July 30, 2007

Patrons and protectors

The Madonna del Terzito is a special figure for the inhabitants of Salina and her special day is July 23, complete with mass, fair, procession, band and fireworks. We were there, at her sanctuary in Valdichiesa, Salina for the celebration.

In 500 A.c., a Byzantine monk built an oratory on this site. A couple of hundred years later it was replaced by a temple that was consecrated by the Archbishop of Lipari just before one invasion after another washed through the islands leaving destruction in their wake (as often happened in Sicily in those days). But fate had it that on July 23, 1622, a young Shepard by the name of Alfonso Mercorella heard a mysterious bell ring three times and, enchanted by the sound, searched for its origin and instead found the ruins of an ancient temple.

Today it is a sanctuary dedicated to the Madonna del Terzito (Terzito for the three bell rings) and every year on July 23 there is a celebration to honor the town's patron saint. She wears a vest covered with jewelry donated by the local faithful and in her hand she holds a small bell. Her face is quite lovely as she pensively looks out over her followers.

"Oh yes", you are thinking, "these things take place all over rural Italy." True. But they are often performed more for the tourists than the locals. Our host, a retired bank director, has been vacationing on the island for nearly 30 years and adamantly confirms the population's true devotion to the Madonna del Terzito and the importance of this day. He even feels personally grateful to her after surviving a difficult run with cancer while his villa was being completed. In her honor, he named his new home "Il Terzitella" and never misses the annual procession.

So we followed along. The women, men and children were dressed up for the occasion. The band played. The strong local workmen lifted the figure high and carried her down the road and back up again. The mayor was there, the Archbishop from Lipari and all the local politicians and priests. All shops and activities were closed.

This island saw massive emigration in the late 1800s and again after WWI, mainly to Australia, and today there are celebrations to honor the Madonna del Terzito in Sydney and Melbourne. There is even a painting of her in a church in New Guinea brought over by a missionary. Wherever in the world they live, the people of Salina still ask her for protection and pay her homage in exchange.

The role of patrons and the need for protection from above is an integral part of Catholic culture, beginning with patron saints (also for individuals through their onomastico name) and continuing beyond its religious confines. Protectors and patrons, therefore, also play a role in politics, university and the workplace as Catholic culture reaches into all aspects of Italian life.

Is the insistent presence of university and hospital "baroni", the army of "raccomandati" and the indecipherable workings of Italian political parties a natural progression from the worship of patron saints?

a domani,

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