Growing up in a Boston tenement in the 1930’s, my father was immersed in the immigrant experience. The old world customs slammed headlong into the harsh realities of life in the industrialized new world. In early 20th century Sicilian immigrant culture, the church provided communal bedrock. One of his stories from his childhood demonstrates the process of assimilation.
He spoke of one of his earliest memories – what he called a spiritual pinning point – that involved the neighborhood witch. He was a boy of perhaps four or five years old. His mother became convinced that he had fallen under “Mal Occhio” – the evil eye. She dragged him through the streets in a panic – seeking The Strega.
He remembered the old woman. Herbs, incantations, incense… His mother presenting him to the woman, with no explanation – she knew why the child was before her. He remembered being a little frightened, but knowing that it was for his own good.
They left the house of The Strega, they stopped at the church on the way home. His mother had him light a candle. Kneeling in prayer, he told me that he felt protected and safe. No need to understand the mysteries of the moment. He was loved. He was cared for. There were things beyond him that maintained order.
Much like the Catholic imperialism in South America, the willingness of the church to allow integration of pagan cultural customs was both a kindness and a strategy for expansion. Where has this tolerance gone?