How the Italians became Irish

12 07 2008

On Immigration, Folk Beliefs, and the Rationalization of American Catholicism

“Pagan! Heathen! Idolator!” These were among the epithets hurled at the Italian immigrants around the turn of the century. In addition to being viewed as potential mafiosi or anarchists, the sons of Italy had the further onus of being regarded as the bearers of anti-Christian beliefs and practices. The “Italian Problem” in its religious manifestation had been discovered by American churchmen, both Catholic and Protestant, well before 1900. In the following decades much energy, money, and ink were expended in efforts to find solutions to this “problem.” What exactly was the nature of the Italian Problem? With few exceptions, American Protestants and Catholics agreed that the Italian immigrants were characterized by ignorance of Christian doctrine, image worship, and superstitious emotionalism. In short, they were not true Christians.

Thus begins Rudolph Vecoli’s masterful essay on the evolution of Italian folk religion in the American immigrant experience, the full text of which can be found via this website. The recently deceased scholar argues in this essay that the religion of southern Italians was seen as a threat not only by American Protestants, but also by the predominantly Irish Catholic hierarchy itself.  Even within the Catholic Church, immigrants from southern Italy were seen as barely Christian crypto-pagans whose festivals, folk practices, and devotions had to be curbed to agree with the ethos of northern European religion. To this day, this struggle for Catholic assimilation colors attitudes of the present society towards the new wave of Catholic immigrants.

Vecoli paints a rather colorful picture of the Catholic religion coming out of the southern part of the Italian peninsula. Devotion to saints, folk healing, and protection against such preternatural ailments as the evil eye governed the psyche of the the Italian peasant or cotadini. Since life was often nasty, brutish, and short, religion was often seen as protection against forces that could harm you by invoking forces that could protect you. People had spiritual “home-remedies” in this regard now denoted as “benedicaria”, which often involved the invoking of certain saints along with other rituals. For more severe problems, one went to the most powerful magician of all: the priest. Protection against misfortunes, curses, and divine retribution were thus first and foremost on the religious minds of the Italian cotadini.

Vecoli summarizes the inner life of the Italian peasant in this way:

The folk religion of the contadini was no Sunday affair. Rather, it was a total system of beliefs and practices, a “sacred cosmos,” in Thomas Luckmann’s sense of the domain in which “both the ultimate significance of everyday life and the meaning of extraordinary experiences are located.” Judged by the criteria of depthof conviction and emotional intensity, certainly the piety of the peasants were real. Their religious faith was not abstract, intellectual, or individual; rather, it was concrete, emotional, and communal.

It is this sacred cosmos that the immigrants brought with them when they got off the boat on the shores of America. It proved, however, to clash with Protestant and Irish Catholic ideas of reserve in expressing religiosity and the relationship between religion and the modern world. Of Protestantism, little needs to be said: for them, the new immigrants were pagans who paraded their idols through the streets. For Irish and other Catholics, however, co-habitation with Protestants both here and in the the old country proved to be a tempering element in some of the more atavistic elements of traditional Catholicism. The Irish in particular were heavily influenced by the Jansenist movement in France where its clergy were often trained which frowned on such practices. The cult of the saints was more reserved, festivals less colorful, and more “pagan” rituals that would shock non-Catholics had long since fallen into disuse. Vecoli recounts one incident pious extremism in a church on the East Coast:

Alfonso G. ——, about 45 years old, had been imprisoned on a very serious charge, and was then acquitted. After having been set free, he was fired at five times, but escaped unhurt. On the 29thof May, 1898 at 9 o’clock Mass, barefooted, on his knees, with his tongue on the floor, he dragged himself up from the main church door to the sanctury (sanctuary?)railing, in fulfillment of a vow for deliverance, acquittal, and escape, through the intercession of S. Mary Magdalen, who, he said, appeared to him in the prison the night after he made the vow . . . and bowed to him, as if to say, “Thy request is granted.”

This form of penance, lingua strascinuni (dragging tongue), was also practiced in Italy.

