It was a pleasant surprise to walk into the Teatro Eliseo tonight and to be greeted by strangers who were happy to see me. I mean, look, it’s always good to meet people who are happy to see you, but for it to happen in a foreign country, by people who don’t even speak your language? That’s pretty great.
The discussion onstage tonight was a civil one, though difficult because of the hassle of having to translate all my remarks into Italian. I had an excellent translator, but the simple fact of having to do that slowed things down a lot. Giovanni Maria Vian, the editorial director of L’Osservatore Romano, offered some scattered criticism. He said that I try to work both sides of the street, saying no, no, I’m open to the world when people criticize the Ben Op for being too closed, and then saying, no, no, we’re away from the world when people start to wonder what, exactly, is so different about the Ben Op.
I responded by saying that it is always a challenge for Christians to live out the Bible’s command to be “in the world, but not of it.” There is no exact formula for that. I brought up the example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three Hebrew youths living as captives in Babylon. They served the king, and where therefore highly integrated into Babylonian society. But when the king commanded them to worship a graven image of him, they refused — even though it meant that they would be thrown into a furnace. We should ask ourselves how did those three men live, even as they were working at the pinnacle of Babylonian society, such that they had the vision and the courage to choose death over apostasy. Because that’s what we Christians are going to have to learn how to do.
Giuliano Ferrara, a legendary figure on the Italian political and journalistic scene, offered a less expansive set of remarks, focusing his criticism mostly on politics. He believes Christians should be involved in political life, and doesn’t want to see them fade away. It’s a good point, and I conceded that it’s one I think about more and more, trying to figure out what the right way for believers to involve ourselves in political life is. I did point out, however, the Benda family example from my book, and said that we cannot wholly privatize our faith, for if we do so, we fail to live it out faithfully.
I stayed around to meet a few folks. One young American woman teaching in a school here says that Italians may not grasp how urgent the sense that we’re losing Western traditions and culture is for Americans. She said that even in secular schools in Italy, Italian students get a pretty solid background in literature and culture — something that is almost entirely absent from American schools. She told me that tradition is so much deeper in Italy than in America that Italians don’t feel its loss like we Americans do.
I also talked with a couple of folks in the theater who said that they had a different view of my book after hearing me talk, and reading a bit of it, than they had had from the Italian media coverage prior to today. They said that “the Jesuits” — meaning, I guess, Father Antonio Spadaro and Civiltà Cattolica — had done a really unfair number on the book, especially by positioning it in advance as anti-Francis. Even one attendee who told me that as someone who is on the Catholic left, he has a lot of criticism of my ideas after reading the book, he recognizes that “the Jesuits” (his term too) were unjust.
Some people were eager to talk about the controversy over Archbishop Viganò and Pope Francis. I told them that I didn’t want to get into that here, because I want to stay focused on my book and its message — a message that is not against Pope Francis. One young man who identified himself as a Catholic explained why he believes that this American scandal won’t stay in America, no matter how much the Vatican hierarchy wants it to. He told a personal story about jaw-dropping sexual corruption in a particular seminary here — this hasn’t been in the newspapers; he got it from someone who was in the middle of it, and left. He said that the day is coming when this will all eventually emerge into the light.
Another American Catholic present chimed in with his own personal stories from back home, and added that Italians don’t yet grasp the depth and breadth of the US Catholic laity’s anger over all this. I’ve been in Italy a few days now, and I keep getting signs of that: that Italians, because of the way their media have covered the American situation, don’t understand what’s happening. One can understand why they wouldn’t necessarily care about what happens in the US church, on the other side of the ocean. On the other hand, Francis is their pope too, and to the extent this is damaging his credibility, and the credibility of the Church itself, in the richest and most influential nation on the planet — well, it matters.
At dinner, I sat next to an American priest, Father Vincent Nagle, who is a priest from the Communion and Liberation movement. What an interesting life he’s had. He’s from California originally, but spent years working in the Holy Land, and has an advanced degree in Islamic studies. He now works with the terminally ill and dying. He read my Little Way book, and twice read How Dante Can Save Your Life (“I think your wife is the real hero of that book,” he said). We had a great evening together eating, drinking, and telling stories. Before we parted, I invited him to come visit us in south Louisiana, and he said he would. Making new friends is without question the greatest thing about these trips.
Tomorrow morning: a talk at the Italian parliament building. Guess who will be giving the response to my remarks? None other than Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the prefect of the papal household and the longtime personal secretary to Benedict XVI. I am a long way from Starhill, I tell you what.