In Italy, even getting a pug offers a graduate lesson in Catholicism
- John L. Allen Jr.
Jul 27, 2019
ROME – Among the many charms of Italy is that if you’re at all interested in Catholicism, just moving around here is like a graduate education in Church history.
Over the past couple of weeks, for instance, I had occasion twice to be on Italy’s Adriatic coast, in the cities of Ancona and Senigallia, both located about 200 miles north and east of Rome. The reason was to first meet, and then bring home, the newest member of the Crux family: Augustus “Gus” the Pug, a handsome and ever-charming black male pug who’ll be three months old on August 4.
He now joins Ellis the Pug, the reigning official Crux corporate mascot, in the role of dauphin. Ellis and Gus have yet to meet, but one imagines a corporate retreat sometime soon when the two can compare notes on their critically important roles.
As it turns out, they’re also both important cities in Catholic history too.Gus you see, was born in Senigallia. When we first met, I was staying in a hotel in Ancona, and on the second occasion, when he got in the car to come back with me, I was lodged in his hometown about 20 miles or so up the coast. Ancona historically is a port city, Senigallia more of a beach town.
As I moved about Ancona, I discovered that its famed port was where St. Francis departed exactly 800 years ago in June for the Holy Land, a trip that initiated an unbroken 800-year Franciscan presence in the region that stands as a permanent counter-narrative to the “Clash of Civilizations” and the idea of natural enmity between the West and Islam.
A large bronze bas relief located in the Cathedral of St. Cyriacus in Ancona commemorates that voyage of St. Francis, referring to the city and its port as a “doorway to the East and path of peace.”
Francis departed Ancona in May 1219, and his sojourn famously included a trip to Damietta, Egypt, which at the time was the front line of the Fifth Crusade because its strategic position meant whoever controlled the city controlled the Nile.
Francis arrived on August 29, 1219, along with the Crusader army, trying to persuade them to refrain from attacking. They launched an assault anyway and were roundly defeated. Francis remained in Damietta until September 26, when a temporary truce was set to expire.
At that point, Francis was fueled by a somewhat naïve dream of preaching the gospel peacefully to the Muslim forces, and, if necessary, to die as a martyr in order to bring them to Christianity. Along with one of his early companions, Brother Illuminato, he crossed the battle lines, was arrested and beaten, and eventually taken to the Islamic commander, Sultan Malek al-Kamil, who received his guests with respect and conversed with them at length on religious matters before sending them back safely.
Franciscan Father Jason Welle, dean of studies at Rome’s Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, told me that encounter is the moral of the story.
“In a dark time, two people who had been conditioned to distrust and hate each other treated each other as brothers,” Welle said. “Regardless of what we have been taught about each other, the heart of a person of faith can be opened to see something new in the other.”
“Two men who each had their own preconceptions about each other found something else: a brother. Not just a beast or a warrior, but a brother,” he said.
Welle said the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land has embodied that spirit for 800 years.
“I know that pride is one of the capital sins, but I’m proud of our Franciscan presence in the Holy Land,” he said.
“For centuries, the friars have been living among Muslims as a peaceful presence, without engaging in arguments or disputes,” Welle said. “St. Francis himself gave us that model of mission!”
As for Senigallia, I was reminded that Gus the Pug is not its only famous son, although he is by far its cutest. Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti was also born there, who would go on to become Pope Pius IX, now Blessed Pius IX, the controversial pontiff whose reign at 31 years and 7 months was the second-longest in history after St. Peter himself.
(Here’s hoping that Gus has such a long reign. Perhaps the healthy sea air in Senigallia disposes one to long life.)
Of noble birth and a man of deep culture, Pius IX’s memory today tends to be dominated by controversy over his attitude towards Jews and the infamous “Mortara affair,” referring to the six-year-old Jewish boy removed from his family in 1858 by papal edict because he’d been secretly baptized by a servant, raised in the papal household and eventually ordained a priest.
When he was elected in 1846, however, Pius IX was hailed around the world as a reformer, marked by enlightened attitudes on Jews, science, the press for Italian unification, and many other questions. Walking the streets of Senigallia, taking in its cosmopolitan and relaxed beach town atmosphere, one can imagine where some of that mentality may have taken shape.
In other words, I traveled across the peninsula to get a pet, and ended up getting an education too.
Bishop Bob Barron, auxiliary of Los Angeles and America’s most celebrated living evangelist, likes to use the image of Christendom once having been an intact and coherent civilization and then being blown apart by modernity. You can still find the shards and smoldering ruins of that civilization, Barron says, in the oddest places – in Christological imagery in movies, or Catholic motifs in art and fashion, or a longing for the transcendent in the most seemingly secular venues. When you do, you can imagine how they once formed part of a larger whole.
To extend that image, the closer you are to the blast site, the more likely you are to stumble across shards. Since Italy is where the collision between Christendom and modernity happened with the greatest intensity, you can make such finds all the time.
And, of course, if you’re inclined to try to restore something of that older civilization using as many of the original components as possible, albeit in a new design reflecting a new world, this is where you’d probably want to start.