To this saint-worship and other extreme practices, the American Catholic hierarchy aimed to integrate the Italians into the mainstream of Catholic culture. Often, this resulted in the outright refusal of the American clergy to preside over the festivals of popular Italian saints so central to the immigrants’ religiosity. As Vecoli writes:

While the Protestant reaction was predictable, one might have expected a more sympathetic response from the Catholic Church. The bigotry of the American Catholics, however, equaled if it did not surpass that of the Protestants. No doubt the Italians failed to measure up to the norms of American—that is, Irish—Catholicism. The American Catholic was above all supposed to be respectful and obedient toward the clergy, faithful in attendance at Mass and in partaking of the sacraments, and generous toward the Church. Judged by such criteria, the Italian was no Catholic at all. Rather, as certain Irish priests declared, his religion was all emotionalism and external display. The feste of the Italians particularly scandalized the Irish Catholics. Strenuous efforts were made by the bishops in various dioceses to suppress the street processions, but to no avail. If denied the use of the church and the offices of the priest, the society would erect an altar on a vacant lot and hire a Protestant minister or defrocked priest to deliver the homily. Yet the threat of Protestant proselytizing and schism forced the Church to moderate its opposition to the peculiar piety of the Southern Italians.

Even imported Italian priests from the northern half of the peninsula accused the religiosity of these immigrants as being, “a pagan survival with only a change of idols”. American clergy of Italian descent were often employed to diminish the extreme practices of their flocks, condemning very openly at times the feasts of the saints. In return, they were accused of being “secret Irishmen” trying to infiltrate their communities.

Folk belief in such things as the evil eye also continued to prevail in the minds of many Italian immigrants. Often curses could still be put on people from across the ocean, as was the case of a mother who put a curse on her son in Chicago from Calabria for having married against her will, causing his first born to die in the womb. Amulets against the evil eye were very much still in use, and stories of ghosts and witches still haunted the imagination of the newly arrived ex-peasants.

Eventually, growing educational levels due to the establishment of the parochial school system, modernization, and inevitable assimilation began to diminish the power of the “old religion”. While Vecoli concludes that the Italians were never quite “made Irish” in the twentieth century, he notes that there was a significant reduction in traditional religious practice in most places. Suburbanization, the emptying of ethnic ghettos, and the generalized secularization of the Catholic Church’s practices at the Second Vatican Council also meant that the Italian immigrants became less and less “Italian” and more American. To a certain extent, the Catholic Church remained “Irish” in its overall tenor.

Vecoli ends his essay by reasserting the rationalistic character of American Catholicism:

The study of the fate of Italian folk religion provides an illuminating perspective on the history of the Catholic Church in America. In this light, the Church emerges as one of the major agencies of “Americanization,” pursuing the objective of total, if gradual, assimilation. Early in this century the American hierarchy appears to have espoused the managerial ideology of seeking optimum institutional efficiency through the standardization of the religious behavior of all Catholics… Ironically by allying itself with the forces of rationalization and bureaucratization, the Church facilitated the process of secularization which has eroded so deeply modern man’s capacity for religious faith. The Italian immigrants brought with them an ancient religious culture, a Mediterranean sensibility pervaded by mysticism and passion. The American Church rejected this gift, to its and their great loss.

Such conclusions could be conceived as meditations on what occured in the past, a nostalgic reflection of what we once were and how things could have been different. My own thoughts when reading this essay, however, landed closer to home in my own childhood. Southern Italian peasant religiosity and the sentiments of Mexican Catholics are often quite similar and we share as well many practices that northern Europeans would consider extreme. It was very common in my church growing up to see Mexican men and women walk up to the sanctuary on their knees, and I did this myself many times. An apparent allegiance to saints over and above anyone else was also something I saw, particularly towards the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Other immigrant groups, however, also share this more “primitive” attitude towards the Catholic religion. To witness this, one need only visit such conservative parishes such as Our Lady of Peace Shrine in Santa Clara, Ca., where most of the parishioners are immigrants from the Philipines and India. Their attitudes towards the statues of the saints and Our Lord would be seen by some as outright pagan, and their religion might be deemed as being one that is devoted to mere externals. The questions at the core of Vecoli’s essay as to the nature of Catholicism are still alive and well in many parts of the Church in this country. Continuous waves of “brown” immigrants are still changing the face of American Catholicism, even if Vatican II could be deemed a mass “Americanization” of the Church on the international level.

