ISOLA DEL GRAN SASSO, Italy (AP) — Two children scribbled petitions to St. Gabriele dell’Addolorata in the vast sanctuary where the young saint is venerated in this central Italian mountain village. Andrea, 6, asked for blessings for his family and pets. Sofia, 9, gave thanks for winning a dance competition.
Their parents bring them here often, as their father’s own family did, and consider themselves better Catholics than many. The mother, Carmela Forino, even says a prayer for forgiveness when she hears someone utter a common blasphemy on the sanctuary esplanade.
But they rarely go to Mass and don’t receive Communion because they are not married, thus shunning two sacraments the Catholic Church considers foundational.
“I practice where I want. Every morning I pray on my own,” Forino said in the sanctuary room filled with votive offerings, from baby bibs to sports jerseys, left by 2 million annual visitors to San Gabriele. “One has to believe in something, right? You do what you feel in your heart. You can’t require me to go to Mass on Sundays.”
Elsewhere in deeply secular Western Europe, the “nones” — those rejecting organized religion — are growing fast. In Italy, long considered the cradle of the Catholic faith, most people retain a nominal affiliation, steeped in tradition but with little adherence to doctrine or practice.
According to the latest Pew Research Center survey, 78% of Italians profess to be Catholic. But the Italian statistics agency, ISTAT, says only 19% attend services at least weekly while 31% never attend.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a disengagement with the Catholic faith that started at least a generation ago, said Franco Garelli, a University of Turin sociology professor who’s been studying religiosity in Italy for decades.
“‘I don’t have time, I don’t feel like it’ — there isn’t a real reason. That’s what’s scary,” said the Rev. Giovanni Mandozzi, parish priest in the sanctuary’s village, Isola. “I tell them, ‘I do Mass in under 40 minutes, you can leave your pasta sauce on the stove, and it won’t even stick to the bottom of the pot.’”
“The sign of the cross isn’t a quick fly-swatting gesture,” he later preached in Mass. Fewer than two dozen elderly parishioners gathered in a former butcher shop, because Isola’s church was damaged by two earthquakes that have devastated the region of Abruzzo since 2009.
At the same time, the bar next door hummed with young families.
“Everything has changed,” said bar owner Natascia Di Stefano, the mother of two teens. “Sunday used to be church with your family. Now youths don’t even want to hear about it, like an ancient thing that’s useless.”
Nearby, several close friends in their 20s enjoyed drinks outside another bar facing a medieval chapel.
They described growing up attending Mass and catechism, only to stop in their early teens after being confirmed. That’s when Catholics, usually baptized as infants, commit to witness their faith through the gifts of the Holy Spirit — but for many, it has instead become the last rite they feel obligated by family tradition to partake in.
“It would have become just a routine,” said Agostino Tatulli, 24, a college and music conservatory student. “I’d say I’m spiritual. I don’t know if God exists.”
From his childhood serving as an altar boy, he misses “the sense of community that formed on Sunday mornings, with the old lady you’d never see otherwise.” Tatulli still finds some of that in gigs with a marching band for the popular feasts of patron saints.
This summer, he participated in two such processions over 48 hours. One of them, in the hamlet of Forca di Valle on the ridge above Isola, was a much smaller affair than local retiree Domenico Verzilli remembered from his childhood. Back then, bells tolled at 5 a.m. to start the festivities, and the church — now closed from earthquake damage — was full of large families.
But celebrating saints is still important, said fellow band member Federico Ferri, 28, who works for a local manufacturer of devotional items.
“I’m a Catholic believer in the saints, not in the church,” he added before the celebrating priest — who also runs the sanctuary’s youth ministry — called out to Ferri and others to join him on a tractor ride.
Ferri rarely goes to Mass, but has been attending more often the San Gabriele sanctuary after two motorcycle accidents.
Hundreds of bikers go for an annual blessing, as do thousands of teens for the early spring “blessing of the pens” used to take final exams — a tradition that felt “more superstitious than religious” to former pilgrim Michela Vignola.
Raised in the nearby seaside village of Pineto, Vignola, 36, regularly attended church until her confirmation.
