Sicilian Catholic

By Giacomo Alessandro

PHOTOS BY: Harry Stevens, Giacomo Alessandro

I WAS BORN IN THE PROVINCE OF PALERMO, SICILY IN THE 1970S.  However, from a young age I lived in Ethiopia, due to my father’s work, then went to a Jesuit University in the US and subsequently lived in Mexico and Brazil . When I was younger, we were always surrounded by my extended family.  As time went on, we all went our separate ways and are now scattered around the world in what is known as the “diaspora”.

TODAY I AM AN ENGINEER and live in a small town in the province of Messina with my wife, son and mother-in-law. It’s important to understand that there has always been at least two “Italys”: North and South.  As a Sicilian, I can only speak to life here on the islands — plural because we spend a lot of time on the Æolians as well.

OUR CHURCHES ARE ALWAYS FULL ON SUNDAYS, but not everyone attends church anymore. The elderly often prefer to watch Mass on TV.

SKY-HIGH UNEMPLOYMENT and the economic crisis have meant that many families must be separated. Husbands are in other parts of Italy or Europe or have to work odd hours, including Sundays.

ALTHOUGH THE FAITH IN SICILY IS ANCIENT – IN SYRACUSE FOUNDED BY ST PETER HIMSELF — in my diocese, you have to make the conscious decision to take church and the faith seriously, because our bishop and many of the priests have thoroughly embraced many of the heresies of modernism and every liturgical fad. This includes female altar servers, communion in the hand, unnecessary Eucharistic ministers, holding hands during the “Our Father” etc.

IN MY OWN PARISH I NO LONGER RECEIVE COMMUNION since I was scolded by our octogenarian priest that I cannot kneel or receive on the tongue ‘in his parish.’ My son just had his first communion this year and despite years of catechism leading up to this, he was not taught the “act of contrition”, the Nicene creed, the seven deadly sins or anything one would consider necessary to make a proper confession. We had to teach these things to him at home.  So, I would say the majority of the fault for the current situation rests clearly with the modernist clergy who fail to take their role or their vocation seriously anymore.

BEFORE OUR RECENT MOVE, WE ATTENDED THE LATIN MASS IN A VERY SMALL PARISH IN PALERMO. The irony is Palermo is itself a jewel among an island of architectural jewels; like Catania (pictured) its churches are beyond words such as “spectacular”, “beautiful” or “breathtaking.” Yet the bishop gave one priest a very recently-built, monstrosity of a church just outside the city for one Latin Mass on Sunday evenings at 19:00. 

DESPITE THE UGLINESS OF THE ACTUAL CHURCH STRUCTURE, THE THIRTY-SOMETHING PRIEST AND THE PARISH THERE WERE VERY FRIENDLY, VIBRANT, WELCOMING. We all had a sense of solidarity, mostly because we were young.  There was always a group celebration, pilgrimage, or other activities to bring us all closer in our faith and socially. It was one of the happiest parishes I’ve attended. 

AND YES…THE PRIESTS WHO CELEBRATE THE TLM ARE VERY AWARE OF BEING “DENOUNCED” to their superiors for any perceived “traditionalist heresy”. I remember a flash of fear in our priest’s eyes when someone brought up the SSPX in conversation and he immediately said, “please, let’s not discuss anything like that here”. 

WE ALSO HAVE A HOUSE IN THE ARCHDIOCESE OF SAN FRANCISCO, where there is now an AMAZING bishop (also Sicilian!). His Excellency Archbishop Cordileone is not only a champion of orthodox Catholicism but happily promotes the TLM whenever it is requested; he’s even presided over a Pontifical Mass.  Churches that offer the TLM there (such as Star of the Sea) are always full and vocations in the Orders that offer it are flourishing.  But Cordileone succeeded TWO scandalous bishops that I cannot speak about without being uncharitable; both lasted a VERY long time and did a LOT of damage.

