Menu Content/Inhalt
Home arrow St. Vicinius
St. Vicinius E-mail

Pilgrims visit a church in Italy where a priest puts the relic on them and says a prayer. 'You feel protected from the forces of evil,' one says.

By Tracy Wilkinson , Times Staff Writer  (Los Angeles Times)


SARSINA, Italy - Sebastiana Magnano has been traveling to the Romanesque church here for years to have a centuries-old metal shackle clamped around her neck.

Like pilgrims through the centuries, she comes for the blessing contained in the mysterious relic, a collar descended from the mystic St. Vicinus, who lived 1,700 years ago.

Inside the church, Magnano stands before the coffin bearing an effigy of the saint. Father Gabriele Foschi places the collar on her and says a brief prayer. She is followed by about 30 other worshipers who undergo the same ritual.

"You feel protected from the forces of evil," Magnano, a 40-year-old homemaker, said afterward. "It might only be psychological, but I feel covered. It's one more blessing to have."

In rural, Roman Catholic Italy, many people remain very religious, and very superstitious. The two belief systems coexist, tightly intertwined and surprisingly complementary.

The cult that has emerged here in Sarsina, a town in the hills between Tuscany and the northern Adriatic Sea, centers on the metal collar. Legend has it that St. Vicinus, bishop in Sarsina around AD 300, used it first as a form of self-castigation when he prayed. It resembles a shackle that might be used on a slave. He would put it around his neck attached to a heavy stone to focus his mind in penitence.

Eventually he began to use it to ward off evil spirits. St. Vicinus became one of the church's early exorcists, and the fame of the collar and its purported powers have endured. (The one used now is not said to be St. Vicinus' original but is believed to date to the 8th or 9th century, roughly the same time the church was built.)

Tens of thousands of pilgrims come to Sarsina every year in search of a blessing, Father Gabriele said. He repeats the ceremony every few hours, usually on Sundays and sometimes on other days as well. During especially busy periods, such as Lent, he can issue hundreds of blessings a day, he said.

Pilgrims come with a whole passel of problems, the priest said on a recent Sunday at his residence above the church, over a lunch of pasta prepared by his 80-year-old mother.

Facing divorce, unruly children, broken hearts, physical illness, lost jobs, they come with hope that a blessing will turn their luck and rid their lives of the negative vibes they believe to be at the root of their troubles.

Father Gabriele, like many priests, is also authorized by the church hierarchy to work as an exorcist. Although most visitors come simply for the collar blessing, he said, a small number of exceptionally agitated ones may end up needing extra prayers or an exorcism to rid them of demonic possession or other diabolic afflictions.

"A lot of my work here is to help a person make his own personality stronger," he said. "This helps people discover through Christ his love. And that way we conquer the devil."

Most of those who stop by are Italians from other parts of the country, especially the northeast, and a number of foreigners, including Americans and Germans. The other day, some were quiet and reverent as Father Gabriele sprinkled them with holy water and then dispensed the blessings; others looked more bemused, shrugging their shoulders after the collar was removed.

Father Gabriele said not everyone comes with the right attitude. Some people are skeptical, or they're expecting some kind of hocus-pocus rather than serious prayer, he said.

"I'm not a magician. I'm not a fortune teller. I'm an exorcist - a priest with a special ministry," he said. "I want to give a sense of the reality of faith."

The faithful believe.

"It's a tradition, and it gives you strength," said Valter Leoni, a man in his 70s receiving the blessing. "It's something my father did and my grandfather did."

Paula Schimizzi, 70, traveled 50 miles from her home in the coastal city of Ravenna. She said she and her 80-year-old husband have been getting regular blessings to "liberate" them from evil spells cast by jealous neighbors who envy the family's successful car-repair business.

It's worked, she said, because her son has been protected from the evil and will be able to take over the business. Schimizzi was loading up on bottles of holy water that the church sells, for good measure.

Outside the red-brick facade of the church, Sarsina residents were strolling in the piazza and taking in the sun. A group of older men, seated on a bench, chatted energetically.

One of them, Lucio Cangini, a former city official, was philosophical about his town's status as home to such an unusual attraction. He welcomed the visitors and said he understood the pilgrims and their craving for miracles.

"As a cultural factor, it's very important," he said of St. Vicinus and the sacred collar. "As a reality, that's open to debate."