In 1939, Australian Italian, B.A. Santamaria wrote: "Whether he is a Catholic who practises the Faith, or a Catholic who does not ... the Italian is intensely conscious of religion." It is not surprising, therefore, that the inaugural conference of the Italian Australian Institute, held at the Park Hyatt in Melbourne on 24-26 May, dedicated its third day to "Identity and Community Life," with an emphasis on the religious aspect.
The Italian Australian Institute is a new organisation set up to establish a national structure, which hopes to advance the interests of all Australian Italians. The founding councillors include Rino Grollo, Professor Robert Pascoe, Nino Randazzo, Diana Ruzzene-Grollo, Giancarlo Martini-Piovano, Thomas Hazell and Tony Pagone QC.
Among the conference's distinguished guests was Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago. In his address on the first day, the Cardinal set the movement of Italians to Australia in the wider context of the "global" movement of peoples throughout the world, including the considerable impact of Italians in the United States, and in particular in his own archdiocese of Chicago.
Another keynote speaker was the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr George Pell, who addressed the conference on Friday morning. The Archbishop spoke firstly about the demographics of Melbourne's Australian Italians. He then praised the Italian community, because they had remained attached to the Catholic faith. According to a 1996 census, out of nearly 200,000 first and second generation Australian Italians in Melbourne, 95.4 percent considered themselves Catholics with only one percent leaving the Church for another denomination. However, in line with the wider Church, Mass attendance remains relatively low at 20 percent.
The Archbishop also spoke on the importance of Australian Italians holding onto their Catholic values, notably the family, and challenged the community, particularly the second generation, to help with the pastoral needs of the ageing Italian community, urging them to become qualified pastoral associates or social workers.
Other speakers included Desmond O'Grady, who recently published an excellent book Rome Reshaped. Mr O'Grady offered the perspective of an Australian living in Italy and how difficult it was for Italian events to be featured on the Australian media. O'Grady also provided interesting insights on the problems of secularisation that have arisen in Italy.
The workshops provided further interesting perspectives on the place of Italian Catholics in Australia. Anna Maria Barbaro, a high school teacher from Queensland, spoke about how Italians felt out of place in an Irish Church to begin with but have emerged to embrace both cultures, while Father Max Vodola spoke about his experiences of entering the seminary as an Australian Italian. Anthony Cappello, on the other hand, stressed the important part Australian Italians played in Melbourne between the wars. Mr Cappello noted the contribution of Father Ugo Modotti, Father Vincenzo de Francesco, B.A. Santamaria and Val Adami.
The conference ended with a gala night in the presence of distinguished guests such as Sir James Gobbo, Governor of Victoria, Cardinal George of Chicago, the Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See to Australia, Archbishop Francesco Canalini, Premier Steve Bracks and Dr Giovanni Castellaneta, Italian Ambassador to Australia.
The conference put on record several important recommendations, including concerns at the way the media depicts Australian Italians, and the need for documentation of Australian Italian culture in all its forms.
On the latter, an initiative has been taken by Dr Ilma O'Brien from Victoria University. Her "Australian Italians Records Project" aims to document the Italian story in Australia by making historical data available on the net - www.vut.edu.au/iarp.
All those who attended the conference agreed it was a success. The Italian Australian Institute's website - www.iai.com.au - will continue to inform the public regarding the ongoing consultation on the role of Australian Italians in society, especially in the Catholic Church. The conference proceedings will be published after the Olympics.