by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris
Around the time of the Second World War, Italy boasted the world's highest birth rate. It now boasts one of the world's lowest due to its ever-increasing secularization, which is firmly rooted in a selfish materialism (Pope Francis' "throwaway culture") and the "culture of death" (St. John Paul II), with their two massive pillars: abortion and artificial contraception. Even though Italians with their healthful Mediterranean diet tend to live longer than most other peoples, their rapidly aging native populations are not being replenished.
Another contributing factor is the cultural phenomenon of the "mammoni." "Mammoni" or "mama's boys" are Italian men, in their late-30s to mid-40s, who prefer to live at home, so that their mothers can wait on them hand and foot (e.g., cooking, cleaning, ironing, etc.), rather than settling down to raise their own families with "love and responsibility" (see the eponymous work of St. John Paul II). While "mammoni" supposedly are looking for a wife to assume the traditional roles of their mothers (I guess "mammoni" are blissfully unaware of a reality called feminism!), the woman's biological clock keeps ticking until it's too late to conceive and bear children.
If left unchecked, these forms of emptiness will be Italy's undoing in the long run, especially if it continues to be inundated with refugees, migrants and immigrants who don't share their cultural values and tastes, let alone Italy’s traditional religious beliefs (which still lie below the dominant culture).
Another type of emptiness is caused by the fact that Italians have a predilection for superficiality ("la bella figura") and the "status quo." For example, the infrastructure of an institution may be seriously unsound, but if the building looks good on the outside, Italians may not do much to address the real problems until the entire structure is falling apart at the seams – and, even more so, if the story gets enough coverage in the media that those responsible for the disrepair are embarrassed and thus feel the need to do something to ameliorate the dire situation lest they create a worse "brutta figura" ("an ugly appearance").
Rome is not the vibrant metropolis that one might imagine. It has nothing of the cosmopolitan feel of cities like Milan, London, Paris and New York. By comparison, Rome boasts very little street life, let alone night life. Its piazzas are dark and empty. Roman streets are poorly lit and filled with dangerous potholes. Its beautiful fountains are littered with trash, while the walls of many "palazzi" (medieval/Renaissance buildings) are consistently defaced with graffiti. It is important to note that several of the "palazzi" in Rome's "historic center" ("Centro Storico") have been take over by "squatters," many of whom are not even legal sojourners or Italian citizens.
After midnight, Rome's "Metro" (subway) is closed, while a handful of rickety buses and noisy trams traverse the City with sad-looking migrants and immigrants aboard who are making their way to or from work. Romans are rather provincial in their mind-set and really only tolerate "stranieri" ("foreigners") as residents because they have no other choice, especially now since, for the most part, they have abandoned the "historic center"in favor of the more affordable housing in the suburbs.
Finally, the emptiness of contemporary Rome is felt most acutely in the parishes of the "Centro Storico" that are virtually empty (or, at least, rather poorly attended) for daily and Sunday Masses alike. Apart from the international crowds one sees at Papal Masses at St. Peter's Basilica/Square, and perhaps the occasional decent crowd for special occasions in the other major Roman basilicas, the parish churches of Rome's historic center are a testimony to the Romans’ disregard for spiritual matters and their disenchantment with and detachment from the Catholic Church with which they have had an on-again/off-again, love/hate relationship for centuries.
The noticeable emptiness of the churches in Rome's historic center must also be a manifestation of the Diocese's failure to evangelize and catechize the very people who live in what is supposed to be the heart of the Church. Rome may be the heart of the Church because it remains the historic See of Peter, but it's certainly not a heart pulsating with much life.
In many respects, life in Italy is staid and moribund. It is profoundly old-fashioned and is barely surviving the vicissitudes of the present moment with little hope looking toward the future. This is especially evident as young people flee Italy looking for work in more economically and politically stable countries within and outside Europe.
As charming bells toll and solitary seagulls let out non-stop mournful cries while resting on the red-tiled rooftops of the Eternal City, motorini, vespas and cars sit in traffic or race along the squalid "Lungotevere" ("along the Tiber") because the Romans need their weekend fix of secular "culture": a film, a meal out at a popular restaurant, and the characteristic "passeggiata" ("stroll") to window-shop. One can only hope that they will be as eager to get to confession and Mass on Sunday when they return to their suburban parishes, or that if they are staying the weekend in the "Centro Storico," they may deign to fill their beloved Capital's many historic but presently empty churches.
Alas, I am a New Yorker, a realist; call me a bit of a native-born cynic and skeptic, so I don't expect the void to be filled any time soon. Perhaps, however, the upcoming Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the first Jubilee since the Great Jubilee of A.D. 2000, will bring about not just structural improvements of edifices, streets and means of mass transport, along with an influx of spend-thrifty tourists to boost the Roman economy, but a real interior conversion and transformation of the hearts of Romans – indeed of all Italians – so that they may become better citizens of Heaven and lead by example the rest of Europe toward the renewal intended by the "New Evangelization."