A holy mess: the ongoing sacred soap opera of Radio Maria in Sicily

In southern Sicily you often hear Maria in the background in shops, like an ongoing soap opera: the live Mass from Medjugorje, where there have been apparitions of the Madonna since 1981, or the replaying of news from Radio Vaticana.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Catania Airport, and all flights out of Sicily are cancelled during a traffic control strike. Three elderly nuns stand close together as the crowds mill confusedly and pizzas the size of hubcaps are shared from the airport café in a mozzarella version of the loaves and the fishes. The mood is less furious than you might imagine. Strikes are common here, trade unions rather difficult to please. Sicilians are fairly accepting of bad news. In a country where, according to one report, 15 regions out of 20 are under investigation for misappropriation of public funds, and more than 500 regional councillors are being investigated or have been legally condemned as corrupt or criminal, there is an all-time low faith in authority. Once, struck by their general seriousness in contrast to the fulsome Neapolitans, I asked my friend Luca if he thought his fellow Sicilians were pessimistic. No, he said, not pessimistic, “but our wisdom lies in expecting the worst”.

By the look of the nuns in their burdensome white habits, they come from a closed order, and after an hour one of the sisters begins to sway and cry. Almost immediately she is swept from the building and into a stationary taxi outside to gather her thoughts. The driver switches on the Catholic station Radio Maria as a balm, leaving the door of the car open so everyone sitting on the pavement can hear. In southern Sicily you often hear Maria in the background in shops, like an ongoing soap opera: the live Mass from Medjugorje, where there have been apparitions of the Madonna since 1981, or the replaying of news from Radio Vaticana. Today, a catechism programme called An Inquiry Regarding Angels.

For a while we listen. Then the driver switches to Radio Tre, giving a languorous biography of Vivaldi, and then to a station playing nothing but ballads old and new, wholly dedicated to romantic frustration. Nicola Di Bari’s “La prima cosa bella”. Another in the antique style of “Ammore busciardo” (“Love the Traitor ”). Each mournful refrain sounds similar, and the strike continues into the airless afternoon. “What’s this one about?” I ask, as Pino Daniele launches into something staggeringly complex, crescendo upon crescendo, his voice gorgeously quailing then as appalled as a dropped nose rag. “Brawls,” shrugs Luca. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown