Mira il tuo popolo, bella Signora,
che pien di giubilo oggi ti onora;
anch’io festevole, corro ai tuoi piè.
O Santa Vergine, prega per me.
I spent about half of May traveling in the Central Mediterranean, the part of the world broadly consisting of Italy and the North African countries, Libya and Tunisia, that face it across the sea from the south. I did not go to Libya, an extraordinarily dangerous place. What I did undertake was an ambitious and ultimately successful trip down the Italian boot from Rome to the tip in Calabria, then through Sicily and across the sea by commercial ferry to Tunis. Accompanying me were three close friends, one of whom is from the area himself but another of whom had never before traveled outside the North American continent. She took her number of inhabited continents visited from one to three in less than two weeks, after initially looking as if she would not be able to join us at all because of a Passport Office headache. It was an impressive feat.
We spent most of the trip in Calabria visiting the first-mentioned friend. It was in the final four or five days that it took us to Sicily and then Tunisia, a country whose antiquity—Carthaginian civilization—is strongly associated with child death due to a maybe-calumniated-maybe-not series of pagan religious practices. I found Carthage an edifying and interesting place to visit, but not exactly a pleasant or relaxing one. It’s hard for a Catholic touring these particular archeological sites to completely avoid thinking about the Church’s decidedly mixed record on children’s welfare.
(It didn’t help that I spent some down time at my hotel catching up on Yellowjackets, a show that deals in an almost Screwtape Letters level of detail with the question of its teenage characters’ culpability for allowing possibly-demonic influences into their lives. Also not helping the general mood and ambience, on broader levels not directly related to the issue of children in peril, were Tunisia’s political situation (democratic backsliding), the weather throughout the trip (unseasonably mild and rainy in a way that conjured up specters of climate change), or the immediate memory of the sea crossing from Italy (one of my traveling companions was badly seasick and the shipping company falsely advertised the quality of the ferry).)
I’m glad I visited the place and would wholeheartedly recommend Greater Tunis in general to those interested in Mediterranean travel; among other things it’s one of the great Art Nouveau and Art Deco cities of the world due to a history of French occupation. Even so, it was, again, difficult not to dwell on some pretty grisly bits of history and legend while at some of these sites. In addition to what I would term in sufficiently laid-back company the “bad vibes” of Carthage in specific, the coastal hinterlands through which my friends and I passed have a history of being dangerous and ill-served places generally.
At least two major ports and transit hubs in the far south of Italy, Villa San Giovanni and Palermo, are covered with graffiti protesting recent governments’ inhumane treatment of migrants arriving by boat. These migrants die in massive numbers in the seas between Sicily, Tunisia, Libya, and Malta; those who survive the crossing are often holed up in an overcrowded “migrant reception center” on Lampedusa, a small island that Pope Francis has visited several times. Southern Italy is also, of course, probably the part of the world that is the most famous for having problems with organized crime, although this is liable to exaggeration and stereotype. An oddly poignant piece of graffiti that I saw in Palermo simply read “R.I.P. COOLIO,” in tribute to the recently-deceased singer of the 1990s rap song “Gangsta’s Paradise.”
In addition to the problems that people in the Central Mediterranean still face, denizens of this part of the world prior to about a century ago had also to contend with pirates. Some of the seaside towns in the area were actually built, not up from, but down towards the coast in recent generations, because earlier on the danger of coastal raiders was greater than the inconvenience of having “ports” that were at the tops of hills.
The dangers faced by seafarers plying the then-globally-significant trade chokepoints of the Strait of Messina and the Sicilian Channel are almost unimaginable today. Every successful voyage was a gift from God, every voyage that succeeded without serious human tragedy a miracle. The protection of the state was of little help because of a long history of misrule of the area, whether by negligent outside powers or by aloof local élites. Some of these rulers were at least as bad as the pirates themselves were, which is the historical reason why Southern Italy developed a tradition of quasi-legitimate, parastate crime lords in the first place. Lacking almost all forms of conventional social or political capital when it came to dealing with their tribulations, the people of the coastal towns of Southern Italy turned to the Virgin Mary for help.
Il pietosissimo tuo dolce cuore
egli è rifugio al peccatore.
Tesori e grazie racchiude in sé.
O Santa Vergine, prega per me.
To this day numerous coastal towns in Calabria and Sicily have local devotions to Maria Santissima di Porto Salvo, Most Holy Mary of Safe Haven. If Our Lady of Lourdes cures illness and Poland’s Mary of the Thunder Candle protects against wolves and winter chill, the safe-haven Madonna of these Italian seafaring towns has shipwreck as her characteristic peril. The mere fact that these distinctions can be enumerated shows, itself, the need for an intercessor and protector.
The protective role of Mary can be overstated in ways that invite questions about attitudes towards mothers in general, towards women in general, and so forth, but the motif comes up again and again in Marian piety because it expresses and fills a real need. Outside popular piety, there has not been much present in many traditionally Catholic countries to help people feel safe and secure. Within popular piety, Mary rightly has pride of place because of who she is in relation to her Son. Mary is important to us because she is important to God, Who commends us to her care. What is sobering is to think about human life and human affairs in light of just how many kinds of care we need.
