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"Fringe Catholic" Movements in Italy:

From Basilio Roncaccia’s Divine Mission to Luigia Paparelli

by Raffaella Di Marzio (GRIS, Rome, Italy). A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London

The prophetic tradition of Basilio Roncaccia (1876-1959) has inspired several "fringe Catholic" movements in Italy. Italian scholars usually define "fringe Catholic" movements as groups originally born within the Roman Catholic Church, but which developed and now exist outside institutional Catholicism, for either doctrinal or practical reasons. Most of these groups are quite small. They almost all invariably originate from a supernatural revelation the founders claim to have received from God, the Virgin Mary, or a Catholic saint. In the Roncaccia tradition, other elements play a significant role, including the leaders’ healing powers, the importance of the Holy Trinity, and the Cross as the most important healing symbol.

One such group, known as the Divine Mission, was founded in Rome in 1936 by Basilio Roncaccia, who claimed to receive supernatural visions and revelations, and to have received the "divine mission" of sharing with his followers his unique celestial gifts, particularly his newly-found healing power. Roncaccia admonished, however, that healing was possible only if the sick person was prepared to practice penitence, fasting and prayer. In this case, those healed by the "apostle" Roncaccia would in turn be granted the same healing powers. Roncaccia, who was mostly active in the Trastevere borough of Rome, claimed to be "the new Peter" entrusted by God with the task of restoring the Catholic Church, which had been corrupted by its relationship with political and economic powers, to its original pristine purity. Roncaccia claimed in particular to have received the "mission" of re-establishing the Apostolic College and from 1946 onwards he sent his followers, known as "Apostles of Faith", two by two, into several Italian cities. Their success in some cases did not escape the attention of the ever-watchful Catholic hierarchy, however, and on September 22-23, 1952, the Osservatore Romano (the Vatican’s daily newspaper) published a front page announcement stating that the so-called "Apostles of Faith" were in their "principles and practices" contrary to official Church doctrine. The notice went on to warn "faithful Catholics not to join this movement", and encouraged actual members to leave it.

After Roncaccia’s death, on December 7, 1959, the movement split into several separate branches. In Northern Italy, the main groups were led by Rino Celin in Torre di Padova and by Saverio Casarin in Scorzè (province of Venice). Several small groups survived in the area around Rome, some holding beliefs and rituals which would have been quite alien to Roncaccia, including forms of magic and divination. There is no real inter-connection between the groups following the Roncaccia tradition, with each group interpreting the founder’s teachings differently according to the different views of the individual leaders. It is difficult to estimate the combined global membership of these movements. It is probable that the total membership numbers some13,000, spread throughout Italy (particularly in the regions of Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria, Venice, Lombardia, Marche, and Sicily), and in several other countries such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, France, and the U.S.A.