HERE IN SICILY, WE HAVE YET TO SEE OUR WAYWARD BISHOPS REPLACED WITH “LIONHEARTS”. I believe once this happens — and it may happen soon, simply due to their age — the situation for more Tridentine liturgies will change and become more acceptable, as will orthodox Catholicism in general. Until then we wait and correct our children when they have to suffer through errant theology.

MEANWHILE, WE TEACH OUR CHILDREN ABOUT OUR LOCAL SAINTS USING THEIR ICONOGRAPHY. San Rocco always has a dog at his side pointing to his wound, Saint Anthony in monks’ robe holding the child, Jesus, St Cecilia with an organ/instrument, St Rosalia reclining with a skull, or St Lucy holding a cup with her eyes. 

THE ONLY CHILDREN WHO DON’T KNOW ABOUT THESE are those who may never have been in a church or who dropped out of school, because they come from broken families. This is not as common as in other countries, but it does happen. 

MOST SICILIAN CHILDREN DO REALIZE THAT MANY OF THESE SAINTS WERE MARTYRED FOR THEIR FAITH and are aware that while Rome was glorious and a major part of our history, it was at first pagan and played a major part in the birth of Christianity by brutally martyring the early Christians.

IN SMALLER ITALIAN TOWNS AND VILLAGES THERE ARE THREE MAJOR BUILDINGS: the church, the “palazzo” (or residence of the ruling family from the past) and the “Commune” or government building.  The church will inevitably be the prominent building, very visible. Plus there are the many statues and shrines to Our Lady or a local saint any given street corner.  So, you get this sense by osmosis even without having it explained to you.

ICONOGRAPHY HAS NEVER LEFT SICILY, due to certain art-forms indigenous to the island such as ceramic art. Every major city has an art-school, but every student I have known/spoken to laments the fact that realism — or more specifically the baroque tradition which characterizes our island, much like Renaissance art characterizes Florence — has for years been brushed aside in favor of modernist art styles. 

MOST FIND IT MORE LUCRATIVE TO GO INTO ART-RESTORATION RATHER THAN BECOME ARTISTS. This saddens me because I have known really talented artists to rival Bernini who simply gave up because there was no market for what they wanted to create.  But once again, these tides are turning. 

SICILIAN STUDENTS ARE REDISCOVERING THEIR ROOTS BY GOING NORTH OVER THE SEA TO FLORENCE which has MANY quality art-schools that teach Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Pre-Raphaelite etc. I try to encourage their talents by commissioning paintings/sculpture, usually one or two a year. I just commissioned an extremely talented local student, Sebastiano Caldarella, to paint the life of St Oliva in the baroque style.

EVER SINCE THE RISORGIMENTO there has been a pull from the Italian government to usurp the authority of the Church and mindset of the people.  There’s a popular legend about the obscenely gaudy “altare della patria”, a monument to the ego of the first King of Italy, who commissioned it to be the largest monument in Rome, and higher than St Peter’s. This was to stress his point about who was in charge.  After destroying an entire medieval neighborhood to build it, it was finally complete in 1925…but immediately sank several feet into the hill under its immense weight. This left St Peter’s still the tallest building in Rome. Today the leftist government of Italy is definitely not nearly as subtle in its aims or intentions.

HERE IN SICILY THE “NEW AGE” IDEOLOGIES HAVE NOT REALLY TAKEN ROOT, and I don’t expect they ever will since it’s just not part of our culture. We have had to battle centuries of superstition– i.e. going to a “healer” or “witch” to cure you of the “evil eye” –but that has all but completely died out in the last generation. 

I THINK IT IS THE EXPECTATIONS OF WOMEN THAT HAVE CHANGED: they expect a house, stability, some sort of income from their spouse now– as opposed to simply getting married and hoping for the best.  Plus, in the past when there were 6 – 10 children per household, it was the duty of the father and brothers to keep them safe and to find them a good husband.  That’s not the mentality here anymore; women definitely define their own destiny now.

