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Via Veneto, Rome, Italy, is a street full of classy hotels, foreign embassies (including the US Embassy).

Yet, next to all the glamor and riches lies a Capuchin friary. Not just any friary, the one on Via Veneto houses the Provincial Minister (the Capuchin order, as most Catholic orders, is divided into Provinces, each headed by the Provincial Minister).

The Capuchin Boneyard is located in the crypt of this friary. If you happen to be a Capuchin friar visiting Rome (as I was many years ago), you may visit the Boneyard for free, otherwise, you are expected to pay.

I have to say, I have seen a lot of weird things within the Catholic Church, but the Capuchin Boneyard is about the weirdest thing I have ever seen. Catholic or otherwise.

But first, a little lesson on Catholic theology and history...

Let us start with the concept of indulgences, which was one of the things Martin Luther did not care for, with most Protestants following his lead (mostly without really understanding what the indulgences are all about).

According to Catholic theology, after death, the really bad dudes go straight to hell, the really good guys go straight to heaven, but ordinary folks (that would be the most, just as on the bell curve) will eventually end up in heaven, but need some remedial training in the purgatory first.

The Church also believes that the Saints have accumulated much more merit than they ever need. The Church believes it one of her duties to manage this merit overflow and to give from its abundance to deserving decent folks who would otherwise have to spend some time in the purgatory.

While Protestants have often accused the Catholic Church of selling forgiveness of sins, indulgences are not forgiveness of sins (the Catholic Church believes only God can do that, though it does have a sacrament to assist in the process). No, indulgences are a transfer of merit which results in the pardon of some or all time to be spent in the purgatory. (According to Catholic beliefs, that is.)

Now, to add to the confusion, the Church used to assign a time to indulgences, e.g., saying a rosary on a specific day would get you seven years of indulgences. That is not to say it pardons seven years of purgatory! Rather it means, you earn the merit identical to doing seven years of penance, which was a very specific type of practice within the very early Christianity, a practice that no longer exists, largely because it is always easier to pray the rosary (or whatever other indulgences there exist) than to spend seven years in penance.

Some special conditions, however, can get a Catholic plenary indulgences, which means a complete pardon of all purgatory time one has accumulated up to this point (but one continues to accumulate, just has the slate wiped clean at the moment of getting the plenary indulgences, so he starts from scratch again).

Incidentally, after the Vatican Council II, the Church changed it: It no longer tells you the specific time but just says what indulgences are plenary and what are not. (This is mostly because even your typical modern Catholic has no understanding of what the number was refering to.)

There is one very special, and very desirable, type of plenary indulgences, namely plenary indulgences that apply at the time of death. If you get those, you'll go straight to heaven no matter how much purgatory you would otherwise have to serve (note, if you were a bad dude and belong to hell, you still go to hell: plenary indulgences only pardon the time in purgatory, they do not help in hell).

So, the psychological effect of plenary indulgences at the time of death is that of licence to be a regular guy, not a bad dude, but not required to be a Saint.

Of course, that is not the theological intention, only the psychological effect. The Church certainly can see through that, so the conditions of plenary indulgences at the time of death usually have to be met at the time of death. In other words, you cannot be sure you get it until the last minute, so you better behave just in case you don't get it.

Anyway, during the Crusades the Church granted plenary indulgences at the time of death to anyone buried in the Holy Land. The idea, of course, was to encourage people to join the crusades as soldiers and fight with great courage, up to the point of being willing to die in battle and go straight to heaven.

That was the idea.

But Canon Law says that any law made by the Church is subject to wide interpretation, unless it is a restrictive law in which case it is subject to strict interpretation (in other words, Canon Law is always to be interpreted in favor of the people, sort of making the Church the most benevolent dictator in history).

And Holy Land in Latin is Terra Sancta. But, Terra Sancta not only means Holy Land, it means Holy Soil, i.e., the soil from Holy Land.

Naturally, not everyone could, or was willing to, go fight the Crusades. And certainly not everyone could afford to have his corpse shipped over to Holy Land for burial. Besides, even if he could afford it, there was no guarantee of it ever arriving with all the wars going on.

There was a very simple alternative: Bring some Terra Sancta (i.e., the soil) back to Rome. And what better people to trust with the soil than the holy Capuchin friars. So, off to the crypt of the Capuchin Friary at Via Veneto they brought truckloads (or whatever technology they used back then) of Terra Sancta, so deserving Romans could be buried in Terra Sancta in the safety of Rome, skip the purgatory, and go straight to heaven.

But, oops, there is only so much ground inside the crypt, and there are so many deserving Romans! What to do when there was no more room left?

Why, clearly, you subject the law to wide interpretation: It said you had to be buried in Terra Sancta. It did not say your bones had to stay buried in it forever.

Aha!

So, all the friars had to do was dig out dem bones, I mean, the old bones, and produce more space to bury new ones.

But, of course, those were human bones, and required dignified treatment. You can't just throw them out, now, can you.

So, the friars applied their artistic creativity: They used the old bones to decorate the walls of the crypt. They even created fancy chandeliers (skulls are particularly conducive of that), etc, etc.

Thus, the Capuchin Boneyard at Via Veneto, Rome, was born, just down the street from the modern-day US Embassy.

I actually stayed at the Friary for several nights. That was before I moved to Rome. I was just visiting. They told me not to miss the Boneyard. But I did not speak Italian back then, and had no idea what they were talking about. I am glad I did not visit it back then, all by myself!

I did visit the Boneyard about a year or two later. I lived in Rome (though not in that friary), was fluent in Italian, and went to the Boneyard with a good friend, an American Capuchin, who had visited the Boneyard before.

I tell you what: I was glad I was a Capuchin and did not have to pay for that. I was also quite embarassed to be a Capuchin, though it was really not the Capuchins who are responsible for it (it was all the Romans who wanted a guaranteed trip to heaven).

After we left, my American friend said: "Now you understand why the Protestants think we (the Catholics) are weird." (I was a Capuchin friar and a Catholic priest at the time.)

Indeed, my friends, that was about the weirdest thing I experienced in my whole life!

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