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 Malaga, Spain: All the saints and those Limbo babies, too

Gothic altar in the Chapel of Santa Barbara in the Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de le Encarnacion in Malaga

Layers upon layers of of saints climb the numerous gilded altars found in the Malaga Cathedral. Saints carved in wood by Pedro de Mena (1628-1688) grace the choir stalls. Today is all of their days. November 1. All Saints Day, and, for Catholics, a Holy Day of Obligation.

When I was young, the thrill of a night of trick-or-treating with its late night sugar high always was followed the next day by attendance at Mass. Unlike many holidays, it was particularly hard to comprehend why almost none of my friends had to go to church on November 1.

My godmother, Aunt Gen (Genevieve Louise Brennan Savage, 1907-2004), tried her best to explain things, but the nuns really never talked to us much about saints. Like Santa Barbara, whose own father carried out her martyrdom for her belief in the Holy Trinity. Although he was struck by lightening and consumed by fire on his way home after the act.

But the major impact for me was November 2, All Souls’ Day. You might not know this, but there are all of these bazillions of poor souls stuck in Purgatory – not so evil that they were condemned to hell but instead hanging around in an uncomfortable state trying to slip through the gates to heaven. Our prayers were supposed to free some of them and send them soaring above the clouds.

Even more concerning for me was Limbo. Limbo was where the little babies throughout the world who died unbaptized were supposed to go. Through no fault of their own, they were sentenced to remain suspended, constantly fluttering their wings in some mysterious twilight zone.

Those little poor souls were the ones for whom I would join my hands, palms sweating in those uncomfortable white gloves, squeeze my eyes tightly together and plead. God took a while to process my prayers from almost 60 years ago. In 2007, the Catholic Church finally liberated them all, burying the whole Limbo concept.

Sorry for the detour. Back to Malaga and its Cathedral. After all it’s a Holy Day of Obligation.

The foundation for the Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de le Encarnacion was laid in 1530 atop the Almohad Mosque. Taking more than a century to complete, the church is viewed as a chronicle of the transition of religious Gothic architecture into the Renaissance. The facades reflect extensive Baroque updating.

In addition to photos taken in the Cathedral, this post includes images from the Parroquia de los Santos Martires Ciriaco y Paula. The two were executed, with great difficulty requiring several attempts, for their Christian beliefs at the dawn of the 4th century. While their executioners set their remains ablaze, an unexpected torrential rain quenched the flames and faithful carted them off for more respectful last rites. It is believed the two somehow resurfaced to miraculously help expel the Moors about a millennium later, so they were proclaimed the patron saints of Malaga.

My prayers have lapsed, but I trust there are a multitude of people inclined to remember as many saints as possible today. Tomorrow, please pray doubly hard, just in case any little babies somehow remained stuck in Limbo.