Five Ways Catholic Churches in Italy Differ from in the US

People who move to a foreign country are inundated with newness, attacked by unfamiliarity, overwhelmed with shocking sensations of strange cultures and unknown customs.

But Catholics have an advantage. Every week Catholics celebrate the same rituals, recite the same readings and participate in the same Gospel – making the Catholic Church a steady constant throughout the world.

Or are they?

Imagine my surprise after visiting Catholic churches throughout southern Italy and realizing that all Masses are, in fact, not created equally. Here are five ways I’ve noticed that Catholic Churches in southern Italy differ from Catholic Churches in the United States.

1. The Processional. There is no nicely sung song that escorts an Italian priest down the aisle in preparation for the Mass. There are a few bells, a few chimes and he enters stage right in a whopping 15 seconds. But hey! We knew Italians did things fast, right? Same goes for the recessional. The priest ends the Mass, says his goodbyes and exits the Alter – once again – from stage right.

2. The Congregation. You know how you get the evil eye in America if you walk into Mass late, make the slightest commotion or chat too loudly with your neighbor? Well, if these things bother you forgo visiting a Catholic church in Italy. Church-goers enter and exit the church doors at leisure, chat loudly on their cell phones just outside the door and take smoke breaks during the Homily. I was in such shock the first time I saw this I had to double up on Hail Marys and ask God for forgiveness for the ultra-judgmental thoughts I directed toward my fellow Catholics.

3. The Kneelers. They have them – they just don’t use them. Well, not really. Of all of the churches I’ve visited throughout southern Italy only the petite black-clothed nonnas kneel on the kneelers. The other congregants stand throughout this ritual.

4. The Communion. Forget about that nice, orderly line you are used to queuing in as you approach the alter for your Communion Host. When the time comes, everyone moves toward the front in a single mass and falls into “line” just before they meet the priest. Instead of accepting the Host and turning to your right (or left) and circling back around the side of the church to return to your seat, most Italians do a U-turn and head directly back down the middle, pushing their way through the people who are still “in line.”

5. The Catechism. Back home, children attend CCD, or Catechism classes on Wednesday evenings. Here in Italy the classes follow Sunday morning Mass. Most children and their families arrive five minutes before Mass ends and hang out in the doorway until they can enter the church.

Have you noticed any other differences between churches in the US and Italy – or other countries? What were your observations? Please share.

11 Responses
  1. You hit it spot on. I was shocked over the chatting and non-kneeling. But then, when I took O to the states, he was shocked by how many times they passed the basket.
    Ah! Another good point. They only put “coins” in the basket here and pass it once. We get envelopes – usually for 2 collections a week – and are expected to put bills!

  2. The hymns are very traditional in Italy. Mass in Australia is likely to have an overhead projector with ‘related’ songs and pictures.
    Wow. Really? I’ve never seen that. I think it might distract for me. Thanks for the info…

  3. Joanne at frutto della passione

    At our parish here in Milan the kids in catechism all sit together at 10 o’clock mass and participate actively during the mass, smaller children are given pictures to colour to keep them occupied. Catechism is all different nights of the week. My son, in grade 3, goes on Tuesdays and the Oratorio is a big part of his little social life. He plays soccer for our Oratorio (he has scored 2 goals so far this season yipee!) and meets his friends there on winter afternoons for a game of ping pong or foosball.
    And I’m one of those that arrives 10 minutes late 😉
    Woo hoo for our little soccer star! That is great. I thought it might be a little different/more structured in northern Italy. Thanks for the info!

  4. What an entertaining post. Here in Canada I think we are very similar to the US. I have been to mass in Portugal and it was very similar to the Canadian mass, except in a different language.
    Yea, the languages can mess it up, alright! I get maybe 50% of it when I go now. Our priest moved across town and when we can we drive there for Mass. We loved him and I’m used to his accent! 🙂

  5. I attended a mass when I was in Italy for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15th). I didn’t notice any major differences between that mass and ones I attend here except the part about the kneelers – most people did stand as opposed to kneel.
    Interesting. I wonder if they were on good behavior for the holiday? LOL Is that the first time you went here in Calabria? It took me two or three times to really catch the differences but I’ve been to several different churches south of Rome and pretty much noticed all of the same things.

  6. joanna

    here is Spain, it’s pretty similar except most people do kneel down, but not until one second before the priest starts the words of consecration. then we stand up immediately after that part is finished and remain standing during the rest of the Mass. there are usualy confessions going on during Mass also until it’s time for that priest to help with Communion. there’s always a cell phone going off and, of course, it must be obeyed er answered.
    Ha ha, that is funny. The ring of the unknown caller can not go unanswered! Also – this could happen only in Italy, I think, but our priest was doing confessions before Mass the other day. When we walked in, he stopped hearing the confession, got up and come over and talked to us! LOL

  7. I am not Catholic so I am not familiar with the Catholic churches here in the US, but I would like to say that I was not thrilled when I heard there will be a Mormon temple built in Rome. I realize that all religions have a right to any place they choose to settle (ok, almost) but after seeing Rome, I struggle with them putting a temple there. Don’t get me wrong, Mormon temples are beautiful but do you think it will take away from the history and feel that Rome has to offer? Thank you for this post though, I am enjoying getting more familiar with the difference between the US and Italy!
    I think it could become part of the history of Rome and show how the world is evolving. People are always hesitant about adding new architecture to beautiful places … look at the pyramid at the Lourve in Paris. Some Parisians love it-others hate it.

  8. Anon

    I’ve been to church in Lamezia Terme about a dozen times and noticed that it is largely sex-segregated at mass. When we go to mass with family there, when we get to the church, I am expected to go with the women toward the front of the church in the section on either side of the main aisle. Most of the men, including my honey, sit toward the back or in one of the sections off the main aisle. That’s the diff that stands out to me the most b/c I’m suddenly without my main ally. But I’ve also definitely noticed the processional, the kneeling (or lack thereof) and the practice of only putting coins in the offering too!
    Oooh, interesting. I will pay more attention to this next time I go. From what I remember, though our group mixes well. LOL. I would definitely not want to sit alone – or with the women. P usually has to translate a bit throughout the Mass.

  9. Marmie

    What about church attire? Respond, please.
    Pretty casual like we are back at home. Maybe even more casual on a whole …

  10. Wonderful stuff Cherrye!

    Fascinating – I’d often wondered about this, but so far have not managed to get myself to church on time!


    LOL. Very funny, Alex. The thing is, in Italy, you don’t have to be on time!!
    Alex’s last blog post..Expat B&Bs in Italy

  11. Rita

    I was recently in southern Italy at a 15th century church. I was shocked when no one kneeled at the Consecration. I just looked around and couldn’t believe it. After Communion I knelt down and found that I was the only one. I found the Italians to be very irreverent even though there are saints all over the place. My sister-in-law said that in America people have more respect for the Church. Hard to believe. The dress in church was worse than we are here in America.
    Yes, it is quite shocking when they don’t kneel and when they hang out at the door on their cell phone. My mother was surprised, as well. She assumed they’d be more religious since they are closer to the Vatican.

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