Ministry in Italy
By Laurent J. LaBrie
Other Articles in the series "The Italian Side of the Bridge"
Italy is a dreamland. The culture, the language, the people, the food, the architecture, and the art have been modeled by the masters over the centuries. It is a place to which all dream of traveling one day. This is why tourism is one of its major industries.
"Foreign visitors are fascinated. They are won over, as they have always been, by the 'charm of Italy'. Italian life is gay, effervescent, intoxicating. The dolce vita looks now more dolce than it ever was. Very few travelers see the ugliness underneath, the humiliation, the suffering. Not one in a hundred perceives the fundamental dreariness of everything under the glittering ormolu, the bitter fate of men who are condemned perennially to amuse themselves and the world, to hide their innermost feelings, to be simpatici at all costs in order to make living. What do they know of the peculiar feeling of frustration and resigned discontent which paralyses the best Italians? One of Ignazio Silone's characters describes it:
'There is a sadness, a subtle sadness that's not to be mistaken for the more ordinary kind that is the result of remorse, disillusionment or suffering; there is an intimate sadness which comes to chosen souls simply from their consciousness of man's fate... This sort of sadness has always prevailed among intelligent Italians, but most of them, to evade suicide or madness, have taken to every known means of escape: they feign exaggerated gaiety, awkwardness, a passion for women, for food, for their country, and, above all, for fine-sounding words; they become, as chance may have it, policemen, monks, terrorists, war heroes. I think that there has never been a race of men so fundamentally desolate and desperate as these gay Italians.'" (Barzini L, The Italians, New York: Bantam Books, 1964. p. 336)
Italy is hungering for a savior from the bella figura. Their lives are polite, sugar coated, and unreal. They long to be loved unconditionally, a love that can only be provided by the God of Love. Yet, this message cannot be delivered by a fake messenger. They need to see genuineness in the person, that he or she is not faking their relationship with God so as to win converts that will serve selfish interests. They need to see genuine love in action. Success in bringing peace, love, and joy to the Italians depends on living a life of genuine love and acceptance. Loving "the least of these" is essential.
Join me now as I explore Luigi Barzini's reflections on the Italian people and compare that with my (short) six years of experience in the Veneto region, reportedly the most productive, wealthiest, most materialistic and least spiritually-minded part of Europe.
I have to admit, that I surely had a tourist phase in my perspective of Italy in my first months as I worked in an American Army hospital in Vicenza. But even when I passed through the tourist phase, it became my home. From the first day when I moved to this town in northern Italy about 2 hours from Venice, I suffered no culture shock. Returning to the United States four years later, the culture shock was tremendous.
"The illusion Italy creates is a relief. Countries which believe in discipline, the meticulous administration of justice, the cultivation of unbending moral virtues, universal education, the conquest of military glory and the diligent accumulation, distribution and administration of wealth, whether they really achieve their ideals or merely pay respect to them, can be worthy of esteem but are seldom amusing."(ibid, p. 337)
Upon my return to the United States, I missed my bicycle commute to work, having exchanged it for a Pennsylvania to New Jersey commute. I longed for my break at the Cuore di Napoli bar for capuccino and a fresh brioche which I used to punctuate my ride into work. I craved 9:30 in Stanga when the bakery pulled the fresh bread out of the oven, having the opportunity to bite into a steaming roll.
"The Italian way of life down the centuries attracted people who wanted to take a holiday from their national virtues. In the heart of every man, wherever he is born, whatever his education and tastes, there is one small corner which is Italian, that which finds regimentation irksome, the dangers of war frightening, strict morality stifling, that part which loves frivolous and entertaining art, admires larger-than-life-size solitary heroes, and dreams of an impossible liberation from the strictures of a tidy existence."(ibid, p. 337)
It was tough having to drive and park in a regimented way. My time in Italy marked my first four consecutive years without an auto accident. I had no moving violations and only one parking ticket. In my first month back in the US, I maxed out points on my driver's license, with twelve parking tickets and three moving violations. Fortunately, I had both a Texas and a Colorado driver's license, so when I maxed out points on the former, I used the latter.
