In this apparition, Our Lady manages to convert a ferocious brigand and this is only the first miracle that she performs in a period of great violence, because on an August night she will leave the people of Catania with an absolutely unique image of herself.
Located on a charming plateau at the foot of Mount Etna, with an enchanting view of the lush Green Valley, up to the blue expanse of the Ionian sea, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Valverde has always been the destination of numerous and devoted pilgrimages. The image of Mary, which is venerated there on a pillar, is so beautiful that it is not attributed to a human brush; the Liturgy says it “divinitus formata” (divinely done)!
Tradition traces it back to the apparition of the Virgin to a ferocious brigand who is converted. We are in bloody and dramatic times for the history of Sicily. It is the era in which three civilizations face each other: the Arab one that has dominated it for over two centuries, the Byzantine one that tries to regain the ancient dominion, and the young Norman civilization that will be victorious. In this grandiose and dramatic scenario, wars, destruction, banditry, piracy, theft, assassinations and all kinds of violence take place.
The Norman troops, allied with the Byzantine ones, but outraged by the unjust distribution of the booty taken from the Arabs in the first battle, retreated to their county of Aversa. A soldier, however, a certain Dionisio, perhaps Ligurian of origin, attracted by the amenity and wealth of the place, and even more by the greed for easy earnings, remains on the island and gives himself to a life of banditry, lurking in the thick of the woods which runs along the road that leads from Catania to ancient Aci, near the underlying Vallis viridis. This area becomes the scene of his thefts, of his attacks and assassinations. But right here awaits the Madonna, Mother of mercy!
A pious citizen of Catania named Egidio, having to go to Aci, while fearing the danger, but confident in the protection of Mary, of which he is a great devotee, sets out on a journey.
He has already traveled a good stretch of road, when suddenly, from the thicket of the bush, the assassin falls on him who threatens to kill him with his dagger raised,
but a voice, from a globe of light, makes itself heard.
“Dionysius, Dionysius, don’t touch my devotee!”
At that voice the robber holds his arm, looks around, then looks up:
“Put down that weapon – the voice continues – and cease this life of banditry.”
At these words Dionysius falls into himself, understands in a flash the monstrosity of his life, recognizes his mistake, throws away the murderous weapon and prostrates himself at the victim’s feet, asking for forgiveness. It is the first miracle: Egidio is saved and Dionysius is converted! Our Lady appears later to Dionysius who mourns his sins in the cave where he lives, comforts him urging him to trust in the goodness and mercy of God: introduce himself to the priest to obtain forgiveness and invite priests and faithful of Aci to go up processionally on the Colle di Valverde (hill of Valverde).
Mary would indicate, with a prodigy, the place where she wanted a church to be built with the money purchased with violence. When, a few days later, the devout procession of the clergy and the people of Aci arrives on the hill, a noisy flock of cranes swirls in the sky and lands on the place where the Sanctuary now stands: it is the sign that Mary wishes to have her home there! The works for the construction of the primitive chapel begun immediately with great fervor, but proceeded very slowly due to the lack of water. The faith of Dionysius once again turns to the Madonna who intervenes by ordering a pickaxe at the base of the rock that forms the cave of the ancient brigand. The result is a spring of water that not only allows the construction of the chapel to continue, but soon becomes a source of healing for many sick people. The works, begun in 1038, were completed two years later, in 1040, but the church still remains without a sign of Mary’s presence.
One night in August, while absorbed in prayer, Dionysius is struck by a ray of intense light and by a cloud in which he sees Our Lady surrounded by Angels. When the cloud rises, and the light disappears, a beautiful image of Mary is imprinted on the rough wall of a church pillar.
The Mary appears “Sitting on a large espalier chair, dressed in a reddish tunic with gold friezes, clasped at the sides with a nazzarena belt. A white veil covers her head, revealing her abundant hair, which seems to be counted one by one on the parting of her forehead. A dark blue coat, rich in gold lace, gracefully covers her shoulders and knees, giving her an expression of majestic dignity, the face is of heavenly beauty: vermilion and full cheeks, short forehead, profiled nose, pronounced and smiling mouth, black eyes, very lively, which they stare, talk, conquer, make you fall in love.
With her right hand she holds Her little son Jesus, with a face of a charming naivete, with curly hair, beautiful, dressed in a white tunic, loose at the breast: he sits on her lap leaning on a green-red pad with gold friezes. With his right hand he blesses the bystanders looking at them lovingly, and with the other caress a small crane, which shyly hides in the left hand of the beautiful Virgin.
Above, two little angels hold up a golden triple crown on Mary’s head, as if they say that She is the Queen of the fortunate Vallis Viridis and of the majestic Etna”.
(Cenni storici popolari del Santuario di Valverde, La Nuovagrafica, Catania, 1962.)
author: Don Mario Morra SDB
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Rivista “Maria Ausiliatrice”, gennaio 2005/