Townspeople of Mammola, Italy, carry the relics of San Nicodemo in a procession to the town’s former Basilian abbey. Photo by Laura Ieraci.

A journey back to my Calabrian Byzantine roots

  • October 19, 2014

ROME - Like many Roman Catholic immigrant families from southern Italy, I grew up with a devotion to the patron saint of my family’s ancestral town. Every Italian city, town and village has one. As a general rule, the smaller the village, the more obscure the saint.

In our Montreal home, our devotion was to San Nicodemo, my father’s namesake and the patron saint of his town, Mammola, located in Calabria. San Nicodemo had great importance — and a significant presence — in our house. In addition to fridge magnets, key chains, prayer cards, framed images and a dashboard sticker, a 40-cm statue of San Nicodemo graced our home. Over the years, this statue somehow made its way into my room, and I was glad for it.

San Nicodemo was someone I had grown to know and love through my paternal grandmother’s retelling of his life: his great ascetic practices, his cavernous abode, his holiness and wisdom, his ability to tame wild animals and his prayer life so deep that even the forest ants, nibbling at his flesh, could not detract him.

But recently a new window on this saint’s life opened for me. It was a happy discovery that happened when my Byzantine Catholic husband, then boyfriend, first walked into my parents’ home, saw the statue and asked: “What’s this Byzantine monk doing here?”

“That’s San Nicodemo,” I said in a tone that suggested he was obviously mistaken.

“That’s a Byzantine monk,” he insisted, pointing out the long beard, black cassock and pectoral cross. I had never noticed the saint’s Byzantine dress. I was stunned. I came to learn that this saint was indeed a 10th-century Byzantine Catholic monk whose vocation was inspired by the Eastern monks who sought refuge in southern Italy during the Iconoclastic Period.

Intrigued, my journey of discovery to my historic and spiritual Byzantine Catholic roots began, broadening my knowledge of Church and experience of faith. My husband and I, now living in Rome, decided to make the pilgrimage to Calabria for the patronal feast.

Though mostly Roman Catholic today, Calabria was historically Byzantine until the early 11th century, when the Normans crushed the Saracens in southern Italy and imposed Roman Catholicism, wiping out Byzantine practice. (Though small pockets of Eastern Catholics in Calabria and Sicily, known as the Italo-Greek Church, continue their practice and worship.) The churches and the people complied and most became Roman Catholic. But they took their Byzantine saints with them, incorporating them over the years into Roman Catholic practice and expression. So it happened in Mammola, with beloved San Nicodemo.

Tradition says Nicodemo was born in a nearby town, on the plains of Gioia Tauro. His parents, infertile for years, prayed for a son and offered him to God’s service in thanksgiving. After his formation, Nicodemo discerned the monastic life over priestly ordination and became a hermit. He lived in a cave, wore animal skins and ate what nature provided. Despite his isolation, he earned a reputation for holiness and young men sought to be his disciples. He finally obliged and founded a monastery.

However, years of Saracen invasions led Nicodemo to abandon his monastery and seek more peaceable grounds. He came upon the fledgling mountainside town of Mammola, whose residents had fled inland to escape the invasions, and established his new monastery on a mountain called La Limina.

Nicodemo accompanied the Mammolesi people as their spiritual father, leading them in faith and offering them counsel. He was declared a saint upon his death in 981. In the centuries that followed, the town grew. The population peaked at about 14,000 in the pre-War period, then plummeted due to emigration to less than 3,000 today. Hundreds of Mammolesi families moved to Canada, mostly to Toronto and Montreal. With a devotion so strong, however, many return from northern Italian towns and from abroad for the three-day patronal feast each September.

This year, my husband and I were among them. After a six-hour train ride and 40 minutes on a bus, the sentiment of stepping into my father’s ancestral town — the subject of so many stories at the supper table — was difficult to contain.

We were swept up by long-lost relatives and accompanied to the Triduum celebrations. The first was at a sanctuary dedicated to the saint, located at La Limina. There, we learned about a renewed appreciation for San Nicodemo’s Byzantine life and a recent effort to understand him in his historical context. The local pastor, Fr. Alfredo Valenti, had been inviting a Byzantine Catholic priest to share with the townspeople the various aspects of what would have marked the saint’s faith and worship. “For the past five years, Fr. Lubomyr spoke with us about the Byzantine tradition of our dear San Nicodemo. This year he could not come, but Providence sent us a Byzantine seminarian,” said Valenti, introducing my husband’s impromptu homily, which he requested just 15 minutes prior.

In line with Eastern Catholic tradition, an icon of San Nicodemo was painted in the sanctuary two years ago. A life-sized statue which stood in that spot was moved to the church entrance. And a diocesan priest, inspired by the saint, recently moved to the site to take up the eremitic life. He is the area’s first monk in 500 years.

“Fr. Ernesto (the hermit) offers a concrete example that the way San Nicodemo lived is still livable,” Valenti later told me. A nearby community of religious sisters has taken up iconography and is painting icons of Calabrian Byzantine Catholic saints. Interestingly, the region’s awakening to its Byzantine roots has coincided with my own.

The second day included an evening Mass, followed by a procession of the saint’s relics to a nearby former Basilian abbey, where the relics were kept until 1850. Sunday Mass was followed by another procession, this time through the entire town, and then there was a fair, concerts and fireworks in the evening. It was remarkable to observe how, with little historical data on the saint, the devotion to San Nicodemo has survived with fervour for more than 1,000 years.

“San Nicodemo is a member of everyone’s family in Mammola,” explained Valenti, who arrived in town as pastor more than a decade ago. “I first met the saint through the people. He’s part of the daily conversation.

“San Nicodemo is their spiritual father and they are his children. To know the Mammolesi people is to know San Nicodemo,” he said.

As the Canadian daughter of a native son of Mammola, I could relate to Valenti’s experience. San Nicodemo was made palpable to me through my family life and lore.

Participating in the patronal feast in Mammola added a whole new dimension to the ancient devotion for me that I could not experience through stories alone. Walking the processions, venerating the relics and praying the centuries-old novena allowed me to enter physically into the local history of a lived faith.

(Ieraci is a Canadian writer in Rome.) 

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