Alice Bolandhemat (SFS’24) is an undergraduate student in the Walsh School of Foreign Service majoring in international politics with a concentration in international security and minors in French and religion, ethics, and world affairs. She was born in Los Angeles and later moved to Chicago. Since beginning her time at Georgetown, she has served as the deputy features editor for The Hoya, a university tour guide for Blue & Gray, and an ESL tutor for the D.C. Schools Project. In her free time, Alice enjoys learning new languages, prose writing, standup comedy, and rowing. This semester, she is studying at Georgetown’s Villa Le Balze in Fiesole, Italy. She is passionate about the intersections between faith and international politics and is excited to analyze these topics in the context of northern Italian culture and society. In the process, she hopes to pick up as much Italian as possible and consume many bowls of pasta. She is part of the spring 2023 cohort of the Doyle Global Dialogue.
When I arrived on the Hilltop in 2020, I knew that it would not take long to grow accustomed to difference. I have grown up in a mixed-faith household with both Jewish and Muslim roots. Georgetown, being a Catholic institution, would force me to expand these horizons, of which I was perhaps hyperaware. My 18-year-old self was prepared to endure conversations that highlighted merely one religious point of view. Instead, I was met with complete surprise when I discovered just how diverse my discussions were. It was through these interfaith dialogues that I discovered the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. In January 2023, nearly two and a half years later, I reverted to a similar mindset that my first-year self once possessed as I embarked on a semester-long journey to study in Florence, Italy; I would be entering one of the most Catholic countries in the world as a non-Catholic foreigner. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Italy, 67% of Italy’s population identifies as Catholic, 24% as atheist or agnostic, 5% as non-Catholic Christian, and 4% as Muslim.
On a previous trip to Italy in 2017 that lasted all of five days, all I could seem to notice was the prevalence of churches throughout the entire country. Be it in a major city or a small village, I could sense that churches were focal points everywhere. Now, after spending four months in Florence, during which I attempted to familiarize myself with every aspect of its culture, I can say confidently that there is more than meets the eye. Catholicism is undoubtedly inextricably intertwined with Italian identity: every art museum I visited featured the Crucifixion in several facets, every city’s primary tourist attraction was a cathedral, and nearly every home or shop I visited displayed a cross in some capacity. The Catholic Church has withstood the test of time in Italy, but upon taking a closer look, it became evident to me that the religious identity of Italy is evolving drastically, and the path it is forging suggests an augmented level of secularity in a place I once thought would only accept Catholicism.
A class field trip to Vatican City for my course on the European Union revealed that the Vatican’s political relationship with Italy has diminished dramatically under Pope Francis, the first non-European pope. I personally visited the Tempio Maggiore, Florence’s grand synagogue, on several occasions. My Italy Today course unit on familial culture illustrated the declining effect that Italy’s aging population has on religious engagement, for it is a family’s elders that typically dictate a family’s level of religious involvement. I took part in many conversations with an Italian friend of mine and her family over dinners, several of which concerned faith, and, similar to what I uncovered back on Georgetown's campus, at the core of our discussions was interfaith understanding. “We are a melting pot of sorts, too,” my friend’s father, Dominico, explained to me one evening in Florence.
Throughout Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, many celebrations such as parades and neighborhood processions took place in Florence. I had witnessed the celebrations of Carnevale in February, so I felt somewhat prepared for what was to come in April. However, my expectations were far exceeded. People spent hours dancing in the streets, eating sweet treats, and singing along to songs that they all seemed to know every word to. To me, these moments were abundant with beauty and humanity. On Good Friday, I asked Dominco at his family’s neighborhood parade, “Are all of these people practicing Catholics?” to which he replied, “All that is for certain is that they are Florentines.” Regardless of their religious identity, Florentines of all backgrounds took pride in their city on that day, demonstrating a sense of togetherness that transcended a religious majority.
During my tenure in Italy, surprises and adjustments abounded. My meals were far lengthier (and in a very Tuscan fashion, the bread was unsalted), my sense of style was forcibly elevated beyond athleisure, and I found myself living a nearly completely different lifestyle than what I was accustomed to in the United States while reflecting each day on how Italy has imprinted itself on me. My experience participating in the Doyle Global Dialogue with the Berkley Center allowed me to reflect specifically with a religious lens, analyzing the unseen realities in Italian religious culture in which faith, specifically Catholicism, was only as prominent in everyday life as people allowed it to be, outshining all of my preconceived notions.