A Publication of the American Italian Historical Association
An Interdisciplinary Association to Promote Understanding of the Italian Experience in America
Volume 39, Number 2 (Fall 2006) Founded in 1966 www.aiha.fau.edu
Dagli indiani agli emigranti: L’attenzione della Chiesa romana al Nuovo Mondo, 1492-1908,
by Giovanni Pizzorusso and Matteo Sanfilippo
Viterbo: Sette Città, 2005. 246 pp. ISBN 88-7853-048-4
By Stefano Luconi
University of Rome “Tor Vergata”
The discovery of the New World and the European settlements in the Americas offered the Catholic Church both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, the Vatican had a chance to reclaim its universal mission by Christianizing the native peoples. On the other, it had to curb the expansionism of Protestantism and to take care of Catholic immigrants, in order to prevent them from yielding to the lure of other cults. Giovanni Pizzorusso and Matteo Sanfilippo, who are among the most knowledgeable scholars in the field, outline the policies that the Catholic Church elaborated to address these issues and show how the Papacy changed its strategies and goals over the centuries.
The Vatican was a latecomer to systematic proselytism across the Atlantic. The institute that oversaw the spread of Catholicism in the lands controlled by the pagans and the so-called heretics, the congregation De Propaganda Fide, was established only in 1622, namely one hundred and thirty years after Christopher Columbus’s first voyage. In addition, the Papacy granted the king of Spain large autonomy in dealing with religious matters in the territories under his sovereignty. Therefore, the Vatican concentrated its endeavors on North America and especially on the Antilles, where the colonial rivalries between a Catholic power with a pugnacious Calvinist-oriented minority – France – and Protestant empires such as Great Britain and the Netherlands, along with a significant presence of Jews and Irish Catholics, made the archipelago a frontier for the competing religious communities.
The Vatican initially made equal efforts to fortify the faith of the Catholic immigrants and to convert the native pagans; however, by the time Archbishop Gaetano Bedini visited the United States and Canada between 1853 and 1854 to report about the conditions and problems of Catholicism there, the Papacy had focused primarily on the population of European descent. The increase in mass immigration from Catholic nations to the United States in the following decades, adding to the previous influx of the Irish in the wake of the 1845-47 potato famine, strengthened such an approach and let the Vatican hope that the Church would make further inroads into this country. In 1908, the congregation De Propaganda Fide discontinued its activities in the Americas, a move that marked the awareness that this continent was no longer a land of infidels.
The Holy See realized, however, that North American Catholics needed specific religious assistance, especially if they had recently moved to what continued to be a prevailing Protestant society. Italians were considered an immigrant group whose faith required particular attention. To this purpose, Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini of Piacenza founded the Pious Society of Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo in 1887.
Pizzorusso and Sanfilippo highlight massive unpublished records in the Vatican and other ecclesiastic archives that document the major issues concerning Italian-American Catholicism between the late nineteenth century and the death of Pope Benedict XV in 1922. These matters include the immigrants’ conflicts with the Irish-dominated hierarchy, the call for the establishment of national parishes, the controversies over civil marriages, the frequent cases of bigamy, the misbehavior of several Italian priests, and the struggle against the anti-clerical campaigns of the anarchists and socialists in the Little Italies.
Dagli indiani agli emigranti draws upon essays that the authors have published in the last two decades. Yet Pizzorusso and Sanfilippo have extensively revised and updated their previous works, merging them into an articulate and consistent narrative. The result is a new and full-fledged study from which anyone interested in immigration and Catholicism in North America will benefit.