CATANZARO — A bare room, face masks and social distancing — it's still the year of COVID-19. On the table, a pack of hand gel is a pendant to the picture on the wall of Christ in a crown of thorns. About 60 people stand in the 100-square-meter room awaiting their turn, an LED Madonna watching over them. They are the lucky ones: Many weren't even able to come in. They line up outside, lulled by the sound of Marian songs.

We are in the suburbs of Catanzaro, in the southern Italian region of Calabria. The prayer group Holy Mary of Purification meets here every seven days. The group describes itself as "Calabrian mystic" on its website. "I founded it because Our Lady asked me to," says Caterina Bartolotta.

Holy Mary appears to her every Monday under the awestruck gaze of bystanders. The vision lasts three or four minutes: Bartolotta raises her eyes to the sky and enters a state of modified consciousness. She recovers without any trauma — she must have gotten used to this weekly ecstatic encounter. The appearance of the stigmata on her hands, though, has become rarer. Now they only return to her skin during Holy Week.

More than to pray, many have come to snatch a favor from the Virgin. On average, more than 150 questions pile up each afternoon. Bartolotta remembers them by heart: health, work, family problems. "Unfortunately, not everyone invokes the grace of the soul," she says. And not all graces can be granted: The prayer group founder doesn't forward requests that aren't purely immaterial to the Virgin.

Bartolotta is 57, of humble origins, and has been talking to the mother of Jesus for almost half a century. The first time was in the summer of 1973, when she was 10. "She looked like the statue adored in my village," she recalls.

From then on, Bartolotta became "the little girl who sees Our Lady." A year later, "like a nail that sticks into the flesh," she received the stigmata, which reappear constantly. "I live in poverty, but it doesn't matter," she says. "Renunciation must be made if heaven is to be achieved."

A blinding light

The Catholic Church is changing its attitude towards these mystic phenomena, often considered parallel cults that defy common sense. They are rooted in popular devotion and have been turbocharged in the age of social networks.

In southern Italy, their geographic epicenter, they provide social and civic leadership through charismatic figures in a difficult land. Superstition, syncretism of sacred, and pagan beliefs? Or the highest worldwide concentration of mysterious and innate Catholic energy geysers?

It's a question of removing the suggestive religious context from the event.

Take Brother Cosimo, for example, the Calabrian cleric nicknamed "the mystic of the rock." His popularity is soaring on Facebook, where devotion groups of up to 20,000 members have sprouted.

Now 70, he was forced to leave school at age 11. The Madonna appeared to him at sunset in May 1968. He was 18 at the time, on his way home from a day's work in the fields, when he was pierced by a dazzling light that was shining just over a particular boulder. Thus began his second life as a psychic and unintentional healer.

Brother Cosimo — Photo: Giuseppe Cavallo via Facebook

He says the supernatural presence told him: "Don't be afraid. I come from heaven. I am the Immaculate Virgin. I came to ask you to build a chapel here in my honor. I have chosen this place: Here I want to establish my abode, and I want people to come and pray there from every country."

Promise kept: From all over the world, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flock incessantly to the boulder, now equipped as a prayer reserve. He also built a sanctuary nearby, just outside Reggio Calabria, a part of Italy scarred by earthquakes, floods and criminal organizations — which he fights by opening up the sanctuary to pilgrims. Every week, he receives some 200 of them, privately and by appointment only, in the Calabrian Lourdes. Each is allowed just one question. Places are limited in normal times, let alone during a pandemic.

The best-known case is that of Rita Tassone, who is well known locally because she is one of the most active volunteers. Decades ago, she was wheelchair-bound and dying from a degenerative tumor. She was even given last rites. But as a last resort, her husband and children took her to the rock. It was Aug. 13, 1988.

"Brother Cosimo said, 'At this moment it is not I who speak to you but Jesus, repeating to you the same words he hissed at the paralytic in Galilee: Get up and walk!'" And Rita got up, walked for the first time in 13 years, and was healed. "But he never boasts of these qualities, he speaks only of God, his wonders and his mercy," says Francesco Oliva, a local. "He's an example of the Christian life."

The Promised Land

Natuzza Evolo, who died 11 years ago, was also from Calabria, and also became famous for the divine signs appearing on her skin, as well as her supposed ability to be in two places at the same time. A monumental, panoramic church was built in her honor in her hometown near Vibo Valentia, mostly with donations to the foundation "Immaculate Heart of Mary, Refuge Of Sinners."

After the first supernatural acts, 80 years ago, Evolo was locked up in an asylum with a diagnosis of "hysterical syndrome." Now, she's close to achieving holiness after Pope Francis has started her beatification process. She was illiterate and received the stigmata as a child. Some claim she could talk to the dead and predict diseases, and that she performed innumerable miracles. The Vatican seems to have changed its approach towards her — though many secular people haven't.

"It's a question of removing the suggestive religious context from the event. It doesn't allow rational reading since it cloaks it in mythology and unprovable hypotheses," says the Italian Committee for the Checking of Pseudoscientific Claims, or CICAP.

The group believes the so-called stigmata cases are really examples of Gardner-Diamond syndrome, "a skin condition that, although rare, is well documented in medical literature." The syndrome gives rise to a series of periodic, painful and bleeding bruises of unclear origin, combined with psychiatric disorders such as self-harm.

If something is not done for this land, more and more cripples and criminals will be born.

Another famous case is that of Irene Gaeta, who is believed to have been the spiritual daughter of one of the most revered mystic preachers in Italy, Padre Pio. Now 83, Gaeta has been communicating with him since the postwar period.

"I've lived on his lap since I was 9 years old. He appeared to me one evening in my bedroom and said, 'I know everything about you because the Eternal Father has entrusted you into my hands from the womb. I will always save you. One day you will know me.' Only years later, from a newspaper photo, did I understand that he was alive and not from heaven."

The two met in 1960 and never left each other until the death of the future saint in 1968.

Gaeta founded the "Disciples of Padre Pio" community, which she is also moving to Calabria. There, in the municipality of Drapia, an immense citadel consecrated to Padre Pio has already taken shape.

"It was he who ordered me: 'You must build a sanctuary, a pediatric cancer hospital, a research center and a village for the suffering. If something is not done for this land, more and more cripples and criminals will be born,'" she says.

Readily done — with the contribution of the crowds and the friar's devotees. "We will open soon," says Gaeta. "It will be a great economic and employment opportunity for this region."

In one of his latest appearances, Padre Pio told her: "Calabria is a star that shines in the constellation of the universe. This is the promised land." And if he says so ...

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