As I write this, I’m over the north Atlantic, headed home from nine days in Italy. My heart is filled to overflowing, and I’m coming home with more confidence than ever in the Benedict Option idea. It’s all because of the people I met in Italy.
In Dante’s Commedia, Hell — the Inferno — is a place of total isolation, where the souls of the damned are alone forever with their sins. Dante was a Catholic, and really did believe in Hell, but it’s also the case that Dante’s Inferno represents life on earth as lived by those who are consumed by self-worship.
Purgatory — part two of the poem — symbolizes life in the Church. That is, Purgatorio is the journey of the redeemed in this life, as they make their way towards heaven. They have been saved by the grace of God, but still have to struggle against tendencies to sin. They are all moving forwards together, and help each other along the way. Purgatorio is where human community is rebuilt from the ruins of radical isolation. The redeemed know where they are headed, and are committed in love to helping each other get there.
For me, these last nine days in Italy have been a Purgatorio in this upbuilding sense. I have made new friends and renewed old friendships. Everywhere I went, I met and spent time with Christians who are on the same pilgrim’s road that I’m walking. Simply being with them, laughing, eating, drinking, talking — it meant more to me than I can say. One of my greatest weaknesses, as my confessors could tell you, is that I spend too much time in my head. Not these past nine days, though. I was with people who loved me, and who allowed me to love them back. The sense of harmony, of wholeness, was so — I don’t quite know how to put this, but I found it healing, because it was balm for the sense of isolation I too often feel.
On Sunday, my friend Giuseppe Scalas, who comments on this blog, picked me up at my hotel. He planned to take me to the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, but we ended up getting lost trying to find the Sicilian pastry shop where we were supposed to pick up desserts for the picnic later. By the time we got our bearings in this unfamiliar part of Milan, it was really too late for liturgy. We met up with Giuseppe’s wife, mother, and children, and drove out to Brianza, in the countryside east of Milan, for an afternoon with young Italian Catholic families interested in the Benedict Option.
Our hosts were Giovanni and Alice Zennaro. Giovanni and his nine-month-old son Pietro (above) greeted us, and soon enough I had a cold Birra Nursia in my hand. This was a reunion for Giovanni and me. We first met last summer in San Benedetto del Tronto, and then spent a couple of hours in Norcia. Here I am a year ago with Giovanni and his dear friend Stefano Schileo:
On Sunday, Stefano and his wife Alessandra were there, as were other Catholic couples. We feasted. Oh, did we ever! Here, for example, is a view from my “table” as I stood in the backyard eating mushroom risotto:
I brought an unofficial Louisiana flag as a gift for the Zennaros. Giovanni hung it from the balcony overlooking the wine grapes.
After much eating of Sicilian pastry, around four, a priest, Don Luigi, came down from his nearby hermitage to say mass in the Zennaros’ living room. Don Luigi offered the mass for the healing of Giovanni Pellei, a teenager from the Tipi Loschi community who is fighting cancer. Most of these Christians have never met Giovanni, but there we all were praying for that sweet boy and his family.
Stefano and Giovanni (at right) chanted the liturgical prayers in Latin. I had once learned these prayers — the Credo, the Gloria, the Pater Noster — in Latin, and found that most of it came back to me. With my eyes closed, the men’s chanting resounding off the tile floors, it was easy to imagine that one was at Norcia. The room filled with the presence of angels, or so it seemed to me.
In the Archdiocese of Milan, the church celebrates the Ambrosian Rite, after its beloved fourth-century bishop, St. Ambrose. You can see the saint’s remains under the altar at the Church of St. Ambrogio in Milan. I visited there and prayed last year, with James C. The bishop is the one wearing the mitre:
Here was the Old Testament reading from the Ambrosian Rite on Sunday:
The prophet was speaking of redemption to come upon the land “upright rule” — that is, a life ordered by the will of God. A chill ran down my spine when Giovanni showed me this. We had all gathered to talk about the Benedict Option, and about our efforts to discern what it means for us in this time and place. That reading felt like a meaningful coincidence.
Dusk fell, and the Scalases returned to Milan. The only ones who remained were the Zennaros, the Schileos, and their friends Raffaele and Chiara, whose last name I can’t remember. About a year ago, these three couples came up with a plan to start a small Ben Op community in which their families would live near each other, and support each other in prayer and, well, life. It hasn’t yet come to fruition for various reasons, none more affecting than the death of Stefano and Alessandra’s newborn daughter Clarissa.
Clarissa was born healthy, but in the birth process acquired a bacterial infection. At little Pietro Zennaro’s baptism, word went out over text that things were very serious at the hospital with Clarissa. A few days later, she was dead. Here is a photo taken during her five days on this earth:
“Now we have someone to pray for us in heaven,” her father said.
Stefano explained to me that Clarissa’s death had hit them very hard, and caused them to wonder what God’s providence really was for Alessandra and him, and their friends. They are still discerning. Stefano said that if it had not been for their faith, and for the bond of faith, hope, and love they share with the others in that room, he and Alessandra don’t know how they would have made it through that crisis.
