ROME - If a pilgrim walking to Rome for a Holy Year fell
mortally ill far from home or a poor tenant farmer died
working in a field or an unidentifiable victim of murder was
found, a group of courageous Christians buried these
anonymous or forgotten dead with dignity.
Founded in 1538, the Archconfraternity of St. Mary of the
Oration and Death in Rome spent nearly 500 years offering a
Christian funeral and burial to those who would otherwise
never have one.
Burying and praying for the dead are among the corporal and
spiritual works of mercy Pope Francis has asked people to
carry out during the upcoming Year of Mercy.
Many popes, over the past centuries, had supported the
difficult and somber work of the archconfraternity, starting
with Pope Paul III, who wanted to see the association
formally established, said Alfonso Sapia, head of the
During Advent in early December in 1538, a Capuchin priest
gave such an impassioned homily about the tragedy of those
abandoned at death and the immense spirit shown by those who
risked danger and disease to bury them, he inspired a huge
number of people in the pews to join the new lay association.
Several decades later, Pope Paul V gave the confraternity's
chaplains special permission to celebrate Mass outside of a
church, before sunrise and after sunset if necessary -
"prerogatives that had been unthinkable" at the time, Sapia
Members often walked long distances at any time of day or
night to get to an abandoned body. The special dispensation
was granted because sometimes they couldn't get the deceased
to a cemetery quickly enough and the dangers of natural
disasters, disease, wild animals or advanced decay
necessitated immediate burial.
Recognizing the confraternity's important work, St. Pope Pius
V granted clemency every year to one prisoner on death row
and entrusted the confraternity members and their families to
take in the formerly condemned man and his family - teaching
them skills, a trade and helping them back on their feet,
The pope also conceded to the confraternity the rare
privilege of collecting money on the street and in taverns to
pay for the burials of the poor. "It wasn't legal to raise
money without authorization from the pontiff," he said.
Because taverns were still a hothouse of murder in the 16th
century, "people would get drunk, and it would end up like in
the Wild West," with stabbings and things getting smashed, he
said. The owner always kept one of the confraternity's black
metal canisters on hand to collect spare change and donations
to then pay for any eventual burials.
Located on the wide cobblestone road of Via Giulia, the
Church of St. Mary of the Oration and Death - and the
confraternity's headquarters - are still surrounded by
foreign embassies and ornate buildings once owned or
inhabited by noble families and wealthy merchants.
Rome's wealthiest and powerful families were almost always
enthusiastic donors and even members of the confraternity,
"The more of a troublemaker they were, they more generous
they were in donations, because that way the people would
pray" for their souls and salvation from purgatory, Sapia
Large commemorative marble plaques with lengthy inscriptions
and entreaties for people's prayers decorate the walls behind
a chapel of the church.
Another, more unexpected form of remembrance is seen in the
lower portion of the church, where scores of skulls sit
neatly in rows on wooden shelves set into the walls. The
deceased's name, and date and cause of death are chiseled
onto the forehead.
Sapia said many confraternity members had wanted their skulls
preserved in the church "as a testimony of affection" and as
a way to say, "I love this confraternity and I will never
leave it, not even after I die."
Other skulls in the crypt belonged to the poor whose cause of
death shows the difficult conditions just a few generations
ago: Almost all of the skulls belonging to women document
them dying during childbirth, he said.
A holy water font is watched over by the upper torso of a
skeleton, and the chandeliers lit overhead are an artistic
composite of vertebrae and the triangular sacrum - "the
sacred bone" - at the end of the spinal column. He said using
bones serves as a reminder that from darkness and death there
shall be light.
Sapia said such concrete reminders of death "seems awful and
terrible" in today's culture, but back then "people didn't
live past 50, and death was much more human," with people
being much more aware and accepting of dying.
"Besides praying for and burying the dead, the confraternity
also taught people not to be hedonists," living only for the
present moment "and doing want we want right now," he said.
"Instead what the confraternity told people was, 'Yes, we
have to live well, but most of all we have to die without
being afraid of dying,'" which meant being ready for God's
judgment by trying to live a holy life.
With the group's last burial in the 1950s, as a post-war
Italian government began to provide basic human and social
services, the archconfraternity's mission had to change, he
Their work is now based "on the three C's: Christ, charity
and culture," he said, as they promote sacred art and music.
Confraternities, Sapia said, have been essential in providing
charitable care and preserving the spiritual life of the
church, especially during the Reformation.
"When Martin Luther started the reform, people became much
more distanced from the Catholic Church," he said.
But while fewer people were attending Mass in Rome's major
basilicas, he said, the confraternity's smaller churches
stayed full, where "there wasn't the arrogance of the
cardinal" and people were simpler, more humble and more
This approach and attitude "helped the church in the
Counter-Reformation," he said, as the confraternities "were
used to guide the church" toward successful reform.
Sapia said he sees a parallel with Pope Francis.
"The confraternity, as Francis says, smelled of sheep" and
members didn't wait for people to come to them for help, but
bravely ventured off to bring the church to people in need,