My wife and I have been lucky enough to visit Italy about six times. In that country, Christian faith seems to be a tangible thing, built into the very architecture. As the altar is the focus of the nave of a church’s interior, the façade is the focus of the piazza outside. Public space is worship space, with the church at its center.
Leaving Mass in a moderately sized town, on the porch one immediately finds beggars, hookers, tour guides, hawkers, lovers—absolutely everybody—side by side, drawn there because it is the center of gravity, the obvious place to meet, to beg, to find customers, or just gawk. While we were indoors praying, the bells rang for these people too. Worship in some sense never stops. This, more than any doctrine or morality, is the meaning of a Catholic country. Everybody is assumed of belonging.
The United States is quite different. It is understood that if you belong to a church you are in a minority. The people outdoors probably never pray for you. We are not in the habit of praying for them either. (When did you ever hear in the Prayers of the People: “ . . . and for whoever lives within the sound of our bells”?) In the U.S. Christians feel ourselves divided from secular culture. (Paradoxically, we also think we define the culture at its best, but that’s another discussion.) One could say, we are in protest against it. It is a Protestant country.
In Italy, embrace and wholeness; In the U.S., aversion and division. In the U.S., the well off give to the poor. In Italy, the poor pray for me. A poor woman gave me oranges and water—not out of some pride of the poor, as it would be if she were American, but as she said, se non faciamo così, non vale la pena di vivere.
It is an American trait to be overly interested in each other’s behavior. This is not the place to explain why that might be so, but not having or trusting sacramental assurances, we want to see evidence of faith, our own or other people’s. Our moral hierarchy, the elite individuals on whom we confer preferments, what we promote as “lay ministry,” would make little sense to Italians. They being Catholic aren’t as needy as that. They’re used to seeing brigands thrive; it doesn’t surprise or offend them the way it does us—although they are getting Americanized in this matter too. What if the organized crime takes most of the taxes; who pays taxes anyway? You get by however you can. There are institutions that promote good works, the Misericordia (Literally, Mercy word, written on the sides of ambulance). But unlike here, the traditional garb for members, as can be seen in Renaissance paintings, is a hood, preserving anonymity. Ego is shrouded.
The Problem of the Ego
If we could separate ego from charity, something extraordinary could happen—or rather, something perfectly ordinary. We could all be sinners together and not afraid. If God is God, sin is already defeated, though we continue to behave like soldiers who haven’t yet heard of the armistice. We conflate discipleship with moralism, and overlook grace. We look for it where it is not to be found, in political or social improvement. Down that road lie our most odious faults.
Seen in a Catholic light, discipleship might lead to frustration, or to chastisement, but not to despair, because no gratifying pat on the head was expected. It could, if we have eyes to see, lead is deeper into prayer; greater and greater thankfulness for those church bells, and an oddly, ironicallly confident contemplation of the whole. We have an impossible task, with its attendant humiliations; now we get the additional challenge: go about our work more or less anonymously, knowing it is not important that it be we who do it. This is the meaning of the saying in Matthew 6:1–2 (RSV):
When you give alms, beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.