My own sentiments lead me to be quite skeptical of the attempts at the modernization of Roman Catholicism. In general, the objectors to the traditional religion of the Italian peasants were often either advocates of secular modernity or those who had been contaminated by its prejudices. The Irish, though putting up a brave fight to preserve the Faith of the their Fathers, inevitably adopted many of the attitudes of their oppressors and the Jansenist clergy who had trained them. When faced with a Catholicism that was untouched by the polemics of the Reformation, they felt that their co-religionists would endanger their psychological security in the face of a hostile Protestant environment. The main problem, echoing Vecoli, is that modernity had lost the traditional language of religion, its symbols, passions, and rituals. When faced with it in the persons of the “brown” immigrants, they were left with no other choice but to bring the newcomers over to their side. Inevitably, the general result was that they did not turn the Italians into good Irish Catholics, but that the descendants of the Italians, as well as of the Irish and other immigrant groups, wandered into the wilderness of secularized American religion, and thus in many cases lost the Faith altogether. The vital question remains if more recent waves of immigrants will follow this same route.


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26 07 2008
diane

Sorry for typos. That would be “before,” “cannoli,” and “Naples.” (I blame it on my sticky keyboard. :))

26 07 2008
diane

Hi, Chris! Modern Pastry must have appeared after my time. When I was growing up, we would go to Cafe Paradiso or Cafe dello Sport for cappuccino and cnnoli. (This was back beore the rest of America had even heard of cappuccino–LOL!) I understand that even Cafe Paradiso is now yuppified. I never thought I’d live to see the day!! When I was young, it had little marble-top tables, like those at an ice-cream parlor, and the bar was so authentic it could have come straight out of Italy: The only thing it lacked was a crucifix behind the counter and sugar packets with fuzzy reproductions of Botticelli paintings on them.

My kid sister still lives in the area–in Lowell, in fact–and several of my relatives live in the Quincy / Holbrook area. My baby brother lives in southern Vermont. My snowbird dad now lives in Naple, Florida.

I must say I don’t much miss the Boston area. It’s way too expensive, for one thing–we paid $140,000 for our custom-built home on 18 wooded acres here in rural NC; that wouldn’t even get us a woodshed in Mass. Also, after years of country living, I must say that I now find big cities overwhelming. I loved it when I was a teenager–during boring high school classes, I used to daydream of running off to Harvard Square, where all the hippie action was. But, in my old age, I just can’t take it anymore. I know the cultural opportunities can hardly be beat; I used to go to see the Metropolitan Opera whenever they were in town, and I loved to take in early music concerts and the like. But…but…there’s almost too much going on in Boston; one would have to go out every night to catch even a fraction of it. Here in NC I have much more limited opportunities, but I do take advantage of them…occasionally! 😉

Sorry for rambling….I do understand how people who transplant to Greater Boston can love it. I loved it myself at one time (and I was a native; it was the air I breathed). But I must admit that I’ve come to love NC, too, although I will never feel completely at home here, the way natives do. Anyway, the big thing is that NC is really affordable…and very pretty. And, in the winter, you don’t have that cold, dank Boston wind slicing through you like a knife. Now that I do not miss at all. LOL!

Diane

P.S. Arturo: You should see the interior of my house: It’s like a shrine, with holy pictures and crucifixes all over the place. And the same holds true for the homes of my church friends, even when said church friends are of Irish extraction. So, I’m not sure plastering your house with holy pictures is so much an ethnic thing. Perhaps it’s more a Serious-About-Catholicism thing. Down here in the Bible Belt, there are a lot of ordinary Catholics who kind of rediscover their Faith and embrace its distinctives, partly as a response to the surrounding fundy culture. When you’re a stranger in a strange land, you tend to develop a greater sense of identity. And you hang around with others like you (fellow Catholics) because, in a hostile culture, “family” has to stick together. Or something like that. Anyway, a few years ago, Newsweek ran a big feature story called “Bible Belt Catholics,” which explored this phenomenon. The story focused on our diocese (Charlotte) and our bishop (Peter Jugis). Catholicism may be arid and moribund in certain northern U.S. cities, but here in the Bible Belt it’s flourishing. 😀

21 07 2008
Chris Jones

Diane,

I am not really a Bostonian as such. I live in Chelmsford, just south of Lowell. Nor am I a native New Englander; we moved to Massachusetts just over ten years ago. But we love it here, and have a sort of loyalty to New England that is different, though perhaps not greater, than that of the native (zeal of a convert, if you will).

