Attending the Rimini Meeting, the 32nd edition of which is currently underway in Italy as I write this post, one is faced with a strange incongruity of phenomena: dense academic lectures and panel discussions featuring prominent scientists, historians, artists, theologians, and philosophers (of Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and non-religious backgrounds); discussions among regional as well as international political figures from across the political spectrum; exhibition-style displays on personalities such as Solzhenitsyn or Pasternak, or on cosmological theories; product displays of cars and trains by private and state-run corporations; kiosks of local merchants selling oils, wines, liquors, and foodstuffs; restaurants ranging from fast food stands to the unaffordable; sporting events such as bicycle races and indoor soccer and basketball; performances by renowned concert pianists and opera singers and ballet troupes and local folk-rock groups; film festivals; and still more.

What supposedly unites these things, which seem to have little to do with one another, is the yearly theme of the Meeting. Here the focus and meaning seem—at least to me—clearly religious, and specifically Christian. Take, for instance, this year’s theme, which is titled: “And existence becomes an immense certainty.” The meaning of this title, like every year, is explained in a long descriptive statement. These excerpts should summarize this year’s theme:

. . . The perception that “our powerlessness is incurable,” wrote the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, “makes us feel an even more dreadful and devastating uncertainty than in the past.” The whole game of existence is played here, in the certainty or uncertainty regarding the reason why each one of us is in this world.

The Meeting will try to accept this challenge of our times, reopening a game that many had already declared over. And, according to its style, it will do it not in virtue of a more shrewd cultural and political analysis, but starting from the experience in progress of people who are not satisfied with a concept of their own existence as destined to nothingness . . . .

The certainty we are looking for is not an ideology, nor a strategy, nor a psychological persuasion, but it is the certainty that makes us recognize what we already “are.” Not so much that the things will be fine as we expect them, but that we ourselves are in relationship with the one Who makes us continuously.

So on one hand we have what looks like a smorgasbord of cultural phenomena that one might attend to in the same manner that one flips through television channels. On the other hand there is this existential gravity of ultimate questions that all these events are supposed to provoke, and not without an attempt at an answer—the Christian answer in particular.

At the event, various talks and displays attempt to link to the theme, but just as at any academic conference, the connection isn’t always clear. Indeed, the event seems to be set up so that someone who is oblivious to the theme, or even “religiously unmusical,” as Max Weber described himself, could still find something worthwhile.

But how do we make sense of this phenomenon? Is this a “religious” event? What are the people who run this event attempting to do here? A couple of years ago, after hearing about it from some visiting students from Italy at my university who were volunteers there, I decided to attend the event and find out.

The Meeting is run almost entirely by unpaid volunteers. Everything from the physical construction and take-down of the arena, to its cleaning staff, to the various literary, scientific and artistic exhibits, to food services, is the prerogative of around 4,000 unpaid volunteers who give up their vacation time and pay money (covering their own travel and lodging costs) to work at this event.

I interviewed nearly 100 of these volunteers, including university students, factory workers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, housewives, and retirees. Among the questions I asked them was whether they would consider the Meeting a “religious” event. Nearly half of them immediately replied “no.” A handful replied “yes” right away, and the rest couched their replies with “it depends.” But regardless of the initial answer, they all offered very much the same explanation.

Most of these respondents even phrased their answers identically. They called it “un evento umano” (a human event). One respondent, for example, a woman in her 40s from Rimini who had been volunteering regularly with some of her friends, said, “No. It is a human event. A place of humanity, of encounters. Not religious, no.”

Another respondent, a university researcher from Milan in his late-20s, said similarly, “I would call it a human event rather than a religious event.” The word “religious,” he went on to explain, sounds “too reductive” nowadays. When asked about his own religious beliefs, though, he went on to say how “you cannot have a faith without a cultural expression and judgment on the world. It has to do with life, a regard on all of life—politics, sport, everything we live—it encompasses all of life.” He felt that the word “religious” had come to imply a separate sphere of life fragmented from the rest, and he wanted to refrain from using this word to describe the event lest it be misunderstood.

Another older respondent, who had been volunteering at the event for over 20 years, said, “No. It’s a social event… a cultural event, a social event, an event of friendship.” When asked why he volunteered at this event, he said, “The Meeting was born to make visible the Christian faith … I participate [in it], helping to make visible my Christian faith and that of my friends.” On the other hand, another respondent, a young postdoctoral researcher, answered: “Yes, [it is a religious event] because it talks about the human being’s relationship with God….The Meeting is a witness, the witness of a people…. In this way it is a religious act, an expression of religion.” The reasons are essentially the same.

Several respondents preceded their response with a qualification; they admitted that the event could be considered religious in a certain sense, but also wanted to distance themselves of certain understandings of “religious.” For example, in the words of one respondent, a male political science student:

Depends on what you mean by religion. Often, in television, you see “religious events” such as the GMG [World Youth Day]. [The Meeting] is very different. If by religious you mean a person who has the whole world as their horizon, then yes. It is not something “clerical,” do you understand? Okay, even if there are bishops, priests, missionaries, it is not that we talk about the mystery of the Trinity. Okay, even if they speak about this, it is more often that they talk about their experience in Africa. Or about relativism, which is something cultural. So for me personally I would consider it religious, but to a point. It depends on what you mean by the word. If you mean by it sacraments and spiritual exercises, then no. See, during the Meeting there is no daily Mass. Okay, there is Mass on the first Sunday, but that’s it.

Fancy footwork. Clearly there is the desire to insist that the event is more than just a “religious event,” and to even dissociate it from such conceptions. These volunteers want to insist that the event is much broader and that even non-religious people could appreciate it. One female volunteer—an undergraduate philosophy student—said that the meeting was religiously inspired, as was her own commitment to it, but it was also “much more vast” than the word religious suggested:

For example, at the bookstore, there is a big philosophy section, which is absolutely outside of religious concerns… We find books on Nietzsche for example. There is a wide range of interest. It is interesting to see a religious phenomenon which integrates these things, where you can find… atheist authors.

Branding the event as religious is problematic for these volunteers because they feel the conventional understanding of religiosity too “narrow” and fragmented. The Meeting, on the other hand, aims at universalism—to foster friendship among diverse peoples. They insist that it is “for everyone,” which for them includes such seemingly-opposed categories as Italians and non-Italians, Israelis and Palestinians, Catholics and Communists, atheists and believers. Yet this possibility of friendship and harmony, for many of these volunteers, is a sign of “the presence of Christ.”

So here we have this peculiar event, which has now been appropriated in Egypt, where it is being promoted by prominent personalities in secular institutions and the Muslim Brotherhood alike. None of our dominant assumptions about the relationship between religion and modernity, which I mentioned in part 1, seem to help us make good sense of this.

(Concluded in part 3)