In 1607, Caravaggio painted the masterpiece of The Seven Works of Mercy for the Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples. In a dark, chaotic Neapolitan alley, a twisting knot of figures perform acts of compassion to alleviate the bodily needs of others. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, offering shelter to the homeless and burying the dead are all represented among the crowded, busy characters of Caravaggio’s large canvas. They seem to bear greater resemblance to brigands and scoundrels than saints-in-waiting, but Caravaggio himself was always at home in the company of troublemakers.

Nonetheless, painting this work amid the tough streets of Naples must have given some hope to the artist. At the time, Caravaggio was on the run after committing murder, and it may have offered some small comfort to him as he lay dying alone in Porto Ercole three years later, that some merciful soul might see to his burial.

I couldn’t help thinking of Caravaggio last week as I witnessed the ecclesiastical reaction to the death of Erich Priebke, former captain of the SS police force who was stationed in Rome during the Second World War. Priebke was one of the officers who executed 335 Romans in 1944 in one of Rome’s most harrowing moments of the Nazi occupation. He never apologized for his actions and retained a self-assured demeanor until his death on October 11 at the age of 100 years. There is no doubt that he did very wicked things.

The mass exodus from the responsibility of his burial took me by surprise, however. I could somewhat understand the civic position, since no mercy is expected from governments. The Italian government had extradited Priebke in 1995 and tried him for war crimes the following year. He was found guilty and ultimately sentenced to lifetime house arrest. Nonetheless, in claiming him for trial and keeping him in Rome for his punishment, Italy made itself responsible for his eventual burial.

Serious concerns faced the city of Rome, however, as groups of neo-Nazis wanted to exploit the funeral of Priebke for a moment of Nazi pride, while other extremists threatened to destroy the corpse of the former SS captain. In a week of national demonstrations, important diplomatic visits and the usual 60,000 to 80,000 pilgrims for the Wednesday audience, Rome mayor Ignazio Marino had his hands full.

Marino opposed any kind of funeral service on public land as well as a burial in Rome soil. Inhospitable, yes, but a duly political solution to his political problem.

From a Christian point of view things are more complicated. Priebke’s life in the polis had come to an end. He had declared himself a Catholic and asked for a religious burial, but the Vicariate of Rome prohibited any church in the city from holding a funeral service for the mortal remains and eternal soul of Erich Priebke.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares that “From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (1032).

As a lay art historian with no theological background, I have the same question that many Romans had: how can a Catholic be refused a funeral? What happened to that modern mantra of the Church, “hate the sin, love the sinner,” if the Church will not even allow whatever friends and family Priebke had to gather to pray for his soul in a scared space? Whatever happened to the acts of mercy? Are some sins so terrible that not even God can forgive them?

As the Diocese of Rome backed away from the body of the son she had baptized, the vicariate tried to clarify that there could be some kind of private funerary prayer at the morgue or in some other place. This distance of the Church earned it quite a few popularity points, but left questions among many of the faithful.

In a later statement, Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, secretary of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals, told Rome’s Corriere della Sera newspaper that, “the crime was public and notorious, the lack of conversion was public and notorious, and the scandal it would have raised in the Christian community was public and notorious.”

True as this is, no one knows the state of Priebke’s soul at the time of his death, and while he never begged forgiveness from the Roman people, there seems to have been no attempt to discover if he had a parish priest or a confessor. What gives us the certainty that he died unrepentant? And even so, are we not to pray for him, now that he is before God and faced with all his sins and crimes? Will all of us sinners not want the Church, and the beloved of Christ to pray for us at the hour of our greatest need? Will we not long for the sacrifice of the Mass to be offered for our souls? What are we faithful being taught when a man most in need of prayers is denied them by his own mother, the Church? Mothers will still pray for their children and try to intercede for their well-being no matter what they do.

No one can deny the horror of the atrocities worked by Priebke, yet fervent prayer for his soul seems to underscore this fact rather than deny it. When I was taught how to pray the rosary years ago, my teacher included the final invocation that comes from Our Lady’s apparitions at Fatima. I have always been moved by the final line “Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in the greatest need of thy mercy.”

Senator Edward Kennedy, who died in 2009, was given a solemn funeral presided by the Cardinal of Boston despite the fact that during the years of his public support of abortion, some 57,000,000 unborn children were killed before they saw the light of day. Sometimes the confusion regarding the culture of life seems understandable, if the Church can welcome actively pro-abortion politicians at the altar, but runs for the hills from an old dead Nazi.

Erich Priebke’s body was taken in by the Society of St Pius X, a traditionalist religious group who is at present not in full communion with the Church of Rome. The society released a statement explaining their intervention by saying "no matter what the guilt or sins, anyone who dies reconciled with God and the Church has the right to celebrate Mass and a funeral." They condemned not only the ethnic hatred of the Holocaust, but also warned against hatred of other kinds, including that directed at the corpse of Priebke.

Throughout the centuries the Church encouraged pious confraternities to bury the dead as an act of mercy. Hooded and solemn, these men would bravely walk into riots, comb the riverbanks or search the bandit-ridden countryside for bodies in need of burial. They had no idea of the state of the soul of the deceased, but were happy to earn points in Heaven by praying for him. The church of Santa Maria della Orazione e della Morte on Via Giulia belonged to one of the fraternities and they proudly display relics from the bodies they found, each duly labeled. It appeared that the efficiency of the modern era eventually obviated the need for the battuti, as they were called, but perhaps they would have been useful last week.

The funeral in Albano, a little town in the hills outside Rome, at the chapel of the SSPX, was halted after clashes and violence broke out when the body arrived. The remains of Erich Priebke arrived in a sleek black hearse and were later smuggled out to the airport of Pratica di Mare in a blue van. What happened to the body and the site of the burial is to remain secret. It appears, though, that the Society of St Pius X managed to offer a Mass for Priebke’s soul in a small private villa before his cremation.

Oddly enough, the delay in the funeral meant that Prieb ke was consigned to his eternal rest on October 16, the anniversary of the Nazi roundup that saw 1,015 of Rome’s Jews deported to Germany. It would seem like an invitation to close the door on the hatred and anger from that tragic episode of Roman history and open a window to healing and forgiveness.

It seems a little ironic that in this era of mercy and forgiveness so beautifully embodied by Pope Francis, when tens of thousands gather weekly in St Peter’s Square looking to the Church for compassion and hope, no one seemed to find compassion for Erich Priebke. This could have been a great teaching moment for the Church, to explain that we pray for all the deceased especially as we enter into the month of the dead, but instead many received the message that the sins of this life outweigh mercy in the next.

Caravaggio’s keen awareness of his own sinfulness made him an effective ambassador of God’s mercy, and his works still move us today. Perhaps a greater sense of our own need for mercy could effect the same change in us.


Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press last Fall.  Her website is