An important dimension of Catholic Church life in Italy over the past several centuries has been the presence and work of Confraternities. A Confraternity is a group, usually composed of both men and women, though sometimes of only men or only women, who in cities, villages and parishes, gather to accomplish a wide range of spiritual and social goals
The first Confraternity that I was aware of in Italy is the centuries-old Misericordia Confraternity, comprised of men who assist when people die, especially the poor. These men, wearing gray tunics with a rope cincture around the waist, I used to see in Firenze (Florence), Italy, when I was studying Italian there in the summer of 1985. Across the street from the great cathedral or Duomo of “Santa Maria dei Fiori” (Our Lady of the Flowers), the Misericordia Confraternity had and has its headquarters.
Their work was and is seeing that those who have recently died in hospitals, homes or on the streets are taken to be prepared for burial. In the case of the homeless or those without family, the dead are given a dignified burial. The Mercy Confraternity, like other Italian confraternities, is composed of volunteers, not paid workers. The motto of the Confraternity is one of the Church’s “Corporal Works of Mercy,” that is, “To bury the dead.”
For many Catholic laity in Italy, Confraternities have been over the centuries, and still today, a means of engaging with the Church more intensely and performing works that benefit others. It is an expression of faith in, and love for, God and neighbor. Included in Italian Confraternities is a devotional element, with special prayers, such as litanies, the rosary, reciting the Divine Office of the Church and of course, attendance at Mass, especially on particular days or times of the year. Among the Confraternities of Italy there are varying degrees of how the prayers and discipline are carried out, for example, in private or with others, in addition to how they perform their charitable activity.
Confraternities have been through the ages both spiritual and practical arms of many cities, villages and parishes, greatly assisting the local clergy. In places where clergy have been scarce, Confraternities have been and continue to be a real help in keeping things running smoothly in a parish, hospital, or wherever Confraternities are present. This assistance ranges from sacristy and maintenance projects to catechetical instruction and sacramental preparation of youth and adults.
People joined and join Italian Confraternities for varying reasons. Normally at the root of belonging to a Confraternity is the desire to express a commitment to the Church and doing good. Joining such a group also has some degree of mutual support in the inevitable reality of death. How one dies, where one is buried, and how one spends eternity, are concerns of Confraternity members themselves and they try to support each another in these areas through life’s journey within the Confraternity.
As ecclesial and social bodies, Confraternities were to a great extent and continue to be, though to a much lesser degree, charitable vehicles for the distribution of food, medicine, alms and care of the poor and sick. Rural areas in Italy especially benefited from such groups, who worked closely with clergy for offering both spiritual and material assistance to people, who in fact may or may not be religious themselves.
An interesting example of the wide range of Italian Confraternity activities from centuries past was a Confraternity in Florence whose specialty was the preparation mechanical operation of lighting effects used to depict the Divine Presence in religious plays performed in churches. This was especially the case in the fifteenth century. While appearing to be a completely technical endeavor, the lighting work was primarily considered a spiritual one, to inspire people attending the religious dramas.
Confraternities are not guilds, which were a different social structure in medieval Europe. Guilds were composed of craftspeople and makers of specific goods, who grouped together. There were guilds for butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, for example, with no particular spiritual ties among themselves or to the Church. Confraternities, on the other hand, have always been rooted in the faith and connected to Catholic Church life to some degree.
Though they differ in structure and aims, guilds and Confraternities often had oratories, or places of prayer, connected to them, where their members could worship. The guild and Confraternity churches are usually modest in scale compared to a regular parish church or shrine. Near to us at Sant’Ambrogio in Rome is a small oratory where bookmakers met and in another chapel close by, butchers used to meet for Mass.
As pious associations of laity, Confraternities multiplied greatly from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Under the patronage and invocation of the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, the Scapular of Our Lady, etc., Confraternities attracted many and continue to attract followers in the Italian Church.
Also close to our Curia Sant’Ambrogio is the church of “San Giovanni Decollato,” that is, the church of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Rarely open, it is one of the many churches in Rome for a specific Confraternity. The present church was finished in 1504 and given to the Confraternity of Mercy (Misericordia) in 1490, before the church was completed. The purpose of this Confraternity was ministering to condemned criminals and giving them a Christian burial after execution. The connection with Saint John the Baptist, who was beheaded in prison by King Herod the Great, is an obvious one. In times past, the Confraternity of Mercy was allowed to bury bodies of the condemned criminals in the church courtyard, since burial in consecrated ground elsewhere was prohibited. Nowadays the Confraternity at San Giovanni Decollato continues its original intention by helping prisoners and their dependents, offering legal advice and practical help. The church is only open on August 29th each year, the feast of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, and occasionally by appointment. The art work in the church is well worth seeing I am told by those who have been inside.
When a specific Confraternity has received Church permission to aggregate to itself groups established in other localities, it is called an Archconfraternity. One example of this in Italy is the Archconfraternity of the Holy Rosary.
The “Archconfratenrity of Saints Benedict and Scholastica of Nursia in Rome,” as it is called, has its oratory quite near to us also. This year on March 21st, the feast of the “Trasitus,” or Death, of Saint Benedict, some of us attended Mass in their tiny but beautiful chapel. Before Mass three speakers each gave twenty-minute talks, one on the Rule of Saint Benedict in general, a second on the Rule’s application to family life and a third on the Rule as a guide for work. The latter talk was given by a monk of our curia. At Mass that evening a woman was received as a new member of the Archconfraternity. This group has both men and women and they resemble Benedictine oblates, who are devoted to prayer and good work under the guidance of the Rule of Saint Benedict. The Archconfraternity of Saints Benedict and Scholastica has a diocesan priest chaplain, a student from India who is studying in Rome. He offers daily Mass at 6:00 pm in the Archconfraternity’s chapel of Saints Benedict and Scholastica.
Confraternities and Archconfraternities in Italy are largely “invisible” in their good work in the Church, but important contributors nonetheless, as they quietly go about praying and assisting others as they are able to. Let us pray for them and follow their good example!