My 23-year-old cousin from Italy has been staying with us for three months. A lot of things have surprised him about Los Angeles -- the wide streets, old buildings that were only built forty years ago, and that fact that people actually fill the churches around here.
My cousin is a business graduate student back at home, and is staying with us while doing a corporate internship in town for his master's thesis. He's gone to Disneyland and downtown, to Hollywood and Malibu -- but our local parish has made a real impression.
Usually the place is pretty full on Sundays, which is not the case in Italy. Not even in the small town outside of Naples where my cousin grew up and still lives. There, a scattered dozen or so old ladies in traditional black still bother to make church-going a steady habit. An ancient organ heaves out traditional tunes, but no one sings along.
And the priests, my cousin says, are as ancient as everything else -- preaching an Italian version of fire-and-brimstone homilies to the few in the pews. He was stunned to meet our pastor, who is a youthful 50 years old and sometimes wears Hawaiian shirts on his days off. His homilies are humorous, thoughtful and straightforward, speaking to everyday life and tying that to the gospel. Same thing when our bishop came recently to deliver the sacrament of Confirmation to my daughter and forty other teenagers her age. He didn't speak over the heads of kids, nor did he condescend to them -- he was simple and direct and genuine.
My cousin said he understood why the church was full, and why the ones back home were not.
Pope Benedict has made re-Christianizing Europe a central theme of his papacy -- but if he has lost even the traditionally devout people in small Italian towns, his job is tougher than I thought. And does he have a plan to bring them back? Does that plan include a different approach to the congregation, a more American approach? Not that I have heard -- the American approach does not seem to be his favorite.
To be sure, we have our problems here, too. A lot of them, and the list seems to grow. The priests are not get any younger nor any larger in number. In our big cities, parishes and schools continue to close. But we should know that - -to at least one smart kid from a country that is home to the Vatican -- we are doing most things right.