Three weeks ago I have been blessed to visit Pompeii. I visited the famous ancient Roman city which, together with Herculaneum and Stabiae, has been tragically destroyed by tons of molten ash, pumice and sulfuric gas. The city remained silent under the debris for 1700 years.
The horror of this great tragedy was minutely described in the second letter Pliny the Younger wrote to his friend, Cornelius Tacitus. After that in the first letter he recounted to him how the happenings of that 24 August 79 AD evolved concerning the Vesuvius eruption and the annihilation of Pompeii, his uncle’s killing and nearly destroyed all his family, Pliny gave us the following heartbreaking picture of the situation:
“Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood. ‘Let us leave the road while we can still see,’ I said, ‘or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.’ We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.”
You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.
There were people, too, who added to the real perils by inventing fictitious dangers: some reported that part of Misenum had collapsed or another part was on fire, and though their tales were false they found others to believe them. A gleam of light returned, but we took this to be a warning of the approaching flames rather than daylight. However, the flames remained some distance off; then darkness came on once more and ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers. We rose from time to time and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight. I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.”
Depressing as it is this is chapter one of Pompeii’s story. Pompeii’s second Chapter deals with hope and healing. The presence of the Pontifical Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary at Pompeii shows not God’s wrath, (as the ancient Romans believed), but God’s unfathomable mercy for his people. Thanks to Mary’s love the shrieks of the ancient Romans are turned into tears of joy. At Pompeii the Psalmist exclamation: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy!” (Psalm 126:5) becomes true!
I am gently reminded of the prayer Pope Francis prayed at Pompeii’s Marian Shrine during his pastoral visit he made on Saturday 21 March 2015.
“Virgin of the Holy Rosary, Mother of the Redeemer, …comforted by your Rosary, you invite us to be fixed to his gaze. You open to us His heart, abyss of joy and sorry, of light and glory, mystery of the son of God, made man for us. At your feet in the footsteps of the saints, we feel as God’s family. Mother and model of the Church, you are our guide and secure support. Make us one heart and one mind, a strong people on the way towards the heavenly homeland. We entrust our miseries, the many streets of hate and blood, the thousands of ancient and new poverties and above all, our sins. To you we entrust ourselves, Mother of Mercy: grant us the forgiveness of God, help us to build a world according to your heart.
O Blessed Rosary of Mary … you will be in our hands a weapon of peace and forgiveness, star that guides our path”.
Is Pompeii a tragedy or an opportunity for healing?