I'm often the first to debunk the myth that Italians are, as a whole, a very religious people. Polls have shown, after all, that only about 30 percent of Italians attend mass regularly, and that's what Italians report themselves -- studies done of how many people are actually in church each Sunday show attendance even lower, around 15 percent.
Last night, though, I saw something that made me reconsider.
I've seen a lot of all-but-empty church services in Rome. Mass at the Church of the Holy Apostles, a stone's throw from Piazza Venezia and the burial place of two separate apostles, will often have no more than 10 people. And earlier last night, wandering into the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (one of my favorites), I saw something that tugged at my heart: A man and a woman in a side chapel, sitting in separate benches, one reading one part of the Mass call-and-response (eek, what is it called?), the other replying, no priest in sight. That's the Rome religious scene I'm used to.
But then I walked into the Church of Sant'Ignazio. The bell had just struck 6pm. It was a Friday. And the place was... full.
Okay, not actually full. We're talking about an enormous Baroque church. But there must have been 150, 200 people. Loudspeakers blared the sermon, echoing it off the walls and the famous tromp l'oeil dome. Next to the rows and rows of seats, a line had formed; a priest sat in a side chapel, his face earnest, his hands on the hands of an older lady who sat across from him, looking as if he were giving her deep religious advice, or a cure. And people in different-colored smocks roamed the borders of the crowd, marking a firm border between tourists and worshippers. The odd thing was, there were more worshippers than tourists. (Don't believe me? Check the video).
Something about it really struck me.
One of the smocked women must have noticed, because when I hovered at her table to try to ask what was going on, if it was something special, she reached out and clutched my hand in a half-handshake, and then, with that particular sweet smile of people who know they walk in the right path and that they can convince others to join them through their kindness, handed me a schedule. Tonight was the Mass for the Sick; it, like all the other masses at Sant'Ignazio, was held by the Jesuit order.
So maybe it's just the Jesuits. Maybe it's because it was a special mass.
Either way, though, statistics alone don't quite tell the story of religion in Rome, never mind in Italy.