I have just had a post-Christmas break in Naples, saying in a small hotel quite close to the Cathedral, which contains several wonders: the superb shrine of Saint Januarius, the city’s patron, the basilica of Saint Restituta, the ancient church that was once the cathedral, and San Giovanni in Fonte, the oldest baptistery in the West, which dates from the early fourth century, thus predating those in Ravenna. But Naples is like that, full of surprises, and full of sights that I had not visited before: a complete ceiling decorated by Vasari at Saint Anne of the Lombards, for example; magnificent Gothic tombs at San Giovanni a Carbonara, and the astonishing palazzi created by the architect Sanfelice.
Naples does have its critics, though, and in between the splendours are some pretty sad sights. Many of the great buildings are in a poor state of repair, though quite a few seem to have been restored since my first visit twenty-five years ago. The filth in Spaccanapoli is still remarkable, and one new thing is the sad sight of recent immigrants sleeping rough and begging, sometimes aggressively. If the European Union is to let migrants enter its borders, it is surely morally bound to look after them in some way when they get here. The sight of a man, probably Sudanese, sleeping under the portico outside the Cathedral, and fouling it with his waste, is a sign that current approaches to immigration are not working.
Poverty is a constant in Neapolitan history, as I was reminded when I was present at Santa Chiara for the liturgical memoria of the Blessed Cristina of Naples. Born Maria Cristina of Savoy, at the age of twenty she was the reluctant bride of the King of the Two Sicilies, Ferdinand II. Her only ambition was to have been a nun and devote herself to the suffering, but as Queen of the Two Sicilies, she was able to help many of the urban poor in the three years of life that remained to her. She died after giving birth to a son, later Francis II, the last Bourbon monarch of Naples. Her fervent piety and her early death meant that she was held in deep affection and immediately regarded as a saint, though her beatification, remarkably, had to wait until 2014.
The Blessed Cristina is an archetypal Catholic saint: her life was not what she would have chosen if she had been given half the chance, but she nevertheless transformed the role she had been given through the grace of God and made it something worthwhile for herself and the people of God. Also buried in Santa Chiara is the Servant of God Salvo D’Acquisto, whose beatification may not be far off, another person who died young, sacrificing his life to save others. He was an ordinary young man, who made an extraordinary and transforming sacrifice. Years ago I wrote an article about him for this magazine.
Meanwhile, if you are thinking of a winter break, I recommend Naples, provided you are agile enough to dodge cars and scooters in narrow streets!
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