Rorate Caeli

Op-Ed: The True Lesson of Lampedusa

«Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi.»

Lampedusa, the island that is the southernmost point of Italy, was visited by the Pope in his first visit, exactly one year ago, in July 2013. It is impossible to hear the name of the island, since the recent Libyan war overwhelmed by the arrival of an endless stream of immigrants, without thinking of the Princes of Lampedusa, in particular the 11th of that title, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, whose own family's experiences in Sicily and united Italy during the revolutionary years of the unification of the peninsula inspired every page of his novel "Il Gattopardo". His most famous work was, as is known, published posthumously - here is a famous passage of that book, a dialogue between Prince Salina and his nephew Tancredi Falconeri:

"I'm leaving, Uncle, leaving in an hour. I came to say goodbye."

Poor Salina felt his heart tighten. "A duel?"

"A big duel, Uncle. A duel with little King Francis  [Francis II of the Two Sicilies]. I'm going into the hills at Ficuzza; don't tell a soul, particularly not Paolo. Great things are in the offing, and I don't want to stay at home. And anyway I'd be arrested at once if I did."

The Prince had one of his visions: a savage guerrilla skirmish, shots in the woods, and Tancredi, his Tancredi, lying on the ground with his guts hanging out like that poor soldier. "You're mad, my boy, to go with those people! They're all mafiosi, all troublemakers. A Falconeri should be with us, for the King." [Francis II]

The eyes began smiling again. "For the King, yes, of course. But which King?" [Reference to Victor Emanuel II of Sardinia, future king of unified Italy] The lad had one of those sudden serious moods which made him so mysterious and so endearing. "Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they'll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. Do you understand this?" Rather moved, he embraced his uncle. "Well, goodbye, for now. I will be back with the tricolore." [The flag of unified Italy.] (Transl. Archibald Colquhuon , adapted according to the original.)

This passage in the very first pages of The Leopard (Il Gattopardo, published in the year of the election of John XXIII to the papacy), containing what probably is the most famous line in Italian literature in the 20th century, makes some wonder if that was not perhaps what many had in mind for the Council, and for other changes in the Church. Change that would not change. A call that was very popular, as Tancredi Falconeri's choice - popular, or rather populist?... 

They perhaps could not identify in that best-seller on the Risorgimento a warning on the aggiornamento: there is no such thing as intense change, even in "mere" externals, that does not entail or does not at least incorporate revolutionary irreversible transformation - because social structures and conventions, immemorial customs and precedents, cannot be controlled and kept under control by an institution whose very existence presupposes continuity and tradition, if that institution is willing to change with the times its very essence, or even the signs and mere symbols that surround its very essence. All that is left of true greatness that changes itself purporting to remain the same is a mountain of falsified and unattractive relics. That warning is the true lesson of Lampedusa.