Sunday, January 12, 2014

Italian Culture and Compassion in the Post-Berlusconi Era of Francis I

It hasn’t been a year since Francis became Pope, but already signs abound for a new direction in Italy. After 25 years under the allure of Berlusconi’s idolatry of money and power, Italy needs to reflect and repair. Whether a Jesuit from the New World can help fix Italy (let alone the world), my hope in 2014 is that Italy has hit bottom and will work itself back up.

What is it I observe? With the eyes of a photographer I look, I listen and I dig into the life of Italy and Italians for 40 years. And while sadly my foreign language skills fall short, I still have my eyes and my heart with which to interpret what I sense. In years of traveling around Italy I do not recall having seen so little energy for the future as I have seen these last six, when Italy entered into the “era of malessere.” I look now at Italy and wonder at the parallels when my grandparents left Italy 100 years ago.

All this while Italian wines claim an even stronger grip on external markets. 2013 was excruciatingly challenging for growth. By my available data, Australia fell even deeper into loss territory, while France, once the equal of Italy in the export realm, barely crawled across the finish line in positive growth territory. Italy fared a little better but the gains are tenuous ones, based on the current fashion of sweet fizzy Moscato. Not exactly terra firma.

Six years ago, Beppe Grillo was howling his “Basta!” to growing crowds of unhappy Italians. Even now his influence has waned. Italians are dramatic and melancholic, but the chorus of misery has grown loader than Grillo’s exhortations. Italy is like the giant ship that ran into the rocks off the island of Giglio, foundering, not moving. Who can move Italy now?

All of this is inter-connected, starting with the dirt the vines are rooted in. If we forget where we are and where things come from, we are lost. But there is also the spiritual soil that needs tending. Can a Jesuit from the New World bring Italy upright and steer a course towards a brighter future?

Italians, most of them are Catholic. But the churches are empty, save mainly for older folks thinking about their next chapter. Still there is a cultural component to Catholicism, and a Pope can often speak to those who still identify in one way or another. Maybe they are part-time in their spirituality, having been led this past generation by a man who preached the gospel of insatiable lust for money, power, material trappings and sex. But too much of anything is wearing. And Italy has always been able to dig in and reclaim its link with the infinite.

The idea of Francis is a fitting alternative to Berlusconi. It will take immense energy to overcome the addiction to things, whether it be the latest car or iPhone, French oak barrels, large heavy wine bottles, flashy labels and even flashier prices meant for a world of people who don’t exist. One recent conversation I had with a colleague centered on the insistence by a winery that their upper tiered wines need to penetrate deeper into the American market. A red wine that sells for $70 is not exactly what everyone is clamoring for, here or in Italy. But for those at the top, their world still exists within the fog of affluence.

“To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.” - Esortazione Apostolica Evangelii Gaudium

Meanwhile on the streets of Milan, Naples and Rome, 41% of work age youth are without work. Berlusconi may be gone, but the attitude of the Italian 1% is a raging brush fire. What is needed now is parole che fanno ardere i cuori, words which set hearts on fire. Is it time to give up the fine woolen sweaters and the gold bracelets, the fancy designer shirts, the new cars, the high priced wines? Is it time to rebuild Italy and her people, before the fires of opulence and materialism destroy the will and the people of Italy?

The Pope talks about this, at length, in his  Esortazione Apostolica Evangelii Gaudium, from November 24, 2013.

Whether you are Catholic, culturally or in practice, or not, or a believer in another faith or not, what Francis says resonates in today’s world, where a sign of success has come to mean having matching Maseratis, one in Italy and one in America. Francis’ message of overindulgence and narcissism comes at a time when Italian winemakers, fattened from successes of the last generation, might be ripe for a re-assessment of their core values.

If you think I’m getting all evangelical on you, maybe I am. I feel a bit like a missionary all these years, preaching the gospel of Italian wines from the “desert” of Texas. Yet “it is starting from the experience of this desert, from this void, that we can again discover the joy of believing, its vital importance for us men and women. In the desert we rediscover the value of what is essential for living; thus in today’s world there are innumerable signs, often expressed implicitly or negatively, of the thirst for God, for the ultimate meaning of life. And in the desert people of faith are needed who, by the example of their own lives, point out the way to the Promised Land and keep hope alive.” The words of Francis.

I feel the pain and misery and the loss of hope when I travel these days in Italy. It is not the real Italy. For now, it is the Italy we have. But it must change. We must find something to do to bring it back on track, if it is simply a single soul re-dedicating themself to a simpler effort with more compassionate deeds. Seduced by an era of excess, Italy needs help climbing out of the abyss into which it fell.

Maybe some of the envoys from the New World can help Italy. I’m with Francis. I want to see Italy (and the world) right again.

written and photographed (in Italy)  by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
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