We do head into the North End with some regularity for a good meal or to pick up cannoli at Modern Pastry, and it’s on such visits that we have experienced the distinctive Italian saints’ festivals.

21 07 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Mr. Ernst-Sandoval,

Sorry, it was marking your last comment as spam for some reason. Problem fixed.

21 07 2008
M.J. Ernst-Sandoval

That’s funny, but I don’t know many non-Latino Catholics here on the West Coast that have any of these things either. Strange.

Perhaps you have been hanging around the Irish too much. You are forgetting the Italian fishermen, the Eastern Europeans, and the various Asian groups. Some good examples:

L.A.’s first ethnic national parish (remember that ‘territorial parishes’ in Southern California are either English- or Spanish-speaking):
http://www.croatianchurch.org/

The Italian fishermen’s parish (my blog entry):
http://roamincatholicphiladelphia.blogspot.com/2008/05/st-anthony-of-padua-long-beach.html

Photos from the Vietnamese Cultural Center in Santa Ana:
http://www.vncatholic.org/events2007/lent2007/index.htm

18 07 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Mr. Ernst-Sandoval ,

That’s funny, but I don’t know many non-Latino Catholics here on the West Coast that have any of these things either. Strange.

18 07 2008
M.J. Ernst-Sandoval

Diane, you are far from alone in your ancestry. One of the things I see happening is that a sort of specifically Catholic ethnicity is emerging in the U.S., as, as has been happening now for about a century, the Irish, Italians, Catholic Germans, Poles,, French, etc, etc. intermarry, a major common bond between the couples involved being the Roman Catholic faith. While Latinos have long been part of this as well, their contribution will only increase.

I think the idea behind this post was that many of the Catholic cultures who have been here for several generations have lost their Catholic identity. Sure they may go to church on Sunday, but is their life centered around the Faith? Moving from the West Coast to the East Coast was a shock for me. Most Catholics I know here in Philadelphia don’t have statues or pictures of Christ and the saints in their houses/apartments, almost never say grace, rarely attend Mass on Sundays, don’t make the sign of the cross when passing a church, sometimes confuse the Immaculate Conception with the Virginal Birth of Christ, and the list could go on.

Here’s an interesting article from The Oxford Review that I saw on the AnarchoCatholic blogspot:

http://anarchocatholic.typepad.com/anarchocatholic/2008/06/american-catholics-as-cultural-protestants.html

17 07 2008
diane

When they first met, she went off very vehemently about something-or-other. He told me later, “That’s when I knew that she was the woman for me.”

LOL, Father!!

17 07 2008
diane

Chris, I didn’t realize you were a Bostonian! I remember Saint Anthony’s FD in the North End very well. I don’t think I ever made it to the Ss. Cosmas and Damian Festival. But St. Anothony’s festa–woo-hoo!

On another note (no pun intended): In the Irish song “Spancil Hill,” there’s a line that goes, “‘Twas on the 23rd of June, the day before the fair….” The “fair” in question, of course, is the celebration for the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. 😉 So, yes. the Irish have their fairs and festivals, too.

17 07 2008
Chris Jones

The Italian piety that this post speaks of may be attenuated, but it is not entirely dead. It surfaces several times a year in aggressively festive saints’ festivals on the streets of Boston’s North End. SS Cosmas and Damian are celebrated with a hyper-pious (by Amerigan standards) street festival, and there are two or three others during the year.

Diane,

Don’t worry, Dorchester isn’t yuppified or gentrified, at least not the last time I was there. It is still a rough part of town.

16 07 2008
FrGregACCA

Diane, you are far from alone in your ancestry. One of the things I see happening is that a sort of specifically Catholic ethnicity is emerging in the U.S., as, as has been happening now for about a century, the Irish, Italians, Catholic Germans, Poles,, French, etc, etc. intermarry, a major common bond between the couples involved being the Roman Catholic faith. While Latinos have long been part of this as well, their contribution will only increase.

I have a friend from college, a second generation Scilian-American, who looks amazingly like Al Pacino. Between college and law school, he took a trip to Ireland, where he met his future bride. When they first met, she went off very vehemently about something-or-other. He told me later, “That’s when I knew that she was the woman for me.” For her part, after he left to return to the States, before she followed him, she wrote him to say that her acquaintances all thought he was African-American.

