For many years I’ve worn on my wrist a bracelet of red roses with a charm of Santa Rosalia. I purchased the first one years ago when I visited the sanctuary for La Santuzza on the top of Mount Pellegrino. I’ve replaced it a couple of times with the same €2 souvenir purchased at the cathedral in Palermo. Knowing the 1624 story of the saint and the hunter and the plague well, the significance of my wearing this bracelet hasn’t been about that plague of the 17th century.
Rosalia lived in the early 12th century. She became a saint because of her devotion to Jesus during a period when the Normans were tasked with finally cleaning the island of (yes, still) pagan devotion and traditions. It was also a period when Sicily was home to many cultures mixing: Norman French (i.e., Latin Catholic), Arab (different secs of Islam), Jewish, Byzantine (i.e, Greek Orthodox), and more. In other words–there was a change happening politically and religiously, the multicultural society was confusing (Sound familiar?). The daughter of a Norman nobleman, Rosalia set an example to other young women when she renounced her family’s wealth and devoted herself to the Catholic church, becoming a hermit (basically a nun). Her pious life was exemplary.
I have a theory that in the 17th century during the plague that was ravaging Palermo, creating the story of the hunter’s vision and this virginal saint’s bones curing a city in crisis was a way to unify the people. At the time, Palermo had four different patrons. Just imagine the disagreements in the streets as to whose divinity would be more suited to save its citizens! (i.e., It was another period of political and religious conflict during a widespread emergency.) The Church did a strategic thing by picking another saint all together and unifying everyone behind her and her clear instructions of how to overcome the health crisis.
Fast forward to today. I’ve been wearing my bracelet as a sign against the plague of the mafia. In my mind, the concept of Rosalia fighting a plague has more to do with the spirit of Sicilians fighting corruption and a diseased society. Like a tattoo, my bracelet has been a statement — an anti-mafia statement. An anti-corruption statement. That brings me to today, July 15, 2020. Palermo will process Rosalia’s relics (bones, which were in recent years analyzed to be goat’s bones (Sorry!)) through the city as they have done for nearly four centuries. This year, cittadini of Palermo will do so with even more solemnity and grace (and at a distance) because of COVID-19. That is certainly appropriate. I, however, will observe this day asking La Santuzza, not only for help curing the novel coronavirus, but more so for help curing the political, economic, and cultural divide that more significantly plagues us here in the United States. Because truly, if we could unify behind one clear, pure-of-heart vision, together we could overcome the disease of mass corruption in our political system that is eating away at us. Curing COVID-19 would be a beneficial side-effect.
Viva Santa Rosalia! Viva!