In the backyard of a retired mosaic artist in the municipality of Cavasso Nuovo, a small pocket has been carved out to house this small figurine of St. Anthony of Padua. Photo by Vanessa Santilli

Catholicity goes hand in hand with Italian roots

  • August 23, 2014

TRAVESIO, ITALY - It’s not every Sunday you’re escorted to Mass by a procession. Upon arriving in Travesio in northern Italy, a marching band and about a dozen people carrying banners representing various comunes (or municipalities) in the region come into view. As they lead us through the winding streets to the parish of St. Quirino for a Mass celebrated by the regional bishop, we wave back at onlookers. With a backdrop of bells ringing atop the stone tower beside the church, it’s time for the celebration to begin. 

Taking part in the EFASCE Pordenone program — a two-week trip to show the descendants of emigrants from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region their roots or radici through visiting key sights and practising our Italian in class — I’m joined by about 30 young adults from nine countries with high concentrations of emigration from this region: Canada, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, France, Uruguay, Germany, Australia and the United States. 

It’s telling of the culture that even though this isn’t a designated religious trip, there are many Catholic elements included in the itinerary. 

Days earlier, we were welcomed at the diocesan office by Bishop Giuseppe Pellegrini. It’s not an easy time for young people both economically and morally, he tells us, adding that the economic crisis has deterred many young Catholics in the region from opening themselves up to God. 

“The Church is called to offer them hope and opportunities to be together.” These words came as Italy fell back into recession for the third time since 2008. 

In this most northeastern area of Italy, characterized by an abundance of rivers and the Dolomites, symbols of Catholicism are everywhere — from crosses displayed above doorways in museums to icons of saints built into city walls. 

Touring the lot of a retired mosaic artist in Cavasso Nuovo — whose entire backyard is filled with metres-high mosaic wall murals depicting such iconic buildings as the Colosseum and the Twin Towers — we notice a small pocket of wall carved out to house a small figurine of St. Anthony of Padua. Even within the secular art, there’s a nod to Catholicism. It’s a welcome change to a Canadian culture that too often deems religious icons such as the crucifix as out of place in secular society. 

But perhaps the most powerful sight was Italy’s largest war memorial, from the Great War, in Redipuglia. Fashioned in stone, it is a towering staircase that contains 100,000 casualties of war: approximately 40,000 identified Italian soldiers and 60,000 unidentified. The Italian Campaign against Austria-Hungary was fought in this area as the region borders Austria. On each step the word “Presente” is written over and over to symbolize that the fallen are ever present through this tribute. 

At the peak of the monument are three large bronze crosses which symbolize the hope of ascending to heaven. On Sept. 13, Pope Francis plans to visit the shrine to mark the centenary of the First World War and to pray for those who have died in all wars. It’s a sobering place that brings to life the death that accompanies war. 

About 20 km away is the ancient Roman city of Aquilea, one of the wealthiest and largest cities of the early Roman Empire. The Basilica of Aquilea, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Sts. Hermagora and Fortunatus, played a key role in the evangelization of a large region of central Europe. It is home to an impressive mosaic floor and a “Crypt of the Frescoes,” a series of mosaics depicting the story of early Christianity in the city. And while the city’s current population rests at a modest 3,500 inhabitants today, 100,000 people lived in Aquilea during its prime in the second century. 

After touring these and other sights in the region — including the Cathedral of San Giusto in Trieste, the capital city where we are told early Christians used to draw a “Jesus fish” as a secret Christian symbol to identify themselves to others — it’s clear that religion was always central to the Italian way of life through the ages. 

So while this trip underscored the value of keeping my Italian roots alive, it also emphasized the importance of continuing to live out my Catholic roots in my homeland of Canada. 

(Santilli is a freelance writer in Toronto.) 

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