Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Il Miracolo é fatto!

The new Archbishop of Naples, Cardinal Sepe, presided over his first Feast of St Januarius (San Gennaro) today, with the famous liquefaction of the martyr's blood, which is then venerated in the Cathedral throughout the day.

The fourth century bishop has long been a patron of Naples but it was only in the seventeenth century that he became the chief patron following an eruption of Vesuvius in 1631 (the most serious eruption since the one that famously destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD). As the lava flowed towards the city, the saint's head and blood were taken in procession to the Porta Capuana. The Archbishop made the sign of the cross with the holy phial and the 'proud clouds of burning matter' began to dissipate and change direction, thus saving Naples.

Since then the miracle of San Gennaro has been the great Neapolitan festa and its failure has been a feared portent of evil (eg 1939 - foretelling the advent of war).

I'm currently reading Tommaso Astarita's superb Between Salt Water and Holy Water: A History of Southern Italy (2005). A passage at the end of the chapter on religion in the early modern period provides a (secular) apologia for today's celebrations and points towards the 'Eternal Baroque.'
It is easy, from a modern perspective, to find much of Baroque Catholicism in the Italian South somewhat entertaining in what to us may appear as its wackiness. But the seventeenth century witnessed a lot of religious strangeness across the Christian world. Members of many sects spoke in tongues - and Quakers quaked - in England; in Scandinavia, Germany, England, and Massachusetts - much more aggressively than anywhere in Spain or Italy - thousands of alleged witches were tortured and burnt at the stake by secular and clerical authorities; educqated elites, and masses of the uneducated, had no problem believing that their neighbours flew at night to attend gatherings where they worshipped and copulated with the devil. The severe political instability, religious conflict, continuous warfare, famines, and economic crisis of the age may help explain these behaviours and beliefs.

In that context, the religious practices of the southern Italians may still appear excessive and somewhat primitive, but they also seem comparatively harmless, especially in terms of the numbers of victims of religious persecution. The practical help that so many southerners sought in their religious and ritual life appears the wiser course when confronted with what some contemporaries were doing. In the following century, during the Enlightenment, northern Europeans - in the name of rationalism - liked to scoff at southerners' approach to religion. Today, when church pews are often empty across Europe, but Pope John Paul II has declared more saints than his predecessors over the previous five centuries combined, six million pilgrims a year seek divine aid at Lourdes, and millions more visit other miraculous sanctuaries and shrines, the southern Baroque approach looks prescient.

Amen to that!

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