Italy, of course, is famous for its Catholicism. The entire country is freckled with centuries-old cathedrals and chapels; patron days are celebrated with fervor, and shrines to the Madonna can be found practically everywhere. While one might expect to find flags hanging in stores and pinned to lapels throughout the US, Italy is plastered with pictures of Padre Pio and Pope John Paul II.

It has been an interesting learning experience for me. The US, after all, is a culturally protestant country; all other belief systems are forced to grapple with protestant preferences (often heavily influenced by puritanism). Catholics are a minority in the US, whereas Italy is culturally Catholic (according to the Pew foundation, 78.4% of Americans identify as Christian but only 23.9% as Catholic compared to some studies that list Italy as up to 96.55% Catholic). (Just to be clear, I’m referring to cultural influence, not to individuals who actually practice.)

I knew the statistics, but I hadn’t fully comprehended what it would be like to become a religious minority – one of the misunderstood who has to consistently mitigate against a powerful cultural norm. My 5-year old daughter, for example, is expected to pray before her meals at our local public school – prayers that often include the Hail Mary (which we do not use). Similarly, confusion about non-Catholics was revealed this past December when I was asked 3 times if Protestants celebrated Christmas (and twice if we celebrated Easter) and I got the distinct impression that my affirmative answers weren’t completely accepted. The situation is even more difficult for Jews, Muslims, agnostics, and atheists.

As a pastor serving two Italian Protestant congregations affiliated within the Waldensian and Methodist Church, working for freedom of religion (and from forced religion) is an essential part of my job. The Waldensians trace their history back to about 3 centuries before Martin Luther and were among the recipients of some of the Inquisitions most horrific practices, only receiving full civil rights in 1848 (they continue celebrate the date every year). Since then, they have been deeply committed to protecting the rights of all religions (and the right to non-belief) as well as to those society tends to ignore and oppress. I’ll write more about the Waldensians some other time, but in an odd twist today I thought I’d play ‘cultural tour guide’ for my non-Italian friends who are preparing for the Pope’s visit to Naples this month:

What is a Pope? A Pope is the current Bishop of Rome. Officially, his ‘seat’ is the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran (fun fact: St. Peter’s is not technically his home church). Bishops, in the Catholic church, are priests (always men and practically always unmarried) with particular responsibility for oversight and doctrine. They are often assigned to particular regions (known as dioceses).

Is the Pope in charge of the whole Catholic Church? The answer to this question is a definitive ‘no, but.’ Technically the Pope is just a Bishop and technically he is only the Bishop of Rome, however as the bishop of Rome he has a special place among the ‘College of Bishops.’ Catholic doctrine traces this preference back to Peter’s special place among Jesus’ disciples (all bishops trace their spiritual heritage back to the original apostles).

But isn’t the Pope infallible? Actually, no. This is a common misconception held by many non-Catholics and Catholics. The doctrine of papal infallibility was only solidified in the mid-1800s and is only applicable in very special situations. Specifically, infallibility only comes into play when the Pope speaks ex cathedra (‘from the chair’); in other words, only when he is making a formal decree on behalf of the whole Catholic church (and thus, by Catholic doctrine, the entire Christian Church).

The current Pope is Pope Francis; who is he? Where is he from? Tell me something about him. Pope Francis is Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He was born in Argentina in 1936 and took a new name (as Pope’s do) when he was elected by the College of Cardinals on March 13, 2013 after the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. He is the first Pope from the southern hemisphere and the first from the Americas. He has developed a reputation for making statements that seem unexpectedly gracious and concerned about the wellbeing of the disenfranchised, abused, and misused.

When is he coming to Naples, and can I meet him? He is coming to Naples on March 21, 2015. Papal visits are very carefully organized, especially considering current threats, so chances are practically impossible to meet with him if you have not already been scheduled to do so. However, Napoli Unplugged posted his schedule here, if you’re interested. Tickets for the 11:00 Mass in Piazza del Plebiscito were only available to Pastors within the Archdiocese of Naples and were intended specifically for ‘the Neapolitan faithful and those who have a heart to see the Holy Father and hear him speak.’ If you are connected to one of the Catholic churches in the Neapolitan metro area, contact your local priest to see if he may have an extra.

Fun fact: Naples has had two of its Archbishops elected pope throughout the centuries: Pope Paul IV in the 1500s, and Pope Innocent XII in the 1600s.

Second Fun Fact: About a month ago, I was at a reception following an ecumenical service at the Cathedral. Although I had firmly instructed my children not to overindulge in sweets, I was rendered completely ineffective when the current Cardinal, Crescenzio Sepe, repeatedly ployed them with cookie after cookie.