By Christian Corona
The Sacraments. The beach. Good country people. Homemade wine and homegrown lamb. What more could I ask for? Never did I think that pursuing a priestly vocation would bring me such a wonderful and unexpected cultural experience.
As per usual at the North American College in Rome, I was asked to spend a summer abroad in Europe to have a chance to learn about different cultures and experience the diverse expressions of the Catholic faith in different countries. As a result of this, I was assigned to a small country parish in Sardinia, a large Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea off the west coast of Italy. It is an island renowned for its sincere hospitality and its rich food, culture, agriculture, ancient history, and most importantly, its ancient and deep Catholic Faith.
Arriving in early July, I found myself warmly welcomed by all the parishioners of this small town. Immediately they took me in, invited me into their homes, and proudly made sure that I experienced all their traditions and cultural eccentricities. Though they are part of the Italian Republic, they consider themselves a different culture and have different lifestyles from those on the mainland.
For example, like mainstream Italian culture, their culture is centered around the family and around the midday meal they call Pranzo, which the whole family eats together. However, being primarily a rural culture, they make many of their own foods from scratch, and homegrown roast lamb or pork is generally the main dish (other than pasta of course). They spent the summer proudly showing off their homemade wines and meats and beers and cheeses to this so-called “Texas Seminarian.” Several times a week, a family of the parish would invite us over for Pranzo, which would never be shorter than an hour and a half. Even though it is on the other side of the world, conversation at the table was refreshingly normal and down to earth. Normal small-town people are normal small-town people, even in a completely different culture.
Being a true Sardinian, the priest I was with, Don Antonio, made it a point to proudly show off his culture. In the summer, the island of Sardinia is known for being a frequent vacation spot for all types of people looking for a week at the beach. Sardinia has several different beaches, one being very different from the next, and Don Antonio was adamant about taking me to as many as he could. There are beaches whose sand is the consistency of flour; other beaches are mostly rocky; others have boulders you can jump from; some beaches are known for the many different shades of blue you can see throughout the day. One beach on the western coast is known simply for its sunset. You are never more than an hour away from the beach and many Sardinians will go to the beach several times a week.
He made sure to take me not only to the most interesting and culturally significant parts of the island but also had me experience some of their ancient religious traditions. They claim an ancient Catholic faith that goes back to the era of the Early Church. Their patrons are the early Roman-Sardinian martyrs who died in the early persecutions of the Church and whose tombs are still proudly venerated often by the local people. Additionally, their various neighborhoods and workers’ guilds within the cities and towns would have different religious processions dedicated to their several patrons throughout the year.
In my time there, the miners’ guild held their celebration of La Madonna della Salute (Our Lady of Good Health). They came together in one big procession, had a huge band that played ancient Sardinian hymns—which were unintelligible to me but deeply moving, emotional, and profound—and walked through the streets with their banners, flags, and Sardinian costumes. They walked to Mass in an ancient basilica, had Mass venerated the image of the Madonna, and continued in procession and celebration for the rest of the afternoon. It was very inspiring for me to see these traditions that are older than the United States and possibly could be older than the first colonies on the American Continent.
Ultimately, I came away from Sardinia with a grateful but heavy heart. It was a joy to be immersed in such a rich and religious culture. What a purely gratuitous gift that was given to me. I can never cease to be thankful for it. It was an opportunity I never would have imagined I would have had. But it was difficult to leave. I grew to deeply appreciate the people who were so good to me and the island and the culture of Sardinia. Nevertheless, I will take the religious and cultural lessons and experiences the island has given me as I move forward in priestly formation and ultimately as I go back to the Diocese of Tyler as a priest (God willing).