour Tous, which all of Europe knows well, had warned us that the change in the nature of marriage would be followed by more demands, which would distort the nature of adoptions and entail the manufacturing of human beings.”
Meanwhile, back in Italy, where a proposed law recognizing live-in couples of whatever sex had already been stopped in its tracks by a massive pro-family demonstration back in 2007, the silent Sentinelle in Piedi were confronted everywhere by the quite noisy and disruptive counter-demonstrations held by the LGBT lobby, along with other leftist groups.
On October 5, things went well in Verona, which had more than 400 unmolested Sentinels. Relatively peaceful Milan and Monza saw only a few hecklers.
But in Pisa, 300 counter-protesters forced the authorities to suspend the event. In Siena, the mayor chose to give his official seal of approval to the counter-demonstration held by the Siena Pansexual Movement and by the gay-rights group Arcigay. In Bologna, the radicals—who overwhelmed the Sentinels in number—threw everything they could find at the silent protesters, frightening parents who had brought their kids along trusting that their right to freedom of speech would protect them. In Rovereto, 20 or so hecklers destroyed the Sentinels’ banner and hounded them into seeking shelter wherever they could. In Turin, hundreds of radicals spewed insults against the Sentinels and physical assault was prevented only by the intervention of the police. In Naples, it came to shoving and throwing both insults and eggs, forcing the police to step in. Trieste, Genoa, Bari, and Aosta each had smatterings of rowdy protesters. In Parma, they demonstrated carrying a large banner declaring, “There is no granting public squares to fascists, racists, and homophobes.”
If all this, and more, can happen in the absence of a law that makes “homphobia” illegal, what might tomorrow’s events bring about, should such legislation pass? Today there are Catholics willing to brave the taunts and shoves of intolerance. How many would dare utter a word in public in defense of the traditional family (protected, by the way, under the Italian Constitution) if to do so could possibly land them in jail?
Obviously the real fight is in the culture, in the realm of words, in the mainstream and social media. Which is why there is such an urgency to silence the pro-family voices—still a majority in Italy—and halt the inter-country momentum, which can succeed in bypassing the media bottleneck.
By defining the Sentinels as “ultra-conservative” or “ultra-Catholic” the media has accepted the aggressors’ depiction of them as something like pro-family hooligans, only a small cut above the ultimate demonizing taunt, “fascists.” The counter-protesters, on the other hand, enjoy much more sympathetic descriptions.
One of the bishops consistently on the side of the pro-life and pro-family laity is the bishop of Ferrara, Luigi Negri, whose words have filled the void left by the silence of the Sentinels and the shallowness of media reports. “This is a sad but long foreseen story,” Bishop Negri said. “For over 50 years now these ruffians have been beating others up while accusing them of being the fascists. I have always identified with the paragraph in Centesimus Annus where St. John Paul II says that when the Church works for freedom it does not do so just for itself but for all humanity, peoples and nations. These margins of freedom are obviously being progressively reduced in our country, despite the fact that they are protected under our Constitution. Many, starting from within the institutions, should reflect on this decline.”