Historically speaking, the church had to take root somewhere. When in the early 30’s AD Jesus of Nazareth was executed, rose from the dead and sent his Spirit to be with his little band of disciples, Rome was the dominant political and social player. Peter and Paul brought the faith to Rome before being executed there, and the institutional church has been intimately tied with the city ever since.
Four hundred and fifty years later, the Roman Empire fell and the then predominant Christian religion became the last surviving bastion of Roman memory and culture. It’s with good reason then, that we call it the Roman Catholic Church. The natural result of this planting of the church in a particular city and country has been the ‘Romanization,’ and in modern history the ‘Italianization,’ of the Catholic Church.
Among other things, the Roman and Italian church has produced a huge percentage of our saints and blesseds – men and women held up as models of the Christian life. Many have been influential, not only in the development of the Christian faith, but also in the development of what we know today as the Western world. St. Francis of Assisi is arguably the greatest, and certainly the most beloved example.
Another dominant figure is Benedict of Nursia (“Norcia” in Italian), the founder of Western monasticism. Living some seven hundred years before Francis, Benedict sought refuge from the wild city life of Rome at a place called Subiaco in central Italy before moving to Monte Cassino where he established a monastery based on his Rule.
The vast influence of both Benedict and Francis is undeniable. And so it’s quite remarkable that they were born only a short distance from each other; it’s about 80 kilometers from Assisi to Norcia, through the hills and mountains of Umbria.
I recently made the trip from Assisi to Norcia to visit the birthplace of St. Benedict, and what struck me most was the proximity of the two cities. And, I discovered, Sts. Francis and Benedict aren’t even the only saints in the region! Coming from a country like Canada, where we have only a handful of saints, I was taken aback.
I spoke to the Franciscan Sisters I was with as well as a few of the locals and the question arose as to why Italy has so many saints; so many saints from so many small and peripheral cities! Almost every little Italian town or city, it seems, has its own saint or blessed, most of whom we’ve never heard of and are venerated especially in his or her hometowns.
The fact that the church has been established in Italy for so many centuries was the obvious answer. But then the idea of a simple and practical sanctity arose, and the fact that historically, the Italian people may have a gift for recognizing holiness in others. This, I thought, was a great topic and lesson for those of us from some of the “younger” parts of the world.
Imagine, the ability to see a simple and perhaps a common holiness in the people around us. I immediately recalled those wonderful words of Pope John Paul I, the smiling pope who was known for his simplicity and humility: “Lived holiness is very much more widespread than officially proclaimed holiness… Coming into Paradise, we will probably find mothers, workers, professional people, students, set higher than the official saints we venerate on earth.” (Omnia opera, vol. VI)
There are many things we can do on a daily basis to become better Christians, and the church certainly provides good examples for us in the lives of the saints. Do we need, perhaps, to spend a bit more time recognizing the saints around us: people in our parish, coworkers, community activists, parents, teachers, family members? Could holiness really be an inclusive rather than an exclusive quality? There certainly is a case to be made, as Pope Francis has said, “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.” (The Jesuit Interview)