Things are not looking so great in Italy. 

  • The economic situation is not improving despite the efforts of an interim government run by Mario Monti to close the gap between italian and other european economies, or rather, the “spread”: the most common and feared word recurring in the italian media since last autumn.
  • Instead of reducing its massive and wasteful welfare structure, Monti’s government has increased taxes to accrue financial resources, in order to reduce Italian public debt, in line with strict Eurozone standards.
  • the attempt of reducing welfare has so far impacted on retired people by extending the working age and middle class families through a unjust tax on their only house
  • 7 million is the number of Italians in the critical category of unemployed, under-employed, on redundancy pay-outs, and the alarmingly rising sub-category of ‘not-searching‘ – now at nearly 3 million. 
  • 11,615 is the number of companies bankrupted as a result of this crisis, and 32 is the number of economic suicides so far this year
  • with the outbreak of countless scandals in the political parties caught by the judiciary using public money to pursue private interests, Italian people have definitively lost any trust in political institutions.  As a result, it’s not a coincidence that the only party which has known meaningful approvation is a network founded by Beppe Grillo, an ex-comedian.
  • furthermore, one of the most affluent commercial areas of the country, Emilia Romagna, has been repeatedly rocked by earthquakes and seismic tremors in the past three weeks, leaving homes, town centres and businesses, destroyed and people physically and psychologically battered.

With this landscape of pessimism and fragility in all levels of Italian society, it was rather timely that Pope Benedict XVI visited the northern Italian city of Milan earlier this month to preside over the ‘World Family Meeting’. 

The seventh meeting in a series that began with Pope John Paul II in 1994, the event has been held in cities throughout the world including Rome, Rio de Janeiro, Manila and Mexico City, and is slowly gathering the following and interest that it’s older ‘cousin’ the World Youth Day has enjoyed over time. 

The theme of the meeting this year was ‘The Family: Work and Celebration’ and it couldn’t have been more perfectly adapted to the social and economic situation.

The Pope’s words delivered to the one million people gathered for open-air Mass at the conclusion of the meeting were both timeless and timely:

In modern economic theories, there is often a utilitarian concept of work, production and the market. Yet God’s plan, as well as experience, show that the one-sided logic of sheer utility and maximum profit are not conducive to harmonious development, to the good of the family or to building a just society, because it brings in its wake ferocious competition, strong inequalities, degradation of the environment, the race for consumer goods, family tensions. Indeed, the utilitarian mentality tends to take its toll on personal and family relationships, reducing them to a fragile convergence of individual interests and undermining the solidity of the social fabric.   

It’s ironic that these very words were addressed to a city very driven by work and career whose unofficial motto is ‘Lavoro, guadagno, pago, pretendo’ , that is: I work, I earn money, I pay for what I buy, therefore I expect my requests are fairly satisfied. 

In this regard, always give priority to the logic of ‘being’ over that of ‘having’: the first builds up, the second ends up destroying.

Strong and simple words, these, that point out that money is not the single currency of humanity, but rather – as Benedict continues  – “love … a wonderful thing, … the only force that can truly transform the cosmos, the world.”  Indeed only “an authentic love, the kind that comes from God and unites us to him, the kind that therefore “makes us a ‘we’ [can enable us to] transcend our divisions and make us one”.

Pope Benedict XVI also called on the Family to continue to practising the ‘social virtues’ so fundamental to daily family life, namely:

cultivating dialogue, respecting the other’s point of view, by being ready for service and patient with the failings of others, by being able to forgive and to seek forgiveness, by overcoming with intelligence and humility any conflicts that may arise, by agreeing on principles of upbringing, and by being open to other families, attentive towards the poor, and responsible within civil society.

Finally on the sub-theme of ‘celebration’, the Pope had wise words to say to a culture dominated by work and commitments outside the family home: 

man, as the image of God, is also called to rest and to celebrate.

He called to mind the importance of Sunday, day of worship and day of rest:

Dear families, despite the relentless rhythms of the modern world, do not lose a sense of the Lord’s Day! It is like an oasis in which to pause, so as to taste the joy of encounter and to quench our thirst for God.

He also encouraged finding rest in traditional pastimes that build community and make us more human, such as,

conviviality, friendship, solidarity, culture, closeness to nature, play, sport.

To close, Italy is one of the most economically critical nations in the eurozone.  Its high level of unemployment, low economic growth, political disillusionment and current geographical instability (in Emilia Romagna), are causing a climate of uncertainty and doubt about the future.  The visit of Pope Benedict XVI as part of the seventh ‘World Family Meeting’ posed a strong challenge to the dominating pessimistic culture, calling on families to pave the way of the future by safeguarding the dignity of the human person in work and in play.

Jane and Alessandro Marini live on the outskirts of Milan. Jane is an Australian.