16 07 2008
diane

P.S. I have a T-shirt with a big, bold green and red graphic that reads:

WARNING:

Irish Temper
Italian Attitude

LOL…be forewarned! 😉

16 07 2008
diane

You know, as a half-Irish American, the more I think about this post, the more it bothers me. I think stereotyping any group of people is misguided–and that applies to the Irish, too.

I post anecdotal evidence that Irish-Americans are not particularly inclined toward sterile rationalism, and several NON-Irish folks counter that these are just the exceptions that prove the rule. Nonsense. Irish-Americans are as diverse as any other ethnic group. Just as not all Sicilians are Mafiosi–I grew up with Sicilian relatives, and not a Mafioso in the bunch–so not all Irish are arid rationalists. Ireland is the land of saints, scholars, and mystics; and Irish lore is as replete with legend and superstition as its Italian and Hispanic counterparts. Ever hear of the Little People? The banshee? Fairies and changelings? The Blarney Stone? Saint Patrick driving out the snakes?

My Irish grandmother swore to her dying day that she had once seen the Little People, when she was very young, as she was drawing water from the village well back home in the Old Country. She was so frightened, she told us, that she dropped her water bucket and ran all the way home.

If that’s rationalism, I’ll eat my hat.

Diane, half-Irish, half-Sicilian

14 07 2008
M.J. Ernst-Sandoval

I’ve heard that the American Catholic Church essentially functioned as a Irish cartel for much of its history; unmarriagable daughters became nuns and the sons that couldn’t cut it as cops became priests. I don’t know how much truth there is in this or not, but other ethnicities weren’t really represented much in the hierarchy in the past.

I’d recommend reading the book American Catholic by Charles Morris. He says the same thing and, of course, gives sources to back up his claims.

14 07 2008
The young fogey

Of course there were good Irish-American Catholics back then, Diane. My priest is the same age as you and grew up in a different North-Eastern city, taught by fully habited Sisters of St Joseph and loving every minute of it.

But the tendencies these writers point out were and are still there.

14 07 2008
diane

Strenuous efforts were made by the bishops in various dioceses to suppress the street processions, but to no avail.

LOL, you can say that again. Viva San’Antonio!

My older son’s 16th birthday is coming up this Wednesday–Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a very popular Italian devotion. Maybe we’ll have us a street festival here in the Carolina backwoods….freak out our Pentecostal neighbors!

14 07 2008
diane

Please excuse manifold typos…I should spellcheck before I post. Ack!

14 07 2008
diane

Irish cartel protestantised and modernised long before Vatican II indeed.

Now, as a half-Italian/half-Irish (classic Boston combo), I resemble that!

I’m third-generation Irish-Italian, and I grew up during the pious ’50s in Dorchester, an inner-city borough of Boston. (Well, it was inner city then; maybe it’s yuppified by now. Our neighborhood was mostly Irish with a smattering of Italians; when I contacted Saint William’s Church for my baptismal records about ten years ago–during the process of obtaining a “sanatio”–I discovered that the parish and thus perhaps the neighborhood had become largely Vietnamese. That’s neither here nor there, but I found it interesting.)

I’m sure the nuns who taught me in first and second grades (before we moved to the suburbs) were Irish-American, but they never struck me as particularly rationalistic. We had the coolest May processions and Novenas; nothing rationalistic there!

Moreover, the main religious influence on me at the time was an Irish-American: Katie Day, the little old lady who lived in the three-descker house next to our three-decker (which was owned by my Sicilian Nana). I used to visi Katie Day all the time, pound on her piano, play with her niece’s remarkably detailed dollhouse, and just generally hav a grand time. Katie and her late husband had been chidless, and she doted on me. She was one of the sweetest human beings on God’s green earth, and her apartment was a veritable shrine. There were holy picture, statues, and crucifixes everywhere. The atmosphere fairly oozed “holy.” And I drank it in at the pores. Today my own home is plastered with holy pictures and crucifixes and such. My goal is to make it look as much like Katie Day’s apartment as possible. LOL!

