By John L. Allen Jr.
ROME — Fifty years from now, Italians now alive probably will still smile whenever someone mentions the summer of 2021, what’s now being described as the greatest summer in the history of Italian sports, its “Summer of Gold.”
Last month, the Italian national soccer team — this time a hardscrabble unit composed almost entirely of non-superstars, mostly young with a few grizzled veterans, all deeply recognizable Italian personalities — won a hard-fought European championship, vanquishing England in the final on their home turf in Wembley Stadium on penalty kicks.
The paroxysms of joy from that conquest hadn’t even subsided when Sunday rolled around. On that day in Tokyo, in an arc of just ten minutes, Italian athletes won gold medals in two centerpiece track and field events, one of which, the 100-meter dash, had not even seen an Italian in the finals before in the entire 125-year history of the modern Olympic games. Italy had only claimed two previous gold medals in a track event of any kind, one dating to 1960 and the other 1936.
The most indelible image from the soccer championship had been a photo of head coach Roberto Mancini and one of his assistants and longtime close personal friends, Gianluca Vialli, embracing on the field at Wembley Stadium after the final match, with Vialli openly weeping.
Now that image will be forever joined with the shot of Gianmarco Tamberi, who claimed the high jump gold and then hurried over to watch the 100-meter final, embracing his friend Marcel Jacobs after it was over, both with expressions of disbelief and utter joy on their faces.
(If you’re wondering, no, “Jacobs” doesn’t sound much like an Italian name. He was born in 1994 in El Paso, Texas, to an American father and Italian mother, and just days after his birth his mother brought him back to the home country. Jacobs let his American citizenship expire and doesn’t even really speak English.)
Americans likely will have a hard time imagining the sense of national pride all this has produced. We win a lot, so much so that when we don’t, it’s irritating. Italy, on the other hand, isn’t accustomed to winning all the time, so that when they do, it’s like winning the lottery — something completely unexpected and life-changing.
Think about what this country has been through since the last Olympics. Italy failed to qualify for the games in 2016, and, more humiliatingly still, failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. That flop stung, especially since for Italians the national soccer team is like a civil religion, one of very few things that actually unify the entire country from north to south.
On top of all that, Italy was hit first and hardest in the West by the coronavirus pandemic. Aside from the direct loss of life, the economic hardships imposed by a series of closures and travel bans has devastated the tourism industry, which accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP and 13% of total jobs. To this day, the ranks of unemployed or underemployed waiters, cooks, tour guides, drivers, hotel staff, and so on, are legion. There’s hardly a family in this country that hasn’t either lost someone to the pandemic, or is struggling to support someone out of work, or both.
On top of that, Italy has also lived through the rise of a new kind of polarizing, hyper-partisan politics previously associated mostly with the US, stoking old divisions and creating new ones in ways that have pitted families, communities, civil associations and workplaces against one another.
Against that backdrop, to experience things in which all Italians can feel pure, undiluted pride has been a national tonic.
Today, it’s suddenly fashionable again to be Italian. People here are sort of celebrating all those things that make them who they are — inviting the whole family over for lasagna, dressing smartly to take walks in the city center, organizing expeditions to the beach or the mountains, even getting a lump in the throat whenever they see the national flag, the green, white and red tricolore.
Seen through a Catholic lens, an obvious question about all this beckons: Will that new embrace of Italy’s roots include going to church, or, at least, maybe feeling a tick or two more Catholic?
The coronavirus period has been hard on Catholicism here too. Mass attendance came screeching to a halt last March when a ban on public worship was imposed as part of the effort to fight the pandemic, and even though public celebration of the Mass restarted just a little over two months later, to this day the numbers haven’t returned to their pre-Covid levels.
One wonders if part of the rediscovery of what it means to be Italian will include reconsidering the faith that has defined and carried this country for centuries, well before there was such a thing as a unified Italian nation. Having watched Italy claim glory again last Sunday, will Italians show up at Mass next Sunday to give thanks and celebrate?
I have no idea, and frankly, it’s probably a tremendously long shot. Italians may have busted out their rosaries and holy cards along the way to these big wins, but I doubt that’s enough to propel them back inside the doors of a church.
What I do know is that imaginative church leadership would be making the ask right now, perhaps with a PR campaign blitz along the lines of, “God gave us a summer of gold. Why not say thank you next Sunday?”
(Really, they’d probably be better off making the appeal in the name of the Madonna, given the intensely Marian faith of Italians. I also don’t know who owns the rights to Padre Pio images, but it couldn’t hurt to throw him in somewhere too.)
Most Americans, or really anyone outside Italy, might regard all this as an exclusively Italian question in which they don’t have any stake. Yet the truth of it is, the fate of the Catholic Church and of Italy are inextricably bound, by history, by tradition, by providence. When Catholicism flourishes in Italy, the entire church is stronger; when it staggers here, the entire church is weaker.
Time will tell if the Italian church is able to take advantage of this era of good feelings. In the meantime, as someone who’s made Italy my adoptive home and who loves this country intensely, I know I’ll be sending up some thanks next Sunday.