Dr. Greg Popcak invites all families to join him in making 2020 the the “Year…
An American Catholic family’s life in Italy
In May of 2017, my wife and I decided to move to Italy, where we’ve for the last four years. Now, our time is nearing an end. Since we’ve decided to return to the United States, there has been a lot of reflecting and processing on how these last four years have shaped our lives.
I work for the U.S. Army as a civilian and have had interesting career and travel opportunities overseas. No stranger to military life, my wife and I both come from larger, military families. After five years in Omaha, Nebraska, with a wonderful parish where we entered the Catholic Church and started our family, I deployed to Afghanistan and then took a job in Okinawa, Japan. We had a wonderful time in Japan, but when we were presented with an opportunity to move to Vicenza, in northern Italy, as Catholics, there seemed to be no better choice, and we were assured Europe would be a good place for the family.
Challenges of change
After four years, it’s amazing how things have changed for us, how we’ve gotten to know the land. Our Catholic faith has thrived. Our appreciation for cultures other than our own has grown.
We moved here with three kids: ages 5, 3 and 1. Almost immediately, we found out we were having a fourth.
When I think of the first year, two items immediately come to mind: our sweet welcoming of our new (and first) daughter and the challenge of our first landlord. Things around the house don’t work the same outside the United States. Everything, from the electricity that one can use in a house to the paint on the walls, requires an understanding.
The lifestyle is completely different, too. We had to wait a bit longer for things to be fixed than what we thought was reasonable at first. High-speed internet is a newer idea. We reached the 10,000-step count well before lunch. Stores are open at odd hours. Italians schedule their lives around the clock much like a monk around their liturgical schedule.
And oh — we’ve gotten lots of stares. Turns out, people are wowed by the size of our family since large families in Italy are rare these days.
We got through the challenges of the first year. We got a new landlord, adjusted to life, and we found some surprises. Initially, we saw the enormous and ornate churches in the area and said enthusiastically, “We get to experience this every Sunday for the next few years!”
But quickly, we realized how empty we were without the Catholic community present on the Army base. Soon, we were involved head to toe with other Catholic families, a men’s group, the Catholic Women of the Chapel, and more. These friendships became the bedrock of our time here, and the kids have made lifelong friends. Many of their positive memories will be hanging out with other Catholic families, doing very Catholic things.
Various activities around the region and country have also created many relationships. It may have possibly sparked some vocations, too. We haven’t stayed in a hotel since moving here. In most places we visit, we stay in or near a monastery and meet the local religious. The religious have become some of the closest friends our family has ever had. As we meet and get to know them, the kids witness religious life up close. In some cases, they dined and prayed with the monks, priests, nuns and others in formation.
Three of our boys know, beyond doubt, that they will be monks in Norcia someday. One of the boys is so serious that he butchered his new haircut recently. When asked why he took scissors to his own head, he responded, “I wanted to get ready to be a monk.” Perhaps the idea that all three boys will join a religious community when they turn 18 is a little wild and far-fetched, but our goal as parents has been to promote vocations by making the idea a completely normal one. Goal accomplished.
Our vacations are oriented to family time — not just being entertained. We visit various cities, but we always make a point to learn about the local Church, a patron saint, and venerate any relics or major shrines nearby.
We love to taste the food, but we more enjoy a good tour explaining how a certain production type (wine, cheese, prosciutto) has sustained a community or family for generations. The culmination of these experiences has solidified a sense of pilgrimage and learning, not mere tourism.
Coping with COVID-19
Our third year in Italy, COVID-19 hit, and life changed overnight. Positive COVID cases doubled daily, everything shut down in an instant, and there was much confusion about the future. But we stuck it out, and we again welcomed another baby during the pandemic.
Italy suffered greatly throughout the pandemic. To be here by choice, to support the cause of an American/NATO mission, to not have the ability to do the things we came here to do, let alone go to the next small town over, became a daily decision.
But somewhere in his wisdom, God reminded us that the Church was not the basilica in the center of town. Our ability to manage a wholesome Catholic life was not restricted to the decisions of bishops. And our understanding of the law of charity and the real meaning of the precepts were hardened forever.
I am looking forward to the world after COVID — writing this from Italy where we are not completely off the hook yet — but I am deeply grateful for the essential life lessons we’ve learned in the past 18 months.
Walking in the paths of saints
Of course, we’re sad to leave. We know this place (and the people) better than anywhere we’ve ever been. But as the moving date inches closer and the X’s on the calendar fill out the weeks, we are also looking forward to the future.
We love and miss America, our families and friends, and look forward to eggs, steak and hash browns for breakfast.
Still, our experience has altered the way we look at things. While standing and looking at the mosaics in Ravenna, or the small roadside chapels in Varese, my imagination immediately asks, “Is this where my saints stood, looking at the same cheekbones and painted blood of Christ on this cross?” Of course, it is, and of course, they did. And I think to myself, “It sure would be great to see this as it was back then.”
And I think as an American, in a place where the first bishop celebrated Mass only 200 years ago, we have the chance, now, to see “how it was back then” and to be those pioneer saints of Catholicism in a generation burning for a witness.
Life in Italy has been great. But it’s also just one stop on this earthly pilgrimage. We’ve been blessed and will continue to be, but we’ve also got work to do in raising our kids, and we’re very excited about that future.
Shaun McAfee writes from Italy.