The Saints in the Lives of Italian-Americans: An Interdisciplinary Investigation

Article excerpt

The Saints in the Lives of Italian-Americans:An Interdisciplinary Investigation. Co-edited by Joseph A. Varacalli, Salvatore Primeggia, Salvatore J. LaGumina, and Donald J. D'Elia. [Filibrary Series, No. 14.] (Stony Brook: Forum Italicum, Center for Italian Studies, State University of New York. 1999. Pp. xi, 323. $20.00 paperback.)

Italian Americans disapproved of the liturgical changes mandated by the Second Vatican Council, Salvatore Primeggia says in his contribution to this collection of articles on the cult of saints among southern Italian immigrants and their descendants in the United States, but he offers not a single piece of evidence to support this assertion. Mary Elizabeth Brown says at the end of her chapter that "challenges to their community" [it makes sense in her view to talk about a single, coherent, unified Italian American "community" for all places and times] delivered "a kind of electric shock to restore the heartbeat of the cult of saints." (The "challenges" Brown refers to are the "civil, gay, or women's rights movements" which affronted Italian American "traditional values and neighborhood cohesiveness." Presumably she just knows, and assumes that her readers will know too, that all Italian Americans are "traditionally" racist, homophobic, and sexist so that none of them would have endorsed the values or goals of these movements because she simply asserts this without support.) Brown's only evidence for the revival of the cult of saints among contemporary Italian Americans is John Paul It's 1983 Divines perfectionis.

These two examples are indicative of the tone and method of this collection. A strong sense of loss pervades the articles in The Saints in the Lives of ItalianAmericans for the Church before the Second Vatican Council and for the old Italian American neighborhoods as the authors imagine that church and those neighborhoods to have been. Rather than what it purports to be,"an interdisciplinary investigation," the book is an example of the aggrieved and recriminatory literature of memory in modern American Catholic culture. Instead of evidence for any of these claims, the authors offer only their own nostalgia and anger as documentation. Victimization is the primary historical explanation. The saints were "pushed out," Italian American "folk religious culture"was suppressed and destroyed by the Irish, and upwardly mobile Italian Americans are .pressur[ed]" into conforming to American middle-class styles (according respectively to Richard Renoff [p. 125], Salvatore LaGumina [p. 131], and Joseph A. Varacalli Ip. 81). But the authors are not without hope: "if John Paul II's overall restorationist agenda is successful," Varacalli says in his introduction, then perhaps the saints will be "able to recapture their turf. …


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