“It’s taken for granted that you’re a believer, but you don’t participate. It’s not like I believed that much anyway,” she said in her hairdressing salon, next to a restaurant called “The Lost Sheep.” “Now I don’t even think about it.”
She coifs a lot of bridal parties, most still headed to church. Catholic wedding ceremonies remain the choice of about 60% of Italians marrying for the first time. The sacrament is just a bit less popular than church funerals, favored by 70% of Italians, according to Garelli’s research.
In the village of Voltarrosto, fifth-generation funeral home director Antonio Ruggieri has added wake rooms for non-Christian religions and is building a “neutral” one with no religious symbols. But virtually every funeral he arranges involves a faith element.
“It’s a sort of redemption, even if you barely believe in it,” he said.
For many priests, locally and high in the Italian Catholic Church hierarchy, that attitude means a societal point of no return might have been reached. How to respond is a major challenge for clergy; they’re already struggling with a significant drop in vocations that leaves many with barely the time to celebrate Masses in multiple villages under their care.
“The whole system revolved around the church, and today that’s no longer the case,” said the Rev. Dario Di Giosia, the rector of San Gabriele.
Those who participate actively, especially the faithful belonging to growing lay movements, do so now out of a deliberate choice and not because the church, and its youth programs, are the only game in town as they once were.
Such believers should be focused on as if they were the last of the species on Noah’s Ark, joked the Rev. Bernardino Giordano, vicar general of the pontifical delegation to Loreto, another popular sanctuary.
In a previous assignment in northern Italy, he dealt with the other extreme — those who asked his diocese to be “sbattezzati,” or de-baptized, which really meant expunged from the parish baptism record since a sacrament like baptism can’t be undone. While only a few people each year made this request, they’re emblematic of a rising disenchantment with organized religion. Among Italians, 15% say they are religiously unaffiliated, according to Pew Research Center.
The majority remain in the gray area in the middle, what Giordano calls the “I belong but I don’t believe” crowd. Strategies to draw some back include an emphasis on social work, volunteerism, even charismatic events like World Youth Day.
“It’s very reductionist to have as the only measure those who practice (the faith). The Holy Spirit is at work everywhere, it doesn’t belong only to Catholics,” said Archbishop Erio Castellucci, vice president of the Italian bishops’ conference. “What’s holding is not so much popular devotion, but the seeds of the Gospel that many people live even without practicing.”
Such an approach might appeal to Federica Nobile, 33, who defines herself as “Catholic but not too much.” Raised by a devout family, she sought to build some distance from their faith to exorcise “the absurd fear of hell” she grew up with.
“I tried to get above the concept of good vs. evil. Looking for nuances allows me to live a lot better,” said the branding strategist and fiction author who vacations in Roseto degli Abruzzi, a seaside village near San Gabriele. “Christianity I don’t think has done this to help us feel good about ourselves.”
Teachers of optional religion classes in public schools see young people’s ambivalence about religion from close-range.
In the hilltop hamlet of Cermignano, the 15 fifth-graders had just celebrated their First Communion. Only a few raised their hands when asked if they attended church regularly — but all joined in a raucous rendition of the hymn to the patron saint, San Antonio Abate, after one pulled an accordion from under his desk and started playing.
In the provincial capital of Teramo, nobody has questioned the crucifix displayed prominently in the K-8 classroom where Marco Palareti teaches religion, and only a handful of students who follow other faiths opted out of his class.
But in a class exercise asking middle schoolers to rank values, family and freedom came first – and faith dead last, said Palareti, who has taught religion for 36 years.
“Kids’ attitude has changed, because in earlier times almost all of them had a life in the parish, while today many don’t go or go only for the sacraments” of First Communion and confirmation, Palareti added.
It’s an attitude that Pietro di Bartolomeo remembers well. When he was a teen bullied because of his family’s strong faith, he “saw God as a loser.” Now a 45-year-old father of five, he runs a Bible group for teens in Teramo, trying to keep them connected to their faith after confirmation.
He believes the church needs to evangelize more — or it’s doomed to irrelevance.
“The old ladies sooner or later will go to the Creator, and that’s where the cycle stops,” he said.
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