In questa misera valle infelice
tutti t’invocano soccorritrice.
Questo bel titolo conviene a te;
o Santa Vergine, prega per me!
Safe haven or safe port, used metaphorically, can suggest a sort of blank check or lack of consequences. Safe haven laws in the context of surrendering unwanted infants, for example, can end up having pretty terrible optics, like something out of the myth of Oedipus or an early Protestant tract excoriating monastic oblation. Even so, the idea behind the metaphor or reality of making port safely is that safety and security, even if not “deserved,” can forestall things that are worse. The ship carrying some kind of illicit cargo will still provide for the sailors’ families if it makes port; the baby surrendered at a firehouse or police station or hospital has avoided both being aborted and being raised by an overwhelmed and resentful caregiver; evidence gathered carefully in legal and ethical ways furthers the cause of justice even if (sometimes especially if!) it does not support the police’s case.
Praying to Our Lady of Safe Haven is, then, among other things a way of praying one’s way out of potentially merited consequences—but we as Catholics do this all the time. Enormous amounts of Marian devotion revolve around promises that practices like the Rosary or the Brown Scapular will aid in having God remit one’s sins.
Both for this reason and for others, the desire for security is often ignored or even mocked today, including in the Church. Even safeguarding as the preferred modality for addressing the sex abuse crisis is controversial in some quarters. There are figures who would prefer proceeding immediately to full-bore institutional reform efforts, an undertaking that is risky, is commendable, yet tends to sacrifice the short term on the altar of the long. (If one is focusing primarily on a pragmatic, functionalist approach to keeping vulnerable people safe, one has less time or energy for broader reformist projects…but vulnerable people are being kept safe.)
A focus on “safe haven” or “safe harbor” is also mutually exclusive with prioritizing punishment; as I discussed above, safe haven laws in the context of abortion, infanticide, and child abandonment explicitly function as a way to encourage desperate people not to engage in certain types of morally questionable behavior specifically by demurring from punishing them for engaging in other, milder types. It’s trivially true, arguably even self-evident, that deep risks and dangers need to be accepted when attempting elaborate sea changes or reforms. The idea that sometimes those risks and dangers just might not be worth it, depending on who’s being made unsafe and how severely so, repels many serious, committed people.
For all that the desire for safety and security tends to get denigrated by some in the Church, however, its stock in secular society is even lower. Safe haven is the furthest thing from “disruption,” a term that was used almost exclusively in negative ways as recently as twenty years ago but is now supposedly one of our core economic and social goals as a civilization. Safety and consolation are fundamentally conservative things to want, not in the narrow ideological sense of supporting right-of-center political movements but in the broader sense of wanting to preserve what one has rather than set out to gain new things or new experiences. We live in a time in which most of our economic and political leaders are bizarrely enthusiastic about churn, foment, and instability. There’s something countercultural about saying “no, I’d really rather just make sure I’m safe and keep the good things about the life that I’ve got, not immerse myself in the cryptodisruptive blockchain of things.”
Speaking in a general sense, one of the key points of social relationships and political philosophy that I think most people would do well to concede more readily than they do is that before a society can pursue freedom or equality, or “disruption,” it should have some sense of safety and security. I don’t mean that life should be absolutely safe and secure every day in every way before people can start worrying about things like justice or human rights; that wouldn’t be desirable even if it were possible, which it is not. There needs to be a recognition, however, that most people most of the time generally agree on needing some kind of safe haven to which to retreat from the vicissitudes of this world — be it the family or the home or a strong parish community or even something more abstract and individualized like a favorite book or favorite song or favorite meal.
Given the ways in which Marian piety interrelates with the rest of Catholic spirituality and doctrine, it strikes me as an especially good choice for safe haven. Maria Santissima di Porto Salvo is a strong intercessor against everything that drags us away from the ability to feel safe and secure in our lives, even if it’s in favor of attaining genuinely important goals. Not everyone can be or needs to be constantly incurring dangers for the sake of achieving something. Most people have a basically moderate, stability-minded outlook on their own lives, and the Church can’t, shouldn’t, and historically hasn’t entirely rejected or ignored this in favor of a neo-Pelagian obsession with constant self-challenge.
One can take refuge in Mary’s protection while at the same time readying oneself to strike out into the unknown (and, as Star Trek reminds us, the future itself is always “the undiscovered country”) through trust in God and in the moral and social teachings of the Church. What the history of a storm-haunted part of the world like the Central Mediterranean teaches us is that, even though some people will always be better at this than others, Mary, for her part, will assuredly keep showing up for us.
Del vasto oceano propizia stella
ti vedo splendere sempre più bella
al porto guidami per tua mercé.
O Santa Vergine, prega per me.
Photograph of graffiti in Palermo by the author’s friend Antonio Vitalone. All other images from Wikimedia Commons. Featured image by the School of Paolo de Matteis, early eighteenth century.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.