There may not be 10,000 churches in Rome, but to visitors, it feels like it. At least in the city center, walk five minutes in any direction and it’s a safe bet you’ll pass a church.
But the tourist who wanders into one of these extravagantly marbled churches during a Sunday Mass may see something else: a handful of elderly people, usually women, and a few other tourists, maybe. For the casual visitor who doesn’t go to Mass in one of the major basilicas, it is easy to draw the conclusion that the Church in Rome is dying: a shell, gaudy with baroque decoration, but a shell nonetheless.
Those who live in Rome know the story is more complicated. Yes, Mass attendance has dropped to low levels in Italy as in most of the West. But the more immediate reason that the churches in the center are nearly empty is because there are not a lot of families living in the center. Families can afford the periphery — crowded neighborhoods away from the city center where housing is affordable but commutes are long.
There are exceptions in Rome’s center, however. Some churches have a lively presence, like Vespers at Santa Maria in Trastevere or Sunday evening Mass at Santa Maria in Domnica.
On a recent visit to Rome, I discovered a new font of parish life just off of the famous Largo Argentina. It is the Church of the Most Holy Stigmata of St. Francis, and it is now the home parish of a passionate evangelizer, Father Fabio Rosini.
Father Fabio, 53, is Italy’s Father Robert Barron, with a gift for preaching and a desire to speak directly to the young people of Rome. In charge of vocations for the Diocese of Rome, Father Fabio first became known for a series of talks he gave on the Ten Commandments (available on YouTube but in Italian). His lectures were for young people only, and those who appeared over the age of 25 were turned away or gently told to attend sessions meant “for all ages.”
Yet the young people are bringing in their parents now, as was evident at the Mass I attended. The church was packed as young people and not-so-young people, men and women, stood all along the sides and in the back, with some even sitting on the altar rails of the side chapels.
Father Rosini has lively eyes but an intense demeanor. With a graying beard and a strong voice, he immediately commands attention when he rises to preach. He is not brief. Mass lasted an hour and a half — his wide-ranging sermon took up a goodly portion of that time.
This Sunday was the Scripture from Isaiah telling us that God’s ways are not our ways. The homily was intelligent and wide ranging, moving from Bertolt Brecht to unemployment to the Galileo trial. It was intellectually vigorous, and it held their attention.
Father Rosini understands what Father Barron understands: One doesn’t have to dumb down the Faith; one only has to show how it speaks to the modern soul.
In the physical rubble of post-war Europe, a new continent was constructed, and for decades Europe followed the shiny allure of consumerism. Now there is a spiritual and moral rubble, divorce and abortion, falling population rates, xenophobic fears and a hopelessness that belies the fancy shops and smart clothes. Young Italians know something is spiritually amiss.
Amid this spiritual rubble, there are signs of hope, blades of new grass, seedlings promising future shade.
This Sunday morning, Father Fabio was one such sign of hope. This is the Church of Papa Francesco, the Church of a merciful and loving God whose ways are not our ways. This may be an early sign of a new spring being born.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.