By NICOLE WINFIELD
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 2:48 PM
ROME -- Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday marked Italy's 150th birthday by praising the role Christianity played in forging its national identity - even though Italy's unification spelled the end of the papal states.
Benedict issued a conciliatory message to all Italians, making clear that while there were conflicts in the past between the Catholic Church and Italian state, the two now shared a "precious collaboration" for which the Holy See was grateful.
And he highlighted the role Catholic thinkers, artists and writers played in forging the new country, even though Catholics until 1905 were forbidden by the pope, under pain of excommunication, to hold public office or vote in national elections.
"Christianity has contributed in a fundamental way to building an Italian identity through the work of the church," Benedict wrote, citing in particular such church-commissioned artists as Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Bernini.
The pope's No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, hand delivered the message to President Giorgio Napolitano at the presidential Quirinale palace, a papal residence that was lost to the new Italian kingdom, along with papal states, following Italy's 1861 unification.
Italy marks the 150th anniversary Thursday with a series of formal events: Napolitano and Premier Silvio Berlusconi visit a monument to Italy's unity and then one honoring Giuseppe Garibaldi, a hero of the Risorgimento, the period leading up to unification that was marked by political and cultural nationalism. Starting Wednesday night, Italians were being treated to a series of free concerts and cultural events.
Thursday itself marks the day in 1861 when Victor Emmanuel II became the first king of a united Italy; previously the peninsula had been divided into kingdoms, city-states and the papal states which covered much of the peninsula's center and represented the pope's temporal rule.
Nine years after unification, troops loyal to the king captured Rome, setting the stage for decades of church-state tensions with a succession of popes declaring themselves "prisoners in the Vatican" because they refused to accept the king's authority over the city.
Benedict referred to the tensions, known as the Roman Question, in his message Wednesday, insisting it created conflicts between institutions but not among Italians, even though they were torn between allegiance to the pope and their newborn state.
"The Italian national identity, so strongly rooted in Catholic traditions, was in truth the most solid base for the conquest of political unity," Benedict wrote. He argued that even though Italian Catholics were barred from much of political life, they contributed in other aspects including education, health care and economic growth.
"No conflicts occurred within society, where there was a profound friendship between civil and church communities," he said.
Citing previous popes, he said unification actually helped the church obtain heights of spiritual governance that it never had before.
It wasn't until 1929 that the Roman Question was settled with the Lateran Treaty, in which Italy recognized Vatican City as an independent and sovereign state, among other things.
The 150th birthday has been met with relative indifference among ordinary Italians.
The autonomy-minded Northern League party, a key ally in Berlusconi's government, has been lukewarm at best and the head of the predominantly German-speaking South Tyrol region isn't participating, noting that the Alpine area was stripped from Austria at the end of World War I.
Marco Pizzo, director of the Risorgimento Museum in Rome, nevertheless said unification was something all Italians participated in and should celebrate.
"The Risorgimento is often read as if it were a popular or bourgeois revolution that concerned only the Italian aristocracy," he said Tuesday. "My reading of it is that it was a popular revolution, popular because it was about the hopes of the people toward a new social and institutional reality."