I particularly remember one penalty rendered by a uniformed protector of the peace. It was 1 AM and I was leaving Lehigh University campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Not another car was circulating within a mile, I'm sure. I made a right at a three-way stop by a vacant Mart Library. There was no left entrance to the intersection. There was no possible way that someone could have hit me except perhaps an empty Bud bottle thrown from a fraternity. So, I didn't argue with the accusation that I didn't come to a complete stop when the kind campus police officer pulled me over. The only beverage I had consumed was a glass of milk three hours before. If he had smelled my breath, it would have been a nasty experience and probably would have resulted in a charge of assault of a police officer.
Right there on Third Street, he made me walk a straight line, a feat which is pretty tough at that time of the morning. I have never been known for my equilibrium and am one of the worst northerners at skating. After a couple failures, I passed the walking test. Only then did I try in vain to talk my way out of the ticket. "I had just finished serving in the military in Italy, and driving laws are different there." He sarcastically replied, "And I bet they let you drive through stop signs."
Knowing I was speaking to a campus policeman who if he was lucky may have ventured as far as Canada, I knew that further argument was fruitless. However, I mumbled, "In fact, you can even go left through a red light if there is no traffic." In the darkness of Bethlehem, in front of the Goosey Gander sub shop, two things dawned on me. First, I realized that Italy is an experience that can't be shared verbally, it is a happening. Secondly, I realized that the freedom I experienced there was history. With it went the adrenaline pumping to keep me alert as I drove 75 in my light blue 1974 Mercedes 230. Barzini was right when he wrote, "Even those countries which pursue the ideal of liberty can be stifling and oppressive, for liberty is after all assured only by the impartial enforcement of the law." (ibid, p. 337)
My tongue was no longer mesmerized with the fluidity of a romance language but was forced to pronounce words that sounded much more crude and less melodic. Speaking italiano is more poetry than conversation. Time and Newsweek would replace Bell'Italia and Foto.
No more fresh food from the town market. Now my taste buds would suffer the attack of stuff stuffed in metal cans and cardboard boxes. I had learned to cook in Italy, but time was much more rushed in the United States. Demands of the job digested more hours of the day. With it were the hours spent with the Romagnosi family next door. Neighbors in the US hardly know each other, and I fell right back in step.
The following words must be heeded by any businessman or missionary wanting to relate to the Italians. If a church is to be successful, it must understand the Italian distinctives, some of which I will try to communicate in this Internet series.
"The consolations which Italy afforded at all times have been infinitely more precious today than they ever were. The Western world is deeply uneasy. It is coming to doubt the utility and sanctity of some of its traditional virtues, those on which it based its moral tranquillity and its self-respect. The bourgeois' industry and thrift are considered more and more injurious to society; the soldier's undaunted heroism is no longer required; unbridled patriotism has led men and nations to tragic mistakes; morality has lost some of its shining certainty; laws have become fluid; nobody really knows any more whether one truth exists. The era of powerful nations, proud of their racial superiority, masters of their own destinies, is at an end. Everybody's life is governed by the decisions of distant and practically unknown men, and powerful and out of reach as Charles V seemed to the Italians in the sixteenth century, who can make us rich or poor, can make us live or can kill all of us in our beds while we sleep. [Eerily prophetic of 9/11? LJL] The regimentation of an industrial mass society is becoming more and more stifling. Men are kept working like galley slaves of old by their desire to conquer more and more garish material possessions. They are fed ready-made ideas, they are supplied with art approved by the authorities, entertained by the same shows, dazzled by the same ceremonies, stirred by the same slogans, moved by the same collective emotions. Modern men get lost in a maze of larger and larger anonymous organizations. Loneliness and tedium envelope each of them whenever he can get out of the uproar long enough to think above himself." (ibid, p. 337)
Additionally, the key to reaching the Italian heart is by caring. Yes, financial generosity is extremely rare and churches without paid pastors still struggle to pay their rent and utilities. Yet, loving outreach to the outcasts must be a center of the work. A social gospel will be much more effective than a theoretical or legalistic one. After all, this is the gospel message to love one another. This is why we are building this bridge of grace from Italy to Romania. The Italian church will become spiritually healthy as it becomes more outward-looking and less critical of their own external legalisms.
Many of Italians are tired of the hypocrisy and false nature of their relationships. They inwardly long for genuine relationships, to know that someone will love them even if they break down the wall of the bella figura and are themselves. The character that God wants to bring to the Italian people has the potential to make it the most attractive people group in God's Kingdom. May God be glorified by a movement in this people in our lifetime!
Other Articles in the series "The Italian Side of the Bridge"
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© 2003 Laurent J. LaBrie