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What Does the Pope's 25th Anniversary Mean for Italian Catholics?
I turned 25 on October 14, 2003, and I feel like everything has come full circle. While my mamma was in labor delivering me, instead of begging for drugs, she was asking for the baseball scores and news on the new pope. Twenty-five years later, my mamma's Yankees again are in the World Series after beating the Boston Red Sox in dramatic fashion. And Pope John Paul II spent the last week celebrating his silver anniversary in the Vatican. Not much has changed since I was born, I guess. Or has it?
While mamma and I are still praying for another Yankees win, our relationship with the Church certainly has evolved. Like so many others, we no longer go to church every Sunday. And I have a difficult time justifying donations to an embattled church that might be protecting predatory priests who sexually abused children. The Church is also facing the Pope's ailing health, turmoil in the Middle East and famine in the Third World. But those might not even be our biggest problems. A Catholic world that is questioning its faith - even in Italy with the Pope residing in the middle of the country - is our greatest challenge.
A Frank Bruni article in The New York Times on October 13, 2003, pointed out that 33 percent of Italians described religion as "very important" but as few as 15 percent are going to church every week, according to recent polls. Bruni also mentions two things of which Italians are well aware: 1.) The Italian people are ignoring the Pope's pleas to "be fruitful and multiply." Italy continues to have one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and birth control - another Vatican no-no - is well used in the Boot. 2.) Italians favored legal abortion despite the Catholic Church's ardent "pro-life" stance. Italians are making a divide between their spirituality and their political views.
While Pope John Paul II made considerable strides in bringing his message out of the Vatican and to the rest of the world, he sometimes failed to bring today's world into his message. Despite the disturbing statistics about the number of people stricken with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in much of the Third World and especially Africa, the Catholic Church still is encouraging believers to refrain from using condoms that help prevent the disease from being spread by sexual activity. No wonder many Italians - neh, many people - are having a hard time reconciling life's realities with the political stance of their Church!
Pope John Paul II, who is 83 years old and suffering from Parkinson's Disease, was one of the most outspoken leaders for peace as the United States headed for war in Iraq. But one can only imagine how much more convincing he could have been if he was not so limited by his health. This is, after all, the Polish Pope, who is credited with being the decisive voice that ended communism in Central and Eastern Europe. In addition to remaining a staunch traditionalist in this crazy modern world, our Pope also is no longer the dynamo in politics that he once was, which has many people turning to the future.
Clearly, some Catholics are wondering what's next for their Church, and speculation about the next pope is rampant. Some think we'll see our first African or Latin American pope, and others are convinced we'll get someone from the Third World. There is also the possibility that the papacy will return to the Italians, who had held the post for many years before Pope John Paul II took over. Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the 69-year-old head of the Milan archdiocese, has been mentioned as a possible successor in many circles. The decision will be left up to the College of Cardinals. Previously, the Italians held more power, but they now represent only 17 percent of cardinal seats, compared with 23.7 percent when Pope John Paul II was named to the Vatican in 1978. We can only guess at what that means for an Italian's chance at the papacy.
What does this all mean for us - Catholic Italians who are struggling to keep their faith amid the realities of the modern world? Well, I'm sure that our relationship with God is stronger than ever. Just because fewer people are going to church, doesn't mean that they are not calling upon Il Signore whenever they get on a plane, have a big meeting at work, get pregnant or watch the tragedies of war unfold on the news. Many Italians, in fact, still attend church on the holidays and celebrate baptisms, communions, confirmations and marriages in God's houses. The crucifix is in place above many an Italian bed, the crosses hang around our necks, the soccer players make the sign of the cross as they take the field and traditions associated with our faith are maintained. (Think St. Joseph's Day or the seven fishes of Christmas Eve!) Our Catholicism - even if subliminally - is an integral part of how many of us pay homage to our culture. Most Italians thought Pope John Paul II deserved to win the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Perhaps, some of us question our priests and, at times, our Pope and their politics. But most of us seem to believe that God still is with us - per sempre!
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