Before Christianity gained a firm grip on the people of Italy, ancient Romans worshipped a series of gods and goddesses. There were so many gods and goddesses that each one had a particular role in governing various areas of worshippers' lives. For example, the goddess Juno was believed to watch over the women of Rome, and it was to Juno that they prayed for guidance, along with Minerva, who was known as the goddess of wisdom. Mars was considered an important god because he ruled over the wars, and Jupiter was the god of the sky.
Of course, as Christianity was gradually introduced into various areas of Rome, the need for these gods and goddesses invariably died. Obviously, the Roman Catholic Church is considered the most powerful church in Italy, and with good reason. The Vatican, otherwise known as the Holy See, is located in Rome, and this is where the Pope, who is the head of the church, resides. The history of the Roman Catholic Church is based as much on politics as it is on religion, and in some ways this holds true today.
At one point, religion began a rather hasty descent and continued to spiral downhill until the counter-Reformation Movement. Due to the Protestant Reformation Movement and the many abuses that went on within the Catholic Church, a need arose for a turn around and a resurrection of truly religious beliefs within the church. Pope Paul III was able to begin leading the church away from the political games that had taken such an active role in the past. The Jesuits, a newly created religious order, was created, along with the Council of Trent, which was made up of men willing and ready to deal with the doctrinal dilemmas created by the influx of the Protestant religion.
The Roman Catholic Church continued to experience a resurrection well into the sixteenth century, though almost always in opposition of the Protestant religion. Lutheranism became a problem, however, in the mid to late 1500s, and so the Roman Inquisition began, led by Pope Paul III. Along with the Inquisition came an increasing effort to bring the Catholic religion to the people. Bishops were encouraged to make their presence known among the common people, seminaries were built to train more and more clergy, and church buildings multiplied, all in an effort to oust the still strong Protestant religion.
The rebirth of Italy is really believed to have occurred during the middle 1800's, however, when doors were opened and other denominations entered the dominant Roman Catholic world. This period of time is known as the Risorgimento, meaning "rebirth" or "rise again". Risorgimento is also known as the reunification of Italy, a country ruled under one flag.
While obviously, the Catholic Church's long history and current strength makes it the most prominent church in Italy, the Jewish belief also plays a role in Italian religion. Nearly two thousand years ago, a small number of Jews settled in the city of Rome, and they gradually accumulated in the southern part of Italy. The Jews played an important role in commerce since they were considered the first people to lend money and charge a set amount of interest, thus acquiring a major influence in trade and merchandising. They faced persecution during the 1500's, which echoed into the years of World War II, as they were required to live separately and made to wear a symbol of the religion for all to see, a practice repeated during the Holocaust. They were basically emancipated in the 1800's, but unfortunately more than 7,000 Jews died during World War II. However, their lineage has endured and holds firm with more than 40 thousand Jewish Italian citizens today.
In the Italy of today, the Roman Church still wields a powerful sword, and the people of the Church look to the Pope for guidance. Recently vigils have been held as Pope John Paul II battles for his life. Many of his faithful followers have been afraid that each day will bring an end to his twenty-six year papacy. The papacy will live on in another, however, whether the pope resigns or passes away, as will the Church's uncommon strength.
By Susie McGee