Your Own Personal Jesus-Lite

Elizabeth Harper — writer, photographer, historian, lover of Catholic death rituals — traveled to the tiny town of Bonito, Italy, just outside Naples, to visit Zio Vincenzo. Long-lost relative? No, mummified corpse of a nameless Neapolitan, trapped in Purgatory and venerated by locals for his ability to grant miracles. If the patron saint of your particular issue is ignoring you, try a soul with a little more time on its hands — the how-to is in her Lapham’s Quarterly piece:

When a saint doesn’t respond at first, the petitioner may assume the saint is too busy. In that case, one option is to threaten the saint with replacement. (The citizens of Naples tried this in 1799 when they threw the bust of their formerly beloved patron, Saint Gennaro, into the sea after his dried blood miraculously liquefied in the presence of a French general and seemed to consent to the occupation of Naples. The citizens briefly replaced him with Saint Anthony, who proved ineffective against a volcanic eruption and was fired as well.) But if that doesn’t work, there’s another option that’s even more extraordinary. The petitioner may set her sights a little lower and direct her prayers to a soul in purgatory—a place where flawed souls on their way to heaven are purified in fire. The hope is that since the souls of these regular people are more plentiful and receive less attention than the saints, they will be happy to hear any prayer directed their way. They may respond even faster and be more likely to grant favors if the living also pray for a little refrisco for them—a temporary relief from the flames of purgatory that is supposed to feel like a cold drink on a hot day. It’s a perfectly logical solution: when the demand for Catholic souls in the afterlife is too high for heaven to accommodate, add to the supply by including souls in purgatory.

(If you’re thinking, “Ugh, there’s so much going on in the world, why do I need to spend ten minutes reading about a long-dead Italian,” I offer two responses: one, because it’s fascinating, and two, because Harper’s writing is full of lines like this: “Traffic lights dot the streets of Naples like rhinestones. I’m not being romantic—I mean they’re shiny and worthless.”)

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