March 3, 2021

Critics of Italian Austerity Plan Find Rallying Point

MILAN — In the persistently quarrelsome climate that marks Italian politics, bipartisan agreement tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Unless, it turns out, a city’s patron saint is concerned.

This week, Milan’s council members are set to present a bipartisan motion demanding that the government redact those measures included in the €54 billion austerity package being discussed in Parliament that cancel municipal holidays linked to patron saints. Local lawmakers aim to save the celebration — and citywide holiday — on Dec. 7 of Milan’s revered 4th-century bishop, St. Ambrose.

It’s more than just a civic holiday, “it’s a question of historical roots. St. Ambrose is a reflection of the city of Milan, of its autonomous history vis-à-vis the Roman church,” said Carmela Rozza, the leader of the municipal Democratic Party group.

Today, it is a secular, as much as a religious, celebration. La Scala Opera Theater, for example, schedules its much-vaunted season premiere to coincide with St. Ambrose. “It’s a very important day for the city,” Ms. Rozza said, adding that the city benefited economically as well. Stores remain open during what is essentially the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.

The cancellation of patron saint holidays was one of several austerity measures drafted by the Italian government this summer to appease skittish markets and the European Central Bank after it demanded greater fiscal responsibility in balancing the country’s budget. In the draft of the package that was approved by the Senate last week, all patron saint holidays — save for June 29th, the day commemorating saints Peter and Paul, the patrons of Rome — would be celebrated on the closest Sunday.

The intent is to increase productivity by reducing opportunities for long weekends, which can often last four or five days, depending on which weekday the festivity falls.

An early draft of the austerity package had also canceled nonreligious holidays, like April 25, which marks Italy’s liberation by Allied troops in World War II, or May 1st, International Workers’ Day, but these were reintroduced after widespread protests.

That concession — one of many on other fronts — underscores the repeated difficulties the government has faced in drafting its austerity budget. Internal squabbling and external pressures had a significant impact on various measures in the package.

During a telephone call to a television program Monday, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi defended his austerity package and said he had “performed a miracle” by presenting the package just four days after the European Central Bank had called on Italy to pass stricter measures than those it adopted this summer.

On Tuesday, Mr. Berlusconi is scheduled to meet with the E.U. president, Herman Van Rompuy, and the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, to discuss the package. The trip, he said, was necessary so Italy could “reassure our counterparts in Europe” on his majority’s commitment to passing the measures.

He said the lower house would give its approval to the plan this week, probably by Wednesday, and he ruled out that changes would be made to the draft under discussion. He is likely to call a confidence vote, as he did in the Senate.

But that is unlikely to quell local protests over the festivities.

“With all due respect to the government and its decisions, I am a bit perplexed,” said Bishop Erminio De Scalzi, the abbot of the Basilica of St. Ambrose, who noted that the government had made a unilateral decision without consulting the city, the church, “or taking our historical identity into account.”

He conceded that Italy was in a “sad period economically,” but he added, “I don’t think you’re going to resolve the problem by canceling a patron saint.” In Milan, the festivities for St. Ambrose “bring tourism,” he said.

The Milanese are not alone in their anger. Protests against the cancelation of the saint day have been heard in several cities, most notably Naples, where the patron saint — San Gennaro, or St. Januarius — is passionately revered. For hundreds of years, Neapolitans have placed great store in a miracle — the liquefaction of the substance that the faithful believe to be the saint’s blood — which takes place three times a year, in December, May and on Sept. 19, coinciding with his feast day.

“I can’t say: “San Genna’ do the miracle on Sunday,” because it is an event that coincides with his feast day, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the archbishop of Naples, told the news agency Ansa.

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