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Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Tomb: Norcia after the Quakes, Italy after Catholicism Featured

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The 13th-Century Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia destroyed, leaving standing only its great facade.

"We are now the remnant of the Church. We have no leadership worth the name. We cannot go where they are going, since they are going to perdition. As awful, as unbearable as it seems, we have only that one duty left; to carry on, by ourselves if necessary." - Hilary White

You may have heard that we were struck again with big earthquakes late last month. I think there was something about it in the news before your election. I’m currently writing from a train in northern Italy where I’ve more or less been wandering the countryside looking for a new place to live while they figure out whether my house in Norcia is going to keep standing up. Things are a little strange at the moment, but I think no stranger than they are in the life of the Church in general. At the moment, my personal life closely resembles the larger situation of uncertainty, turmoil and upheaval, so it is hard to complain of an opportunity to suffer exactly as Christ is now suffering in His Mystical Body.


The big Norcia quake of October 30 did not come as a surprise to anyone local. Having spoken to some of the Nursini I have learned Italian insouciance. We shrug and say, “Yes, the big ones generally come in pairs about two or three months apart,” and return to our glass of wine. We were right on schedule with the first quake – 6.4 but several miles away – having hit us August 24th. By now you have all seen the photos of the Basilica of San Benedetto, collapsed in a heap of rubble. Apparently there is quite a difference between 6.4 and 6.6, and Norcia was the epicentre this time.

The Big One on the Feast of Christ the King was preceded by a few others earlier in the week. On Wednesday October 26, about 7 pm, I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen, ticking away on the computer and the next second I was diving under the table as the lights went out and a noise like a truck slamming into the house made me yelp in alarm. The house swayed for maybe 15 seconds, the kitchen cabinets wobbled and glasses leaped to their untimely ends around us.

After regathering our wits and sweeping up the glass, my friend and I had a shot of good Canadian whiskey each and went for a walk, meeting many friends in the piazza a few meters away. After a perimeter check in which we saw there was not much more damage – at least by Norcia’s new standards – and our new timber buttresses had done their work holding the buildings up, we decided to go see if the Grotta Azzura restaurant was open and if they would give us a plate of pasta. We are both watching carb intake, but we figured a 5.4 was sufficient justification for a little comfort food.

We both know people at the hotels, and figured if we were going to die it would be better to do it in good company. When the second one that evening struck, the 6.0, we were just starting the wine. The huge medieval stone building – that had been completely refurbished to be earthquake-proof after the last set of quakes in the ‘70s – swayed in a kind of slow waltz all around us. Franco the maître cancelled our order and sent the cooks home. We made do with some sliced ham and cheese and finished our wine by candle light. You’d be amazed at how good food tastes when you’re in fear of mortal peril. And they gave us a free tiramisu! Before we left, Franco asked if I thought we had seen the end of it. I said no.

That was Wednesday. That quake damaged the little makeshift chapel the monks had set up so they could offer the Mass and a limited Divine Office (Laudes and Vespers) for “the faithful”. After a day or two, we received messages saying that they could give us the Mass for the Feast of Christ the King in the gift shop at 8:30 am. We had the impression that this was not strictly allowed – the gift shop had been damaged – but that the authorities would wink at it if there weren’t too many people. The monks are very popular in Norcia with everyone, including the police and firefighters.

That morning I got up – my house, that is well outside the city walls, had so far remained undamaged – and got dressed. It was obviously going to be a beautiful morning once the early mist burned off. October is generally our best month in Norcia. I did everything as normal: fed the kitties, put on my autumn uniform of tweed skirt and black pullover, wrapped up in mitts and scarf against the autumn chill and buzzed down the hill on the bike.

It was not until I was at the Piazza that I realized something was off; there was no one there and it was 8:25. I called a friend and she sleepily told me that I had missed Time Change Day and that it was actually 7:25 am. I shrugged and went over to the Grotta Azzura hotel to kill an hour with a cup of tea in their morning room. Fortunately – more than I knew at the time – I had brought my computer with me and the hotel has very good wifi.

