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Getting to Know You

I ran into an old friend this summer in Sarnano, a town in the region of La Marche in east-central Italy. I hadn’t expected to be in Sarnano in the first place, and I had expected even less to see him there.

Many Americans have never heard of Le Marche, and that would have included me had I not grown up in the parish of St. James of the Marches in Totowa in northern New Jersey.

Until I was about 15, the parish was known simply as “St. James,” and if I thought about it at all, I assumed that the namesake was one of the apostles – either the “lesser” or the “greater.”

But the parish dedicated a new church in 1958, and there emblazoned in stained glass was St. James of the Marches. Who knew?

So this summer some family and friends and I took a kind of “off the beaten track” trip to Italy, and we found ourselves in the town square in Sarnano. And who was standing in the center of the charming little park in the form of a rather battered statue but St. James himself.

It occurred to me while I was being photographed holding his hand that, even at this late date, he and I should be better acquainted.

So I looked him up and found that he was a 15th century Franciscan preacher and writer. He traveled widely in northern and eastern Europe and seems to have been influential. He promoted crusades against the Ottoman Empire, and he was often involved in suppressing heresies – a process that was frequently violent in that era.

In view of his defense of orthodoxy, it’s ironic that St. James himself was formally charged with heresy over a theological point – a case that was allowed to die undecided at the Vatican.

It’s hard to appreciate what life was like at the end of the Middle Ages for someone trying to live as a Catholic priest in Europe. There was constant, often violent, political turmoil that directly affected the church, and there were frequent outcroppings of heresy in various parts of the continent – often with kings and emperors choosing up sides. In addition, there was the perennial tension between Christian Europe and the Muslim Near East and North Africa.

Taken out of context, some of the methods the Church adopted under these circumstances may seem to us extreme. Still, as I worked on establishing a new bond with my old parish patron, I was most attracted to his role in a different kind of work.

St. James established in Italy several montes pietatis, a term that means “mountains of piety” – the “mountains” being made of money.

These were non-profit entities, early examples of organized charities, used by the Church and others, beginning around the time of St. James, to make low-interest loans to the poor. They were designed to counteract usury–the practice of lending money at very high costs.

The “mountain” of money was accumulated through both voluntary donations from wealthy citizens and from fines levied for certain offenses. The borrower would provide some possession as security – a process similar to pawning – and would redeem it when the loan had been paid off.

The montes pietatis lasted into the 20th century; in fact, I think one may still exist in Mexico.

In the midst of the turmoil that characterized life in Europe in the 15th century, the Church was still finding time to address an issue of social justice.

I’m glad my old friend from Totowa played a part in that ministry.

Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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One Response to “Getting to Know You”

  1. Marie Cooper says:

    This is a great story, and one that I’ll retell when teaching about social justice in the Church! Thanks for sharing – it was no coincidence that you visited Sarano!

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