Catholic Miracles And Social Media From The Heart Of Calabria

Social media platforms like Facebook have turned new attention to the Italian region's long tradition of Catholic-themed mysteries and miracles.

Praying in front of the Madonna dello Scoglio in Calabira
Praying in front of the Madonna dello Scoglio in Calabira
Maurizio Di Fazio

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.

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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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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