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The Eels Of The Benedict Option

Smoking eels and loving one's neighbor in Sophia Loren country
Enrico is practicing the Benedict Option. Really!

Today I went to the Benedict Option eel factory. No, really, I did.

Eels are plentiful in the Po River delta, on Italy’s northeastern coast. The area around the town of Comacchio is so well-known for eels that Sophia Loren once starred as the title character in The River Lady, an eel-processor in Comacchio:

There’s an old eel processing facility in Comacchio that is used by a Catholic confraternity from Ferrara to run a business helping people who have trouble finding employment elsewhere. They prepare and process eels and anchovies. The confraternity, whose name I now forget, are based in nearby Ferrara, and are close friends of the Tipi Loschi, the Catholic group I profiled in The Benedict Option.  In fact, I first met Enrico, above, in San Benedetto del Tronto.

The Ferrara folks invited me to visit them today to see their work, and to talk about the book. Marco Sermarini, Giorgio Pellei, and other Tipi Loschi drove up the coast for the meeting. We had a lunch of eels, anchovies, and these amazing flash-fried tiny fish, which you eat in a cone. So crispy, crunchy, and salty. Here’s Signor Sermarini, the Doge of L’Opzione Benedetto, demonstrating their deliciousness:

You eat them like French fries. Man, were they good.

I spoke to Ivo Džeba, a Croatian journalist who once interviewed me, and who invited me to come to Zagreb when the book is published there in the coming months. (I’d love to!) He and Marco have become friends, and Ivo was planning to head down to San Benedetto to spend some time with the TL, and do a report.

After lunch, I had a wonderful time with about 40 folks from the local confraternity, plus the guests from the Tipi Loschi. The work they do at the eel factory defies the idea that the Benedict Option is only about turning inward. I learned that they saw a need to help people who, for whatever reason, had trouble finding normal jobs. It is an act of service to them. The confraternity also helps there too. The idea is not to get rich, but to live out the virtue of manual labor, in solidarity with the poor.

Here’s their webpage, and a little bit of information about Work & Services, the cooperative (which, by the way, is an official part of Italy’s Slow Food movement):

The social cooperative “Work and Services” arises from the desire to educate on the love for work, through the beauty of reality. The manufacturing of the fishing products of the Comacchio Valleys takes place in the Fires Hall of the Ancient Factory of Marinated, where nowadays as centuries ago, we work the fishes with an old transformation technique – as it has been codified since them on a spit, we roast them in ancient wood-burning chimneys and we wrap them in screen-printed template. we carry this old transformation technique on, as it has been codified since the end of the 1600 in the fishing factories of Comacchio, – and we live this as a chance to welcome the people we meet and remind us that, even in difficult times, life is beautiful.

Here, from their website, is the crew at work in front of the old chimneys in whose hearths they roast the eels:

In our long group conversation, one young man said that he moved to San Benedetto del Tronto to teach physics for a year in the community school, the Scuola Libera G.K. Chesterton, which follows the classical model. I can’t remember his name — I met so many new friends today — but his testimony was so moving that I gave him my email address and asked him to be in touch so I could interview him for this blog. He told me (and the group) that before moving to live in the Tipi Loschi community, his faith was mostly intellectual. Being part of the community, though, broadened and deepened his Christian commitment, and, he said, changed his life for the better. He has found a much closer relationship with Jesus Christ, thanks to the life he was shown in that community.

Marco Sermarini told us all that since he and the Tipi Loschi appeared in The Benedict Option, they have had visitors from all over showing up, wanting to see how they live out their faith. No wonder! They are such an inspiration — and, as I learned today in Comacchio, they aren’t the only ones in Italy living this way. What a total grace God has given me in my life by bringing me in touch with these good people.

Marco is very well aware of the scandals in the Church, and has strong feelings about them. But he insists that all of us believers keep our eyes on the prize of faith, hope, and charity, and in living out the joy of serving Jesus Christ in community. For Marco and his cheerful Chestertonian comrades, these are not abstractions, but what it means to live.

Don’t forget, everybody: this too is the Church! 

Here I am with the greatest living Italian, today behind the eel factory in hot, humid Comacchio, which, thanks to the love and fidelity of these dear Catholic friends, is a piece of heaven on earth: