An American 'Renaissance'

I was born in Italy in 1970 and got to breathe in the last two decades of the Cold War in Europe. I was blessed with many opportunities, such as traveling in northern, central, and eastern Europe when I was young and national borders were still a real barrier between peoples and nations: The memory of World War II was still fresh in the minds of my grandparents and of my mentors. Enjoying peace between peoples of different nations and languages was a great gift that our generation was given. As a teenager I got the opportunity to spend a few summers in France, and I could pick up French without ever taking a class.

I spent five years at the “Liceo Classico” (the Italian high school with a strong emphasis on Latin and Greek language and culture) in my hometown, one of the cradles of Renaissance, Ferrara (in northern Italy). When I was 19, I started discovering the intellectual side of theology and of Catholicism in particular – due to a series of “casual” (but perhaps not casual) personal encounters with lay Catholics, professors, monks and priests, and politicians in the small world that was “Vatican II Catholicism” in Italy, also thanks to a lot of time spent (as a member first and afterward as a group leader) in the Catholic Boy Scouts of Italy (quite different from American-style Boy Scouts) at a local and national level.

My first degree in political science in 1994 at the University of Bologna (my alma mater, founded 1088) linked my intellectual interest in Italian and world politics with my more personal (and, thus far, private) life of a Catholic engaged in “social Catholicism.” During the years 1989-1994 I studied political science and theology, and I developed an interest in foreign languages as the best possible way to open my mind: You can think and express ideas and feelings only if you have words for them. (I now can express myself, besides Italian, Latin and Greek, also in English, French, German, Spanish, and some Russian).

The end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the beginning of a period of opening to the world: I was in Hungary, beyond “the Iron Curtain” of Communist Europe, a few weeks after the fall of the wall; I traveled to many countries in Europe, Russia, Syria, Algeria, Turkey; I studied in Germany and Canada between 1999 and 2002; I got my Ph.D. from the University of Turin in 2002. Since 1995, during the years of my Ph.D. dissertation and of my post-Ph.D. research, I spent 12 years in the most important school for training of church historians in Europe, the “Fondazione per le scienze religiose” in Bologna, attached to the University of Bologna. During that time I spent years and months in historical archives that are crucially important for a historian of the church and of its relations with the state and world politics: the Vatican Secret Archives, the Vatican Library, and the Historical Archives of the Holy Office in the Vatican; the Archives of the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin; the archives of the Catholic University in Leuven (Belgium).

In 2004, while teaching modern European history at the University of Bologna, I met my future wife, at that time an American student in Italy: She is getting her Ph.D. in Italian literature at the University of Chicago and now teaches Italian at St. Thomas. In 2004 I started getting acquainted with the United States and with Chicago especially, where we were married. In 2008 we moved to the United States, thanks to a one-year research fellowship at Boston College. This was the beginning of my American experience – and, I have to say, in a way quite atypical for an Italian theologian – the beginning of my renaissance.

I arrived at St. Thomas, in the Theology Department, in August 2009 and since then my horizons have broadened. For a very Italian and European intellectual like me, the encounter with American culture was a real discovery, especially the vitality of American academia in general and the energy of American Catholicism: a young Church that is a complicated mix between the “immigrant church,” the Calvinist heritage typical of the American ethos, the exciting and sometimes dramatic encounter with modernity that finds its frontiers and vanguards in the United States. In this sense, the forth- coming English translation of my second book (Breve storia dei movimenti cattolici [Brief History of the Catholic Movements], Rome: Carocci, 2008, already translated in Spanish in 2011) about the “new Catholic movements” benefited from my contact with American Catholicism, which is much more “mobilized” and less “institutional” than European Catholicism.

My research found a very interested public here in the U.S., given my approach to Catholicism from two different, but in my view not separable points of view: theological and historical. Catholic theology is subject to change and it is a primary task of scholars to approach the “thing,” Catholicism, with a method that is at the same time respectful of the dogmatic heritage and aware of the historicity of the doctrines and of the institutions of the church. My first book written entirely in America, Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012: translated in Italian and Portuguese) is the proof of the necessity of this method in addressing the most debated issue in Catholicism today, that is, the role of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) for the future path of the Church. Also the second book published in the United States, True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium (Collegeville Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2012; Italian translation forthcoming) presents the same approach, for an issue, that is, the way Catholics celebrate liturgy today and the theological and cultural implications of it, whose importance I realized here in the United States since my arrival in the country. (My book, True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium took third place in the category of theology of the Excellence in Publishing Awards sponsored by the Association of Catholic Publishers).

The University of St. Thomas offered me other opportunities to continue broadening my horizons: Every few years I take students to Rome for the one-month course “Theology 101 in Rome.” It is quite extraordinary for me to be able to “translate” Rome, the Vatican, and Italian Catholicism for American students, and for sure it is a way for me to understand better my own background. In the summer of 2012 I spent two weeks at the Jesuit University in Yogyakarta (Indonesia) to teach, but especially to learn from this non-European and non-Western Catholicism, which is becoming more and more important for the global Church. Last but not least, following from America the conclave of 2013 that elected Pope Francis was extremely interesting because I became a source for local, national, and international media that were trying to understand – from a European becoming American like me – the shift of Catholicism from a European church to a global church. Teaching in America offered me a new stage for presenting my research in a demanding schedule of public speaking, academic conferences, and publishing agenda in the country and all over the world.

For my books and the other scholarly articles published in journals (in seven languages), I benefited enormously from the dialogue with colleagues in my department and especially with students. The work of a theologian can stand the test of time only if it comes through the tough filter of the “review” of real people.

Massimo Faggioli is assistant professor of theology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.