A large and well established movement developed around the figure of Luigia Paparelli (1908-1984), who was born in Scranton (Pennsylvania) on December 7, 1908, into a poor family which had emigrated from the Italian region of Umbria to the United States. Paparelli later returned to Italy where she married Salvatore Becchetti (1905-1963) in 1924. In the 1940s, she met Basilio Roncaccia in Rome. Roncaccia and Paparelli shared a devotion to the Holy Trinity, and the idea of helping those who suffered, but their practices were different, and they separated quite soon. A charismatic figure, Paparelli gathered a significant number of followers around her. The first "sign" of her future mission dates back, in fact, to 1937 when, afflicted by a somewhat mysterious illness, the Lord, she claimed, had visited and miraculously healed her. Seven years of penance followed, and on October 13, 1944, Paparelli had a new mystical experience. She described herself as having been "conquered by a mysterious and violent force", feeling "an energy going from heart to fingers, such as the beneficial flux of a new life". She was persuaded that this was a miracle, and interpreted it as the Sacred Heart of Jesus giving her the mission to "heal bodies in order to save souls". The first cure ascribed to Paparelli’s miraculous powers took place at Via Ottaviano 43, Rome, in October 1944. In that year, she established a group called the Luigia Paparelli Mission (Missione Luigia Paparelli) and started calling her followers the "Brothers of the Mission" ("Brothers" actually including both male and female disciples). Members of the Mission confirmed their membership by wearing a ring engraved with the symbol of the Holy Trinity. Paparelli became, for her followers, "the Master", divinely invested with powers to heal and exorcise. She "signed" the sick with a cross on the forehead, lips, heart, and the afflicted part of their bodies, in the name of the Holy Trinity, and recited a short prayer: "Lord, send the evil spirits away". The "sign", Paparelli contended, was not enough, in itself, to achieve both physical and spiritual healing, however; for this, the co-operation of the patients themselves, who should fast, pray, and practice penance was essential. Paparelli also instructed those "signed" by her to visit a Catholic Church in order to confess and receive Holy Communion. In 1970, she had become famous enough to attract the attention of the local Roman Catholic authorities in Rome. The Office of the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, in a letter dated February 27, 1970, stated that Paparelli’s phenomena and "signs" were "superstitious" and could in fact "promote a form of superstition detrimental to religion". In such phenomena, the declaration went on to say, there was "nothing supernatural". The Mission continued to grow, however, and assumed the name "La Missione — Luigia Paparelli" (slightly different from the original) following Paparelli’s death, surrounded by the Brothers of the Mission, on August 28, 1984 in Valmontone (Rome). The stated aim of the Mission is the promotion of the "Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion". Its main centres are located around Rome, in Umbria (Central Italy), and Tuscany, although other centres do exist all over Italy and in several other countries too. "Temples" of the Mission, with statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Trinity, and Luigia Paparelli herself, have been built in Gambassi and San Venanzo, both in Central Italy, and are regarded as sacred places where both special yearly festivals and traditional Catholic feasts are celebrated.

After Paparelli’s death, problems of succession generated several divisions. According to some witnesses the Master, before her death, "called" Rina Menichetti Frizza (born in 1928) from Orvieto (Central Italy) to whom Paparelli addressed her last words. Those Brothers of the Mission who were called "Apostolini" ("Little Apostles") recognized Menichetti as Paparelli’s spiritual heir. There are, however, other Brothers of the Mission who assign no particular role to Menichetti. It is important to note, on the other hand, that whilst leadership divisions are important for the hierarchy as such, at the grassroots level those members who do acknowledge Paparelli’s prophetic role still believe themselves to be part of a single movement. Brothers of the Mission, and "Little Apostles" in particular, do not proselytize. The Mission’s message is normally spread by somebody who has been healed and who, in turn, propagates its powers of healing. The Brothers of the Mission in Italy (Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, and Sicily) and abroad (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, France, the U.S.A.) total approximately 10,000.

Luigia Paparelli stated emphatically that she did not regard herself as the founder of a new religion; her faith, she said, was "the one and only religion of Jesus Christ, based on the Ten Commandments". She also said that she did not, strictly speaking, perform the miracles herself, but "received" them as gifts from the Lord. The Mission has no real "doctrine", or theology. Rather, Paparelli’s teachings and her supernatural phenomena created a large community of believers who still regard themselves as Roman Catholics, but whose individual perception of their Catholicism differs from person to person and from place to place. Popular religion, Italian traditions surrounding the Holy Trinity, folk religion, and occasionally "superstition", may all combine to play different roles. Members of the Mission generally prefer the Roman Catholic liturgy in its "traditional" (pre-Vatican II) form, and would not normally receive Communion on the hand (as most Catholics do after Vatican II) or whilst standing (they would rather kneel), and maintain the fast from midnight to the morning on which they receive Communion, even if this is no longer encouraged or regarded as mandatory by the Roman Catholic Church. The Brothers of the Mission regard material prosperity, health, and a good moral life as both God’s blessing and as key features of their Mission membership. They also attend in large numbers the Mission’s feasts (often concluded with spectacular fireworks), held in the movement’s sacred places.