I’m a very visual person, and, for me, this is how the Faith is conveyed–via pictures and statues more than words. Maybe that’s because I’m half Sicilian, but I find it ironical that the main visual influence on me when I was very young–besides Saint William’s Church, which was gorgeous and dim and smelled of mingled candle-wax and incense–was Katie Day.

Anyway, it is true that most of my relatives on both sides have abandoned the Catholic Faith, but I chalk that up to “affluenza.” Anyway, there are some notable exceptions, including an aunt on the Italian side.

Just rambling….

Diane

14 07 2008
Leah

Another thought regarding “primitive” religion; whenever there’s a story about a Marian apparition on a building or a tortilla or something like that, the people you always see pray the rosary and such at the scene in question tend to be Hispanic and Asian women. I’m sure a lot of American Catholics are horrified by such behavior, but I’m generally not. If one believes in Our Lady of Guadalupe or medieval Eucharistic miracles, why is the notion that the Blessed Virgin might appear on a sticky bun so horrifying?

14 07 2008
The young fogey

Thanks for the update. St Anthony’s, Youngstown is the RC parish the founders of St Rocco’s schismed from.

14 07 2008
vito

St. Rocco’s (Youngstown) has closed its doors. Its parishioners have gone to other Episcopal parishes and perhaps some have even completed the circle back to St. Anthony’s. The other Italian parish in Youngstown, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, is inner city and is like an oasis and draws parishioners from the surrounding burbs. It’s thriving as it celebrates 100 years. In the village of Lowellville, The Mount Carmel Society for 108 years continues to celebrate the July 16 Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parishes composed of many Italian Americans in the area are: Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Lowellville, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Niles and St. Lucy Campbell.

13 07 2008
The young fogey

There are caveats – doctrine and Mass-and-office core practice do matter and some pruning reforms sometimes are needed – but as usual, spot on!

Thomas Day understands this.

Irish cartel protestantised and modernised long before Vatican II indeed.

Again the Italian-American family I described in another comment comes to mind. I don’t think they’ve really practised the faith in at least 40 years even in the form of private devotions but the pervasive cultural influence, the general approach to things, is still there. But for how long?

If denied the use of the church and the offices of the priest, the society would erect an altar on a vacant lot and hire a Protestant minister or defrocked priest to deliver the homily. Yet the threat of Protestant proselytizing and schism forced the Church to moderate its opposition to the peculiar piety of the Southern Italians.

Yup. The reaction to that opposition produced at least one strange bedfellow. At least two groups of Italians formed independent parishes (one in Hackensack, New Jersey because the Irish bishop refused to build a church in the neighbourhood) that ended up Episcopal, a church not known for the religion you describe here. They were sort of dream parishes for a certain kind of Anglo-Catholic priest. St Anthony of Padua in Hackensack, Episcopal since 1925, is still much as it was – it really seems like a old Roman Catholic church – but shrunken as the neighbourhood has changed. The other, St Rocco’s in Youngstown, Ohio, was founded when a popular priest was transferred; it later burnt down and was rebuilt. Unlike St Anthony’s it has lost its traditional Catholic character and is more like mainstream Episcopal.

13 07 2008
Leah

I’ve heard that the American Catholic Church essentially functioned as a Irish cartel for much of its history; unmarriagable daughters became nuns and the sons that couldn’t cut it as cops became priests. I don’t know how much truth there is in this or not, but other ethnicities weren’t really represented much in the hierarchy in the past. Whether that would have made a difference in how Vatican II was handled in the US is debatable; the book “Why Catholics Can’t Sing” argues that Irish influence is responsible for bad music in American parishes.

One could say that the form of the Mass that emerged in the United States after Vatican II is an American “inculturated” mass. As we all know, Protestantism (specifically a Calvinism with a splash of Pentacostalism for good measure) is the predominant religion in the US. Guitars are the primary instrument used in American music. Pop music of questionable artistic merit that often uses guitars is also very popular in the US. Is it any surprise that the mass that emerged after Vatican II would look American in all the worst possible ways? How does the US Novus Ordo compare to the way it is in traditionally Catholic countries (e.g., Mexico, Ireland, Spain)?

