Postcard from Naples, Italy: Praying to free poor souls from purgatory

Lucia (viewed through a protective mesh screen) is the most loved soul. The skull with the bridal veil, adorned with a precious crown, is kept next to a pair of skulls that, in the popular imagination, represent the servants of the young girl, a young princess who died very young immediately after the wedding. To this soul the popular tradition has dedicated a small altar electing her as protector of the brides and mediator for prayers and invocations.

from the website of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco

What happens to an unfortunate Catholic soul who was good his or her entire life save some technicality, such as not being able to utter that last confession or receive the final last rite of extreme unction from a priest? Or who was left with an accumulation of unconfessed venial sins, such as losing patience, blurting out abusive language or hating one’s neighbor enough to wish evil upon him?

There is a spot for those departed, but if falls a short of heaven. Purgatory.

Purgatory, sometimes described as a purifying fire, need only be temporary – provided those on earth pray for them. In Naples, there are those faithful who devote themselves with fervor to freeing souls for their flights up to heaven.

Some refer to those practitioners as members of a cult of the dead. Results of their assistance in caring for the skulls of those who died lacking requisite sacraments regarded as keys to heaven were seen in an earlier post about Cimetero delle Fontanelle.

But Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco is not as remote as that cavernous home for skulls. Built in 1638, the church is in the heart of Naples. The church dedicated to the faithful praying for those in purgatory is a handsome one, but the hypogeum, an underground church with crypts, garners the attention of followers of the cult of pezzentelle, or souls in purgatory.

The ancient cult of the Purgatory Souls, guarded for centuries in the underground of the 17th-century Church of Santa Maria of the souls of Purgatory in Arco, arose spontaneously, at the beginning of 1600, when the new counter-reformation church proposed the care of the souls of the dead as one of the principal religious practices to establish, through prayers and masses in suffrage, a liturgical link between the living and the dead…. The living, as a means to atone for earthly sins, were concerned with fostering the ascent of souls to Paradise and assuring them of the coolness of the flames of Purgatory during the period of tribulation….

The relationship is established through the adoption of a skull, which according to tradition is the seat of the soul, which is chosen, cared for, looked after and hosted in special niches. The pezzentella soul (from the Latin petere: asking to obtain), anonymous or abandoned soul, invokes the refrisco, the alleviation of the sentence; and the person who adopted it, the person in life, asks for grace and assistance….

The grates that connect the street and underground enable voices, the cries, the prayers to reach at any time the skull, which enjoys the protection. A thought, a flower, a lit candle, support the hard fight for Paradise the souls of Purgatory generously welcome in the vast Underground of the church.

from the website of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco

While the Catholic church unsuccessfully has tried to extinguish the practices of the cult-like faithful, it seems reassuring that, if purgatory exists, there are people out there working to free the unfortunate souls trapped in its flames.

So many things those nuns never taught me…. Many of Roman Catholicism’s more interesting quirks never made it across the ocean to little Star of the Sea Church in Virginia Beach.

Postcard from Naples, Italy: Skulls of lost souls up for adoption

Quando finisce la partita il re ed il pedone finiscono nella stessa scatola.

The English translation would be: When you finish the game, the king and pawn end up in the same box. In other words: we all meet the same end.

“Best Italian Proverbs,” Rome, Food, Travel

There appears no shortage of ancient Catholic churches in Naples. Yet even by the 16th century, their walls, floors and underground catacombs were oversubscribed by the faithful demanding interment inside. Something needed to give.

Clever undertakers found a solution. They began digging up older remains, the ones of souls long forgotten, to free up space for the newcomers. The ancient bones were carted away discreetly to shallow graves in an enormous system of caves – natural caverns extended by ancient Greek and Roman tunnels and quarries for building materials for the city.

Then came the plague of 1656, decimating the population. The spiraling number of corpses led to their mass disposal atop the existing shallow graves in the caves.

The anonymous pile might have been forgotten were it not for an end-of-the-century flood washing all the bones out and depositing them helter-skelter on the streets below. The bones were returned to the cave, which then was deemed a more official location for disposing of deceased paupers.

An 1837 cholera epidemic swelled the number of residents unceremoniously dumped together in disorderly fashion. The charnel house became known as the Cemetery of the Fountains – Cimitero delle Fontanelle.

In 1872, a priest took pity upon all of the remains of the departed, many tossed inside without receiving their last rites. He had them sorted and arranged in a more orderly fashion, which attracted renewed interest among compassionate Catholics.

A cult arose, as people began to lovingly adopt skulls – capuchelle – of the abandoned souls – pezzentelle – in return for protection. They assigned the unknown names that appeared to them in dreams. They cleaned them, brought them small tokens of their affection, and kept them company.

Then, in 1969, the Archbishop of Naples decreed the practice fetishism and closed the entire ossuary to visitors. The deprivation of visitation rights to ancient adopted kin proved unpopular.

The cemetery was restored in early 2000 but was only unlocked for visitation a couple of times a year. Following protests including an overnight occupation, the cavernous space was reopened on a daily basis in 2010.

Only spotted one caregiver inside. She dashed down the entire length, her boyfriend lagging a ways behind. She stopped mid-right in the last chapel. Obviously, she only had eyes for but one skull amongst the abundance. She stooped to present something to her capuchelle, murmured a word or two, and then dashed back out as quickly as she entered. Her fidanzato rushed to keep up.

As you wander in the dimly lit chambers with bare rock walls and soaring ceilings, the space feels as hallowed as that of any ornately gilded church nave. The named capuchelle do indeed began to assume personalities of a sort, indicating that no two skulls are alike. They all are individuals; each with a story.

As in Mexican cemeteries on the first days of November, by the time you leave, keeping company with the dead no longer appears as bizarre. Eerie, yet somehow soothing.

And there are 30,000, 40,000, maybe even 50,000 more skulls stacked up, waiting for adoption.