The relationship with the Roman Catholic hierarchy remains difficult. During her lifetime, Paparelli explicitly saw herself as a possible guide for those who regarded themselves as part of the Roman Catholic Church "spiritually", but were not prepared to follow the hierarchy in more mundane matters. When, in 1948, during the period of the Cold War, Pius XII (1876-1958), reiterated that Roman Catholics could not be members or followers of the Communist Party and remain at the same time members of the Church in good standing, he generated serious problems in Central Italy (Umbria, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Lazio), an area in which the Italian Communist Party enjoyed widespread support by hundreds of thousands of members. Some of them joined the Mission, in fact, and were welcomed by Paparelli with no preclusion on the grounds of personal political preferences. In some cases, local Catholic parish priests reacted by refusing to administer the sacraments to her followers, whom she then encouraged to meet in prayer centres other than Catholic churches, and to receive "spiritual" non-priestly confession and Communion.

In the period following Paparelli’s death, most Brothers still regard her mission as unique, although Rina Menichetti Frizza is believed to have inherited, in some way, Paparelli’s mantle. Menichetti continues to welcome followers to her Orvieto house, where she also enjoys spiritual visions of the Master (i.e. Paparelli), whose messages she immediately writes down for the Brothers. The messages are typed and circulated on sheets indicating the place (Orvieto) and date (day 8 of each month) on which they were received, accompanied by a symbol: the letter "L" in a triangle until June 1987, when it was replaced by a star. Menichetti tells of her encounters with the Master who "takes her on her coach" to "her Kingdom" together with God the Father and the Virgin Mary. In Paparelli’s "Kingdom", i.e. Paradise, Menichetti describes a "Castle" full of light, and a peculiar experience whereby each member of the Mission receives a "score". In Paradise, God periodically opens a book and checks the Brothers’ "notes" or "scores". God may eventually "cancel" those unfaithful to the Mission, but the Master and the Virgin Mary intercede and ask the Father not to "cancel" anybody. In Menichetti’s visions, Paparelli claims that she is the Son (not "the Daughter") of the Father, and that the Brothers should anticipate her return: "My return will be your liberation". At the end of each "conversation", Menichetti receives a blessing from the "Holy Trinity": "In the name of the Father, Luigia the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Virgin Mary". Paparelli also asks Menichetti to write down everything that has happened.

The Brothers of the Mission claim to be Roman Catholics, although their individual attitudes may vary. Some would simply claim that their feeling toward Paparelli is one of deep gratitude, whilst others believe she is "the same as saint Rita of Cascia" (a very popular saint among Italian Catholics). For other Brothers, however, Paparelli is nothing less than divine. For them, she is not only a teacher, a uniquely gifted healer, or even a figure mediating between God and her followers, but a "Divine Master" whose name is "Luigia the Son", the "reincarnation" in fact of the Son of God, or the "Woman clothed with the Sun" mentioned in the Book of Revelation. It is unclear, and hotly debated, whether Paparelli even called herself "the Son of God", or whether the title was actually conferred on her posthumously by some enthusiastic followers, some of whom also have an exclusive faith in her healing powers, to the exclusion of all mainstream medicine. These fringes of the larger movement live their lives quite separately from society as a whole, and often break ties with their own families in consequence. Within the movement, some Brothers make a vow of perpetual chastity (even if they are married), or opt for a celibate lifestyle totally focused on the Master and the Mission.

The relationship between the Mission and the Roman Catholic hierarchy is different in terms of the different attitudes held by Paparelli’s followers, and those of local parish priests and Bishops. In some Roman Catholic dioceses and parishes the conflict is strong, and Catholic priests refuse administer the sacraments to the Brothers of the Mission. Elsewhere, the relationship is fairly peaceful. In some cases, Mission members have gradually abandoned the beliefs more foreign to Roman Catholicism, whilst other have managed to successfully combine their active membership of the Mission with their uninterrupted and equally active membership of the Catholic Church.

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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