When it comes to religion, the world is changing. Across Europe in recent years, and for perhaps the first time ever, a majority of young adults no longer practice a religion. And in traditionally Catholic countries like Italy, many are slowly turning away from the religious practices.
But if traditional practices surrounding birth, marriage, and death are in decline, what is filling the gap? And, when religious practices once reinforced community network bonds and contributed to our physical, mental, and social wellbeing, what is the impact of this decline on communities as a whole?
The reality is that, across Italy and the world, alternative secular rituals are slowly being embraced — for better or for worse.
Italy in transition
You don’t miss what you’ve never had. The child who hasn’t had a religious upbringing cannot miss it. But the child’s parents, if they no longer practice, can feel something — guilt, nostalgia, relief, for what is now merely a part of their rucksack of memories. Others, meanwhile, may still observe the minimum of religious practices, more ‘for the sake of peace’, or for an attachment to a romantic notion of the way we were.
What is interesting, though, is that the place once occupied by religion is being filled by still evolving and not quite fully defined surrogates. While traditional structures have, for the most part, been retained, they are often stripped of their religious implications. And this can be a source of conflict in families where some members are practicing Catholics and some are not.
Let’s take each moment separately as defined by religion and the observance of the sacraments.
When a baby arrives, the first sacrament is the baptism. At this point, family and friends celebrate the baby’s entrance into the community. A godparent, often a close relative, will have the honor of being the child’s life-long symbolic spiritual guide. In Italian society, for example, this role was once important: the godparent was akin to a blood relation and was chosen with great care.
Today, Istat figures show that between 70 and 80% of parents still choose to baptize their newborns. However, this is no longer the only ritual on the scene. Parents even in Italy who want to mark the arrival of the baby are beginning to organize ‘Baby Naming’ events, so-called ‘baby showers’, or in Italy a Benvenuto (or Welcome) moment.
These ceremonies are popular in the US and, like other customs, are gradually penetrating Italian society. Baby naming ceremony agencies too are already popping up and are available at the click of a mouse. These new ceremonies can be charming and special, but they are not quite the same thing.
The child as protagonist: first communion and confirmation
Apart from birthdays and the first day of school, the child’s first communion, a rite of passage from childhood to pre-adolescence, is the first time that 7 to 8 year-olds are the protagonists of an event they accept as solemn. Although prepared and tutored, the main excitement for the child is in the presents and the dress, and the feeling of it being their special day.
Confirmation, too, reflects a rite of passage for which there is preparation and spending. The now adolescent boy or girl is again assigned a godparent, theoretically another relevant figure who for practical reasons is mostly chosen from within the family circle.
As far as I’m aware, there are no community rituals that have substituted first communion or confirmation. Should there be some sort of public secular acknowledgement that replaces confirmation as a sign that a child is becoming a pre-adolescent, or they are about to enter the adult world?
It’s difficult to visualize a lay organization with the clout of the Church organizing such a ritual, especially if we consider that puberty has become a more private moment in an adolescent’s development. School and sports environments, however, could be two of the platforms to fill this eventual need.
Church wedding or civil wedding?
This is the choice that couples who decide to get married increasingly face. In 2018, for the first time, the total number of civil wedding ceremonies in Italy (51%) was greater than the number of religious ceremonies. Within the country itself, the numbers are relevant: 63% in the north, 34% in the more conservative south.
Some non-practicing couples still choose the religious event, allured by the sense of awe surrounding the Catholic rite, as opposed to a civil ceremony which sometimes feels drab and hurried by comparison. However, this may not be as straightforward as it seems as churches will request baptismal certification from at least one of the partners. Some churches may request proof of confirmation too, but this is discretionary.
Having said this, the non-religious wedding has perhaps best succeeded in creating a deep sense of ceremony with all the trappings that substitute the perfection of the religious aspect.
The final journey
In the absence of Extreme Unction — with its ceremonial incense, blessings and consolatory prayers — many Catholics are opting for alternative farewell ceremonies that reflect the end of a loved one’s journey and recall a life well-lived. Many such ceremonies and, indeed, many religious funeral services today end in cremation — a practice that has recently seen a sharp increase in Italy. Until recently, the Catholic Church was quite against cremation but it is now an accepted practice with the caveat that the ashes be put in sacred ground.
As with baptism and matrimony, agencies have sprung up in Italy, as elsewhere, to deal with the demand for lay farewell ceremonies. While the religious practices of marriage and baptism had themselves become commercialized — with spend on marriages averaging at €15,000 — the industry surrounding the sacraments, secular or otherwise, has become a little alienating.
Where to for society?
So, how to visualize this future secular society in the eventuality that it replaces traditional religious milestones? If religion is destined to play an ever-smaller role in Italian culture and, if this is felt as more of a relief than a loss, where can we look for community?
Education will still play a major role in uniting society as will events around food, culture, art, technology, travel, cross-cultural interaction and work-related recreational activities. Ever-larger shopping malls, meanwhile, could give people the illusion of belonging somewhere and to something. Campaigns over environmental and political issues, and efforts at improving civil liberties will go on playing vital roles, attracting individuals, families and societies. Sport, with its own identifying rituals, will perhaps continue to dominate as the gelling agent in towns, cities and nations.
And what about digital technologies? Is the traditional community morphing into what is, as yet, an embryonic virtual community where ‘physical’ participation, ‘reality’ and ‘belief’ will be of our creating? Will we see a revival of a renewed Catholic Church stripped of the trappings that have been the cause of many people feeling alienated? Or will we see the ultimate irony where non-believers become immortal spirits on some blissful Cloud?
The way we celebrate our milestones and those of others — and the ways that we engage with others — are changing alongside religion. The good news, perhaps, is that Italians seem to be embracing that change.
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