From age six, I knew that organized religion was not for me. I was raised in the Catholic faith by my mother, though we dabbled in Judaism through my father’s side of the family — not surprisingly, mostly through meals. Either way, both traditions seemed like good metaphors, but never something that I could –or needed to– believe in as a saving grace, reason for existence, or justification for good or evil.
I remember staring up at Father Jack (my favorite priest, he was always so gentle with us kids, especially during confession) as he read his sermon, thinking, “I can’t believe that these adults pretend that they believe in this.” Not long after, I realized that they weren’t the ones pretending — I was.
Indeed, I carried on this illusion until I turned 18. My mother wanted to see me confirmed in the church; after she died in my teens, I made sure to honor her wish, even though it meant nothing to me. In fact, it was burdensome to assume the mask of a devotee in a religion that I didn’t agree with, but I did so because I believed in my mother. It seemed okay to carry on the charade because I felt like I carried a part of her with me as I did it. In fact, the name I took as my confirmation name –long forgotten until this moment as I write it– was her middle name, Kay, because it was more about her faith than my own.
These thoughts surfaced today when my sister-out-law, Kirstin, asked me during mass if I planned to take communion, and I instantly quipped, “If I took communion, I’d probably burst into flame.” The only other time I’ve been to mass prior to Civita was in 2007 when I visited Montreal and heard a mass in French in Notre Dame. Not counting that, it’s been 18 years. This is especially poignant, since I’ve witnessed two baptisms in the past two days: Antonio and Rossana’s nipota, Elena, was baptized yesterday afternoon, and Laura and Roberto’s figlio, Alberto, was baptized during this morning’s mass.
Being invited to Elena’s baptism was indeed an honor, and a special treat. The chiesa was brilliantly lit, and the configuration of pews changed in order to center the ceremony around the revealed fresco of Mary to the left of the church — a panel that lived hidden until an earthquake in the 1600s. The parishioners prayed to be saved from the natural disaster, and underneath the very walls of their seemingly well-known church, a new vision of Mary spontaneously appeared from beneath the plaster just as the ramifications of the quake subsided. Naturally, this was declared a miracle.
As we entered the church, which is quite humble and continues to live under scaffolding due to the exterior renovation, my heart warmed to see Elena’s name written in Civita flowers that splayed out in a pattern on the floor across from Miracle Mary. My camera failed during the ceremony, so I was unable to capture much besides her name on the floor, but I wondered if that somehow wasn’t a sign, too — perhaps some things are meant to be described in stories and metaphors rather than requiring physical proof to show that they happened.
I considered that thought during this morning’s mass, as Roberto and Laura –who comes from the valley surrounding Civita– brought her family, friends, and her childhood priest (he now serves a parish in Genoa) back to Civita for her son’s baptism. I know Laura because she helps Tony with upkeep of his house and all of the NIAUSI properties; only today did I learn of her familial ties with Civita. For her, this place is a Mecca to which it is important for family to return at special moments. Though she may not be considered “Civitonici” as much as Antonio and Rossana who live and work here, I considered a strong commonality between her son, Alberto, and Elena: baptism in Civita. They and their families will continue to return here nevertheless. That I was lucky enough to be present for both events, I cannot fathom.
What I thought about for hours afterwards is how many people are born in this place, and how many different faiths they are born into. Some are born into Catholicism or descendant families, others into architecture and urban design, and still others into the religion of la vita bella italiana. During our dinner prep tonight (mushroom risotto and fried zucchini flowers with mozzarella and anchovies inside), I felt so grateful that Sue and Kirstin –on their maiden exploration– have been quickly initiated into the lives, food, customs, and traditions of this very unique Italian hill town.
While I may not practice an organized religion, I most certainly believe in faith and the power of devoted people, and there is no shortage of that here. With all the concern that I’ve developed for my beloved Civita, worrying about the future and the waning number of descendants, these two events have done much to restore my own beliefs.
Seeing families and friends trek up the bridge to gather around Elena and Alberto allowed me to see Civita in yet another way: as an iconic place of faith even in the modern day. These people came not only to welcome Alberto and Elena into the Catholic church — their families ensured that the point of welcoming was Civita quite specifically.
Watching Father Marco laugh and joke with unprecedented abandon during Elena’s baptism, I thought: there’s more hope married within the bones of this place than is apparent to the naked eye, even after a month and a half. Though I feel extremely protective of and close to Civita, I’m still an outsider, and it’s easy not to see or believe that there are indeed families that have grown over generations — and will indeed continue to do so into the future.
I may not be able to probe wounds, but somehow, my faith has been a bit restored. I suppose it goes back to my belief in the power of people, and knowing that there are many of us gathered here and abroad who care about preserving Civita.
In fact, if I had to choose, I’d say that people are ultimately my religion. In spite of all that happens in the world, some might say that’s a miracle.