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Italy Adjusts to Life with a New Pope
MAY 16, 2005 - Being in Italy when 78-year-old Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedetto XVI, was named the Holy Pontiff was an opportunity to witness history. Even more so, it was a chance to gauge the collective Italian disappointment at the thought of another reign of a conservative, non-Italian pope. In short, the Italian public was stunned. Still reeling from the death of the beloved Pope John Paul II, who the country had eventually accepted as one of its own, Italy was more than a little disappointed to hear that another non-Italian would be overseeing the Vatican in Rome.
Until I was in Italy among Italians, I did not realize that long after World War II, many Italians still distrust Germans and more than a few Italian journalists pointed this out in the moments after the selection of Ratzinger, a German, was announced. His non-Italian heritage wasn't the only complaint. A staunch conservative, Ratzinger was hardly what an increasingly liberal Italy had in mind for the future of Catholicism, the country's predominant religion. I should point out, however, that some Italians were happy to hear of Ratzinger's appointment. However, they were drowned out by the doubtful.
Italy, like most of the world, has changed drastically in modern times. I won't bore you with too many details. We all know that Italy has the lowest birth rate of any industrialized country - and it's not because Italians have stopped having sex. More of them are ignoring the Vatican's rules about birth control. They're also getting divorced more than ever.
Even one of the country's most popular television programs, Un Posto al Sole, is addressing the changing beliefs of contemporary Italians. Viola, a 20-year-old woman played by the gorgeous Ilenia Lazzarin, faced some difficult times recently - she broke up with her boyfriend after he cheated on her, her father committed suicide and her baby brother nearly died after popping an ecstasy pill she left laying around.
After praying for her little brother's survival and receiving news of his full recovery, she found herself drawn to the church and is now studying to be a nun. But her mother and stepfather hardly had the reaction you would expect of Italian parents. Her mother, Ornella, was horrified. She said her daughter was throwing away her life and she wouldn't stand idly by and watch it happen. She's already gone to argue with one priest and vowed she wouldn't stop there. They are depicting Viola as having lost her mind, showing little emotion and staring off into the distance during family meals as if she's been taken by a cult as opposed to the Catholic church.
Although no one knows for sure how this storyline will end, especially with the twists and turns that make this show a hit, one thing is certain: The writers are playing out the nation's dilemma about religion through Viola. No one seems to know what to believe anymore. Even the most faithful church goers are having a hard time balancing their responsibilities in the secular world with those of their religion.
Pope John Paul II, who was beloved by the Italians despite being Polish, told them that pre-marital sex and contraception were grave sins. He preached tolerance of homosexuality but was hardly welcoming to same-sex couples. The late pope even told Africans who were HIV positive not to wear condoms when having intercourse with non-infected partners. Modern, educated thinkers have a hard time swallowing this even if they ardently believe in Jesus Christ, all the angels and saints.
So, many Italians are opting to be quietly faithful - closet Catholics if you will. Those who go to church continue to go while many others pray in private and celebrate the saints in their own special ways. They ask for the Lord's help in their moments of need and are sure he will be there for them. But they are relying less and less on the Vatican to guide their everyday life and behavior.
Still, the Pope is a powerful, symbolic figure in a country full of history and faith. And Ratzinger is settling in well - despite the initial reaction. After his first Mass on the Sunday after he was named pope, Benedetto XVI was redeemed. I heard more than a few people in the streets of Ischia say out loud, "Hey, that pope isn't all bad." Maybe not. The key to his success will be keeping the faith - and the faithful - in a contemporary world constantly pulling folks away from the church. While that's a difficult task, he's already gotten the hardest part out of the way. After all, a German has won points with a post-post-World War II Italy that never forgets anything. Can we get an amen?
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