This probably should have been my first post, but the childlike wonder of being in Rome consumed me to such a degree that I had to share it not once, but twice! That being said, however, I just wanted to give a “brief” explanation to the idea of this blog.First, a little bit on Italian culture; I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “piazza” which literally translates to “square” in English. It’s funny, however, because I was wandering through the Roman Forum this past Sunday afternoon, taking in the ancient Rome ruins, and an announcement came over the speaker system in the park regarding “Venice Square;” it took me a few minutes to realize that they were talking about “Piazza Venenzia.” I had never heard of (or thought of, for that matter) these Italian locations being spoken of in English terms. There are just certain words from any number of languages that don’t translate well into English (and vice versa, for that matter).
The “piazza” can be many things in Italian culture from a beautiful and important site for relaxation and socialization to an ugly and merely-utilitarian location for any number of activities mundane, senseless, or even worse, I’m sure. Perhaps the most innocent, important, and beautiful purpose for which “piazzas” exist is to provide a place for people to gather in a social manner – both formally and informally – for any number of purpose. I think for example of Campo dei Fiori which reminds me of a farmer’s market selling everything from fresh produce to purses to clothes to olive oil (this is Italy, after all). Piazza Navona
is perhaps one of the larger piazzas in Rome itself, which functions as a place for vendors, local artisans, and street performs trying to earn a buck by making you think they’re the only ones doing exactly what countless other people are doing in EVERY other piazza in town!
There’s also the piazza in front of St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, which is basically a parking lot.
Then there’s piazzas like Piazza San Pietro used for public statements, declarations, and demonstrations of the local culture. Furthermore, piazzas (in Italian, piazze)
take on a further significance in a culture where you live in VERY confined spaces where NO ONE has a yard, and if you spit too hard from your balcony, you’re likely to spit into your neighbor’s living room – no exaggeration! The piazza is the playground for young boys who need a soccer field or for old men to find a shady spot to chew the fat and solve the world’s problems, or just finish off a bottle of fine wine. I would be disappointed with myself if I didn’t mention some of the most important parts about piazzas: fountains and pigeons! I’ve got a nasty story about pigeons from the other day, but it’s not worth sharing here; if you want to hear about it, I’ll tell you later in private.
While they range in function, they also range in size. While one could easily put a full-sized football field inside Piazza San Pietro, Piazza dei Dodici Apostoli (Square of the 12 Apostles), which is located in front of – you guessed it! – the Church of Dodici Apostoli would be termed as a street with street parking on both sides if this were the states. Then again, you have to realize that most streets, at least in the old part of the city, are barely wide enough for a Fiat 500 or Cooper Mini, so a full-sized street, complete with parking spaces ON BOTH SIDES is a big deal!
Basically, “piazza” is a word that stands for a wide variety of spaces in town that serve a variety of purposes, all of which are very important in Italian culture (and in other European cultures). It really is a beautiful – and unique – experience, but it’s not so foreign as one might think. While some parts of the United States have maintained this tradition almost identically, others have substituted other locations to accomplish the same purpose. I think, for example, of a cafe in a small town where everyone who’s anyone gathers to exchange the latest information over coffee or the park where moms gather with their kids to chat about life or the neighborhood hangout where people come to share stories, time, and life in the context of which deep friendships and human bonds can form (what a good friend of mine calls “communio”).
Finally, one, last beautiful note about these piazzas, as perhaps you’ve noticed, is that they commonly have between 1 and 3 (Piazza del Popolo) churches around the edge of the piazza, a constant reminder that the Catholic Faith is (or at least has been, and should continue to be) an important part of the local culture.
Without exaggerating things too much, the piazza seems to be a miniature version of the world, and if that’s the case, the Church always has a responsibility to be in the world, but not of the world, for the sake of the world. That is, we, as Catholics, should be present, even if not always welcome, in the world around us – the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We should not be absorbed or influenced by the values of this world, which can quickly take us very far from the values of our Heavenly Father. We are here, however, to “make disciples of all nations.” Let us never forget the responsibility that each and every one of us as a disciple of Christ has to invite others to share in the joy, peace, and fulfillment that is ours in Christ Jesus.