The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 814-815
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The Saints in the Lives of Italian-Americans: An Interdisciplinary Investigation. Co-edited by Joseph A. Varacalli, Salvatore Primeggia, Salvatore J. LaGumina, and Donald J. D'Elia. [Filibrary Series, No. 14.] (Stony Brook: Forum Italicum, Center for Italian Studies, State University of New York. 1999. Pp. xi, 323. $20.00 paperback.)
Italian Americans disapproved of the liturgical changes mandated by the Second Vatican Council, Salvatore Primeggia says in his contribution to this collection of articles on the cult of saints among southern Italian immigrants and their descendants in the United States, but he offers not a single piece of evidence to support this assertion. Mary Elizabeth Brown says at the end of her chapter that "challenges to their community" [it makes sense in her view to talk about a single, coherent, unified Italian American "community" for all places and times] delivered "a kind of electric shock to restore the heartbeat of the cult of saints." (The "challenges" Brown refers to are the "civil, gay, or women's rights movements" which affronted Italian American "traditional values and neighborhood cohesiveness." Presumably she just knows, and assumes that her readers will know too, that all Italian Americans are "traditionally" racist, homophobic, and sexist so that none of them would have endorsed the values or goals of these movements because she simply asserts this without support.) Brown's only evidence for the revival of the cult of saints among contemporary Italian Americans is John Paul II's 1983 Divinus perfectionis.
These two examples are indicative of the tone and method of this collection. A strong sense of loss pervades the articles in The Saints in the Lives of Italian-Americans for the Church before the Second Vatican Council and for the old Italian American neighborhoods as the authors imagine that church and those neighborhoods to have been. Rather than what it purports to be, "an interdisciplinary investigation," the book is an example of the aggrieved and recriminatory literature of memory in modern American Catholic culture. Instead of evidence for any of these claims, the authors offer only their own nostalgia and anger as documentation. Victimization is the primary historical explanation. The saints were "pushed out," Italian American "folk religious culture" was suppressed and destroyed by the Irish, and upwardly mobile Italian Americans are "pressur[ed]" into conforming to American middle-class styles (according respectively [End Page 814] to Richard Renoff [p. 125], Salvatore LaGumina [p. 131], and Joseph A. Varacalli [p. 8]).But the authors are not without hope: "if John Paul II's overall restorationist agenda is successful," Varacalli says in his introduction, then perhaps the saints will be "able to recapture their turf." Not a single author actually goes out and talks with a contemporary practitioner of the cult of saints.
Varacalli claims that Americans have become "secularized" since the l960's, but he does not define the term, consider its complexities, reflect on the term's history, or examine the considerable literature on the subject including newer work that questions the usefulness of the concept. What "secularization" means here—perhaps this is what it always means—is that people are not religious in the way these authors think they should be. The Second Vatican Council comes in for particularly strong criticism without historical nuance, qualification, or reference. John F. Quinn writes in a sentence typical of the collection that the Council "ushered in some liturgical and disciplinary changes and inspired some liberals to press for more sweeping changes" (p. 103). Nowhere in the book is there any recognition of a modern reform tradition prior to the Council and no discussion of the seriousness with which religious orders of women sought in the 1960's and '70's to redefine their relationship with their traditions. Most grievously, there is no recognition that laymen and laywomen (including Italian Americans) may have actually welcomed change for serious religious reasons (as opposed to mere conformity with American mediocrity, as the collection sneers), that they may have played a role in implementing...