Christians treat pagan as a dirty word. There’s ample reason to do so; we believe our faith rather exclusively, and the textual witness of much of Scripture points rather clearly to the notion that the pagans deceived themselves, worshipping powerless objects instead of an actual god. The Lord takes pains to keep Israel from turning to idolotry and condemns repeatedly the vain worship of the Nations, lest Israel yet again succumb to it, which it had an unfortunate history of repeatedly doing. And in these days of science and progress, where we know from whence lightning comes, we look back on Thor and Zeus and Apollo and think to ourselves “While the origins of the Hebrew God may be a bit murky, these fellows were clearly devised for the sole purpose of explaining natural phenomena. Their stories seem largely limited to telling us why the seasons change and the sun traverses the sky, but now we know the truth about these things.” So we look back and scoff at their ignorance if not their stupidity, secure in the knowledge that we in the now really do know better (lest you think this is yet another “Science is arrogant, RAAAR!” sort of rant). All of this is true.
In my Italian class today, we discussed how intertwined Italian popular Catholicism is with ancient Italic paganism. I have no experience of the sort of culture about which la mia professoressa spoke; I’ve never lived in a traditionally-Catholic ethnic enclave in the States or in any society of that sort. I live in the diocese of Richmond, which has just over 220,000 Catholics among the four million-strong population, which puts us at around 5.5 percent. There really isn’t a popular Catholicism here; we’re a small church, and while we do tend to, ahem, congregate, the faith doesn’t have particularly deep roots in Virginia, being largely a fringe faith in this overwhelmingly Baptist part of the state. So I can’t say that I know too much about the sort of Catholicism she’s discussing.
According to Cinzia, Italian Catholicism is deeply pagan, and she refers to that sort of expression of the faith as “religione,” with the sarcasm quotesm (she was very careful to make that distinction), and referred repeatedly to Italian idolatria, the extent to which Italian Catholics place the saints, not so much above God, but higher on their priority list. The saints, she went on, simply have a more profound place in their lives, to the point that they are often treated as Gods. She took as her principal examples San Genarro and Saint Anthony of Padua, both of whom are invoked and trusted with more frequency and fidelity than ole’ Gesù himself.
The standard text is that the Christianization of Italy never really took, and that the people, the pagani of ancient Rome, the country-dwellers, remained, well, pagans at heart. They just turned their devotion to Artemis to someone else, and treated the Company of Saints as little better than a replacement Pantheon of Gods, to whom they entrusted their lives; the God of Abraham, it’s reasoned, was simply too high, too distant, to be approached, and soon lost all practical relevance to them.
During this discussion, one of my classmates, an Evangelical Protestant named Nina, was visibly squirming, clearly uncomfortable with the discussion of saints, offering a few objections to the whole enterprise. This interrelation seemed to bother her deeply, and I can’t say I blame her terribly. Because, as I said, pagan is a dirty word.
And yet, Catholicism recognizes, and has since St. Paul, that often pagan religion is man’s native religious sense grasping at a divine it has difficulty comprehending, and not solely a struggle to explain things science would eventually unlock. That superstition arises not only as our ability to recognize and codify patterns, but an awareness of the breadth and width of the invisible world, and our attempts to understand and manipulate it.
To that end, one could say that, to the extent that Cinzia is right, Italian popular Catholicism has yet to really encounter the divine firsthand, and remains grasping at straws. The people have simply not been engaged by their faith, nor taken it seriously as much besides a means to manipulate fate and probabilities, a call to the powers above instead of a communion with God.