ITALY HAS ONE OF THE LOWEST BIRTHRATES IN EUROPE. My wife is an OBGYN in a smaller town; whereas 10 years ago she worked at one hospital and had enough patients to deal with a year, now she has been assigned to three hospitals because even here there are less babies being born every year. 

VERY FEW SICILIAN WOMEN HAVE ABORTIONS. My wife would never perform one and we do have a very strict “conscience clause” wherein a doctor can say he/she will not perform abortions. Similarly, if the hospital is Catholic as opposed to state-run, they will not perform them. What is I believe the most damaging to women’s psyches is that many are trying to have children at a later age — and end up losing the child or not getting pregnant at all.  My wife deals with this all the time, and I often hear these same women lamenting their situation, even inappropriately, like at parties.

MULTI-GENERATIONAL SICILIAN FAMILIES ARE STILL INTRINSIC TO CHILD-REARING.  My mother-in-law lives with us and since my wife works odd hours and I travel a lot for work, it really takes all of our efforts to raise just one child.  Most of our friends have 2 – 3 children and are in the same situation. The mother and father work, so if they have money they have a baby-sitter, but typically it’s other family members who help out.

LUXURY GOODS ADS ARE EVERYWHERE IN ITALY, CONTRIBUTING TO THE CONSUMERISM AND ALIENATION OF TODAY’S ITALIANS, ESPECIALLY THE YOUNG. Here in Sicily, it’s Japanese, Korean or American goods. This is just the latest generation in a line of consumerism/bad behavior that began long before.  In my house we do not have the TV on when eating as a family, but I’ve been to formal dinners where the host immediately turns on the TV (prominently placed in the dining room) as the meal begins.  That’s the sort of behavior we need to change if we want to stress the importance of what it means to be together as a society or family.

WHETHER PEOPLE CHOOSE TO ATTEND OR NOT, THE CHURCH IS STILL HERE AND NOT GOING ANYWHERE, despite the heresy, sometimes in the highest levels of the Italian hierarchy.  Nowhere is that better evidenced in our schools, where religion (Catholicism) is still taught weekly and there is still a crucifix in every classroom, despite legal suits being brought by both atheists and Mohammedans to remove them over the past decade. One suit made it all the way to the Hague, which ruled in the atheist’s favor, awarding her thousands of euros in damages. They were forced to reverse their decision when Italy just scoffed and said, “yeah…just try and collect”. 

THE PRIEST IN OUR PARISH IS ABSOLUTELY DISCONNECTED; he’s an 80-something “spirit of Vatican II” dinosaur who has amassed a small fortune from donations which should have gone to the church, but made their way into his bank account. It’s an open secret and he is tolerated since most of the church is run by the women anyway as catechists, lectors, organizers etc. So he’s mostly a figurehead who demands those who do show up adhere to his version/vision of the liturgy. Contrast this with the priest in Palermo who traveled 100 kilometers on any given day to administer sacraments as needed. 

SO, NO, THE HIERARCHY IS NOT IN TOUCH WITH US IN OUR ARCHDIOCESE. They see our blessed Pope Benedict’s abdication as a victory for their status quo, and Pope Francis as nonthreatening, despite his calls for “vaya lio” (“Come on, let’s cause some commotion!”) in the Church.

SICILY IS A LAND IMMERSED IN CULTURE, MYTH AND HISTORY at every level, which includes our Christian heritage.  Sicilians were conquered by the Arab Mohammedans who enslaved and ruled over us as subhumans (dhimmi) for almost a century.  We commemorate our Christian victory over the Mohammedan in popular art, culture, puppetry, ceramics etc…so we have a unique understanding that without the Church, we would be a province of North Africa.  The Church will always be here; whether it is a force for good depends on the parish/diocese.  In that sense we are no different from any other Catholics on the planet.

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