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March 19, 2009
On the road back to Florence from Bologna, in the rain. We tunnel right through mountains, tall and dark in the the dark night, but even the Autostrade must wind a bit around some of these, and we swing to the right and to the left, right, left, big swoops reminding me that that centrifugal force is real. I cannot drive as fast as Italians drive, which makes me a menace on the road. So I stay soberly as far to the right as I can get.

I hardly ever drive here. It's usually not necessary. It may not have been necessary this time, either, but I had six people with me and it seemed at the time to represent a savings. But now, as the windshield wipers struggle to keep up, I wish we had taken the train.

My favorite radio station in Florence is having trouble getting through up here in the mountains. I push the scan button to see if something else will come in. Nothing. But suddenly, the static clears and there is the Schubert Ave Maria, quiet and simple: a soprano acompanied by a harp.

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis pecatoribus nunc et in hora mostris nostrae.

I do not place the voice; it is not a singer I know. It doesn't matter; it quiets and strengthens me. I drive through the pouring rain in the dark, hearing an angel tell me that I am not alone. No matter what happens.

Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.

What isI this? I ask myself in a few minutes, though, after two more Schubert Ave Marias have passed and Luciana Pavarotti begins a third. As we near the hills around Florence, a woman begins to speak. She says half the Ave Maria, and then a voice on a telephone line says the other half. Well, I'll be -- it's an Ave Maria call-in show. People call in from all over Italy: Marco from Pistoia, Dino from Poggibonzi, Francesca from Palermo. They introduce themselves to the hostess and then the two of them begin, gently back and forth, the familiar words crackling over the telephone line and out into radioland. When they finished, another caller gets a turn, just as would happen if they were saying the rosary together in person. This goes on for miles and miles. Sound silly? It is not.

This is Radio Maria. It turns out that it is in many countries, and its purpose is to broadcast Mary to the world. It turns out that what Mary wants of her radio audience what she usually wants of the people she encounters: they should be faithful to her son, they should say the rosary. Right now she exhorts her listeners to a faithful Lent, and suggests they visit Medjugorje. Don't forget what the church has for you to lean on, and don't forget that you can lean on it.

Do you know Radio Maria? I ask Sandro. I ask him about a lot of things around here. He has lived in Florence all his life, he and his forebears since forever. I found it on the radio.

Radio Maria?
he says with a little smile. Oh, sure.

It's very sweet. Such lovely music, and the rosary back and forth -- people call in, you know. Who listens to it, do you think? Mostly older people, do you think?

Well, yeah,
he says again. People in Florence were hungry when he was little. People were hungry all over Italy. There were soldiers everywhere. Bombs fell in the countryside.

Religion is a crutch, people who scorn it say derisively, as if they had discovered something astonishing. Strong people don't need it. Oh, yes, it's a crutch sometimes, no doubt about that. Faith is a crutch when a crutch is what you need, None of us get through this life never needing one, no matter how strong we may be.

Would you like to hear Luciano sing the Schubert? You can see him, too and, although his voice is lovely as ever, you can see that he not well. Oh, Lucianno! O poverino! Ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.
Want to listen to Radio Maria? It's not all Schubert, by the way; I recently tuned in and there was Mahalia Jackson, singing Where You There? Visit
And you can listen to my favorite radio station in Tuscany (besides Radio Maria). Visit
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