About 15 minutes later, half way through my second cup and in the middle of a Facebook conversation with a friend in Tucson, I was lurching in a blind panic out of the hotel as a noise like the end of the world screamed and roared around us. I have written about the rest elsewhere. About five hours later I and my two friends, and a box of cats, fled Norcia for Rome in a tiny car.

How is Norcia now? Suffice to say that ten days later, the people of Norcia, my friends and neighbours, are living in tents and being fed their meals in a communal dining tent by the Italian military. Norcia is, if not dead, then in critical condition. My friend who runs the computer shop has told me there is power in town, but the water is iffy and of course there is no commerce at all. He is talking to the city about ways to reopen businesses, at least to provide food and basic necessities. For the time being, I’m staying away, if for no other reason than to take the pressure of an extra mouth to feed off the emergency services.

In the meantime, the question of the Catholic life of Norcia remains open. After the August quake the city closed all the churches that were still in use – four out of 11 – and was offering a weekly Novus Ordo Mass in a tent set up outside the walls. I visited this house of God and I’ve rarely seen anything so wretched or depressing.

norcia porta santa 003The creepy Year of Mercy logo was posted next to the door with the sign, “Porta Santa di Misericordia” over the entrance. Italians aren’t fools, and though they “like” Papa Francesco, they know an empty publicity stunt when they see one. They know a politician when they see one too.

The truth is, the near-extinction of Catholic life in Norcia is now merely visible externally. It was there before, but because the buildings remained, hardly anyone noticed.

What is the Church doing? Removing the art and furnishings from the churches and taking them to “safety” in Spoleto and elsewhere. This has happened before. The reality is known to the people in Norcia; most of their churches remain un-repaired from quakes in 1979 and 1997, and their furnishings, art and vestments are resting comfortably in museum cases.

The day of the quake in August, the bishop turned up with a small retinue. He gave a few interviews to RAI in front of the St. Benedict statue while we were in the crypt chapel singing the Office of Lauds to the “accompaniment” of aftershocks. Then he announced the closure of all the churches and went to Amatrice – the town that was totally destroyed – got his picture taken holding a shovel in his cassock, and left. He turned up again when the Prime Minister visited, then with the pope, and again when President Mattarella came. I have heard that Cardinal Bagnasco, the head of the Italian bishops conference, came to visit last week so I guess he was there again. But apart from that, we haven’t seen him. From what I’ve heard from my Nursini friends, he hasn’t been much missed.

Here’s what didn’t happen in Norcia. No priest was available in the Piazza every day to hear confessions. No one brought one of the wooden confessionals out of either the Basilica (monks) or the co-cathedral (diocese) to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation in this time of grave crisis. There were no processions around the walls begging the intercession of Our Lady or St. Benedict or Santa Scolastica. There were no public Rosaries organized officially in reparation.

No calls to return to the Faith came from the bishop or his priests. No Mass of any rite was offered by the diocese in public inside the walls of this ancient centre of Catholicism. Perhaps no one thought of it. Certainly on the morning of October 30th, when the monks offered Confession in the Piazza while we waited for the Vigili del Fuoco to dig us a path out of the city, only one person went. But the restaurants stayed open, so that’s something.

(The monks quickly outfitted a chapel in their “scavi” – the excavated area next to the Basilica where the 2nd century BC ruins of St. Benedict’s house have been preserved, and continued their daily conventual Mass. But this was meant only for themselves and those “friends of the monastery” who were on the email list. We had the impression that it was rather frowned upon. The Poor Clares continued to open their doors for their weird Novus Ordo thing with the tambourines – yes, actual tambourines – but as you can imagine it wasn’t well attended.)

There is a habit of North Americans to think of Italy as a Catholic place, where families are large and every village has its parish church and Marian procession, boisterous saints’ festas. This rosy picture of a peaceful and loyal Catholicism was probably established in the Anglo mind after the troops came home from the war. The trouble is that it is a relic of the past. Those who have taken even a brief closer look have discovered an almost apocalyptic variance with this idyllic image.

Catholic life and belief in Italy have been in decline since the 19th century Risorgimento, when the secularists and anticlericals established the Kingdom of Italy, a short-lived legal fiction that mostly served to divest the pope – at gunpoint – of his temporal authority. That was also the period in which the laws and economic regulations were changed, forcing farmers and other rural people out of their ancestral lands and into the cities to seek work – a process that resulted in the complete de-Christianization of whole populations in many northern European countries after the Protestant Revolt.

The cultural and religious de-racination – literally the uprooting – of the Italian people has resulted in most of the rural areas of Italy becoming economically uninhabitable. Those communities that survive with some local non-tourist agricultural economy intact are suffering. Children born in Norcia can live there until the end of their college years and then must leave if their parents don’t own a business to provide them with work. There is an old folks’ home in Norcia where older people, whose children and grandchildren have left town, must go when they can no longer shift for themselves.

Why have the Italians forgotten their faith? How have they lost who they are? The question can be answered in material, mechanical ways by looking at history, economics, political and philosophical trends. But in essence it remains a mystery.

The monks have told me that the firefighters, police and other civil emergency workers are at least still vestigially Catholic. Everyone I meet here responds pretty favourably when I tell them that I came here for religious reasons, escaping the extreme and aggressive, spirit-deadening secularism of my Anglo homelands. But few of them outside the traditionalist community – dominated in Italy by the remnants of the Italian nobility – really have any idea what I mean. Most are perplexed and puzzled by it. Some are amused. Most shrug and change the subject.

Italy is not really a happy place. Honestly, outside the tourist districts, Italy is a pretty depressed and depressing place. The industrial towns are dominated by uniform, square, unadorned post-war architecture, most of which is cracking and crumbling in the damp climate. No one cares much. Towns are always dotted with abandoned or nearly-abandoned buildings. Everywhere - including Norcia - one can find construction projects that got half way and then stopped and were left to molder with rusting scaffolding and weeds growing up around piles of bricks and tiles. Political and economic corruption is accepted in a defeated way by the public who know that nothing can or will ever be done. People in this country, ex-pats and natives alike, learn to live like refugees in their own homes, expecting disaster and adopting a cynical, short-term mentality that makes planning for the future on any scale impossible.

What will happen to Norcia? Someone has asked whether there is any point in rebuilding its now ruined churches, since the people of the town have demonstrated their lack of interest in the religion for which they are intended. Perhaps a better question to ask is “What must happen? What must we do?”

The only answer to that is obvious: we must re-evangelize this country, and every other. We must look to the deep past; how were countries Christianized to begin with? The answer is uncomfortable, to say the least. And given our current circumstances in Rome we cannot look to the usual channels to help with this. Indeed, we are seeing that, as in the days of the Old Empire, Rome is again more a source of persecution of the Faith than of strength and support. I expect that this will get much worse before it gets better.

So, what is the answer? I am a fan of Narnia, as many readers know, and I am thinking of the time Aslan said to Lucy that she must follow him even though the others, her faithful but less saintly older siblings Peter, Susan and Edmund, would not. She must go forward even if she is alone. We are now, the remnant of the Church, in the same position. We have no leadership worth the name. We cannot go where they are going, since they are going to perdition. As awful, as unbearable as it seems, we have only that one duty left; to carry on, by ourselves if necessary.

The monks of Norcia have, I think, got part of the answer. They are not leaving the town, though they don’t have a building to live in or a church to pray in. In August, they constructed a kind of work camp up on their hill overlooking the town, and settled in for the long-long haul of work and prayer, to carry on their Benedictine life for their own salvation and the salvation of the world.

We must now all find similar solutions, each serving where we are and in the capacities granted to us by our states in life, our places in the world. How do we rebuild a Christian civilization? What is the “New Evangelization”? Same as the Old Evangelization. We have no other choice. Every other answer leads to the precipice of despair.

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Last modified on Sunday, November 13, 2016
Hilary White

Our Italy correspondent is known throughout the English-speaking world as a champion of family and cultural issues. First introduced by our allies and friends at the incomparable, Miss White lives in Norcia, Italy.