For those who are not born and brought up in the traditions of the church in Italy, the concept of worship of a relic seems unusual.
So, to attend a service and procession in honour of a Saint where the item being venerated is a silver reliquary holding the arm of the saint, is a new experience with unknown emotional impact.
Saint Oliva is the patron saint of Trivigliano, one of the Ernica League towns settled around the top of a low mountain of the Ernici range and not far from Fiuggi. The saint is celebrated on 11 June with a procession of the statue of the saint after morning mass. But on the night before there is a special worship service and procession carrying the reliquary around the streets of the town.
This is a story of that evening.
We arrived early, nearly 2 hours before dusk and settled in the Piazza Roma, at Belvedere, aptly named for the wonderful views over the countryside and hills to the west, with Lake Canterno being the centerpiece.
The crypt of Santa Maria Assunta church was open and the relic was displayed behind a secure grill while other items of worship and artistic treasures were arrayed on the walls. We were alone and only a few of the older generation were seated on the marble benches in the square. The church was open inviting an offering for the peace it portrayed, but not yet serviced by its officers.
Time passed, recorded every 15 minutes by the bells in the tower of the church until about 8 pm when musicians started to arrive carrying band instruments and dressed in blue and white with blue pillbox hats.
The priest also appeared carrying his white garb and bustled around greeting people, particularly the proprietors of the Café Belvedere, just opened this evening. Two elderly ladies arrived in ‘transport’ and took their places on the pews. More officers of god were seen wearing their cross of office, greeting parishioners gathering in the square.
In between photo opportunities, the preparations for the evening mass and procession carried on with the spreading of wax candles apparently on the route of the procession.
Maybe it was half an hour later that we could hear the sounds of the band striking up in the distance apparently at the church hall, and it was time to seek them out in their initial tour to the church. Meanwhile, the musical competition had commenced with the sounds of the organ coming from the bowels of the church.
The band appeared marching slowly up the hill past the City Hall towards the Belvedere. As they arranged themselves, and continued to play, 24 members were identified covering a wide age range from the citizens and children of the town.
The quality and balance of the performance created a more than pleasant experience and it was with some reserve that we eventually ventured into the now overflowing church for mass. At the front to the left were the eight members of the parish who had held the model statues of the saint for the past year.
The service of remembrance and worship was supported by guitars and it was apparent that the congregation was awaiting the commencement of the procession. After communion and conclusion, the appropriate moment arrived and the priest lifted the reliquary and followed the banner to commence the procession.
By this time full darkness had settled over the town and we took the opportunity to take a candle to light the way. The procession started winding uphill to the right past the café and museum with the band leading and the faithful following in a train of over 100 metres. Houses were adorned with banners and windows were open displaying the lit interiors.
After winding through the old town, the procession followed the way around the top of the hill stopping for prayer at the church of Sant’Elena. A traditional experience of this procession is the display of thousands of candle lights in the fields below the town, and we were not disappointed by the array and incantation to Saint Oliva to pray for us.
There is something special about this unusual celebration, a quiet walk in the dark lasting over an hour. It is not just the candle light procession, more than the joy of the band, not only the display in the fields, not solely the invocations and responses.
Maybe, it is the power of peace of the hundreds of people quietly following their prayers as they tread softly though the place they call home. The old ladies with renewed vigour for the long walk, the young children – quiet and happy, the menfolk just being, no-one falling, no-one failing.
And at the end, the band still played – representing that special commitment of local bands and their members to the community.