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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