Pope's Christian Pitch to Italian Voters Falls Flat

By Hebblethwaite, Peter | National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 1994 | Go to article overview

Pope's Christian Pitch to Italian Voters Falls Flat


Hebblethwaite, Peter, National Catholic Reporter


It would be a prodigious understatement to say Pope John Paul was disappointed by the results of the Italian elections (see page 6). He was devastated by this rebuff to his authority in Italy.

John Paul had committed himself as never before. Halfway through its last meeting, the permanent council of the Italian bishops' conference solemnly descended to the tomb of St. Peter and heard the pope pronounce his Great Prayer for Italy. The date was March 15, about two weeks before the decisive general election. The prayer picked up the themes of the Jan. 10 letter to the Italian bishops, "The Responsibility of Catholics in the Present Moment."

The letter insisted that "although some voices have been heard saying that in present political conditions (that is, after the collapse of communism) a political force of Christian inspiration is no longer necessary, this is a faulty analysis." Such a "force" (presumably party) "is still necessary to express the Christian culture of Italian Catholics in the social and political sphere." Why is it still needed? "In order to oppose various forms of totalitarianism, beginning with the communist form."

And in case anyone was still wondering what this "force" was, the letter explains that Italian Catholics should "refer to the great spiritual and political inheritance bequeathed by those great figures Konrad Adenauer, Maurice Schuman and Alcide De Gasperi, the postwar Christian Democrat leaders who "founded Europe."

Strangely omitted was Don Luigi Sturzo, the Sicilian priest and leading antifascist who founded the Partito Popolare Italiano in 1919. The name at least was revived a week after the letter. Perhaps the explanation is that John Paul does not approve of priests' engaging in politics (though few seem to have minded in the 1920s).

The main interest of the prayer is that it reveals an "image" if Italy that the first non-Italian pope since 1523 has never previously expressed so clearly. Italy does not conform to the usual pattern Pope John Paul likes to find in a Christian nation.

Poland is the clearest case, where the baptism of Miesko I in 966 coincides with and indeed causes the "birth of the nation." The baptism of Vladimir in the Dnieper in 988 was the start of the nation we call Russia. England began with Augustine's baptism of the Kentish king at Canterbury in 597.

By analogy the foundation of Brazil fell on the feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross in 1500 when the cross was planted on the shore at Vera Cruz. The underlying theology is that Christ is lord of all the nations, and all nations have a constitutive, founding act.

Italy, however, does not fit this scheme. It did not become a nation until 1870 - and only then over the cadaver of the Papal States. So in the case of Italy, the emphasis falls on culture rather than politics, and the talk is not of a nonexistent "nation," but of "this land specially blessed by Providence."

John Paul is amazed that Peter the Galilean fisherman and Paul the cultivated Greek-speaking Pharisee should both have found their way to Rome.

Peter arrives directly from Jerusalem via Antioch. Paul arrives via the Greek cities of Philippi, Corinth and Athens. "Thus," John Paul concludes, "the two components of our civilization, Jerusalem and Athens, meet in Rome."

Add that Peter and Paul both suffered martyrdom, the highest form of Christian witness, in Rome, and it is clear that "this inheritance of faith and culture establishes the basis for Italian history in the course of the next 2,000 years."

In this sense, one can say that Italy's mission is more clearly "providential" than that of other nations who are freely responding to the divine vacation given in their baptism. One can move with seven-league boots after that. St. Benedict of Nursia and his sister St. Scholastica (nice to see her included) gave creative expression to the monasticism that came from the East. …

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