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Letter from Rome: January 24, 2020

What is “Catholic culture”? And can it be found in Rome?

Mass at a church in Rome. (Tomas Robertson | Unsplash.com)

Before I moved to Rome, I thought I knew what Catholic culture was. I didn’t. I’m actually not at all convinced Catholic culture exists anywhere.

I’ve argued against the proposition before, but that was before an academic audience in Vermont (a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and I flew in for it – but that’s another story for another time), with a specific and circumscribed point, roughly: that “culture” is an abstraction, that there is an irreducible plurality of cultures, which the one faith can challenge, penetrate, and transform. The faith always stands apart, even when it has challenged, penetrated, permeated, and changed a given culture.

If ever there were a Catholic city in the cultural sense, though, Rome would be it.

The very public ways in which parishes celebrate their patronal feasts – processions with bands and the men of the parish sodalities in full regalia and an honor guard from the military police in full dress even in small neighborhoods, cookouts and music and dancing on church grounds, and rivers of wine – testify to a principle of social organization still very much at work, even if much attenuated: parishes are territorial.

The little niche shrines to Our Lady that are everywhere built into walls or by the side of the road or set on a perch beneath the eaves of buildings both public and private: some of these have fallen into desuetude, but most are kept, and people place and light their candles and leave their ex voto offerings.

The people – still mostly men, but some women, too – who make sure they are on church grounds even as they refuse to darken the door of the church proper, every Sunday: they know, even if they cannot cite the long-established canonical rule that says being on church grounds counts for attendance at Mass.

In town, the churches are open most of the day, every day (though many do close for siesta), and many will have Masses being said at side chapels. Once, at the traditional parish of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, I was hearing Mass of an afternoon – a low Mass on a weekday – and the priest was taking his time.

Another priest started his Mass at a side chapel about when the priest celebrating at the main altar finished the epistle, but the fellow saying Mass at the side chapel was faster. Apparently, one old lady knew her man, and went to kneel at the rail and hear the second priest’s Mass. He finished before the fellow who had started maybe ten minutes before him. If he had a point to make, he made it.

Almost everywhere one goes to Mass in Rome, there are people coming in and out, and milling about all throughout: some pausing to pray in a pew or before a saint’s image, or to light a candle, or standing to stretch stiff legs. Some people kneel all the way through, others sit, other sit and stand and kneel, others wander, and nobody pays much heed to what anybody else is doing.

Readers of CS Lewis will be familiar with a passage in which he describes a congregation of persons doing different things, adopting different postures at different times, each of the faithful minding his own business. I can’t quite place it now, but the gist of it is that, if everyone everywhere adopted such an attitude, we’d all be better off.

The quality of liturgy in Rome, mind, is generally poor. The people who attend them, however, practice what Lewis was talking about, and it tends for me at least to drive home a truth at once profound and quite pedestrian: liturgy happens.

A cursory examination of the state of the faith, even in Rome — especially in Rome — is more than enough to convince the examiner that “Catholic culture” — whatever it might be — is not enough to sustain a society indefinitely. It’s not nothing, though, and people are going to have a culture, either way.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 119 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

7 Comments

  1. “If ever there were a Catholic city in the cultural sense, though, Rome would be it.”

    Mr. Altieri, I submit that New Orleans is a close second for your description of Rome could not describe the culturally Catholic experience in New Orleans any better. From Advent to Christmas to King’s Day to Mardi Gras to Ash Wednesday to Lent to Easter it seems that depending upon when Easter occurs fully on third to one half of the calendar year in New Orleans is scheduled by the Catholic calendar. Your “mass in Rome” description could be any weekday mass experience at Saint Louis Cathedral. “The little niche shrines to Our Lady that are everywhere built” would be the many statues of Our Lady to be found on front yards of homes across the Greater New Orleans metropolis. I enjoyed your Roman visual but the more that I read the more that I was brought home to New Orleans.

  2. Let me nominate another city:Krakow, Poland. On any day of the week the many, many churches are busy. Unfortunately, even Poland seems to be undergoing some cultural changes, but the Catholic identity is quite evident. As Mr. Altieri decribes in Rome, there are shrines and Christian art throughout the city streets and frequent public displays of Catholic belief. Religious processions seem to be part of most public events. I’ve never been to Rome so I can’t make that comparison, but Catholicism seems to still be very much engrained in Polish culture. The Catholic faith feels very much like a natural part of life in Krakow. I’ve never been to New Orleans either. But I might plan a visit based on Mr. Meynier’s intriguing description.

  3. Thank you for an informative article , rather sad in some ways , helping to see the lukewarmness that is there too in many places that we expect otherwise .
    Yet , there are too likely places of true Catholic culture , as in the days of the Holy Family too , in faith filled homes and communities , scattered in the midst of the seeming indifference .
    Gives a glimpse of reasons that the Holy Father desiring the faith life to be more kindled through new steps , such as that of devotion to St.Joseph , Our Lady of Loreto and more compassion for the poor as well .

    Hope that as the article too mentions, that such places do not get seen as an indictment on The Church as a whole but rather as pointing to deeper issues esp. when one considers the negligence towards The Real Presence in the Eucharist , possibly also brought in by unworthy reception of same by many .
    Good thing that there are books such as this too in our times , to help many families to get help in needed areas –
    https://www.theslayingdragonsbook.com/2020/01/the-role-of-father-according-to.html

    as well as on more focus on adoration –
    https://www.ignatius.com/In-Sinu-Jesu-P2750.aspx

    and heart warming stories of witness to faith , from places such as China , helping to transform other places as well –
    https://zenit.org/articles/eucharistic-adoration-transforming-a-city/

    God bless !

  4. Another vote for New Orleans, where Good Friday is a civil holiday and the streets are packed with faithful walking the “nine churches”, where the cemeteries are packed on All Saints Day, and Latin Mass (with Archdiocesan approval) never ceased after V2.

    • It is true that the Latin Mass never ceased in New Orleans and Saint Patrick on Camp Street is where TLM survived and thrives today. As I understand it, then Archbishop Hannan was petitioned for an indult the grounds being that as a port city a Mass needed to be provided that seamen of all languages could understand/appreciate. Urban legend? Who knows. I am also given to understand that Archbishop Hannan was considering closing Saint Patrick. Thank God he didnt! Today Saint Patrick is the standard-bearer for TLM in this region and any visit to New Orleans on a Sunday would be remiss without attending the most extraordinary example of the Extraordinary Form. But all in appropriate praise of Him, our delight in the beauty of it secondary.

  5. This article on powers and kingdoms , Germany and the statue of Zeus from Pergamon as the ‘seat of Satan ‘, considering the tie ups between the Italy and Germany in World war 11 , there might be some relevance even at present as well,
    thus the devotion of the Holy Father to Our Lady , Undoer of Knots , for deliverance of all involved –
    https://spiritdailyblog.com/spiritual-warfare/its-everywhere
    May the prayers of the faithful for the intentions of the Holy Father take into account all these aspects as well .

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