Religion in Italy

A Christian country

Italy is a Christian country, some 88 per cent of the population belonging to the Roman Catholic church, although only around a third of these regard themselves as ‘active’ in religious terms.

The majority of the world’s religious and philosophical movements have churches or meeting places in the major cities and resort areas, including the Anglican and American churches.

Other religious groups in Italy include over 1m Muslims, 700,000 Eastern Orthodox Christians, 550,000 evangelical Protestants, 235,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 45,000 Jews, and the Waldensian Evangelical Church and other small groups such as Swiss-Protestant Baptists in Piedmont, plus a number of Eastern Orthodox Albanian communities in the Mezzogiorno. Although the right to freedom of worship is guaranteed under the Italian constitution, some extreme sects are prohibited.

Italy has a unique religious heritage and 2,000 years of Christianity has permeated every facet of Italian life. The Vatican City (covering 47ha/116 acres and with a population of around 900) was established in 1929 and is a self-contained sovereign state (the world’s smallest) within the city of Rome.

The Vatican

The Vatican is the home of the government of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Pope ( il Papa or Supreme Pontiff), the spiritual leader of the world’s Roman Catholics. As well as its own peacekeeping force, the Swiss Guard, the Vatican has its own post office, newspaper and radio and TV stations. It also mints coins (with the Pope’s face) and issues stamps.

The Catholic church enjoys considerable influence, partly by virtue of a historical tradition that has seen the Church of Rome as a constant in government and the organisation of public life. There have traditionally been close relations between the state and the Catholic Church, which remains at the centre of Italian society and political power.

However, a concordat signed in 1984 ended the church’s position as the state religion, abolished compulsory religious teaching in public schools and reduced state financial contributions to the church.

Every town or village has at least one Catholic church and, although only around a quarter of Italians regularly attend mass, over 95 per cent are baptised, saints’ days, first communions and religious festivals remain popular and the majority of Italians prefer to be married in church. Children usually take their first communion (when they become full members of the Catholic church) at the age of eight or nine, usually in April or May, which is an important date in their lives.

When visiting a house of worship in Italy, you should avoid wearing shorts, short skirts or skimpy tops, although you’re rarely refused entry or asked to leave (except at St. Peter’s in Rome, where women must cover their shoulders).

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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