Good to see that John Allen is back. His report on the deathbed friendship between a bishop and a famous and feisty atheist — Oriana Fallaci, no less — is moving and, in that almost throwaway manner I have come to expect from him, revelatory. (The notion, new to me, of "Christian atheists," is used as mere introduction!)
Their improbable friendship illustrates an important current percolating in contemporary Western culture, a budding détente between institutional Christianity and some of its sharpest Enlightenment-inspired critics, motivated by a deep sense of shared peril.
The heart of the story, however, lies in Bishop Rino Fisichella’s recollection of Fallaci’s dying days.
Fallaci returned to Italy in her final days because, she said, she didn’t want to die in exile. She asked Fisichella to help arrange a room for her in Florence where she could look out at the famous dome of Brunelleschi atop the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. She also requested a CD with the sound of church bells to play softly in the background.
It was Fallaci’s desire, Fisichella said, that on the day of her funeral, the bells of the cathedral would ring out. It wasn’t easy to arrange, Fisichella said. Though he didn’t elaborate, it’s well known that some Catholics objected to bestowing such an honor upon a professed atheist, while others argued that it would be seen as an endorsement of her stridently anti-Islamic views. Nonetheless, Fisichella said, he managed to pull it off.
PS. I started when I read that bit about the church bells; it is a sound I, too, can listen to, and for hours on end.