…vacations, music, architecture, tradition, fashion, cinema, food, Vespa, history, art, monuments.
Thus spoke the promotional poster in one of our classrooms here in Siena. I reacted very strongly to this poster, and would like to share this reflection.
What about the saints? What about the reason that such beautiful churches were built and such beautiful art was conceived? What did the people who created such masterpieces think about life, about death, about destiny, about God?
Of course I would say that, because I am a priest. But it needs to be said.
Let me give another example. In 2006, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a memoir “Eat, Pray, Love”, a book I really should read some day! But I reacted just to the title: “Two thousand years of a Christian presence and all we get is EAT!” Now, don’t get me wrong, we eat wonderfully here in Italy. Here is the disturbing thing. In the West, where Christianity has been dying for centuries, those who want to be fed spiritually usually head East. Gilbert wanted to pray, and so she went to India…
The “Italy is…” poster left me feeling suffocated and reduced, as if what I live for and what I love (the One I love, Jesus Christ) could just be left out of a picture of the West, of this Western country in particular.
Pope Benedict, at the beginning of this Year of Faith, spoke to this same reality:
It often happens that Christians are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their commitment, continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society. In reality, not only can this presupposition no longer be taken for granted, but it is often openly denied. –Porta Fidei, 2
“Openly denied”, forgotten, or reduced: this is what was so unsettling not only about that particular poster but about the atmosphere of relativism that we breathe in the West.
But there is another way. Italy is…faith, hope, and charity.
Faith: It seems too obvious to be said, but it needs to be said, that this building was built out of love for the Virgin Mary, Mother of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ. It is the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady. On the back side of this cathedral is the Baptistero (Baptistery), where thousands of men and women have entered into the very life of God as sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father. The Mystery that all nations and all religions seek has come to seek us, revealing Himself in Jesus Christ. Faith is our “handing over” of our selves to the God who handed Himself over to us.
Hope: This is the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s “City Hall”. Hope is that virtue by which we expect good things from God and by which we order all our earthly striving. Politics is an expression of our hope, because it aims at the common good of a society, to model our society according to our vision of the true “aim” of life, the Kingdom of God. In all of its messiness, political life is a mirror wherein is reflected our hope–for good or for ill. Our involvement in the earthly city gives expression to what we hold most dear. Or as Vatican II said, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”
Love: Across from the Duomo of the Assumption stands the massive structure (which over time covered two streets behind it) of Santa Maria della Scala. Until the late 20th century, Santa Maria della Scala was the hospital of Siena. But what a hospital! It was original founded in the 898 as a place to house pilgrims on the Via Francigena, the pilgrim path from France to Rome. Over the years it became a place for pilgrims, a home for abandoned children, a hospital for the sick, and a shelter for the homeless. St. Thomas describes charity as friendship love of God. And of course, when we love someone, we love what that person loves. Thus, Christian society is built on the dual commandment of Jesus: to love God above all things and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
One last anecdote… In the Middle Ages in Siena, abandoned children were brought to Santa Maria della Scala to be raised by the charity of the Church, through the care of devoted priests, religious, and laity (one of whom was St. Catherine). A child brought up in this orphanage would receive a better education and better opportunities than even the best families of the society. Some of them would stay on to live and work in this community. Others would go on to start their own families. All of this from the gratuitous love of those who had been gratuitously loved by God.
I want to build my life and form a culture based on these things: “In the end, there are three things that remain, faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”