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Five reflections from Italy
On the Church, faith, art, deconstruction, and the saints.
I just returned from spending two weeks in Italy. While there, I wrote a series of reflections on the Church, faith, art, deconstruction, and my own life…
from the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, Firenze
Monday, August 28
Currently working on a piece for NCR on the Dear Alana Podcast. It’s weird, sitting outside in Firenze on a beautiful day, writing about a Catholic young woman who will never get to see this place. But maybe she can see it through our eyes, be here through us, through those of us who remember and honor her. And as a queer Catholic, I feel a calling to live a beautiful life like Alana should have been able to. It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to write about her story and the beautiful work produced by my friends.
from Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Friday, September 1
I’ve been here many times. I’ve loved this place. This was the center of everything.
But I’m in a very different place now. I feel a sense of homecoming. But this time I also feel a sort of repulsion. I feel that there’s been an unveiling, of the reality of the extravagance, of the self-referential self-indulgence, and of the appropriation that turns into domination. Certainly, Mary and the Church take on the appearance of the cultures they enter. So, sure, one can depict a white Jesus. That is the Jesus everywhere here. A world of saints in this city, none of whom look anything like me. We are here, in Italy, so sure. Christ reveals Himself among the people here.
But then I think about my visit to Mexico City, where the Spanish painted and venerated a Western European Juan Diego. I’ve celebrated these images. I now feel a certain disgust at this version of European Christendom. Christians can venerate these people of various races and cultures… when the faces are replaced with their own. Juan Diego is made a saint as he is made what we would now recognize as a white man.
At some point, Mary stopped appearing to various cultures. Instead, European Christianity saw itself as the only Christianity and chose conquest over conversion, over divinization, over theosis. The Church no longer revealed Herself through the people She encountered. Instead, we have suppressed those peoples, and cultural transformation was replaced with cultural domination. We struggle to distinguish conversion from conquest.
This is partly why I so value telling my own story, and empowering others to do the same. If we do not tell our own stories, they will be told by others. They will not be our stories, but theirs. They will paint over your face with a face they would rather see, which tends to be their own. This is a tradition of the Church, practiced over hundreds of years.
The Church needs more voices, so that the Church may more truly be Herself. The Church’s art must be about, for, and by Her people. All Her people.
I love this city. And now… I think we must work for a Church that is bigger than this.
from the Cappella Dell’Immacolata, Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi
Saturday, September 2
A candle for K. in the Capella Dell’Immacolata. I wonder if I will always associate her and baby N. with the Immaculate Conception. December 8. That was the deadline she was given by the pastor and principal to tell the school (one of our schools) whether she would rush into marriage so she could keep her job or quickly fade away with her unborn baby who she would be forced to hide from the community she loved.
That priest and that school put a stain on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, my favorite for so long. I’m sure they would have offered Mary herself a non-disclosure agreement. Must hide the “scandal” from the students. Fortunately Mary was not a teacher in that school.
At times I feel I am a total failure, that I have failed and failed again. All that I have to offer is some accompaniment and a place to tell these stories. But I have no justice to offer. I cannot provide healing. All I can do is tell what happened to them, and why it was wrong.
I feel that so many are being forced onto a ship and pushed out to sea, and all that I can do is call out to them the directions others have taken. I don’t know where they will land. They didn’t plan for this. We didn’t plan for this. I am on the sea myself. I am sorry.
I don’t even know all the things to be sorry for. We are full of apologies, leaving an island where no one apologizes for anything.
This is all I have to give today. A small candle, a little light in the darkness. For all the seafarers in the night.
from Santa Maria Maggiore, Assisi
Saturday, September 2
I visit Blessed Carlo Acutis. He and I were born on the same day. He died when we were 15.
An anger arises, I’m not sure from where, at him for leaving me behind. He never had to see the things of the Church that I’ve seen. He fell asleep with just love, before a time that the betrayal could reveal itself. The Church was all goodness. I see a version of myself preserved in him, and I don’t know how to feel about that person.
The anger isn’t his fault. It’s not his fault that he died eleven days after he developed a sore throat. What does this say about God?
Another young voice gone. Dead youth who might still have things to say. I think about Alana, about the “cures” and the “healing” she was offered so that the loves and longings and experiences that were so uniquely hers would go away. She was offered an invitation to be “just like everyone else.” Carlo might have something to say about this.
“Carlo was well aware that the whole apparatus of communications, advertising and social networking can be used to lull us, to make us addicted to consumerism and buying the latest thing on the market, obsessed with our free time, caught up in negativity…. Carlo didn’t fall into the trap. He saw that many young people, wanting to be different, really end up being like everyone else, running after whatever the powerful set before them with the mechanisms of consumerism and distraction. In this way they do not bring forth the gifts the Lord has given them; they do not offer the world those unique personal talents that God has given to each of us. As a result, Carlo said, ‘everyone is born as an original, but many people end up dying as photocopies’. Don’t let that happen to you!”
Blessed Carlo Acutis, I pray that we may be holy enough to be different. That the many Alanas in the world today will reject the messages that they “change” so that they be like everyone else. I pray that we may have the courage to do so.
from outside the Basilica di San Francesco
Saturday, September 2
At the other end of Assisi stands the Basilica di San Francesco. Francis is barricaded beneath, buried within a circle of four friends. According to legend, Francis chose his own burial site, which had been the grounds for capital punishment and the graves of criminals. You would never guess.
But some remember the past, the actual past. You can find a man on a horse outside the Basilica. The statue, Norberto Proietti’s Il Ritorno di Francesco. It is Francis returning from war, where he has not achieved what he was sent out to do.
Proietti seems to tell us: this is the image of the precipice of greatness. This is the image of Christendom at war. This is what it means to be the church militant. The Church truly at war is the Church which is bad at war. Both man and horse with head down, having just failed at the attempt to conquer. And, unknown to anyone (including themselves), about to begin something very small that will become very great. As we enter the large Basilica, this is who we are invited to become.
I think of the words of St. Jeanne Jugan: “Be very little before God.”
So maybe we belong here? We’re so tired. We’ve been so humiliated. We don’t know where we are going. I can only see just in front of me. Maybe I’m where I’m supposed to be?