13 07 2008
vito

Thanks for this post. I agree with much of what Michael Cifone has to say. I’m a first generation Italian-American whose parents came from Calabria. Their lives in the old country were part of a spiritual tradition that was all-pervasive. They brought that with them here, but as time goes on each generation is further from that reality. The same is true of their homeland now. It is a different world, and sadly, in some ways, a much blander place. (We used “Americans” for all others not Italian-Americans. As if to say, “What would they know about us and how we do things?”)

13 07 2008
Mack Ramer

I am reminded of an Italian middle-aged woman who recently told me that Corpus Christi is “just a Mexican feast day”.

13 07 2008
Michael Cifone

I’d say that yes, this will be the general trend. As you (and perhaps Vecoli) intimate, the story of the “Americanization” of the Italian immigrant Roman Catholic religiosity is itself part of a much, much larger story, what Weber and later sociologists have called “the disenchantment of the world”, with roots in the rationalist traditions rumbling in Greece, to the more pronounced rupture between a sentiment of “mythos” vs. “theoria” that you can see forming even in Augustine, but surely with Aquinas and flowering in a terrible confluence of events during the Scientific Revolution and later, in the Enlightenment. Religiosity seems to be only part of the story; the larger part of this unfortunate turn of events in the West is the gradual distancing of ourselves from our bodies — perhaps culminating with Cartesian dualism — and the association of spirituality with institutionalized religious structures per se, which are notorious throughout history for their sometimes extreme hostiloty towards “mysticism” or what we can otherwise call “ecstatic spiritual experience”.

From what I gather in my studies thus far, this latter phenomenon is itself a reaction to what we may in general term “the basic fault”, to borrow a concept from object relations theory in psychology. The ecstatic experience itself can be understood as an attempt to come to terms with a particularly recent phenomenon in man, which emerged (and this is all based on what we can roughly discern from anthropology right now) sometime during the Neolithic Revolution, and this is the differentiation between “self” and “other” (prior to about 14000BCE, as far as we can tell, no such differentiation is noticeable in the cultural forms left behind by prehistoric cultures).

So, since we started having a fairly sophisticated internal life, with fits and starts throughout cultural history (sometimes vanishing almost completely, as for the most part in the Dark Ages — notice I’m not assuming anything like a linear progression here), the more we’ve developed it, the more we want to somehow “escape” it, or rather, to diminish the shock of “waking up” to a stranger in our bed, so to speak: “others”. Religion provides a means of coming to terms, it seems to me, with the scary prospect that, while I am an “it” with a finite span of life, I will one day perish. Thus, an “afterlife” seems appealing.

In any case, I’m not offering this as a criticism of religion, religious experiences or even of spirituality in general. I just that that there are larger historical realities that must be comprehended alongside the visible changes in the forms of spirituality we have before us. The ultimate suggestion is that, rather than an afterlife, we fall back into the Now (I think that the Sotics and the Epicureans, as Hadot points out, were on to something really profound here, once you get over the usual first-impressions of these guys as being spiritually “disinterested” (Stoicism) or “hedonistic” (Epicureanism). These labels don’t tell you anything meaningful about what these people really taught and how they actually lived).

From a personal point of view, I want to express my sincere thanks for your post here. I am an Italian American whose family happens to also be of southern Italian descent. My family life was imbued with the religiosity you spoke of, though it was already in considerable decline by the time I could understand anything.

As somewhat of an aside: there was always a deep cultural hostility to the Irish in my family. Partly, this was due to their experience of racism and hatred the Irish had against them (i.e., the Italians moving in to take their jobs). But also, after reading your entry, it seems that I can now put voice to something I’ve always sensed being an insider to the southern Italian-American experience. We used the derogatory term “Amerigan” (this is a Neapolitan pronunciation I think) to refer to the Irish (which is interesting, as it literally means “American”). Whenever this term was used, there was a kind of underlying meaning to it that connoted “culturally empty” or “white-bread” — i.e., plain, passionless, culturally dead (at least to us). So, in effect, not only were we referring to the Irish themselves (who by this time, which was in the 1970s and ’80s — when I hear the term used first — were quite Americanized by our estimation), but we were referring to Americans in general, to their culturally homogeneous, and spiritually depleted and bland (esp. in food) society (again, for our point of view, the point of view of a folk-religious people showing up in the land of Burgers and Drive-ins and neatly tended-to lawns).

Thanks again for this wonderfully written and informative post.

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