While I was a seminary student in Rome, I made a number of visits to Naples. Now, Naples is not for the faint of heart: its reputation as a rough-and-tumble city is, at least in part, deserved. For some people it’s too filthy, for others it’s too dangerous. Frankly, I always felt quite safe there, though perhaps that was just my small-town Midwestern naivety. I’ve always been a bit too casual about marching into situations that a wiser man might have avoided. During one trip with a group of seminary classmates, I lost my backpack. I retraced my steps to the McDonald’s where we had taken our morning break and as I glanced about for my bag, a man sitting at a crowded table waved at me from across the restaurant. He held up my trusty blue JanSport backpack and pulled out my book of hours, handing it to me carefully as if to assure me that nothing had happened to my possessions. In that moment I felt watched over, looked out for – not the sort of thing I expected but something for which I was most grateful. As wandered back to meet my classmates, I ducked into San Domenico Maggiore and offered the afternoon prayer for my kind protectors and new-found friends.
You can’t help but have a sense that there’s something special about people in Naples. When they fight, the streets run with blood. When they love, their hearts are bigger than you can imagine. When they feast, they feast like gods of yore. Their passion and devotion are singular — for good and for ill. They live in a city of faded glory, where things feel used and trashy but you know that once upon a time there was no more spectacular place on earth. Whether rich or poor, everyone has the bearing of some descendant of a great, long-forgotten noble family.
They also live in the shadow of Vesuvius. You could almost say the shadow of death, because this titan has more than once mercilessly pummeled proud Naples into submission. I’m quite convinced that each and every Neapolitan understands that any day can be the end of the world, and this is something most of us never really grasp. It is, to my estimation, the seed and beginning of true spiritual transformation.
March 10, 2017