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Hallo again to all.

Daniel DeCesare and Adeline Pacifico, born 1885Last week, in the same night before which her first great-great granddaughter was baptised, one of our great grandmothers died. She was a few months short of her 100th birthday, and we found ourselves reflecting—as we do perhaps too often—on the fearful symmetry of life and death. The youngest member of a family had in the morning received the light of Christ in a joyous and pitch-perfect ceremony attended by relatives and friends from far and near. And in the self-same day the eldest member of the same family fell asleep peacefully toward the sweet and blessed country where we pray for light perpetual to shine upon her.

This great-great grandmother was the first member of her family to be born in North America. Her own parents were from Roseto Valfortore in southeastern Italy's Apulia region. In successive waves of emigration, the people of Roseto Valfortore came to slate quarries, knitting mills and steel factories of the New World. In Ontario, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, they formed communities that were initially insular—focused around close affinities of language, religion, cuisine, relation, and craft.

Wherever they went, Rosetans also formed the basis of what became known as the Roseto Effect, a documented medical phenomenon in which sociologists and physicians observed measurable differences between Italian-Canadian and Italian-American immigrants from Roseto and their immediate neighbours. Though they had access to the same hospitals, drinking water, educational facilities, government resources, and economic opportunities, Rosetans died from myocardial infarction at strikingly lower rates as compared to the more highly-assimilated Anglo-Irish-Welsh and German folk who lived in adjoining towns. Despite back-breaking work, immoderate wine consumption, relative poverty, and a diet heavy in carbohydrates, they did not die of heart attacks brought on by the stress of daily life.

Sociologists, anthropologists, and epidemiologists have for several decades debated both the reality and the extent of the Roseto Effect. Some have dismissed it as a genetic predisposition to healthy hearts, which in a few decades dissipated through the melting-pot of ethnic intermarriage with people of English or German descent. (Anecdotal evidence of strong hearts among our Anglo-Teutonic relations makes us suspicious of this claim on its face.) Others have pointed to the possibility that low rates of heart attack may be one benefit of a close-knit community with homogeneous culture and intense interconnectivity among generations. You can read a recent and positive treatment of the phenomenon in Malcom Gladwell's Outliers.

The missing element from most recent analyses of the Roseto Effect and its validity or invalidity is an Anglican term: common prayer. Rosetan life was filled, it is true, with hard work, serious drink, and arguably bad diet. But it was also permeated by shared worship—worship that defined time with a liturgical texture not just through the year, but through the week and through the day. Two outsiders who observed Rosetans wrote in a landmark study that 'they radiated a kind of joyous team spirit as they celebrated religious festivals and family landmarks'. Common prayer was manifested in daily eucharistic celebration accompanied by the Angelus, a body of hymnody and customs shared intuitively among generations, and annual events expressing devotion to patronal religious figures like St Anthony of Padua, Our Lady of Mt Carmel, and St Placidus through festivals and processions.

Their great great great granddaughter, born 2011The common prayer of these communities was destroyed root and branch by the Second Vatican Council, and many families scattered to the more attractive religious buffet options of Anglicanism, Lutheranism, patriotism, Calvinism, or nothingism once the Roman Church could no longer be counted on as a source of reliable strength, support, and inspiration. The common life of these communities was pulled apart by a loss of economic viability, and the growth of a military industrial complex with little lucrative place for women making dress shirts or men making roof-slate. Their shared culture was abandoned except in vestiges—we've yet to see a Rosetan generation without a Placid among the sons, even if he is always called Pat by his Anglophone friends—as young people sent the elderly to nursing homes, and children grew up without their grandparents except in fortunate cases about which we can only say O quam bonum.

As their culture was deracinated, their hearts quite literally broke. Epidemiological data show undeniably that for this group of people, young men and elderly women began to die of heart disease and heart attack at rates indistinguishable from their non-Rosetan neighbours once the stable features of diet, worship, and community were removed. One could say in the converse that common prayer and a common table were good for their hearts. And one could even extrapolate to the present (without any hope of replicating Roseto, which had its undeniable problems and limitations) by saying that common prayer and a common table are good for our hearts.

Eat together! Pray together! It's good for you. See you next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

29 April 2012

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