The Italian-American Triumvirate: #1 – God

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Each October we celebrate Italian-American Heritage Month. The month is obviously chosen in honor of the Italian that most influenced America: Christopher Columbus. Of course, Columbus’ discovery of the New World predated the creation of the United States by about three centuries, but our country long ago adopted his journey as an inspiration for the nation.

Columbus has since been joined by many Italian immigrants who would become Italian-Americans.

That’s an important distinction: “Italian-American.” It recognizes that you are, in fact, an American citizen first (ironically, this is designated by having the word “American” appear second). Yet, despite your allegiance to your newly adopted country, you have retained all that was good from the Old Country.

For the next three weeks, we’ll take a deep dive into the three pillars of Italian culture.

Now, right off the bat, you’re going to notice something. These pillars are very similar to the pillars of other ethnic groups and to America in general. This is true and there’s a very good reason for that. Still, I’m only qualified to speak of them in the context of being an Italian-American.

Let’s start with that fancy word in the title.

“Triumvirate.” This word derives from the Latin trium virorum, meaning “of the three men.” In general, a triumvirate refers to a government ruled by three men. Although many ancient civilizations often sported triumvirates, the term is most famously associated with the Roman Republic.

The Senate, which ruled Rome during the Republic, would regularly appoint an ad hoc triumvirate to undertake a specific task. This worked well until an informal triumvirate emerged during the late Republic. Called the First Triumvirate, it consisted of the famous general and well-connected Pompey, the wealthy and also well connected Crassius, and a young upstart with no connections who went by the name of Gaius Julius Caesar.

But that’s another story.

We see the “Rule of Three” nearly everywhere. Well before the First Triumvirate, Aristotle wrote of the three rhetorical “Appeals” or “Modes of Persuasion” (ethos, pathos, and logos). Long after the Republic succumbed to the Empire, Masonic lodges conferred three degrees to members.

It was during Roman time, however, that the Christian church formed. It all started, so to speak, with a visit from the Three Kings. Shortly after you’d see adherents of this new religion praying to the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (who must have took off for the holy coast because he was eventually replaced by the Holy Spirit).

In fact, what was ultimately to become the Catholic Church assumed many of the Roman ways, from pagan holidays to organizational structure (the late Roman empire created municipal districts known as “dioceses”).

From its very beginnings in the post Roman world, God infused what would become modern Italy. Laws, rituals, and everyday life revolved around God. And the Catholic Church made it easy. The highly structured religion provided a virtual standard operating manual. It was easy to follow.

And if you refused to follow it, you were simply burned at the stake – but that’s going a little bit farther back than traditional Italian-American heritage allows for. In fact, the nation of Italy wasn’t formally unified until the French pulled its soldiers out of Rome in 1870. (That’s a full five years after the American Civil War for those keeping score.)

There were plenty of reasons Italians left their home country for America. They wanted to leave behind a struggling economy, a corrupt government, and, especially for Southern Italians, prejudice.

What they didn’t leave behind, however, was their cultural triumvirate.

At the top of that triad stood God, a very Catholic God. Granted, at first, an America forged from the Protestant Ethic looked upon these newcomers with suspicion. Italians-Americans were targets by the Ku Klux Klan. Still, they kept their faith in God.

The largest mass lynching didn’t involve blacks. It was a crowd of New Orleans bigots that strung up eleven Italian-Americans.

Yet, every Sunday, they return to celebrate Mass.

As late as 1960 people were hesitant to vote for John F. Kennedy (of Irish descent, but a Catholic nonetheless) as president because they were unsure if his allegiances were with the U.S. Constitution or the Pope of Rome.

God was not merely a weekly thing. He represented the most important milestones of every Italian-Americans life. Baptism, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, and those were only the biggest ones.

What’s more, that easy instruction manual was still there. And if you didn’t follow it… well, the good news is, like I said, burning at the stake was not an Italian-America tradition. That being said, nuns and wooden rulers stood at the ready to enforce the rules (and, if not them, grandmothers and their wooden spoons).

Italian-American kids complained about going to Church, at least until they became Italian-American parents.

I can’t explain how it works, but the tradition of faith in God has been devotedly passed down from one generation to the next.

Here’s the more interesting thing. The tradition of faith in God isn’t exclusively an Italian-American thing. In fact, it is a very American thing, going all the way back to John Winthrop’s “shining city on the hill.”

And the amazing thing is that this truly is an American thing. Think of how Americans (and the mostly English colonists before them) practiced their religion. With the exception of those pesky Salem witch trials, it’s been marked with mostly pious humility. It was between you and God.

Now compare that with “Glory, God, and Gold” Spanish. That wasn’t too pretty (except for maybe the Jesuits, which may explain why they got kicked out of Spain in 1767). And it certainly wasn’t in the staid New England tradition that quickly spread throughout the Colonies.

So, as we see in review the first of the Italian-American triumvirate during Italian-American Heritage Month, rest assured, as we move down the ladder, each element can be seen as much “American” as it can be seen as “Italian.”

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