ITALY Dispatch #1 (Vatican)
The following is the journal I kept during a brief trip to Italy in January, 2014. The trip was through the TCU Campus Crusade group, a missions agency in Fort Worth. My camera was stolen shortly after the trip, so we must rely on the text of my journal and your imagination.
Today I crossed the big pond for the first time in my life. We landed in Frankfurt, Germany after a ten hour flight from Texas and then flew across the Alps and into Italy. I cannot possibly express the effect such a vision has on a climber. I sat by the window as we ascended through celestial troughs and billowing luminous clouds. I've never seen such shapes as play out upon the slopes of the upper hemisphere. There were clouds blanketed soft as back-country powder set against rolling columns of fog. We flew among the clouds and our visibility was impenetrably flooded with white each time we passed through a cloud. I cannot imagine how exhilarating it feels to pilot a plane through such conditions.
And then I saw the Alps. They stood grounded and visceral below the effervescent clouds; innumerable peaks frothed in copious snow and smothered in the silence of winter. I realized that I had forgotten to take any pictures in this interval, my mind having been fully occupied in the revelrous rapture of the alpine sights and found my descriptions limited by my vocabulary, but so freely drawn from the imagination that an elevated vernacular felt neither misplaced nor grasping.
Struck by this, I had no further ability to be surprised when Italy sprawled before me. I had no idea how bounteous Italy's pink speckled hills appeared from the air. The hills lay stretched out like the follicles of a leaf lain among the autumn grass. The colors were organic and earthen, born out of the mud-stained Tiber and Rhine. All this before even setting my eyes upon Rome itself.
My second flight I spoke briefly with a Sicilian man named Antonio. He was around my age and teaches Italian Literature. The conversation wasn't very deep, but he gave me his contact info in case I ever travel to Sicily. As we landed in Rome and got on a bus into the city, I ended up sitting next to another Sicilian man. Salvatore has the equivalent of a masters in Software Engineering and works in an entry level IT position. He was gregarious and we got to talking about sports and politics. I had him catch me up on public sentiment over Berlesconi (an extremely powerful media mogul who has been involved in center right politics and since been kicked out of office), local soccer matches and grudges, and the outlook for university graduates in Italy.
Salvatore voiced a couple of concerns that he sees as prevalent in the Italian mindset. I already knew that job prospects for well educated young men were scarce, but it seems the real frustration is that the retirement age for Italians keeps rising. The old generation of fifty to seventy year old men (Catholic by heritage) hold a significant portion of the limited job market and there are few opportunities for the younger generation, who are openly and widely agnostic as well as turned off to the church because of Vatican Politics and formal religion.
Salvatore went on to claim that most Italians have no hope for their economy, in their government, or in its future. I pried gently into what role he feels or has seen the church take in the situation. He was very reticent to talk about religion (like most Italians), but admitted that he was intrigued by the new pope. As the bus arrived at our stop, we exchanged business cards and he also told me to hit him up if I'm ever in Sicily.
Bearing in mind that Salvatore is not an official spokesperson for his nation, I wonder if the students we will be meeting with in Bologna will have the same frustrations. We spent the evening site-seeing in Rome and witnessing the crazy rush hour tradition of Italy. At six every day, Italians go on a walk. Dinner is not served until eight at the earliest, so they hit the town between work and dinner; think Manhattan metro rush meets Jersey Boardwalk strut, where everyone wears black, smokes, and parades their latest paramour about the town. It appears the Epicureans have finally taken over Rome.
This morning we headed to the Vatican to see St. Peter's basilica before getting on a train bound for Bologna. The Vatican is insane and (for anyone with an art history background) overwhelming. I felt myself wishing I had spent more time studying, but surprised with my ability to make out the numerous Latin inscriptions. It was so monumental and severe. The various statues of the Saints, Popes, and etc are very threatening; they loom over the room with outstretched hands and pointing fingers. It very much has the feel of a courtroom in which you are being judged.
I wonder if my experience of St. Peters mirrors that of young Italians. I doubt it was the intention of the artists to emphasize the justice and judgement aspects of Christianity. Perhaps it's just that marble columns and open space make you feel like you are on your knees in court; a criminal. I can't wait to get to Bologna and spend time with the students at the University. I need to process and talk over some of these perceptions with them so that I can better understand how they perceive the Church and whether the gospel is perhaps overshadowed by the institution.
My prayer request for Salvatore, for Italian students, and for the next week is that we can come into this culture and present the gospel without having to face off against the prevalent anti-Catholic sentiment. Pray with me for those ministering in Italy; that they may empathize with the despair and hopelessness felt by the Italians and point towards the gospel as life-sustaining and hopeworthy. Pray for Salvatore and for our witness in engaging similar Italians, who are guarded against churchy words and blanket promise, but perhaps unfamiliar with the gospel narrative and the real meaning of Christ coming into the world to live among us and die for us.