The Virgin and the Bear: Religion, Society and the Cold War in Italy

By Ventresca, Robert A. | Journal of Social History, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Virgin and the Bear: Religion, Society and the Cold War in Italy


Ventresca, Robert A., Journal of Social History


I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart ... If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.

Message of Our Lady of Fatima, 1917 (1)

On 18 April 1948, after two decades of Fascist dictatorship, Italians went to the polls to elect the first parliament of the Republic inaugurated at the start of that year. The election was essentially a contest between the governing Christian Democrats, and the Popular Front, a coalition led by the Italian Communists and revolutionary Socialists. The election was not so much about "issues" as it was about "ideology," a clash between two competing visions of Italian society--a conservative, Catholic, capitalist Italy envisioned by Christian Democracy, versus a revolutionary, secular, socialist Italy envisioned by the Popular Front. The fundamental clash of visions left precious little room for any middle ground as Italy's revolutionary Left made a strong bid to seize power at the ballot box.

The Vatican made no secret of how the Church fathers expected the faithful to vote. Well over a year before the election, Pope Plus XII declared from the balcony of St. Peter's that the political decision Italians faced could be reduced to the following choice: "essere con Cristo o contro Cristo: e tutta la questione," to be either with Christ or against Christ. (2) For Italian voters, then, unlike voters in traditional democracies, the choice was not between political parties or philosophies, but between heaven and hell. That was the implication of Pius XII's admonition, and in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, the Pontiff's intervention was bound to influence the vote of many devout Italian Catholics.

The pope's declaration marked the start of a concerted, controversial, inventive campaign on the part of Italian Catholicism to reverse the seemingly inexorable trend toward Communist victory at the ballot box. At the behest of the highest authorities in Vatican City, the Church employed its capillary network of parishes and lay organizations and experimented with new forms of mass mobilization to defend Catholicism as a central institution in the temporal and spiritual life of Italy. And, yet, for all the seeming novelty of these efforts, in the end, it fell to a most ancient and sacred devotional figure, the Blessed Virgin Mary, to help Italian Catholics fight what they would say was the "good fight" for God and country against a foreign, menacing presence.

But clerical intervention of an organized, almost official sort--as with the grand Marian pilgrimages of 1947-48--is only one side of the equation, one dimension of Catholic responses to the political crisis created by the Popular Front's drive for power. For we still have to account for popular responses among the Catholic masses to the political events of the early Cold War. In such an atmosphere of public devotion promoted by the Marian pilgrimages, and given the deep-seated faith in Mary's exceptional powers to save individuals and communities from danger, popular mobilization around the image of Mary spawned a wave of apparitions and miraculous cures. The Virgin was everywhere to be seen in the weeks preceding the 1948 election. She appeared in the most unlikely places: high atop churches, in caves, and even, we shall see, several metres underground. Officially, the Church urged caution and restricted public veneration of the unsubstantiated apparitions of the pre-election period. Some apparitions were actually publicly dismissed by high-ranking clergy as something other than celestial just days before the April vote.

The compelling question for historians is not whether the apparitions were true or not--something that science can never fully disprove, and faith necessarily believes is possible; rather, for historians, the question is why did scores of Italians claim to experience apparitions and miracles in the weeks before the votes? …

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