Stefano said — and the others agreed — that they are all trying to live through the mystery of Clarissa’s death, and what it all means for their fellowship and their hopes and dreams for the future together. Stefano spoke with such strength and serenity, as his wife looked on with quiet solidarity. I thought, These are good people, people of rock-solid faith. I want to be like them.
Baby Pietro the Christmas Ham bounced merrily for a bit, but then it was time for sleep.
I went to bed at the Zennaros’ guest room that night, wondering what I had done to be blessed by the friendship of such people. But then, I had similar thoughts every day of this Italy trip.
The next morning I joined Giovanni and Alice as they said their morning prayers.
Giovanni and I then packed my bags into his Subaru Forester, and set out for Genoa, by way of Montevecchia, a hillside village you can see from the Zennaros’ window. Don Luigi lives there as a hermit, caring for the church.
It turns out that one of Italy’s best gelaterias, Montebianco, is in that town. As luck would have it, the owners happened to be in on Monday morning opening up. Giovanni and Alice used to live in the apartment above Montebianco, so this was a reunion for him and the owners, Walter and Marinella Stuerz. The Stuerzes normally don’t open the shop until the afternoon, but they made an exception so their American visitor could taste their gelato, which had won Italy’s championship several times.
Afterwards, it was up to the church with Don Luigi, and these glorious views of the surrounding countryside.
The hermit walked us back to our car, and off we went to Milan for lunch, and then motored southwest to Genoa. Along the way, Giovanni talked about how many parishes and dioceses in Europe find they have lots of buildings, and don’t know what to do with them. He said he hopes that some will offer them to small fellowships of Catholics — families and singles both — who want to build community together. What a great idea!
Genoa was to be the final stop on my Italian tour. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the Archbishop of Genoa, is a fan of The Benedict Option, and bought 200 copies of the Italian translation for his priests. He invited me to come give a talk before heading back to the US, and I happily accepted. Unfortunately he had business in Rome, so I wasn’t able to meet him.
An irrepressibly joyful Catholic bookseller named Luca was our guide in town. Because traffic was bad on the way into the city — the recent catastrophic bridge collapse had an effect — we didn’t have time to do more than have a quick tour around the cathedral, which celebrates its 900th anniversary this year. My talk was in the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in central Genoa.
Lo and behold, the oratory was standing room only! So many people came out to hear my speech, and the panel discussion! If you had told me three decades ago that one day, I would be sitting in a Baroque church in Genoa — or anywhere, frankly — talking openly about the Gospel, I would have though you’d lost your mind. But it happened. And I was able to speak with such passion not only because I believe this stuff, but because I had spent the past eight days in the company of other people who believe it too. I had heard Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the personal secretary of Benedict XVI, say to a crowd in Rome that my analysis of the Church’s crisis is spot-on, and that my book offers real hope and real inspiration. All these new friends helped me to believe in my message, but more than that, to believe more strongly in Jesus Christ. I found myself sitting in front of the crowded church in Genoa thinking, “What would Marco Sermarini say in a place like this?” And I did my best to imitate him.
After the talk and book-signing, Don Mauro gave Giovanni and me a quick tour of the church itself. It was a Baroque jewel box. Even more impressive to me was Don Mauro. We stood in the sacristy having a short chat, but we spoke of forgiveness and hope and Don Mauro’s love for the priesthood, even though his late father didn’t understand it. It was one of those “heart speaks to heart” moments that I had so often in Italy: when so much more is communicated than the information embedded in the words.
Giovanni and I had one last meal together at an ordinary restaurant near my airport hotel. This is the bruschetta. It was nothing special, I guess, for Italians, but a restaurant in the US that served something this delicious would be one of the best in town.
After a farewell at my hotel, Giovanni drove off into the night, and I went upstairs for only a few hours’ sleep before having to wake up and get over to the airport. Now I’m just crossing into North America on the flight home. I checked Twitter just now, and found this:
“Look at how silent I am in the face of demands for… disclosure about how I govern the Church in regards to abusers. I am so very silent. Silent like our Lord. Come hear my next homily on my Christ-like silence.” https://t.co/endmv4R5hS
— Michael Brendan Dougherty (@michaelbd) September 18, 2018
For once, the pontiff’s self-destructive self-pity and vanity made me smile. The tall trees will come down with a great fall, but in the wasteland that is our post-Christian civilization, I know where to find the believers who live in peace, without fear. in houses that are a quiet resting place. I have just spent eight days blessed by their company and encouraged — greatly encouraged — by their example. Something is dying, yes, but something new is also being born. These faithful young Christian men and women who live by an upright rule are planting seed by all the waters.
Go thou and do likewise.
UPDATE: On the flight home, I read Salt Of The Earth, the 1996 book-length interview that journalist Peter Seewald did with then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It’s incredible. I wish I had read it before I wrote The Benedict Option. It would have clarified so many things. No wonder Archbishop Gänswein loved my book.
But I am quite sure that the Church will not lack creative energies even in the future. Think of late antiquity, where Saint Benedict probably wasn’t noticed at all. He was also a dropout who came from the noble Roman society and did something bizarre, something that then later turned out to be the “ark on which the West survived.” And in this sense, I think that today there are Christians who drop out of this strange consensus of modern existence, who attempt new forms of life. To be sure, they don’t receive any public notice, but they are doing something that really points to the future.